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Deep Squatting – Page 1

by Anders Hansson
translated by Ola Hansson

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We begin by discussing what is meant by a deep squat, in which fundamental ways it differs from the more shallow variants, and the practical implications of the differences.

Personal background

My personal introduction to the barbell squat was to a shallow variant known as a “half squat”. I was in my late teens and despite fairly modest leg strength, the exercise allowed me to load the bar with a considerable amount of weight plates – enough, anyhow, to impress ignorant bystanders. Still, I wasn't comfortable with the exercise. There were several reasons, but the main one was probably the uncertainty in knowing when to halt the descent. If the achieved depth fell short of the intended depth by just a tiny bit, the lift was not hard at all. If, however, you happened to go a little too deep, you were in danger of getting more or less buried under the bar (this can be overcome with a good equipment rack, but we didn’t have one at the time). The consequence was that I rather played it safe and barely developed my strength at all.

Just about a year later I quit serious track training, but when I, a few years later still, took up training again to keep fit, I resumed with the same old half squat again. Pretty soon, my track club’s star thrower and powerlifter (more than 300 kg in contest squat) suggested that I should try to go deeper. Knowing that I would have to unload some weight plates, I agreed somewhat reluctantly. He got me down to what is known as parallel depth, but thought I might as well go even deeper. I then exclaimed something like: “is that really doable?” Now in hindsight, it strikes me as a little bit dim-witted, but then I recall the seam of my shorts actually bursting …

My leg strength immediately soared and I kept squatting to parallel for many years. I was reasonably happy with that though there was still an annoying need to estimate the depth. Sure, accidentally going too deep was less dangerous as you were in a lower position and had less weight on the bar, which you could therefore simply hurl backwards. But I was never certain whether a new personal best was due to improved strength or due to more generous assessment of the depth.

I soon discovered on my own that going deeper was not only doable but actually easily achieved. That I still didn’t change my routine was most probably due to my reluctance to reduce the load even further …  Once I finally had swallowed my pride, there were no regrets, however. My leg strength increased almost immediately and rewarded me with new personal bests in various jumping drills. And the embarrassingly low load was of course entirely a good thing: there was now even less risk of an accident in the case of failure and I no longer needed a belt to support my back.

I had also been influenced by Internet forums and books. There seemed to be more or less agreement among experienced strength athletes and body builders that full-depth squatting was the prime leg exercise. No such consensus exists among track coaches (for reasons we will discuss in the second article), but full-depth squats still have a strong position as a general preparation exercise for lots of sprinters and jumpers – like, for example, Stefan Holm and Linus Thörnblad.

Squats in youth training

When we started training a group of mid-teen sprinters and jumpers a few years ago, we naturally put deep squats in a prominent position in their training program all year round. This we have never regretted. Far from it! The athletes’ improvements in their respective events have shown a striking correlation with their progress in the squat. Also, we have had very few injuries, and none that can be attributed to squatting.

But … Unfortunately in Swedish athletics there is a tradition of skepticism towards barbell training for youths – an attitude generally shared by the public at large, especially when it comes to the squat, which sometimes seems to be regarded as shady exploitation of natural talent, almost comparable to doping … Moreover, they reason, slow squats can hardly be beneficial for athletes in quick, explosive disciplines. On the contrary, they inevitably lead to premature athletic retirement with aching backs and shattered knees as company for life. To say nothing of deep squats … Common sense says that there must be something fundamentally wrong with an exercise that demands such an unnatural position – especially if you yourself are barely able to sit down on the sofa without collapsing.

Squatting Fetus, squatting Cro-Magnon, and squat toilet
A very unnatural position.

The coach who utilizes deep squats when training teenagers therefore can expect comments from other coaches, the young athletes themselves, their parents, their school gym teacher, their physiotherapist, their doctor, etc. All of them have heard or read that squats are no good – neither for your health nor for your sports performance. Few have done squatting on their own and none, doctors and physiotherapists included, have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. And that’s the very reason for this article which now will begin in earnest.

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