Squat Like You Mean It: Tips for a Deeper Squat

by Tony Gentilcore, CSCS

Ask anyone who knows me well enough what some of my biggest pet peeves are, and you’ll undoubtedly hear things like:

  • People who talk or text during a movie.
  • People who honk their horn within 1/16th of a second of the traffic light turning green.
  • People who knowingly go through the express line at the grocery store even though they clearly have more than seven items in the their cart.
  • Keanu Reeves.

Throw me into a commercial gym setting, however, and you’re bound to see that list grow exponentially. Admittedly, I live in a strength and conditioning bubble where I and the rest of the Cressey Performance staff are able to control everything that’s either pressed, thrown, hoisted, or lifted under our watch. 

Every now and then though – whether it’s because of travel, or I just happen to have a day off from work and am unable to make it to the facility – I’ll make a cameo appearance at a local commercial gym. 

Not surprisingly, I immediately get tons of great material for article ideas (like this one), not to mention I have to fight the urge to gouge my eyeballs out with a safety pin to save myself from my own personal hell.

Between guys doing every biceps curl imaginable for an hour straight, trainers doing more texting than training, and Katy Perry playing in the background, it’s a wonder that I’m not taken out in handcuffs.

The biggest culprit, however? Squats. Specifically, the lack of squatting to depth.

If I had to guess, I would say that out of all the times I’ve ever trained at a commercial gym (and that’s a lot), I could count on two hands the number of people whom I would say had great squat technique, which is to say they performed a nice, clean, deep squat. 

Squat Like A Man!      

The ability to successfully perform a deep squat is a fairly good indicator of one’s overall fitness level and movement quality. Is it the end all, be all? Absolutely not, but it ranks right up there. 

Squatting, for all practical purposes, is a complex movement that requires stability of the trunk and mobility of the extremities through constantly changing tension and position. 

Moreover, the ability to perform a picture perfect (deep) squat pattern demonstrates that someone has proper ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic extension, and glute activation, which, as my good buddy and ass-Jedi Bret Contreras has noted, helps counteract or “undo” much of the musculosketetal issues we see in every day society: low back pain, anterior knee pain, hip pain, hamstring strains, and groin strains, to name a few. 

Lastly, the ability to perform a deep squat demonstrates one’s obvious ninja-like qualities. But that goes without saying.

Yet some people just aren’t ready to head to the gym on any given day and squat. They could have really stiff ankles, poor hip mobility, poor core stability, or something more structural in nature like femoral acetabular impingement – all of which can play a role in whether someone can squat to depth.

What follows are some simple strategies that we use at Cressey Performance on a daily basis to help improve one’s squat technique, and to a larger degree, depth. Some are corrective in nature, while others are bit more specific to the squat itself. Either way, I think many reading will walk away with some ammo they can instantly apply to their training.

Lets get to it!

But first, a brief reminder…

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I can’t emphasize enough that squatting deep is not dangerous for the knees.

A deep squat requires that the anterior surface of one’s thigh drop below knee level on the descent. If one has the ability to go lower, great! But I find the above criterium to be a fair starting point, and tends to be far lower than what most trainees are used to in the first place.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying that everyone needs (or has) to squat “ass-to-grass.” I’m not that na•ve nor pigheaded. The fact is, not everyone can (or should) squat below parallel without considering their training history, injury history, postural deficiencies, and/or mobility deficits. I’d be remiss to state otherwise. 

Incidentally, what I find ironic is that most people (personal trainers included) think that squatting with a limited ROM is a safer way to squat. Epic fail.

Furthermore – and this should put the nail in the coffin – in a study titled Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squat in collegiate women athletes  by Salem and Powers, it was shown that there was no discernible difference between three different squat depths (70, 90, and 110 degrees of knee flexion) with regards to patellofemoral joint reaction force and patellofemoral joint stress. (Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon), June 1, 2001; 16(5): 424-30)

In other words, and I’m just paraphrasing here, you’re retarded if you go around telling people that squatting below parallel is bad for their knees. Most likely, you just don’t know how to teach it properly.

So How Can I Squat Deeper?

Having said all that, the question then becomes, Tony, will you just tell me how I can squat deeper?

Well, as much as people aren’t going to want to hear it, I’m going to say it anyway – how you prepare to squat is arguably one of the most important components that you can focus on. 

Warm It Up!

Several common musculoskeletal issues tend to pop up repeatedly with many (if not all) trainees I work with. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. Poor Ankle Mobility (specifically ankle dorsiflexion)
  2. Poor Hip Mobility (specifically hip internal rotation deficits, short/stiff adductors and/or hip flexors)
  3. Poor Thoracic Mobility
  4. Lack of Core Stability

Many of you may remember a video that Eric Cressey and I did for his “Show and Go” program launch a few months back where we demonstrated some of the things that we do at the facility to help correct many of the issues mentioned here.

What follows are highlights from that video, as well as a few new drills that might come in useful.

1) Poor Ankle Mobility   

To perform a proper squat (or lunge for that matter), the ankle needs or requires roughly 15 degrees of dorsiflexion (think pointing the toes towards the shin). However, because we often wear cinder blocks for shoes, many trainees have really limited ankle mobility.

While admittedly an oversimplification, lack of dorsiflexion can lead to a cascade of events when squatting: anterior weight shift, pronation, tibial internal rotation, femoral internal rotation, knee valgus, heels coming off the ground, squat technique that makes my eyes bleed.

Luckily, there are a handful of simple drills you can do to help improve ankle mobility (again, specifically, ankle dorisiflexion) that will clean up your squat technique.

Wall Ankle Mobilization (Multi Planar)

Here, you’ll simply start with your toes 2-3 inches from the wall. From there, gently tap your knee to the wall with each repetition. Of note, if you feel your heel coming off the ground, move your foot closer to the wall. Perform five reps pushing the knee inward, five straight ahead (over the second toe), and five with the knee moving outward, for a total of 15 repetitions (per foot).

Knee-Break Ankle Mobilizations

Standing on two 5-10 lb. plates (toes on the plates, heels on the ground), simply “push” your knees over your toes, without pronating or allowing the knees to collapse into valgus (caving in). For some, you may find a significant restriction, but it’s important not to force range of motion. Use what ROM you have, and just rock back and forth. 

Perform 10-15 repetitions.

Insert Knee-Break Ankle Mobilizations video

2) Poor Hip Mobility

A significant factor preventing many trainees from successfully hitting proper depth on a squat is that many have the hip mobility of a crowbar. This can mean any number of things ranging from lack of hip internal rotation to short/stiff adductors to short/stiff hip flexors. 

One problem is called Hip Internal Rotation Deficit. Counterintuitive as it may seem, having the ability to internally rotate the hip is important. As physical therapist Charlie Weingroff has stated on several occasions “the body needs to know that it can do something before it can prevent it.” 

One needs a certain amount of hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion. The problem arises, however, when most trainees have a significant hip internal rotation deficit.