Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Full depth squats hold several benefits that most want, but just don’t get because they aren’t willing to make the change. This could be for a variety of reasons usually pertaining to ego or lack of mobility and flexibility to perform squats below parallel.
Many of raw powerlifters do as well, but the wide stance some utilize make it appear to not be low.
Regardless, take a few minutes to open your mind to squatting low and losing some of the weight moved (for the time being). Let’s face it, most have started off the exact same way with squats.
Placing 225lbs on the bar and thinking you just dropped into the squat only to find you’ve barely even went below half of the movement.
What Exactly is a Full Depth Squat?
Okay, so you most likely heard of quarter and half squats, but what exactly does it mean to do a full one? Parallel squats are when your hips, thighs, and lower leg form a 90 degree angle, usually stopping before your hips go below your knees.
For powerlifting competitions this is all that’s really needed, essentially needing the hip joint to be just below the top of your knees. However, full squats go below this parallel and deeper into the squat where your calves mash with your upper legs.
Some consider this unsafe for the knees or lower back, while others claim it’s just a waste of energy. But if you seek to increase your strength, power, and muscle development then you should be digging deeper into your squats.
Several Benefits of Full Depth Squats
Here are the benefits most don’t generally understand and assume other beliefs simply because somebody else told them not to. Sure, not everyone can perform a squat below parallel at the start, but the body can be trained to over time unless there are medical reasons for not being capable.
Develop Stronger Legs
The full depth squat will allow you to increase the strength and muscle development in your legs. This is basically what most are performing squats for in the first place, and will also help develop your butt if you’ve been wondering how to activate your glutes.
The reason for this is the longer stretch your muscles have to go through to reach this depth below the parallel, thus increasing the range of motion (ROM) and time under tension (TUT).
While at this lower position more muscle recruitment is necessary for your body to exert the power required to get out of the bottom, which we refer to as getting out of the “hole”. This means more activation out of your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and calves than normal.
One study in the The European Journal of Applied Physiology took this idea and researched between two study groups: partial squats and deep squats. The 12 week study showed noticeable progress for those that performed deep squats by increasing lower body muscle mass.
The group that did partial squats didn’t see much change.
This isn’t to say parallel squats can’t accomplish strength and muscle building. Another study against partial squats shows that benefits are to be received as well dropping to parallel squat depth. However, full squats produced more effectiveness and were safer for the joints.
Power Output Through Squats
Strength and conditioning coaches generally used half squats to help with power exertion for movements such as sprints and the vertical jump. The idea behind this is to use the starting power required without the use of too much ROM or risk of injury.
However, the use of more muscles being recruited to perform deep squats goes against this idea and produces better results for power development.
The hips take most of the load at the bottom position, thus requiring more power to come out of the hole teaching your body how to exert more force quickly.
Full Squats are Safer
The belief that squatting at this depth is bad for the body is the main reason people don’t exercise this way aside from ego. This has been heard time and again and simply goes against what is actually taking place with the movement.
Don’t believe it? Consider how powerlifters rely greatly on compression knee sleeves and wraps vs. those that do Olympic lifts. It’s not simply for knee warmth, but rather to keep force off the knees. Not all lifters obviously, but the general amount.
That’s because it’s common practice to perform only parallel squats to reserve energy for competition training purposes, which places months and years of shearing force against the knee ligaments.
This constant stopping at parallel takes away the natural ROM our knees desire for safer squat days, and also places more compressive force against the spine as well, thus the wide spread teachings of “low bar” squats now. That’ll be covered in another article.
Natural ROM also takes force off of your knees because the back of your thighs touch against your calves, decreasing the stress that would normally be encountered without this brief connection.
On another note, a big plus for powerlifting is you do what you practice i.e. you'll most likely squat to depth on the platform and get the 3 whites. I see way too many getting only a white light from the center judge because too much forward leaning habits.
Improved Flexibility Performing Deep Squats
Deep squats require much more flexion in the hips, knees, and ankles, thus allowing better flexibility when capable of performing them at this depth.
As mentioned, most aren’t going to be able to do full depth squats at first, but training to reach this point is probably a goal to have.
Quarter and half squats are a result of not being flexible mainly in the hips and ankles. This is why many who squat this way end up having imbalances in their knees and hips requiring more training setbacks to correct these muscular and joint issues.
Meaning if you continue doing squats high you have a much greater risk of being injured, and this includes your spine.
The reason is because the weight being used is likely more than what your hips and knees can handle, which makes your spine undergo more compression to keep the upper body upright.
Lifters will compensate for this with an emphasized forward lean, which causes the back to work much harder than your legs. When properly braced this can be great for competition, but most don't do this and collapse causing the lower back to round.
The reality of it all is pretty simple. The people performing partial squats have no leg strength or development. But then those that do perform squats correctly and to depth have much to show physically in looks and strength.
How to Perform Full Depth Squats
The movement isn’t easy for most as mentioned, and may take some time to actually move heavier weight and squat to depth. The feeling is completely different once you or your client starts to squat low. Mainly being more muscles are sore afterwards.
The first step is breaking the movement down and utilizing a low amount of weight such as the bar, or you could go even further by using only a broom stick/PVC pipe. This will help with getting the movement down correctly before placing more load on the back.
Foot placement may need to be slightly closer or wider to open your hips and reach depth. A wider stance uses more hip and glute dominance, while a narrow stance uses your quads more. All muscles will be used, but some more than others.
Mobility work will be the more abundant part. Lifters have stopped performing squats to work on this and came back performing them even better. Maybe not with as much weight, but the numbers will increase much more effectively and surpass previous amounts.
The main focus should be on your hips, groin, ankle, and hamstrings. These are going to be the tightest and lack mobility and strength.
Lastly, you need to learn core bracing. The easiest way to explain this is taking the air into your stomach and not your chest. What’s really happening is your diaphragm being activated to contract your abdominal, oblique, and lower back muscles.
They tense up and keep your spine safe to maintain a stable position to be safe. Breathing into your lungs means your chest tightens up, but core remains soft and doesn’t protect your spine.
Learning to breathe properly for this major lift not only keeps your back safe, but also helps you lift much more weight.
Suck it Up and Squat Low
Sure, you may not be able to put as much weight on the bar at first. This will drop confidence down for some since others won’t be seeing those numbers being moved. However, taking this step back to perform squats more effectively will only help get those numbers up much higher.
Nobody really cares how much you can lift because let’s face it – there’s always somebody stronger who got there through proper training and years of work. Focus on your movement and everything will come together quite quickly.