If you’re not taking your squats to great depths, you’ll continue to make just shallow gains in power
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
We talk a lot about the squat here and for obvious reasons. The squat is arguably one of the best exercises you’ll ever master. Hitting the quads, hamstrings and glutes, the squat also demands a massive contribution from all other bodyparts including the back, chest and core musculature. We like it so much we’re in favor of all kinds of variations and often encourage experimentation.
From Smith-machine squats to sissy squats, partials to reverse style, you name a squat and we’ll find something good to say about it. And yet, surprisingly, if there’s one kind of squat that gets the least attention, it’s the version that just might be the best of them. We’re talking about the deep squat.
To be sure, the squat is anything but easy to perform. And going deep, well, that’s unchartered water for many bodybuilders. For one, performing your squats below the parallel point (thighs parallel with the floor) requires a greater contribution from your hamstrings and glutes. With practice, they’ll gain strength and become more equipped to explode out of the hole. Stronger hams and glutes give you greater force potential in all sorts of other lifts, including all of your power-specific Olympic lifts and especially your big three: bench, deadlift and squat. And despite what your local neighborhood trainer might tell you, stopping at parallel can actually increase the sheer force placed upon the knee joint (not good).
However, if you’ve never tried to go below parallel, we don’t suggest you simply throw your typical weight on the bar and drop your ass to the grass. It’s probably wise to consider this version of the squat as a brand new exercise initially because the deep squat requires a unique set of demands. Therefore, it’s critical to begin with very a light weight. In fact, during your warm-up, it’s not a bad idea to practice the deep squat with an unloaded bar, especially if you’re used to stopping your squats at the parallel point (or — gasp! — even higher). The reason being, if you’ve never taken your glutes to the floor during a set of squats, chances are good that you lack the ankle and hip flexibility, not to mention the core strength to support the lift through such a great range of motion. The key then is to work your way into the deep squat, beginning with flexibility.
After you’re thoroughly warmed up, get into a deep squat with an empty bar across your back. Your heels might rise up at first and your back might feel tight, but stay in the deep squat position for 30 seconds. Stand up and then drop down again. After a few sets, you’ll feel your feet flatten and increased comfort in your knees and hips. Do a few sets of those before beginning your squat routine. Your ankles, knees, lower back and calves will become more acquainted with this body position and it’ll soon feel like second nature.
It’s important to remember that your best squat occurs when you remain flat-footed. No matter the depth, a squat in which your heels rise and the weight rests on the balls of your feet is a very weak position and potentially dangerous. You want your feet to be as flat as possible. It’s also imperative that the deeper you go the more emphasis is placed upon your lower-back protection. For that reason, keep your back as straight as possible during the squat and avoid leaning too far forward during the descent.
In fact, you need to overemphasize the arch in your lower back and maintain it throughout the entire set. In other words, “stay big” even while deep in the hole. One more important point: Try to press through the floor with your feet, driving through your legs. This will help ensure that your hips don’t rise faster than your upper body. When that happens, the upper body tends to draw forward, placing a lot of wear and tear on your lower back. If you drive upward powerfully out of the low squat, your chest and upper body will lead and your hips will follow, helping protect your spine.
BREATHE RIGHT = DON’T BREATHE
Speaking of protecting your spine, we don’t talk about it much but you have to breathe correctly when deep squatting. And in some cases, breathing right means not breathing at all. That’s right, you don’t want to inhale during the descent and exhale during the ascent. But rather, take a deep breath before you go down and hold it as you complete the rep. (Read that again: Hold it during the up phase.) Don’t exhale until you are close to the apex. Filling your lungs with air increases the pressure inside your chest and abdominal cavity, supporting your spine, so don’t breathe out.
Keeping your head in the right position is imperative to a deep, strong squat. Your focus should be directly forward — looking up too high can cause you to lose your balance, and dropping your gaze too low may lead you to round your lower back, placing excessive force on your lumbar area. So stay neutral with your eyes looking right back at yourself in the mirror, and your head position will remain in perfect alignment. Finally, it might be a wise idea to practice this new version of the squat in the safe confines of the power rack. Not only will this provide a necessary level of safety, but you’ll also gain mental confidence in the process. There’s no shame in having safety bars at your disposal. The last problem you need is to get caught in the bottom of the squat without a rack.
And if you’re just starting out with this kind of squat, focus less on reps and more on form. As you’ll see in the sample workout, going for a higher rep count is perfectly fine. Once you’ve adapted in flexibility, know-how and confidence, you can modify the weight to focus on specific goals like strength, power or endurance. But for starters, master the move so that it becomes second nature like the other leg moves you’ve grown to incorporate each week.
Low Points to Remember
- The deep squat will enhance power and strength of the hamstrings and glutes.
- You need enhanced ankle and hip flexibility, so practice sitting deep with an unloaded bar each workout.
- Make sure your low back is over-arched even in the bottom of the squat. This will enhance your mechanical advantage and protect your low back.
- Concentrate on pressing through the floor, forcing your upper body to rise faster than your hips.
- Hold your breath for intra-abdominal stability and strength.
- Practice and perform your deep squats inside a power rack.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
Here’s a sample leg workout that incorporates squats of different depths. After your deep squatting, you can increase the weight and perform parallel as well as partial squats (only the top part of the range of motion) within the rack. At the end of this workout, your quads will have been trained throughout the entire range of motion they were intended to work within.