I’m sure a statistical search on the internet regarding training topics would put squat articles close to the top as far as most searched lifts.
There’s no doubt the squat is one of the most hotly debated exercises and comes with the highest number of philosophies surrounding it.
One of the biggest of which surrounds the idea of “hitting depth”.
We all loathe those gym bros who load a bar with 8 plates on their back and then barely do a set of knee-breaks in the cage.
No one will argue that nothing gets accomplished when using such a corner-cut.
Squatting to an appreciable depth matters for both strength development and leg development.
Impartial Advice on Squatting ATG
The “ATG-or-bust” crowd insists that you’re not really squatting until you’ve hit rock bottom. Many times that can come with a bias against good reasoning for achieving other depths.
The way I see it, squatting ATG isn’t absolutely necessary for every goal, but I believe every lifter should be able to earn the ability to choose what depth they want to hit in a given workout or program. That means they’d have to know how to squat to ATG without any hitches, and decide from there.
If you haven’t developed the mobility and ROM to get deep, you have a new first priority in the weight room – because there’s no excuse for this. Muscles were made to move joints through entire ranges, and a sign of good movement is being able to maintain this as you get stronger.
With that said, the following 4 reasons could shed some light on your hindrances:
1. You Lack Ankle Mobility
Especially if you’re taller, you can bet your bottom dollar that your knees will have to travel forward over your toes in order to execute a proper squat to basically any depth. It completely opposes an introductory cue that many people use when coaching a squat for beginners.
Related: The 5 Best Exercises That Improve Your Squat Technique
Having good ankle mobility to allow this to happen can change a lifter’s entire body geometry and allow for a better upright position while at bottom depth, without having a backbreaking forward lean and insufficient depth that we’ve probably all often seen. There are a few ways to tackle this:
Release your Calves: Simple enough, using a lacrosse ball to your calves and lateral shins can help release tissue that causes restriction. Rolling the plantar fascia can also relax tension on the Achilles tendon and allow for greater range to be achieved.
Strengthen the Tibialis Anterior: Doing toe raises using a band or a specialized machine is a smart way to improve dorsiflexion and ankle mobility. If it’s too difficult to set up either of these options, start by spending 3 straight minutes walking on the heels only.
Keep the toes as high off the ground as you can and do so by spending 1 minute with the toes facing in, 1 minute with the toes straight, and 1 minute with the toes out.
Groove the Pattern: Take a page out of my friend Kelly Starrett’s book by positioning yourself to go through proper ankle mobility patterns. View the video to see the drill.
2. Your Pelvis Needs Work
The proper balance of the entire pelvic girdle is necessary for healthy function, and ultimately for a good range of motion to be achieved in a squat. A pair of tight, jacked up hip flexors can wreak havoc on low back tightness and compression, and cause the pelvis to find a new “resting” position that’s undesirable.
Often, the result when “going too low” for your body’s allowable range is rounding of the low back, butt-wink, and a dysfunctional bottom end range. The more you practice squatting to partial ranges while allowing this stopping factor to remain, the worse it will probably get.
Here are two solutions:
Focus on hip capsule mobility drills: The spiderman walk (seen below) is a safe way to put the hip complex through a dynamic stretch and mobilize a lifter for deeper ranges than he’s used to going through. When performing them, remember to keep the trailing knee on the floor, and let the front knee track forward over the toes.
When reaching up, be sure not to reach behind you – aim for the roof right above your shoulder. And don’t rush the movement!
Squat to full range with bodyweight only: This can be a game changer if you give it a chance. You’re out of risk territory when we talk about calisthenic training, and it gives you much more “room for error”, so to speak, when compared to loading a bar with 2 or 300 pounds and fumbling for the right form.
Force more range of motion while completely unloaded by squatting down and focusing on nothing other than your heels staying flat on the ground. Your back can round, your shoulders can slouch – it’s fine. Hold position and then bring the elbows inside the knees and use them to push the knees outwards.
Related: Squatting - 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along
Do what you can to find your balance and raise your chest as high as you can, to straighten out your spine. Hold the bottom position for 3-5 seconds and repeat. Doing this exercise more than once per day can cause your squat mobility to make leaps and bounds. But you have to put in the time.
3. You’re Only Doing Back Squats
This one’s simple. When you load a bar or weight on your front, you’ll be able to squat deeper.
If you think about it from a geometry perspective, it’s true. Your torso gets to stay more vertical to counterbalance the load, and your knees will shift much further forward for the same reasons.
This will lead to a slightly more quad-dominant lift, but will reduce shear forces on the spine and allow for a greater range of motion to be achieved. Especially if you have lever length issues, loading a bar on the back can cause a forward lean that even the best drills and fixes won’t be able to completely address.
Note the differences in my back squat torso angle and depth versus that of a front squat.
Improving your squat performance may be as easy as adding variety to your squat variations. Start by trying some goblet squats to get used to the front loaded pattern, and then hit up the front squat once you’re comfortable.
4. Maybe You’re Not Built For it
I make this subheading with a disclaimer: This should only be a conclusion once significant trial and error with the other three subheadings has been completed over a reasonable period of time.
If you’ve done enough mobility work at your load baring joints and don’t display any range issues or dysfunction in other lifts to feed into your squat immobility, there’s a definite chance that your skeletal build is not conducive to deep squatting.
Related: Single Leg Strength - The Solution For Lifters With Back Issues
We all know that no two skeletons are built exactly the same. The hip socket (acetabulum) of one person’s hip may be in a wider or narrower spot on the pelvis than another person’s. In addition to that, there may be more of an enclosed coverage (or a deeper socket) depending on whose hips are being examined.
Most people reading this aren’t about to run to a clinic to get an MRI or X-Ray done to see whether they got the short end of the squatting stick, but it’s safe to make the inference based on the telling factors above. At this point, trying to force deeper ranges when you’re safest at maybe parallel or an inch below can just cause injury risk that nobody needs.
For your leg strength and development, deep squats are good, but they’re not everything. Remember not to get caught up and ultimately miss the message of your training. Stay healthy and use what works best for you to get strong.
Before I go: Paused Squats
As a quick tip, remember that in any form, paused squats can work wonders for emphasizing a segment of the lift that most people usually pass through.
Allowing the muscles to go through a loaded stretch can open up more range of motion and also allow a lifter to find the right balance and torso position for a solid, deep squat. Just remember to stay tight at all times, and keep reps on the lower end for quality purposes!
Great read. I have trouble squatting with a wider stance. I normally squat with my feet about shoulder width apart. Any wider than that and It kills my knees. Im a smaller guy at only 175 lbs, and I've hit a wall in my squat at 385 lbs. I hit full depth, but I feel like I am missing a lot of untapped strength by not being able to stand wider. Any tips? Thanks
Thank you so much for this article!! I have not been able to go all the way on my back squat and could not figure out why. This should definitely help improve my squat and help me see some growth in my legs. Thanks!
Thank you for the kind words! Appreciate it and glad you benefited.