We’ve all seen that guy at the gym loading plates up on the squat rack only to proceed to barely bend his knees and drop his butt just a few inches. After a couple “squats” he re-racks the bar and grunts loudly so everyone can see how much weight he has on the bar. Don’t be that guy.
The amount of weight on the bar means nothing if it is not taken through a full range of motion. Squats are undoubtedly the king of lower body exercises when executed properly. However, if you are lacking depth on your squats you are missing out on many of the benefits this exercise provides such as:
- Increased hamstring, hips, and glute activation. Partial squats really only emphasize your quads and miss out on these other muscle groups when a depth of parallel or lower is not achieved.
- Central nervous center training. When an exercise like the squat or deadlift is done, they recruit a large amount of muscle fibers at once and are very taxing on your core as well as other stabilizing muscles. These movements strengthen your CNS making you less prone to fatigue and breakdowns in form. It’s a good idea to take a recovery supplement and get adequate sleep when doing these strenuous lifts so that your CNS will be fresh for your next workout.
- Hormonal response. You’ve probably already heard that squats and deadlifts give you a boost in growth hormone and testosterone but this is not the case if you are not recruiting a large number of muscle fibers and severely taxing your CNS. Partial squats will not provide the hormonal boost you get from full-depth squats.
- Increased mobility. When you perform a deep squat with proper form and your spine in a neutral position, you increase the mobility in your hips and ankles as well as increased gluteal muscle activation. Additionally, the thoracolumbar fascia that encases your lower back, which is a major culprit when experiencing low back pain, will be loosened up in the deep squat position.
- Higher caloric expenditure. The larger amount of muscle fibers recruited when squatting deep will lead to burning more total calories in your workouts.
- Lower amounts of shearing force on knees. Contrary to popular belief squatting deeper will not hurt your knees. In fact, when you stop your squat above parallel your ACL and PCL are subjected to higher amounts of shearing forces than when going to at least 90 degrees.
It’s quite clear there are plenty of benefits that come from getting more depth in your squat so let’s look at how to address mobility issues that may be holding you back.
Open Up Those Hips
Sitting all day and having poor glute function can lead to some very tight hips. These means many people lack the external rotation required when squatting deep. It’s important to aggressively attack these tissues through a combination of rolling and then stretching. To make these tissues more malleable, you want to perform the myofascial release techniques before stretching.
Hip Flexor. Many people have tight hip flexors from sitting all day. To loosen this up, place a ball or roller directly onto your hip flexor while lying on your stomach. Find a spot that is sensitive and pin those tissues down. From here you can lift up your leg to the back or tilt your hips back and forth by squeezing your butt. After it is loosened up, go to the hip flexor stretch, making sure to keep the spine in a neutral position throughout the stretch.
Glute Medius. This muscle is largely responsible for internal rotation of the hip and can restrict range of motion through external rotation when it becomes tight. It’s best to use a ball for this area and sit on it directly. You can roll across the area with your leg crossed so that the hip is in external rotation. Another option is to flutter the knee from side to side while tacking down tight areas.
This is a good stretch to apply after you have rolled to further loosen up the glutes as well as creating more space in the joint capsule so your femur can set in deeper. This will help prevent hip impingements when getting deep.
TFL. The tensor fascia latae is a small muscle in your hip aiding in internal rotation, and it can also limit the range of motion through external rotation. Tack this area down using a ball or a roller while externally rotating at the hip. When doing the stretch make sure to maintain slight external rotation of the hip you are stretching.
Adductors. This group of muscles will make it difficult to open up the hips when performing full range squats. If your glutes are underactive, the adductors will overcompensate as you lower into a squat. They are often the culprit for causing your knees to turn inward at the bottom. Roll these with a foam roller and then perform a splits stretch against a wall using this banded distraction.
Obliques and Trunk. If your butt is not doing its job, the muscles that rotate your trunk will overcompensate to simulate the rotation it’s missing from the glutes and hips. This can make your trunk and oblique muscles extremely tight which will limit your ability to open your hips up when you get deep. Instead your lumbar will likely round when squatting. Roll out the oblique and other areas of your trunk while turning your hips from side to side. You want to loosen that connective sheath that encases your trunk and hips so they can move independently of each other.
This banded distraction will loosen up hamstrings and the thoracolumbar fascia that is making your trunk tight. Make sure to rotate your torso in all directions.
Once you have completed all of these mobility protocols, do corrective exercises to activate your glutes. You have removed the restrictions that were preventing glute function, now you need to form a neural connection to those muscles to effectively engage them.
Banded Clam. Lie on your side with your hips bent 60-90 degrees and your knees at 90-120. Simply separate your knees by lifting one of them while keeping the feet together
Sumo Walk. Place a band around your legs (the further from the hip the tougher) and hinge slightly at the hips while screwing your heels into the ground and driving your knees outward. Maintain the rotational force the entire time as you proceed to push off of the lead leg and take small lateral-shuffle steps.
Single Leg Squat Row. Hold on to a cable pulley set low. Hinge at the hips and load the glute while keeping spine neutral and the arm straight. When you stand up contract the glute and march with the knee of the other leg while rowing the cable to your torso. Make sure the down leg’s knee does not turn in.
Don’t Forget About Your Ankles
Lack of dorsiflexion is the often overlooked culprit of bad squats. If you have loosened up your hips and still fail to get deep into a squat without having to turn out your feet or lean over excessively, chances are you lack ankle mobility. To increase your range of dorsiflexion, implement the following mobility techniques.
Roll The Downstream Leg
The tight muscles that will restrict dorsiflexion are the calves and peroneals. Start with a roller or ball right underneath your knee where your calves and hamstrings come together. Create a pressure wave and roll down past the heel cord to the ankle. Make sure to dorsiflex your ankle and rotate your foot side to side when tight spots are found. Pay close attention to the areas around the heel cord. Once you have loosened up these tissues, try some banded distractions for increased joint mobility.
The tissues that make up and surround the calves and heel cord are extremely stubborn areas. Using a band is much more effective at loosening tissues than basic stretching and will also help clear up any ankle impingement that could be limiting dorsiflexion as well.
For this distraction, prop your foot against a wall or something where you can place the ball of your foot up against. Drive your hips back to feel a stretch in your calves. After about 30 seconds bend your knee to shift the focus to the heel cord.
This next distraction has a posterior bias that will focus more on the heel cord and the tissues around the heel bone of the foot. Get into a split stance and focus on stretching the back leg by driving the knee forward while keeping the heel on the ground.
For the last distraction, we want to do it in a position that closely resembles the bottom of a squat. Having good dorsiflexion doesn’t count for much if you lack it when hips are in deep flexion as well. Kneel on one knee and attach the band to the down foot. Keep the heel flat and push the knee back and forth over the outside of your foot making sure the knee does not turn inward.
Try to implement squats at least two times a week into your program performing these mobility techniques prior to starting your workout. Don’t be surprised if you must lighten the load considerably when trying to hit a below parallel squat. It’s important to let go of the ego and focus on the right muscles doing their jobs so only go as low as you can before compensations like rounding the back or knees turning in occur. Another simple way to get your tissue comfortable squatting is to simply hold the squat position isometrically. You can grab onto something, so it’s easier to maintain a straight spine. There are few things more impressive than an ATG (ass to ground) squat with a lot of weight on the bar so start putting these mobility techniques into practice.