Why You Should Squat To Parallel
Why You Should Squat To Parallel
By Steve DeNovi
Should you squat to parallel? It’s been debated back and forth for years, but with all the current research and evidence coming out over the past couple years, this argument needs to come to a definitive close. The answer is yes, you should squat to parallel, or be working towards the ability to squat to parallel, for almost all applications, sports, and goals (really the only exception is during times of injury or someone with long term structural damage to the hips/knees). Whether it be for strength, aesthetics, or just general health, I am here to show you why the full range of motion squat is going to be your key to success, so let's dive in.
I can key in on four main reasons why squatting to parallel is the no compromise answer to your squat depth:
- Proper tension and motor recruit for an optimal movement pattern
- Maximum long term strength development
- Maximizing hypertrophy
- Safety, injury prevention, and strengthening the knee joint
Proper tension and motor recruit for an optimal movement pattern
While we are all different in our biomechanics due to torso and limb lengths, the consistent variable between all of our squat patterns is that the body likes a certain distribution of tension between the primary movers on the squat, which are the glutes and the quads. When you see someone with form issues, the majority of the time it is because they are distributing that tension incorrectly, either too much to the anterior or too much to the posterior. And for those who seem to come up with excuses on why they cannot squat to parallel, they are usually the anterior dominant knee squatter. So even if they wanted to squat to parallel, they can’t, because due to improper distribution of knee versus hip flexion, their full range of motion squat comes up short. So to hide their inability to hit depth, they argue it is not needed.
To prove this, try something…..squat down with zero movement from the hips and only using the knees. I can guarantee two things happened. First, your heels came up off the floor which puts you in a very disadvantageous position to optimally transfer force, and second, you didn’t hit parallel, it is just not possible. The hips have to be involved in the squat pattern to achieve a parallel squat.
The other argument coming from the “above parallel” debaters is that they are just trying to grow their quads, so they do not need a full range of motion as they just want to keep tension on the desired muscle. But where this argument falls apart is when EMG testing has shown that maximal quadriceps activation occurs between 80 to 135 degrees range of motion. So if you are wanting to maximally activate the quadriceps, you’ll be wanting to hit parallel.
Coincidentally enough, maximal glute activation comes around 90 to 135 degrees range of motion as well, and goes back to my point that we need a proper distribution of tension through the squat pattern to perform it adequately. Proper tension between the quads and the glutes are going to allow for an optimal movement pattern, which results in a higher ceiling for long term strength development, which is our next point.
Maximum long term strength development
While initially some people may be able to lift more weight with improper form, the ceiling for progression is low. I’ve had many of my athletes have to take a step back with the weight so that in the long run they can take two steps forward. Maintaining proper tension and developing the correct movement pattern for your body type is going to produce the highest ceiling for long term strength development. And most likely this is not going to be achieved from habitually half squatting. As mentioned, rarely do those who half squat have proper distribution of tension. More likely than not they are knee squatting through that range of motion, which can be shown through video after video that is posted on @quartersquatgang. You aren’t going to find a single video on there of someone distributing proper tension between the quads and glutes. What will happen eventually is either their knees won’t be able to take much more, or they are going to overextend their capacity for what the knee extensors can handle and plateau on their strength. The people you will find squatting 500, 600, and 700+ are the ones using optimal form, and building up these primary movers over time by going through the full ranges of motion that maximally activate them. While I am sure Ray Williams could currently half squat more than he could squat to competition standard, I can guarantee he would have never been able to touch anywhere near 1,050lbs. if his training only consisted of half squats. Squatting to parallel allowed him to fully develop that movement to where his ceiling was exponentially higher due to the increased demands and adaptations imposed on those muscle groups.
One of the main contributors to hypertrophy is the increasing demands placed upon a muscle as it is stretched through a full range of motion. This increased demand can be seen by thinking of the muscle as a rubber band. If you stretch a rubber band 1,000 times through just part of its range of motion capacity, you probably won’t notice much change to its physical properties. But if you were to stretch it to its end limits, you’ll probably notice that eventually the rubber band seems to change a bit. To get the same effective with that partial range of motion, you are probably going to have the stretch that rubber band a couple thousand more times to get the same effect. Unlike the rubber band though, our muscles have the ability to adapt and rebuild. By placing the muscle under the maximum amount of strain and tension, we can cause greater imposed demands resulting in larger adaptations. So when it comes to the squat, we want to fully activate and stretch the muscle to gain the full benefit of the movement, which will mean squatting to parallel. You won’t find many people squatting 315lbs. to parallel for reps that have tiny legs, but you probably have seen a couple 315lb. half squatters who probably should be wearing sweatpants instead of shorts.
-only time partial reps would be warranted is for force/power production with in sport specific training for athletes, who should still do full squats within their program as well, or during times of injury to avoid painful ranges of motion
Safety, injury prevention, and strengthening the knee joint
The last big argument you tend to hear in regards to why you shouldn’t squat to parallel is that it is bad for the knees. But the fact is, out of all the excuses, that one may be the worst and couldn’t be farther from the truth. If done correctly, full range of motion squats can actually be one of the best exercises for your knees, as it is going to build strength through the knee joints full range of motion. It has been shown through research that those who squat tend to actually have the strongest knees. The three biggest reasons people think squats are bad for their knees are:
- They are squatting with an extremely knee dominant squat, so anytime they go through a fuller range of motion it hurts, which it will, because their form is wrong.
- They squat correctly but always stop short of parallel. But when they do try to get to parallel, it hurts their knees.
- People see the numerous powerlifters and strength athletes who have squatted enormous amounts of weight that now have really bad knee issues.
The rebuttal to number 1 is fairly obvious, they need to learn proper form. For number 3, the fact is squatting enormous amounts of weight isn’t the healthiest thing to do in general. Anytime we take our body to an extreme, we are pushing past our natural boundaries. Powerlifters know the pursuit of ungodly strength probably isn’t the best way to stay pain free, but we do it because we love it. As long as we are willing to admit that, number 3 is a choice, not the normal outcome for those squatting typical loads for that of the general population.
But for number two, this one is a bit more detailed. Just like with the bench press where people complain that a full range of motion hurts their shoulders, the same happens for squats. What is actually happening here is that someone has gained a certain amount of strength through a partial range of motion. When they then try to use that same weight through a full range of motion on squats or bench, their knees and shoulders now hurt. This is because the 315lbs. they can squat to a partial range of motion is too much weight for them to handle currently at a full range of motion. Their bodies adapted to the imposed demands, but those demands did not include knee and hip flexion to that extent. What needs to happen is that they drop the weight down, work through a full range of motion, and build strength in those joints to then match what they previously could handle with a partial range. If done correctly, they will probably limit further issues with the knee and strengthen it past where it was previously when it did hurt.
The squat has stood the test of time, and continues to be a foundational movement in most exercise programs due to its amazing capabilities to increase strength, size, and power. And to achieve the full benefit of this outstanding movement, squatting to parallel is the way to go. Most of the arguments against squatting to parallel are excuses, and to #RepTheDepth, you can’t have excuses and take shortcuts to your goals. It not easy building a world class squat, but if it was, it would be called a leg press. So if you are going to squat, hit depth, squat to parallel, and gain the benefits that the exercise was intended to give!
Steve DeNovi is a Personal Trainer, Powerlifter, and Strength Coach from Springfield, MO specializing in strength athletics and post-physical therapy rehabilitation through his company Progressive Resistance Systems. For further questions, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out his instagram page @prs_performance, or visit his website prsontheplatform.com.