Squatting to depth, below parallel and even ‘Ass To Grass’ (ATG) is perhaps one of the most satisfying and beautiful expressions of human movement, performance and strength that occurs in the weight room.
For thousands of years, humans have performed labour, fed ourselves and rested in the squatting position. Only recently in this digital age of the 21st century have many of us lost the ability to perform such a natural movement.
Fortunately, with the growth of the CrossFit community, Olympic Weightlifting and Power Lifting, people young and old are once again taking the time to learn how to squat in search of better health and fitness. Unfortunately, hours upon hours of sitting at a desk and the ever-increasing sedentary lifestyle choices we make have ruined many individual’s natural ability to perform squats properly and safely.
Benefits of ATG Squats
Being able to squat ‘ass to grass’ is not only a sure-fire way to build strong, powerful and muscular legs, but is also an excellent indicator of your general health and physical preparedness.
Full-depth squats are far superior to partial squats or machine squats, recruiting the largest number of muscle fibres from the glutes, hamstrings and quads. Some athletic studies have compared full-depth squats to their partial counterparts, with the findings supporting greater increases in strength, muscle mass and cross-sectional muscle size amongst participants using a full range of motion.
Bodybuilders typically perform the squat with thighs parallel to the floor (or just above), which is perfectly fine if the only concern is muscle growth; however for the crossfitter or athlete, the squat should be treated with performance at the front of mind and muscle growth as a second adaptation.
Squatting below parallel has a far greater carry-over to increasing the explosive power required by Crossfit Athletes, Olympic Weightlifters and even Power Lifters to jump effectively, change direction and improve their lifting potential in competition.
Additionally, by safely and efficiently squatting below parallel on a consistent basis, you are essentially safeguarding yourself from future health complications such as arthritis, low bone density and reducing the risks of fatal falls in the elderly.
However, for many individuals achieving full-depth in the squat can feel like an impossible task; restricted mobility, incorrect form and impatience can all lead to sub-par squatting technique. All is not lost, just follow these top squatting tips to dramatically improve your technique, strength and potential to build more quality muscle mass.
Common Squat Variations
There is no doubt that the squat is one of the best exercises for increasing lower body strength, power, speed and muscle size whilst simultaneously creating favourable metabolic changes and the release of growth hormones to support improved body composition and weight loss.
Beyond the simple barbell back squat, there are literally hundreds of squat variations that can be utilised by bodybuilders and athletes; be it for strength, performance or aesthetics (muscle growth) the following 6 squat variations are amongst the most common used today.
Goblet Squat (General Physical Preparedness)
The goblet squat is essentially an air squat (bodyweight squat) with a kettlebell or dumbbell held in front of the body for additional resistance. From beginners to advanced lifters the goblet squat is one of the greatest squat variations to reinforce good mechanics, keep joints supple and develop body awareness.
To perform the goblet squat simply pick up a kettlebell or dumbbell by the handle and hold it at chest height close to your body. Stand in a comfortable stance with your feet slightly outside shoulder width and begin to lower into a deep squat position; maintain an upright (vertical) torso and keep your elbows just inside your knees throughout the movement before returning to the top position.
Focus: Keep your knees pushed out over your toes, if necessary use your elbows to force your knees out and open your hips. Maintain a neutral ‘eyes forward’ head position at all times.
Advantages: The goblet squat forces you to keep a more upright position, recruiting your quads more than a typical back squat and is a great tool for actively increasing squat-depth for individuals who are guilty of shallow squats due to mobility restrictions.
Partial Back Squat (Bodybuilding)
Everyone knows that one guy or girl at the gym who constantly performs shallow partial squats purely to add as much weight to the bar as possible, when in reality they really aren’t impressing anyone except for their own ego. Because of this, partial squats have developed a bad reputation, however they can be a solid training tool especially for bodybuilders most concerned with muscle hypertrophy.
Partial squats limit the range of motion and consequently the majority of activation occurs in the quads, so they can be used at selective times to emphasise muscle growth in the quads as opposed to the glutes and hamstrings.
Similarly, partial squats with a barbell or on the hack squat machine can be performed in a quick ‘piston-like’ fashion; typically as a burnout set to emphasise blood flow restriction and the growth factors associated with metabolic build-up and increased blood volume aka ‘The Pump’.
Focus: Use a shoulder width or slightly narrower stance and do not squat below parallel in order to fully emphasise the quads. Perform ‘piston-like’ repetitions to enhance the build up of metabolic growth factors.
Advantages: Partial squats can be used by bodybuilders and physique athletes that need to emphasise quad growth, particularly if they have dominant hamstrings, glutes and posterior chain.
Box Squat (Power Lifting)
Popularised by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell Powerlifitng, the box squat allows lifters to develop raw strength from a static position whilst also shifting the focus of the squat to the hamstrings and posterior chain.
Typically the box squat is performed to parallel or slightly below using a plyometric box, bench, or stack of Olympic plates. The box squat is performed using a wider than shoulder width stance and by actively pushing your glutes rearward towards the box, placing a tremendous amount of force on your glutes, hips and lower back. Once sitting on the box keep your abdominals and torso tight but slightly relax your hips and glutes for a short pause before explosively activating and flexing your hips, abs and glutes to “jump” off the box.
Focus: Squeeze the bar hard into your traps and brace your abdominals and lower back; ensure your toe angle matches that of your knee and drive your hips and knees out hard. Actively push your glutes backwards into the box without breaking at your torso.
Advantages: As long as the box is set to or below parallel every squat performed will be to depth regardless of how much weight is used. Box Squats also cause significantly less shearing on the knees and associated tendons because there is no ‘bouncing’ out of the hole, so they be used as an effective rehab tool or for individuals with pre existing knee injuries.
High Bar Olympic Squat (Crossfit/Olympic Weightlifting)
Most people would be mistaken in thinking that Power Lifters and Olympic Weightlifters perform the same style of squat; this is simply not the case. Unlike Power Lifters, Olympic Weightlifters and even Crossfit Athletes are not solely focused on breaking squat records; but rather use the squat as an accessory exercise to improve both the clean and jerk as well as the snatch movements.
As such the Olympic style squat, also known as the high bar back squat, uses a much more long and vertical torso position, a closer foot stance to replicate the demands of the clean and snatch, and a greater emphasis on the stretch-reflex or explosive energy to ‘bounce’ out of the hole.
To perform the high bar back squat begin with a shoulder width or narrower stance, ensuring the barbell is resting high on your upper traps with your hands close to the bar in a similar position to where you would grip for a clean. Keep your upper back tight and as long and vertical as possible and begin descending into the squat. Contrary to most squat technique recommendations, your knees will likely pass over your toes in the high bar back squat; this is totally acceptable as long as the rest of your form is correct, but is no means an open invitation to deliberately force your knees past your toes.
Note the high bar Olympic squat requires a far greater level of mobility to perform in a safe and effective manner, particularly due to the amount of dorsi-flexion (ankle flexibility) required to perform the movement. This is the reasoning behind the use of Olympic Weightlifting shoes that have a built in platform in the heel; they reduce the mobility requirements to safely perform Olympic Weightlifting squats.
Focus: Rather than sitting your hips back, lower down by activating your hamstrings from your knee during the eccentric phase, whilst focusing on staying as upright and long through your torso as possible. Focus on actively pushing the ground away using the total surface area of your feet to maximise the transfer of energy as you lift the weight.
Advantages: High bar squats have specific carry-over to Olympic lifts and Crossfit movements. As such they should make up the majority of squatting training volume. A reduction in the forward angle of the torso means high bar back squats can be more desirable for those with a history or lower back pain, provided no other mobility restrictions exist.
Front Squat (Crossfit/Olympic Weightlifting)
At the most basic level the front squat involves moving the barbell from your back into a position on the front of your shoulders and squatting, however there are some significant differences between these two squat variations. The front squat requires far greater activation of the quadriceps as well as stabilization of the mid-line, in addition to increased flexibility requirements of the shoulders, triceps and upper back.
The front squat begins by positioning yourself facing towards the bar, with a natural foot stance slightly wider than shoulder width and knees tracking in line with your toes. Take a shoulder width grip on the bar pushing your elbows ‘through’ and ‘up’ creating a shelf with your shoulders and chest for the bar to rest on.
Keeping your chest high and your upper back tight, begin the eccentric phase of the squat making sure your torso stays completely vertical and your elbows are kept high. Once your thighs reach parallel or below actively push your feet through the floor and aggressively drive the bar upwards.
Focus: Maintaining the vertical torso position in the front squat requires your chest to be kept high and your elbows to be pushed ‘up’ and ‘through’ the barbell. Work towards using a clean grip rather than a cross-arm bodybuilding style grip as it creates a far more stable shelf with your chest and shoulders.
Advantages: Similar to the high bar squat there is a reduction on the shearing force of the lower back, due to the vertical torso position of the front squat. Front squats have much greater carry over into the development of the Olympic lifts as well as other Crossfit movements such as thrusters.
Overhead Squat (Crossfit/Olympic Weightlifting)
Perhaps one of the most challenging squat variations that can be performed with a barbell, the overhead squat (OH squat) is a true test of overall body strength, mobility, stability and body awareness. The overhead squat serves two main functions in the fitness community; one, to help develop confidence in the overhead position of the snatch; and two, to separate the top Crossfit athletes in the world during competitions such as the Crossfit Games.
Beginning with the bar on the back of your neck, grip the bar in a similar position to that of the snatch, or if mobility allows, use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Raise the bar overhead either in a strict manner or by dipping and driving with your legs whilst simultaneously pushing your shoulder blades up into the bar with your armpits facing forward.
Maintaining a tight core and shoulders pressing into the bar, sit your hips backwards and down to help keep the barbell aligned with your heels. Make sure to perform the eccentric phase with complete control. Once depth is reached keep the weight on your heels and stand to full extension.
Focus: Pressing into the bar is the single most effective cue for increasing the weight used in the overhead squat. Naturally your body wants to work in harmony so as the overhead squat begins your upper back, shoulders and arms tend to ‘switch off’; instead focus on constantly pushing up into the barbell rather than just holding it.
Advantages: The overhead squat is a fantastic exercise for developing shoulder stability and preventing recurring shoulder injuries associated with poor posture.
If you have ever watched a toddler at play, it is easy to notice that they can squat with excellent mechanics; hamstrings touching calves, no spinal flexion and a perfect neutral neck position. Somewhere along the way, the effects of ageing, injury history and sedentary work life begin to wreak havoc on our ability to move and perform as humans should.
The changes in work culture over the past 30-40 years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent sitting in a chair each day. It is entirely true that lack of physical activity and prolonged periods of sitting is killing us, increasing the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and affecting both quality of life and shortening life spans; these are all a result of more time spent sitting with ‘mushy’ abs, deactivated glutes and continually flexed (shortened) hip flexors and lumbar.
For a truly beautiful squat, the opposite is true, abs must be braced, glutes activated and the hips and lumbar must be long and supple.
Most people lack the flexibility required to perform truly deep squats, and this is typically associated with tight hips, tight lower back, inflexible ankles, or a combination of all three. The solution is to test your squat followed by some active mobilization of one particular area (hips, back or ankles), before re-testing your squat again. If there is a noticeable change in the depth and efficiency of the squat between the test and re-test, you have successfully identified what needs to be worked.
Here are some general stretch and release techniques for each particular area:
Spider Lunge Hip Opener: Begin the movement by kneeling on your rear knee and placing the opposing foot flat on the floor in front of you in a lunge position; gradually push your upper body and head towards your front leg whilst actively pressing your knee outwards and attempting to open your hip as wide as possible. If needed use your elbow to press against the inside of your knee and gently oscillate your hip to obtain a deep stretch, hold each side for 1-2 minutes.
Couch Stretch: Performed on a couch or against a wall, position yourself in a lunge with your back leg underneath your hip supported by your knee and your back foot resting on the couch or pressed against the wall. Next squeeze and engage your glutes, hips and quads with the aim of ‘opening’ your hip as much as possible. Hold for 2-3 minutes and re-test your squat.
Double Lacrosse Ball (peanut): Laying on your back place the peanut between your shoulder blades so a lacrosse ball is either side of your spine. From here fold your arms across your chest and proceed to work the peanut into any tight spots between your shoulder blades. If you find an especially painful spot keep the peanut in that position and move your arms from across your chest to over your head until the tightness has released. Do this stretch for 2-3 minutes before re-testing your squat again.
Band Distracted Ankle Stretch: Looping a powerband low around anything solid, place your ankle at the end of the loop and kick out to get some tension in the band. Push your knee forward to get a good stretch through your ankle, Achilles’ tendon, and calf. As with the other stretches, move your knee from side to side trying to find any tight/ jammed up spots, once you have found some work that area until you see a noticeable increase in the range of motion. Hold each side for 2-3 minutes then retest your squat a third time.
As with any exercise safety and the full range of motion are paramount. A good pair of Olympic Weightlifting shoes will help you achieve a high-quality squat if your mobility is not quite there as the inbuilt heel essentially reduces the range of motion for your ankle, allowing you to squat deeper. Another simple alternative is to squat with an elevated platform underneath your heels. Continuously reduce the height of the platform week by week until your ankle mobility improves.
A high-quality weightlifting belt will help you to brace your core and protect your spine, and finally knee wraps/sleeves can aid in supporting your knees. These are super beneficial for people with existing knee injuries as they help provide warmth and some stability whilst also increasing proprioception.
Regardless of your goal, be it improving your physique, crushing your next WOD or breaking records in the squat; all of these squat variations and mobility drills can help to improve your squat in any situation.
Typically most athletes and coaches will always favour full range of motion squats over partial repetitions; for those struggling to hit parallel or below using the squat therapy methods above will allow you to gradually see improvements in squat depth and mechanics, ensuring you can continue to make progress and train injury free for years to come.