Reasons To Modify Your Squat Depth

There’s a lot of debate on whether people should squat below parallel. My opinion? Absolutely! But I end up telling athletes frequently that they need to modify the depth of their squat. My reason for this is because even though I believe people should squat below parallel, most people struggle to get below parallel with GOOD FORM. There’s a lot that goes into having good form with a full squat…..motor control, mobility, breathing. Without these things all coordinating together, a full depth squat can wreck your body. I’ve seen it, felt it, and want to help you understand why it’s important to modify your squat depth until you can achieve all components of the squat.

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Benefits of squatting full depth

I wrote a blog about this a few years ago and it’s still pretty up to date on why we should squat full depth…..so I will send you to read Get Low. The main reasons are:

1) Full depth squatting without weight tests the true health of your joint mobility. If you can get there and hang out, you’re good to go on mobility.

2) Limiting the depth of your squat doesn’t allow you to access your glutes and hamstrings. This creates a quad dominate athlete which leads to imbalances and a variety of injuries. Above and beyond blocking your full athletic potential. Some muscles don’t turn on until you get low!

Common faults

So if squatting low allows you to use all your muscles and boost your athletic potential, why modify? If you don’t have the full mobility to get there, you won’t be using the correct muscles anyways. And if you have good mobility, but are moving/breathing incorrectly or favoring an injured side……you won’t be accessing the correct muscles either. The main fault I see is initiating the squat by tilting pelvis back rather than hinging at the hips (hip hinge can be seen in the videos at the end of this post). This is nicely demonstrated in an old video of me squatting below:

 

This increases strain on your lumbar spine because your midline is “broken” and inactive, as well as compressing your spine. It makes the movement less efficient and usually leads to a butt wink at the bottom (losing all power in the bottom of your squat). Not to mention the strain on your knees too!

Here is another video of additional squat faults:

 

 

Here are a few photos to show you some imbalanced squats that need to be modified.

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This guy has managed to alter his upper body so the bar stays even overhead, but with the position of his lower body I guarantee the path of the bar is not smooth as he moves. His right foot is extremely turned out, not allowing him to have a stable foundation to access his right glutes. This creates strain on the entire right side of his body (even his shoulder) and causes the left side of his body to work overtime. So yes, he can lift heavy weight, but how long is his body going to survive with this imbalance?

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This is me squatting, and even though my right foot is only slightly turned out compared to my left you can see my right knee caving in. So I’m unable to activate my right glute no matter how hard I push my knee out, and the bar doesn’t travel straight increasing strain on my lower back and shoulder. Can you imagine that I injured my right knee about a year after this photo was taken?!?!

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Probably the most drastic, as you can see the uneven bar and how much he shifts his weight onto his left side to avoid his right knee. No need to go into details about this because you can see the imbalances, and hopefully understand why this squat needs to be modified.

The above images clearly show squatting imbalances.  Sometimes people ask if they can just use lighter weight and really focus on form, which can work but it’s not always easy to learn when your form is failing (unless you have video or a coach constantly watching you). When I work with an athlete, I figure out how low they can go with good form. Then I teach them how to feel when they lose form so they can focus during a workout and know when to stop. As they get better, and mobility improves if that’s an issue, they can progress to a lower depth. If someone can’t tell when they’re losing form (in can be really challenging!) that’s when squatting to a box/bench helps because it forces you to have good form and doesn’t allow you to go lower than you should (as long you you figure out the right depth first). Check out this video for more detail on the box squat.

How can you tell if you need to modify?

Pain is a terrible indicator of bad form because it let’s you know too late that you’re doing it wrong. But if you have pain squatting (during or up to 24 hours after) you should be modifying your squat and have someone evaluate it. Whether you have pain or not, having a video taken of your squat is the best way to see if you should be modifying. Even with the most excellent coaching, there’s something that clicks with an athlete when they can visually see what it going on . Coach’s Eye is my favorite app for analyzing videos.

What does modifying do?

  • Gives you times to address any mobility issues
  • Allows a controlled environment as you learn correct movement patterns and make them habit
  • Decreasing strain on the body that would otherwise be happening by forcing your body into a bad position just to get low
  • Allowing time to strengthen the new pattern, as you slowly lower the depth when the time is right

Ways to modify

Try a box squat like the one in this video. Note that Dr. Kelly Starrett’s feet are really wide, which you don’t need to do for the box squat unless you’re working on a wide stance squat.

Otherwise, have your coach or a movement specialist help you determine what is good depth for you and stick with that depth until you can go lower with good form. This is a more challenging way because it can be hard to think about your form when the clock is running, you’re tired and you want to go faster. Just remember the more you go back to poor form the harder it will be to change.

I’m leaving you with a video of myself modifying my form above (the one with a broken midline and butt wink), with and without weight. Notice that I’m still working on pulling my knees back, but the knees will go forward more during a front squat because it is a more quad dominant movement. Overall I’ve made a lot of progress and my body has been a lot happier with the modifications!

 

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