Breaking the myths of the deep squat.
The poor deep squat. It always gets a bad rap for being dangerous. Dangerous to your knees and dangerous to your back.
But let’s put the truth out there – the deep squat is NOT dangerous.
In fact, it’s one of the best training exercises you can do. People just don’t do them because we’ve been bombarded with myths and lies about the deep squat. And the folks that believe that wrong information miss out on the best backside and lower half transformer they can do.
So let’s clear up the myths and save our beloved squats.
And if you already challenge the myths and love a good deep squat, check out this step-by-step guide to improve your squat mobility in just 4 weeks. It never hurts to become a little more mobile. After all, better mobility leads to better strength.
MYTH 1: SQUATTING BELOW PARALLEL IS BAD FOR YOUR KNEES
Getting your body into a deep crouched position is completely natural. If it weren’t, we’d be cringing and jumping-in to the rescue every time a toddler went down to pick something up. From the time we were all just annoying little nuggets, we were deep squatting. But then we started school. And we started spending 7-8 hours every day sitting in a desk or at a table. And we started messing with our flexibility and range of motion. And by “messing with” I mean ruining. Our hip flexors all got tighter and those deep squats stopped feeling natural. And because it didn’t seem as natural to deep squat, it was much easier to believe the myths.
In the 1960s, one researcher claimed that squatting below parallel was bad for your knees. And despite his wildly flawed study designed only to support his biased claim, people ran with it. Heck, even the military started nixing deep squats out of their training program. The deep squat became the bad guy everyone loved to hate. The puny half squat took over as the safer exercise. But those half squats are pretty worthless. They don’t even give you half the benefit of deep squat.
The deeper the squat, the more glute activation you get, the more muscles get involved and the more power you are able to build up. They stretch the soft tissue in the lower body and improve the flexibility of your ankles and knees. They’re awesome for building muscle.
But are the muscle benefits worth the risk on your knees? This is a simple answer. Because deep squats don’t risk your knees any more than any other squat. In fact, they actually strengthen and mobilize your knees more than the half squat.
The muscle just inside your kneecap is called the VMO (Musculus Vastus Medialis Obliquus). And when you’re down deepest in your squat, this muscle gets activated. Now remember, muscles only strengthen when we stress and activate them. So deep squats are one of the best ways to strengthen this muscle.
Now why does this mean it’s good for your knees?
Because this muscle inside your kneecap keeps your knee from bowing in. It’s your stabilizer against injuries. Weak VMOs let your knees cave in. Strong VMOS let you run, jump and move around with good stability and without risk of snapping your leg in half.
Ass-to-grass squats build up that strength and mobility to prevent injury.
And we know that these deep squats aren’t worse on your knees than any other squat. There was a study done with women volleyball players (one that wasn’t wildly flawed or biased) comparing squats with depths of 70, 90, and 110 degree hip flexion.
And they found no difference in the stress on the knees. None. The half squat wasn’t any safer on the knee than the deeper squat. They were all equal.
But another study looked at the stress on the ligaments. And they found that the deeper you squat, the better it is for your ACL and PCL. The amount of stress on these ligaments actually go down the further you go down.
And to add just one more benefit in case you’re not yet convinced, deep squats are also good keeping good gristle health in the hips, knees and ankle joints. Gristle is the stuff that surrounds our bones and lets them slide and move around each other smoothly. So in order to bend and move without grinding your bones into each other, you need good gristle health. And deep squats give your gristle the motion and nutrients it needs to stay strong and flexible. But if you stick with the half squat? Your gristle can become brittle and breakable because it’s not getting moved and compressed like it needs. Soon you’ll just be grinding bones.
But too many folks skip the deep squat. They either believe in the myth and think they’re protecting their knees OR they’re protecting their egos.
When you deep squat, you aren’t going to be able to lift as much weight as if you half squat. So if someone’s aiming to impress the onlookers, they probably care more about how much weight is stacked on the bar rather than how much they’re actually getting the musculature benefits.
Don’t be the that person in the gym loading up the bar and only moving it a few inches. Get your backside to the ground (but only with good form), even if you have to lighten the load.
MYTH 2: YOUR KNEES SHOULD NEVER GO OVER YOUR TOES
This nonsense gets repeated by doctors, trainers or physiotherapists who don’t understand the biomechanics of the knee. The deep squat is a natural motion, but it’s an impossible motion if your knees stay behind your toes. In order to get into the deep squat, your knees have to go over your toes.
Some researchers in Tennessee did a study to see if the knees over the toes squat was as dangerous as they claimed. The participants squatted with their knees going over their toes, then again with a board in front of them forcing their knees to stay behind their toes.
As you can see in these photos, it’s impossible to hit the muscle-building deep squat with your knees behind your toes.
But here’s the interesting part of the study. In both squat variations, they compared the torque in the knees and in the hips. Now to be clear, the higher the torque the higher the stress on that body part. And that’s not a good thing. We want less torque in order to have less stress.
So what about the torque of the knees? The knees-over-the-toes squat had a slightly higher torque than the restricted squat. So maybe it’s a tiny bit more stressful. That gives that myth just a little grain of truth.
But what about the torque of the hips? The restricted squat had over 1000x more torque than the knees-over-toes one. That is a ton of extra stress on the hips and spine. When your knees stay behind your toes, it forces your chest forward to get your hips low enough to get the muscle benefits. But leaning forward with weight on your shoulders puts huge pressure on your spine, back and hip flexors. And that is what will lead to injury.
Clearly a little extra torque in the knee is the better option than 1000x more torque in the hips and back. But this isn’t surprising info because your knees go over your toes in tons of other ways – when you run, when you jump, walk, sit down or stand up.
Your body is designed to have this kind of motion in the ankle. In fact, when your knee is bent, you have better range of motion in your ankles. That should mean less stress on your ankles the deeper you squat.
So why do we criticize the knee in deep squats but nowhere else in our life? Why do we all of the sudden jump in to blame the deep squat when our knees lean over our toes about 500 other times in the day? We just love to hate the deep squat. But it’s not the culprit for bad knees.
MYTH 3: SQUATS WILL HURT YOUR BACK
Squats can hurt your back if you do them wrong. But doing anything incorrectly can be bad for you.
- Running with bad form can hurt your knees.
- Eating too much food can make you fat.
- Drinking too much of the “good for you” red wine can lead to being black out drunk.
Anything done “incorrectly” can hurt you. But doing squats with proper technique certainly isn’t going to break your back.
The squat should keep your spine in a natural form. You’ve heard of the butt wink, right? When your butt tucks under your body at the bottom of your squat? We hate butt winks because this is a recipe for hurting your back. The butt wink is not a natural spine form. So if you’re noticing this little hellish wink, then you need to lighten your load and work first and foremost on technique and flexibility.
Once you’re able to squat with good technique, straight spine, toes forward and knees slightly over and outside of your toes, only then should you start piling some weight on the bar. Without this form, you could be asking for a deep squat injury. But with this form – you’re deep squats are golden!
Should everyone be squatting? Yes.
Should everyone be deep squatting? Yes.
But should everyone be deep squatting today? No.
It takes time to prepare your body for the perfectly technical deep squat. Not considering injury or medical conditions, everyone should be capable of building their mobility to get a perfect squat form, with hips, ankles, torsos and back all lined up perfectly. Once the form and flexibility are there, then you can start adding weight to your kick ass, backside shaper and new best friend: the deep squat. Since most folks aren’t ready to jump into deep squats today, here’s how you can get your body read.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE DEEP SQUATS
1. Start with mobility. The term mobility gets used a lot even when people don’t understand what it means. When you can do an exercise with correct technique without compensating in any way, then you have mobility. Think of a bicep curl – if you have a weight that’s a bit too heavy – you find ways to compensate to still lift it. You might arch you back, swing your hips forward, or roll your shoulders to try and get a little extra umphh behind that too heavy weight. But if you lower the amount weight, stand with your backside pressed up against a wall, keep your elbows in shoulders in place and only use your bicep to curl your weight – then you don’t have to compensate.
In our squats, there are lots of ways we compensate for poor mobility. We lift our heels, round our backs, lean our chests forward, cave in our knees or wink our butts. If any of these happen to you, you need to work on your mobility instead of adding weight. But it’s not just hip mobility you need – you also need ankle, calf, quad and hamstring mobility to keep yourself away from compensating.
2. Build your foundation form. There are lots of different ways to squat. And lots of ways to squat poorly. Drop your ego and make sure your squat foundation is strong before you start piling on the weight. Start with bodyweight squats. Only after those are mastered should you start adding weight. It’s better to take your time at the beginning and build a proper foundation rather than squat for years with bad form, suffer the pain and injury consequences and then try to re-learn how to do it right.
3. Engage your muscles. Before you squat, make sure you warm up your entire body. You need some mobility drills, neuro-pathway openers and dynamic stretching to get ready for your squats. After that’s done and your finally ready to get to work, focus on keeping all of your muscles engaged in order to keep good form. It’s not just about your lower half. You also need to keep your abs tight and your shoulders and upper back stabilized.
4. Be mindful of your toes, knees and back. You won’t hurt your knees or back if you keep your toes facing forward, knees pressed out, slightly over your toes and your back in a natural, upright position.
5. Stop when your form gets compromised. When we train, the goal is usually to tire ourselves out. But the more tired you get, the higher your chance of training, with any exercise, with bad form. And as soon as your form gets compromised, you need to either lighten your load or take a little extra rest. Don’t let yourself power through exercises with bad form. That will only train your body to stick with the bad form.
Everyone is capable of getting mobile enough for a deep squat. We created a guide to help you get there faster. Download the 4 Weeks to Better Squat Mobility Guide to find out the best exercises to open up your hips and mobilize your ankles and back. Plus a printable calendar to keep you on track for better squats in just one month.
Once you’ve mastered the mobility, then it’s on to technique and weight loading.