Hitting depth is the bane of many lifters’ existence. There’s nothing like competing for the first time and getting red lights because your squat didn’t hit depth. Lifting shoes and belts will only take you so far. As the legendary Louie Simmons once said, “Don’t have $100 shoes and a ten-cent squat.”
Here’s everything you need to know about how deep your squat should be, what barriers are affecting your squat depth, and how to fix them.
How Deep Should Your Squats Be?
The controversy surrounding squat depth leaves many athletes wondering how deep their squat should be and whether a deeper squat is more effective. While there’s no right or wrong answer, there are few variables to consider when working on your squat depth.
Generally speaking, the goal should be to break parallel. You are at parallel when your thighs are parallel to the floor— basically a seated position. To break parallel, your hip crease should be slightly below your knees— this is the depth standard used in powerlifting judging around the world.
Beyond breaking parallel, you have the freedom to determine how low you go. For Olympic lifters and Crossfitters, the extremely deep squat makes sense for the complexity of Olympic movements. That level of depth isn’t necessary for competitive powerlifters; it’s all about exploring where you’re the strongest in your range of motion.
What’s Limiting Your Squat Depth?
Many variables can impact your squat depth. Here are a few common issues to consider when troubleshooting your squat.
Starting too Heavy
Don’t let your ego limit your potential in the gym. If you can’t hit depth with the weight you’re pushing, drop the weights and work on building strength over time. A heavy squat isn’t impressive if you’re only coming down a quarter of the way.
If you’re working with an empty bar and still having issues with depth, there’s likely another problem to address.
Inadequate Core Bracing
Squats are a complex, compound movement. While we tend to think of them as a lower body exercise, squats engage the core and upper body as well.
Building core strength and learning how to brace will help you stay upright while squatting with heavy weights. If you feel shaky coming down or tilt forward, working on core bracing can be beneficial.
Adjusting your squat stance can help you hit depth by opening the hips. Take a step out to either side and try the movement again to improve your center of gravity.
One caveat when trying this approach to improving squat depth: adjusting your stance to compensate for other issues will only take you so far. Use this approach to keep squatting while fixing the other issues.
Lack of Spatial Awareness
The mind-body connection isn’t just a spiritual, holistic wellness term; it also refers to your spatial awareness and muscle control. Many people struggle with increasing squat depth because they don’t know where their body is during a movement. If you don’t know what your body feels like when it breaks parallel, you won’t know when you’ve hit depth.
Lifting weights is often a mental exercise as well as a physical exercise. Fear of getting hurt, failure, or embarrassment often causes new lifters to come up too early during a squat. Taking your time with progression, ensuring you have safety measures in place, and building confidence will help.
The most significant cause of poor squat depth is typically related to mobility issues. This barrier often gets confused with flexibility problems. It’s essential to know the difference between flexibility and mobility to start correcting these issues.
Flexibility is the stretching of your muscles and tendons during movement. On the other hand, mobility pertains to joint movement and strength throughout your entire range of motion. If your mobility and warm-up routine consist of foam rolling for twenty minutes, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Dynamic, targeted movements are essential for improving squat depth.
Tips for Improving Squat Depth
When trying to figure out how to increase squat depth, three focal points target the main barriers to a deep squat. Use these three strategies together for a stronger, deeper squat.
Work on Focused Mobility Training
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Incorporate focused mobility work into your training. Focus on dynamic warm-up movements that target the hips and ankles. Many people mistakenly think that they have a hip issue limiting their squat depth when their ankles are actually the source of the problem.
Static stretches have a place in training, but dynamic movements that help you improve flexibility and mobility are essential for a deeper squat. Ankle PAIL/RAILs and CARs are a fantastic starting point for exercises that improve squat depth. When in doubt, reach out to an experienced mobility coach.
Squat to a Box
Squatting to a box can help improve the mind-body connection and spatial awareness so that you recognize when you’ve hit depth. It can also help you improve your confidence and overcome fear as a new lifter. Start with a box set up at depth, then lower it slightly once you gain confidence in the movement.
It’s important to note the difference between squatting to a box and a “box squat.” A box squat is a practical training exercise that takes the momentum out of the equation and improves strength in the posterior chain. When squatting to a box to improve depth, you are doing a touch-and-go movement rather than sitting down entirely.
Practice Form Over Weights
Keep your ego in check, and don’t push the weights until you’re ready. Rather than trying too hard to adjust your strength to a program, adjust the program to your pace. Don’t push the weights until you can complete your full set with good form at your current weight.
Consider working with an experienced trainer or coach who will help you modify your movements and programming to maintain proper form. If you’re training alone, take videos from various angles to determine whether you’re hitting depth and if your form needs work.
Improving your squat depth takes time, knowledge, and focus. Rather than solely trying to improve flexibility for squats, focus on your overall mobility and the mind-body connection. Remember that squats are a compound movement that works the whole body. As such, you’ll need to support your entire body to improve your squat.