This week I got caught up in a debate on squat depth. Not me personally, but from afar with an episode of Mark Bell’s Power Project.
The podcast featured two popular names in the fitness industry. The first is Joel Seedman, a coach with a different style of training tactics and a client list of several pro athletes. And in the other corner was Mike Israetel, a notable bodybuilder and scientist at Renaissance Periodization.
Both guys are PhDs in exercise science and have huge followings for their training advice, and they have very different takes on resistance training—especially regarding range of motion. Seedman argues in the recording that lifts only to 90 are less harmful to the joints and more sport-specific than full-range lifts, and Israetel pretty much says the exact opposite in his full rebuttal.
There is so much nuance—such as the actual lift, pain or pathology, training for sport vs. fitness or physique—it would be a super long newsletter if we unpacked the whole thing. For that reason, I want to focus solely on squat depth.
It’s a debate that’s been around for years and still hangs around among people who know the human body well. According to a friend of mine who is a physical therapist, if you surveyed a room of orthopedic surgeons, about half of them would still tell you that squats below parallel are wrong, despite the ass-to-grass movement over the last decade.
So let’s dive into the contentious topic of squat depth.
A Little Background
You can read up on the long history of squat caution in this article by Brad Schoenfeld, but the gist is that the early stuff from the 60s has been disproven.
The most relevant research dates back to 2001 in a paper by Dr. Rafael Escamilla. He recommended that healthy athletes avoid squatting below parallel due to greater compressive at the knee joint. Despite such a subtle point in the entire paper, it created a lot of contention around this one movement over the last 20 years.
As with most things, it’s hard to say that there is one right way for everyone. Instead, there are several factors involved that should help dictate your squat depth.
Starting with Dr. Seedman’s argument, he believes that his version of squatting is more sport-specific. (And to make the full-squat fans even madder, we’re not even talking 90 degrees as parallel, but where the knee hits 90 to the shin, so it’s more like a quarter squat).
To this point, I get it and am actually in full support. The quarter squat is the power position for many athletic actions (e.g., jumping, sprinting.) I’m not saying that every athlete should squat like this, but to argue that every squat must have your butt on your heels or it’s worthless would be ignorant to different training goals.
How Low Should You Go?
With that said, all evidence points to full-depth squats as the best option for lower body development, and here is why:
Overall Less Stress- The loads tend to be extremely high to get a solid training effect with a partial squat (here’s a video of Seedman doing a 500lb partial squat.) Thus, despite lower compressive forces not going to full depth, I believe the 4x increase in load tips the scale regarding damage to the knees and other joints.
Stopping Is Harder- The most significant loads occur by stopping the bar and reversing direction. At full depth, you get support from the stretched elastic structures around the knee, whereas partial squats it’s directed over the kneecap.
Less Stress- As discussed a few weeks ago, stress is the load dispersed over a tissue area. And as your squat sinks below 90, there is an increased contact area in the knee joint, which spreads the load better to reduce overall stress.
Don’t Use It, You Lose It- Training the full range of motion is better for maintaining full mobility and strength throughout a full range of motion for health and fitness.
For the most significant training effect, get as low as you can in the squat and work on maintaining muscular tension rather than bouncing out of the bottom. Using the Hip & Core Band while you squat can help you maintain this tension.
Although, it’s not always black and white.
If you’re an advanced athlete, you may have different training goals that make partial squats or stopping at parallel a good exercise. There are also medical issues such as certain types of tendinopathy and knee meniscus tears that should avoid full squats.
Either way, avoid the comment section on social media. It seems that nothing good ever happens there.