Proper Squat Depth for Athletes

In this article, I am going to run through what the optimal squat depth is, why it matters, how to assess your own depth, and how to improve your squat depth.

Does Squat Depth Matter?

Squat depth is not only important for injury prevention, but it also plays a large role in maximizing your performance. Unlike powerlifting, there is no depth requirement for athletes to hit, so it becomes important to find our optimal squat depth.

Squat Depth For Injury Prevention

Sinking too low into your squat is a recipe for disaster when your ankle and hip mobility is lacking. Your lumbar spine ends up compensating in order to reach your desired depth resulting in Lumbar Lordosis, also known as “Butt Wink.”

Lumbar Lordosis is when your lower back tucks under you near the bottom of your squat. This is likely to cause acute spinal injuries and over time can result in a herniated disc...not good.

Proper Squat Depth Inforgraphic

Squat Depth For Maximizing Performance

With Lumbar Lordosis being a prominent factor during a deeper range of motion, you might ask yourself, “why bother squatting low at all?” While that sounds like a fine solution, some of the targeted muscles aren’t going to fire as prominently as they would during a deeper squat.

One study that measured EMG (electromyography) activity in different muscle groups found that the deeper an athlete squats, the more active the gluteus maximus is. (1) Clearly, this stimulation is advantageous as the gluteus maximus has a tremendous impact on lower body power and overall athletic performance.

What is the Proper Squat Depth?

The proper squat depth for athletes is one in which the athlete squats as low as possible without having their lumbar spine tuck under them. Each athlete’s build and movement patterns are unique so this exact position is different for each individual, but following these rules of thumb will ensure a safe, effective squat.

How Do I Assess My Own Optimal Squat Depth?

The easiest way to assess your proper squat depth is by getting a teammate or coach to watch you from a side profile:

  • With minimum weight on the bar, slowly squat down, focusing on keeping a tall, neutral spine.
  • As soon as they begin to see your lumbar spine tuck under your hips, they should tell you to stand up.
  • The point just before the lordosis occurs is the proper squat depth for you.
  • Get used to this spot and practice squatting there every single rep.

If you don’t have somebody handy by to watch:

  • Set up a camera that captures your side profile.
  • Perform a set of 3 reps with minimal weight on the bar.
  • Review the video after your set. The point just before the lordosis occurs is the proper squat depth for you.
  • Repeat the process a couple more times to ensure you are squatting to the correct point each rep.

The next step is to attempt to increase your range of motion to maximize your gluteus maximus stimulation.

How to Improve Squat Depth

Improving squat depth comes from increasing the range of hip flexion and ankle dorsiflexion, strengthening the dorsiflexor muscles, and well...squatting! (2)

Exercises To Improve Squat Depth

Hip Flexion Range of Motion

There are hundreds of different exercises and stretches that will open up your hips and allow you to squat deeper, here are a couple of my favourites:

Foam Rolling has also been shown to temporarily increase hip mobility without decreasing performance, so incorporating some self-myofascial release into your warm-up is an excellent idea. (3)

Dorsiflexion Range of Motion

The dorsiflexors of the ankle are what pull the top of your foot upwards. Static stretching has been shown as the best way to increase dorsiflexion, though other stretching methods still work. (4) Here are a couple of exercises and stretches to increase dorsiflexion:

Foam Rolling has also been shown to temporarily increase ankle mobility without decreasing performance, so incorporating some self-myofascial release into your warm-up is an excellent idea. (3)

Dorsiflexor Strength

Dorsiflexor strength is crucial for perfect squat technique and is the next step on the journey to improve your squat depth. Here are a couple of my favourite exercises to increase dorsiflexor strength:

Squatting

There is no better way to improve your squat depth than by squatting! Squatting forces ankle and hip mobility to increase due to the high load on the joints and allows for adequate strength to form in the dorsiflexors. The previous exercises listed should be used in conjunction with the squat, not instead of it.

Conclusion

The proper squat depth for athletes is one in which the athlete keeps their lumbar spine in a neutral position while going as deep as they can to ensure that the gluteus maximus is receiving maximum adaptation.

To improve squat depth exercises which improve ankle mobility, hip mobility, and dorsiflexor strength should be performed

References

  1. Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, Woodruff K, Lewis VC, Booth W, Khadra T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles
  2. Kim SH, Kwon OY, Park KN, Jeon IC, Weon JH. Lower extremity strength and the range of motion in relation to squat depth
  3. MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force
  4. Medeiros DM, Martini TF. Chronic effect of different types of stretching on ankle dorsiflexion range of motion: Systematic review and meta-analysis
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