How to Squat Lower – 7 tips for deeper squats
Congratulations! The fact that you were hunting for tips on how to squat lower, shows that you actually care about what you are doing in the gym.
You care enough about technique and doing things properly to educate yourself. That alone already puts you ahead of the majority. Check out this post for my in-depth squat technique tutorial if you need more help with your form.
You’re ready to leave the quarter-squatters and ego-lifters behind. Ready to embark on your journey to the very depths of a squat.
Reasons to squat lower
I feel like squatting to full depth has a number of benefits than should be enjoyed by everybody from casual gym-goers to competitive athletes.
Using a full range of motion on any exercises naturally requires more muscles to work over a longer range of motion. The extra work done can improve your muscle building efforts, overall strength, athleticism and flexibility.
Working your muscles close to their full range also eliminates certain weak points that could arise from using partial ranges.
If you only train your muscles to work in a limited range, anything over that trained range of motion is going to be weak.
In my opinion. you are better off eliminating any weak links by getting strong over the entire range of motion.
There are some theories to say that working to full range can help to strengthen and improve the quality of the connective tissue in the knee joints. A very common myth is that squatting low puts too much force on the knees.
This isn’t the case. Sheer and compressive forces are actually greater on the knee in higher squats. This study, by Brad Schoenfeld, provides more insight into how the different squat depths affect the knees:
With such benefits, you would be foolish not to make an effort to squat lower and hit depth. But, what exactly is “depth”?
How low is deep enough?
It seems like a fairly simple question, you would think it had a very straight forward, cut and dry answer.
Like most things within fitness and strength training, it isn’t quite so straight forward.
“deep enough” is going to mean slightly different things to different groups of people.
Squat depth for Olympic lifters
For Olympic weightlifters, deep enough means dropping low enough to get underneath the bar and catch it in the front rack position before standing back up with it.
For maximal weights, this will probably mean getting yourself as low as you can possibly go. For this reason, it is a good idea for Oly lifters to train the squat to maximum possible depth.
That usually means, hamstring resting on calves and butts almost resting on the ground in some cases.
Squat depth for powerlifters
For the powerlifter, deep enough depends on the rules of the federation you compete in. For the most part the rule is that your hip crease is below the top of your knee-cap at the bottom of your squat, also known as “breaking parallel”.
If that’s the standard for competition, then you need to prepare by consistently matching that standard in your training sessions.
Squat depth for bodybuilders
For the bodybuilder that squats, it gets a little bit trickier. Some may argue that greater quad development can be had with partial range squats so there is no need to go all the way down.
Maybe that’s true but if you want to build the entire leg then a deeper squat is going to help. More muscles are recruited in a deeper squat, a bodybuilder wants to build more muscles so why not squat lower if you can?
In my mind, the best squat depth for a bodybuilder would be just before the point of absolute maximum depth. I don’t think a bodybuilder would see any benefit from the split second of relaxation that occurs in some of the muscles when your hamstrings rest on your thighs and you are slammed as low as you could possibly go.
Squat depth for athletes and sportspeople
For athletes and sports people, it gets even more tricky. Your squat depth wants to be very focused on working the muscles in the same way that they are getting worked when you perform your event or sport.
I still think there is a place for full range squats in an athlete’s program, given all of the benefits I mentioned earlier. But, there is also going to be much more reason and room for variations in depth.
A good example would be in squatting to improve jumping ability. You don’t drop down into a full depth squat before you extend and launch yourself into the air, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to train squats to full depth if the goal is to improve the action of jumping.
You need to look at the movements and angles demanded by your chosen sport and pick the type of squat that matches them best.
Squat depth for the general gym-goer
For the general gym-goer, you probably do have goals outside of “just going to the gym”. So, you can probably take the advice of the three scenarios given above and apply it to your own program goals.
If you are just in the gym to train to look better, be fit and healthy then you should still aim to achieve a squat that at least breaks parallel, hip crease just beneath the knee cap like I spoke about earlier.
If you can’t quite reach that depth comfortably and with good, safe technique then some of the tips in the rest of this article should certainly help you get there.
7 Tips to Squat Lower
1. Adjust your stance width.
As with all of the tips I am going to give out, this one may or may not help you. Everybody is different, everybody’s squat is going to look different and everybody is going to have slightly different reasons for their limited squat depth.
All you can do is try the tips that you think might help you squat lower and see what happens.
On to the stance width tip.
There is no blanket rule for how wide apart your feet should be when you squat, it’s something that you are going to need to play around with and find out yourself.
Each individual is built differently and has a different hip structure, which plays a very big part in determining how wide you should stand for your squats.
A good way to get a rough idea of where the best stance width for might lay is the following drill.
Stance Width Drill
Get yourself on all-fours by the side of a mirror so that you can see your whole body.
Now adjust your feet to mimic the width and position that you would have them in for a squat.
Once in position, set your back so it is neutral and brace your abs. Now push your butt back between your legs and towards your heels, much like the motion you would do if you were standing upright and squatting.
As your torso drops between your legs, take a look to see what your back is doing in the mirror. As your butt gets closer to your heels, your lower back will probably start to round a bit. Make note of when this happens.
Go back to the start position on all-fours and adjust your stance width. Perform the exact same test and make a note of the point in the movement where your lower back starts to round again.
Keep playing about with this drill and find the stance width that allows your butt to drop closest to your heels, without the lower back rounding. That is likely to be the stance width, which allows you to squat the lowest.
2. Increase your ankle range of motion
Lacking range of motion at the ankles is quite a common problem. From sports injuries to restrictive footwear, your ankles take an absolute beating. Over time these things compound and cause the various muscles around your ankles to tighten up and restrict the movement at the joint.
In order to squat lower, you need good ankle mobility. Flexibility around your ankle joint lets your knees travel forwards and over your toes.
If you get to a certain point in the squat and you suddenly feel like your heels want to lift off of the ground and your weight shifts on to your toes, you probably have tight calves.
The tight calves will be limiting the range of motion that your ankles have. They need to be stretched and stretched aggressively.
You can stretch them before your squat sessions and it will help a bit. It won’t be enough, though.
If you do have calves so tight that they are stopping you from hitting good those deep squats, you’re going to need to work on them consistently.
If you can, stretch them out daily and after every training session, no matter what you have trained that day. Here is a great video from Activ Chiropractic's YouTube channel that shows some of my favorite calf stretches:
Remember to be patient with the stretches, it will take a while but consistency will pay off.
You can also invest in some weightlifting shoes to help you get achieve a lower squat with more comfort. I actually recommend these for pretty much anybody that squats regularly.
My personal pick are the Adidas Adipowers. You can read my full guide on the best weightlifting shoes here.
If you go for the squat shoes, don’t use them as a crutch for your lack of ankle mobility. You must still do the stretches and seek to improve it.
3. Learn How to Breathe
I’m being serious here, you need to learn how to breathe. Breathing during squats is part of the skill. Proper breathing will help you to keep a rigid torso and consistent spine position. Not only will it make the lift safer but it should help you squat lower as well.
People that breathe incorrectly usually collapse forwards at the lower back way before they achieve full depth.
To prevent that collapsing, you want to create a very rigid torso by using the valsalva maneuver. The space between your rib cage and pelvis needs to be solid.
To make it solid, what you have to do is create pressure in the area with by drawing air into it. The type of pressure you create is known as intra-abdominal pressure.
To create intra-abdominal pressure, you have to be aware of how you are breathing. You should be breathing a big, deep breath into your stomach. You want you diaphragm to move downwards as you breathe and your stomach to expand.
An easy way to make sure this happens is to actively push your stomach out as you inhale a big breath of air. Think about making yourself look pregnant.
Once you have created a good amount of intra-abdominal pressure by taking a deep breath and pushing your stomach out hard, you then need to lock it all in place.
From here, it's fairly simple. All you need to do is tense your abs as if you are about to take a punch to the stomach.
Go through this very process at the start of each squat rep and hold the braced position through the lift. You should find that you stop collapsing and are able to maintain a better spine position deeper into the squat.
4. Use them Glutes
The glutes are some big, powerful muscles so you may as well use them. People are usually quite good at using the glutes for the very last part of a squat, the lock-out. They are often less proficient at using them as they reach full depth.
When you engage your glute muscles as you descend in the squat, it forces your knees out and hips to open. By opening your hips in this way, your torso has some space to drop down between your legs.
If you don’t use your glutes to open your hips, your thighs end up getting in the way of your torso. Your stomach will hit them before you reach proper depth and you won’t be able to go any lower.
Getting your glutes working properly begins at the start of the lift and should continue throughout. What you want to imagine is that you are spreading or pulling the floor apart with your feet.
By driving outwards with your feet, you should instantly feel the muscles on the back sides of your upper leg switch on. Another good little cue is to imagine you are standing on a sheet of paper and you are trying to rip it in two.
Be sure you keep this cue going throughout the entire lift. A lot of lifters get a bit lazy and turn their glutes off when they get to the bottom of the squat. Doing that results in the knees caving inwards as you begin to stand up, I’m sure you have seen that before.
A drill to help you get your glutes firing and to help you feel them, is to wrap a small resistance band around your knees and do a few squats to warm up. You will have to drive your knees out against the band by using your glutes as you squat. This is a great drill to do ingrain the habit.
5. Foam rolling
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. A bit of a mouthful, I know. Myofascial release refers to techniques that are used to release and improve the quality of the fascia that connects to your muscles.
The fascia is a thin type of connective tissue that wraps around most of your body’s organs and muscles. Sometimes, the fascia can become restricted and “tight”. In the case of lifting, these restrictions are usually caused by overuse or injury.
Self-myofascial release is just methods of releasing the "restricted" fascia that you administer yourself, instead of relying on a sports masseuse or physio to do it for you.
The most common tool for self-release is the foam roller.
There has not been a whole lot of scientific data to back up the effectiveness of foam rolling for improving actual tissue quality but there is this study, which shows an increase in joint range of motion as a result of a bout of foam rolling. Perfect if you're looking to squat lower.
You can really foam roll as much as you like and you should see some benefits. The increased blood flow to the muscles as a result of rolling could also help recovery between workout sessions.
For increasing squat depth specifically, the areas to put the most focus into would be the quads, glutes, hamstrings, ad/abductors, calves, tibialis anterior, hip-flexors and your lower back. Spending 10-15 minutes before a squat session rolling these areas should do you some favours.
6. Try out some front-loaded squats
Front-loaded squats are exactly as they sound, squats that are performed with the weight out in front of you. The best examples would be a front squat or a goblet squat.
I find these types of squat variations awesome for increasing the depth of somebody’s squat. I have found that an individual struggling to hit depth in a back squat can quite often sit themselves straight down and sink a goblet squat with little problem.
The reason is to do with the necessity to stay very upright in order to keep your balance. Having the weight in front of you forces you to keep an upright position if you want to avoid tipping forwards and dropping the weight.
What happens quite often as a result, is that individuals will automatically open their hips so they can remain in the upright position as they hit the bottom of their squat. Usually people can squat lower right away with a counter-balance weight like this.
By performing front-loaded squat variations regularly, you will get much more used to opening your hips and sitting down between your thighs.
These squat variations are a great teaching tool and also an excellent tool for mobility too. It’s relatively easy to hold the bottom of a deep squat if you have a weight out in front of you to act as a counterbalance.
Grabbing a dumbbell or kettlebell and performing a deep goblet squat, then hanging out in that position for a while, is great for finding and stretching the muscles that may be inhibiting your squat range of motion.
Without fail, before every squat session, I perform some goblet squats with a light weight to get comfortable in the bottom position before moving on to the bar. Try it out.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
Squatting deep is a skill that you need to learn and give your body time to adapt to. The only way to do this is to be patient and consistent with it. Learn how to squat properly and with good technique then practice that by performing rep after rep over time.
I think it’s quite easy and tempting to look for shortcuts or hacks that promise to improve something quickly. Most of the time, you will do better just using the movement or exercise itself as the tool for improvement and just practice it. Your body will adapt and you will get better.
You can add in other bits and pieces like the extra stretching and foam rolling, but you need to remember to repeat the squat itself regularly.