People often want to squat deep, or they want to squat properly, and we usually think of great depth as being equivalent to full range of motion. The reason to train at a complete range of motion is to preserve mobility, strengthen weak points, and maintain or improve posture and joint harmony. So it can be pretty cool.
But when it comes to squats, what is most important is not depth, but the more subtle range of motion at the hip joint.
It’s fashionable to squat in an attempt to develop your glutes. Whether you care for that or not, whether you are thinking of power or aesthetics, one reason it’s become a thing, is because a good squat is a hip-dominant movement, in that the hip performs most of the work. So it has become a mainstay for people who are looking to build their butts. The back is braced, and the back angles, but the vertebra of the back do not move in relation to each other – or in other words, it’s important to maintain “neutral spine”. The joints of the spine do not shift. As much as possible, anyway – a strong core will lock that shit down, then you load up your squat, “break at the hips”, as they say (the hips move first), and then the knees and ankles flex as you descend. The back leans, but it does not bend. Your hips bend. So the back strengthens because of the isometric brace.
The key to a good squat therefore, is hinging at the hips, and descending through as deep a range of motion as is appropriate for you.
There are a million things that will determine what your range of motion is, from strength and flexibility through to scar tissue, bony obstructions in the pelvis itself, and your own individual skeletal shape. Or at least five things, anyway. If the head of the femur, the thigh bone, is particularly deep, your range of motion will be shallower than that of other people, and no amount of stretching is going to change the shape of your bones.
So it’s super important to work within your functional range. You may be stretching, or practicing other accessory work, in an attempt to increase your functional range, and you may not know what the restrictions of your bones actually are, but when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of your squat, it’s important to work within your capabilities.
All of the above, hopefully is bringing me to the point! You will notice, upon close observation, in these two photos – the one on the left is the deeper squat, but between the two, range of motion at the hip is the same. If you pay attention to the hip joint, which is to say, where the thigh bone connects to the pelvis, the angle where the femur meets the butt, in both photos, that angle is the same. The difference? In the first photo, I am compensating for the limitations of my hip joint by allowing my spine to round out. I have sacrificed “neutral spine” for depth.
And so, rather than deepening range of motion at the hip, instead I have shifted my spinal alignment in order to rotate my pelvis. This is an important distinction. If you stand up straight, and you tuck your pelvis under, or forwards, you will feel your lower back elongate and then round out. This action involves movement of the spinal vertebrae, and changes the alignment of your pelvis, but it is not hip flexion. Instead, if you immobilize your spine, and therefore you immobilize your pelvis - you do not let it tilt - and then you lift one leg, that is hip flexion. That is the movement of the thigh bone in the hip joint. That is what the squat is all about - flexion of the hip as you descend, and extension of the hip as you rise again.
This is not really an issue if you’re doing bodyweight only squats, and if you’re training pistol squats, people squat like this all the time. But as soon as you add loading to the shoulders – or through the hands via the shoulders as is the case for the deadlift – if you squat down and round out the lower back while under load, you’re going to place a great deal of pressure on the anterior surface of your intervertebral discs. Anterior means the front of your body, so the anterior surface of your spine is, therefore, the aspect of your spine that is deepest inside your body, the part of your spine that is closest to your front. The intervertebral discs are the sturdy cushiony discs that sit in between each vertebra; they fill each joint in your spine. So, of all the injuries people never want to do, slipping a disc is pretty far up the top of the list. And if you round out your spine under load while squatting, that’s what you’re risking.
But a well-practiced squat, for someone with a generally healthy back, can make your back, hips and legs heaps stronger, it can be a really awesome, healthful and satisfying, useful exercise to do. So what’s important to emphasise is, of course, all of the above. And of course, if your objective is to strengthen your hips and buttocks, as well as your thighs and legs in general, then squats are good for you. If this is your objective, sacrificing your spinal alignment for the sake of depth achieves absolutely nothing, because it increases risk and does not increase range of motion at the hip. Rounding out the back does not give you anything. It won’t make your butt work harder. It won’t improve leverage. Depth by itself is meaningless. It does not equate to a superior squat, because alignment is what matters when it comes to strengthening the body and developing good movement patterns.
So that is what I hoped to illustrate in my photos. The first photo is a deeper squat, but that depth is achieved by sacrificing spinal alignment and risking injury. The second photo depicts a shallower squat, but the leverage is better, which ensures better power development, better force production, it protects the body, and in both cases, range of motion at the hip is the same. The usefulness of each squat in terms of developing hip strength is the same, but in the first example, it’s shitty spinal alignment. Doesn’t get you anywhere, and only limits your capacity for work.
A great rule of thumb I heard a long time ago – what’s good for leverage and force production is the same thing that keeps you safe. Good alignment is good alignment.
All the same is true for the leg press. In these photos, I hope you can see the same dynamic: in the first photo, the plate is lower, it has travelled through more space, hence it is a deeper press. In the second photo, we see a shallower press. But in the first photo, that depth is achieved by rounding out the lower back and allowing the hips to lift up and away from the seat. This places pressure on the lower back, and does not increase range of motion at the hip. So what is the benefit? In the second photo, range of motion at the hip is the same, the butt is jammed back into the seat, and a neutral alignment of the lower back is maintained.
You might notice too, in the first photo the knees are bent more deeply. But that is only because they hips are elevated, which allows the knees to swing back towards my chest, and therefore allows the plate to lower further, creating deeper flexion. And in the end, elevating the hips to cheat range of motion of the knees is not what the leg press is about. Alignment trumps range of motion.
So when you’re going for depth in either the squat, leg press, or the deadlift – don’t think about depth, think about range of motion at the hip. That is where you want your mind to focus your efforts. Lock your back down, brace your abs, stabilize the bar, and then it’s all in the hips. The hips and the knees move in harmony with each other, but your mind is in your hips, and your shins should be stacked, the knees only bend as a consequence of the flexion of your hips. It’s your hips that are responsible for so much, your hips are what keep your knees out, they’re what keeps your weight balanced on your feet, and they drive the movement.
The purpose of a squat is to strengthen the hips. So range of motion of the hip is important. But it is also important not to sacrifice alignment either for improved range of motion, or the illusion of improved range of motion.
Anyway, happy squatting.