The humble squat might just be the most effective exercise you can do: It engages the entire lower half of the body, including the hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, while also hitting the core, shoulders, and back. A perfect squat is a symphony of muscular coordination throughout the entire body, achieving the rare feat of simultaneously building muscle and burning fat thanks to its high metabolic demand (read: it burns a lot of calories because it works a lot of muscles). But how low should you go?
Let’s end the suspense: The perfect squat is a deep squat, with the hip crease going all the way past the knees (or “ass to grass,” as some eloquently put it). Deep squats recruit more muscles, burn more calories, and are particularly good for building a nice, strong butt. (And who doesn’t want that?) But there’s a lot more to this exercise than one might think. It’s not just important to stretch—without a strong core, loose shoulders, an engaged back, and high mobility, the risk of injury multiplies.
But Aren’t Deep Squats Bad For You?
No! Contrary to popular belief, squatting deep is not bad for the knees—studies have found there is no difference between partial, parallel, and deep squats in terms of the impact on the front knee joint.
In fact, deep squats might actually increase knee stability Most of the connective tissue in the knee is made up of two ligaments: The anterior and posterior cruciate ligament, also known as the ACL and the PCL. Studies show the forces inside the ACL and PCL decrease the more the knee is bent, meaning the deeper you squat, the less pressure there is inside the knees . It’s also a better way to get stronger. In fact, research has shown that parallel squats with heavy weights are less effective at increasing strength than deep squats with a lighter weight .
Not only is squatting deep safe and effective, but it’s a one-way ticket to a nice, strong booty: Studies show the gluteus maximus is over 25 percent more engaged during deep squats than when squatting parallel .
So long as there’s no history of injuries, “ass to grass” is the way to go. However, if you do have knee issues (and sitting at a desk all day is no good for the knees), there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to parallel squats.
So How Do I Squat Deep?
With care. A deep squat is a more complicated and, if performed incorrectly, riskier than the standard variation. The exercise needs to be treated with respect—this ain’t no bicep curl. There is an enormous number of joints and muscles that work together in a very broad range of motion to perform this movement, so extra special attention needs to be paid to mobility, flexibility, stability, and coordination. Yes, sometimes that stuff isn’t very fun, but (and we can’t stress this enough) injuries are a lot less fun.
If you never squat deep, it’s likely you don’t have enough control, flexibility, or strength to do so with heavy weights—yet. Take a step back (literally), remove the weight, and study the basics first.
1. Concentrate on mobility.
“Mobility” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it mean in the context of lifting weights? Physical therapist and Greatist expert Dr. Mike Reinold defines it as the body’s ability to perform a task without compensation. Ever tried a bicep curl with a weight that’s a little too heavy and found your hips and back bending and swinging? That’s the body compensating for a lack of strength, bless its heart. But when form goes down the drain in an attempt to lift a lot of weight, the body is at greater risk for injury. That’s especially true when it comes to squats.
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