by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
Used to be that the deep squat was feared by everyone but the most hardcore lifters. People mistakenly thought they damaged the knees and lower back. Deep squats have since been vindicated as one of the most effective lifts for building fitness and athleticism.
Not only do full squats optimally train the entire lower body musculature, the ability to perform one is an excellent indicator of your overall movement quality.
Being able to get yourself down into a full squat gracefully is a vanishing skill in modern society, but it’s critical if you want to successfully complete everyday activities like putting on your shoes or hoisting your kids up off the floor.
Here is what squatting low really means:
• A squat is the ability to go from standing all the way down to the ground by bending your knees, and then to come back up to standing again.
• The motion will have you bend the knees, hinge at the hip, and keep the back tight and flat, with the torso upright.
• In order to minimize strain on the lower back, go all the way down so that your hips are well below your knee. Think about sitting down between your knees rather than pushing your hips backward.
• You need flexibility in your ankle and hip joints, and balance between your back, abdominal and leg muscles to effectively get low.
Here are seven amazing benefits of squatting ALL the way down:
#1: Full Squats Build Stronger, Bigger Legs
Full squats produce greater overall muscle development in the lower body, optimally hitting the glutes, hamstrings, and quads for superior growth compared to partial squats.
We know from EMG analysis that as squat depth increases, the muscles of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) perform more work. But load is important too.
A 2012 movement analysis by Bryanton showed that the best way to hit the glutes and hamstrings is with full squats and a load of 90 percent of maximal.
When comparing the effect of load with depth on the quadriceps when squatting, depth was most important. A 2013 study by Bloomquist shows what this means with long-term training:
Physically active male students trained either full or partial squats for 12 weeks. The full squat group gained 1.2 kg of muscle, increased lower body muscle mass by 2 percent, and increased thigh muscle cross-sectional area by 4 to 7 percent, depending on the part of the leg measured (12 sites were measured).
The partial squat group gained no measurable muscle, but did increase thigh muscle cross-sectional area by 2 to 4 percent at four sites on the muscle.
Why Going Low Works: The neuromuscular demand of taking the load all the way down exposes the muscle fibers to greater mechanical and neural stimuli to force growth.
#2: Full Squats Increase Vertical Jump
Full front and back squats have many applications for athletes including a better transfer to vertical jump than partial squats.
For instance, in the Bloomquist study, training deep barbell back squats led to an increase in vertical jump height of 13 percent compared to a 7 percent gain in the partial squat group.
A 2012 study from Hartmann showed that a 10-week deep back squat program led to an 8 percent increase in vertical jump compared to a quarter-squat training group that experienced no increase in jump height.
Why Going Low Works: Full range-of-motion squats optimally target the hip and knee musculature, while increasing the transfer of force throughout the kinetic chain for greater jump height.
#3: Full Squats Train the Lower Back for Stability, Building a More Athletic Body
Full squats build structural balance by training the paraspinal muscles of the lower back in conjunction with the gluteals for greater athleticism and better posture.
For instance, there’s evidence that performance in the full squat is directly associated with an athlete’s ability to produce strength and power. But, full squats are also useful for endurance athletes:
A 2013 study from Gorsuch found that greater lower back strength can prevent hamstring injuries in runners. Greater erector spinae endurance can help runners maintain upright posture when running, improving lung capacity.
Why Going Low Works: Full squats keep you honest and require a strong lower back. In addition, as you’ll see in #4, full squats prevent unnecessary compressive forces on the spine.
#4: Full Squats Build Bone and are Safer for the Spine
Full barbell squatting loads the spine and has been found to significantly increase bone mineral density. This is protective against fractures and osteoporosis, and it’s of special relevance for female athletes who possess significantly lower vertebrae strength than males.
Not only do full squats strengthen bone and protect the lower back, they are all-around safer for the spine because they require lighter loads than partials. The simple act of squatting with a barbell on your back creates a large amount of force on the spine. This is not dangerous if you have proper technique, but caution is still warranted.
Scientists suggest that most people should avoid the insanely massive loads required to get results from partials. In one study for example, minimally trained students were able to lift a quarter-back squat load that was 4 times that of a deep back squat.
Such high loads put unnecessary compressive force on the spine, and the thoracic back musculature becomes the performance-limiting factor, not the legs.
Why Going Low Works: Loading the spine with a barbell during full squats triggers the whole bone building process for increased bone density. There’s no need to use the supramaximal loads required with partials to get this benefit.
#5: Full Squats Build Healthy Knees
Chances are, you know that full squats do not hurt the knees and have been shown to build healthier knees than lesser range-of-motion variations. But you may not understand why this is. Here’s what we know:
A 2013 analysis from Hartmann showed that with full squats, you’ll experience less stress on the knee joint and have less risk of injury than with partials because the highest compressive force on the knee is at a 90-degree knee flexion angle.
As you squat lower, the contact between the back of the thigh and the calf reduces the knee-joint forces. In addition, allowing the knee to move freely during a deep squat motion builds passive (tendon and ligament) and active (muscle) tissue strength.
This is highly beneficial because when you perform athletic movements like cutting, pivoting, or navigating uneven terrain, your knee travels forward over the toes at high forces. Same goes for many motions of daily life, such as when when you walk up and down the stairs or go into a deep knee bend to pick up something heavy off the ground.
Why Going Low Works: Deep squat training strengthens connective tissue, and something that is known as the “wrapping” effect protects the knee. The quadriceps tendon and the intercondylar notch of the femur bone cause the wrapping effect, which allows for enhanced distribution of the load over the joint.
#6: Squat Low To Break PRs in Explosive Activities Like Jumps & Sprints
Squats with a greater range-of-motion allow you to get more out of the PAP effect—also known as “post-activation potentiation.”
PAP occurs when you “prime” the muscles used in a power exercise by doing a heavy resistance exercise so that in a subsequent activity you increase muscle force production.
PAP is well known for allowing athletes to set PRs in everything from vertical jump to sprints as long as 100 meters (see Linder, 2011).
Recent evidence from 2013 by Esformes showed that male rugby players who performed a heavy parallel squat jumped significantly higher and produced greater power than when a quarter squat was used to prime the muscles.
Why Going Low Works: Squatting deeper requires more work from the muscles and increases activation of the musculature for greater force output in subsequent exercises. In the 2013 study mentioned, the gluteus maximus is more activated and the musculature is better primed allowing for increased jump height.
#7: Full Squats Require Superior Flexibility
Full squats are a complex movement that requires a fairly high degree of athleticism and flexibility.
For example, the front squat, which is one of the most challenging squat variations to perform due to the mobility needs, requires superior range-of-motion in the hip, ankle, shoulder, and wrist.
Not only do full squats keep you honest and encourage you to achieve functional mobility, they allow you to train for better structural balance throughout the body.
You may not realize how poor range-of-motion is influencing your strength until you develop pain or dysfunction in your hips or knees, but a 2012 study from Marcum showed that if you lack flexibility in the ankle, knee valgus, or “caving inward,” of the knee increases. This causes decreased activity of the quadriceps, particularly the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO).
Training this way over time would lead to imbalances in the hip and knee musculature that would increase risk of injury and pain.
Training for flexibility may not be as sexy as a monster PR, but the reality is that being able to do a full front squat, will make you bulletproof against succumbing to the ailments that affect your non-squatting (or half-squatting) colleagues: low back pain, knee pain, and poor movement patterns.
Why Going Low Works: It trains the body in a motion that humans have evolved to perform with ease and grace. Deep squats also allow for a balanced development of the hip and lower back musculature, while encouraging peak dynamic mobility.
Bloomquist, K., et al. Effect of Range-of-Motion in Heavy Load Squatting on Muscle and Tendon Adaptations. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013. Published Ahead of Print.
Drinkwater, E., Moore, N., et al. Effects of Changing from Full Range of Motion to Partial Range of Motion on Squat Kinetics. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(4), 890-896.
Esformes, J. and Bampouras, T. Effect of back squat depth on lower-body postactivation potentiation. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27(11), 2997-3000.
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Hartmann, H., et al. Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and weight Load. Sports Medicine. 2013. 43(10), 993-1008.
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Gorsuch, J., et al. The Effect of Squat Depth on Multiarticular Muscle Activation in Collegiate Cross-Country Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27(9), 2619-25.
Linder, E., Prins, J., et al. Effects of Preload 4RM Maximum on 100-M Sprint Times in Collegiate Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 24(5), 1184-1190.
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