Squatting Like An Olympic Lifter: Go! Part 3 – Defining Depth
“How low do I really need to go in my squat?” This question is asked constantly in the strength and weightlifting world and is a concept laced with confusion, misinformation, and misinterpretation. There is also lack of consideration for what will work best to support one’s goals, as well as the true demands and unavoidable actions of the movements you are wanting to prepare for, and these don’t always optimally carry over from one barbell sport to the other.
In this regard, let’s revisit the “parallel” depth that competitors are judged on in Powerlifting, and the “hip crease below knee” standard that is typically taught in CrossFit; both of which find their way into the squats of athletes performing the Olympic lifts on a regular basis and those athletes wanting to “snatch” and “clean and jerk” as much weight as they can.
I want to challenge the perception of appropriate depth by pointing out that these depth standards are actually indicated as MINIMUM. In many, perhaps most instances, “hip crease below knee” is taken as THE standard – no higher, no lower – and it gets handed down from coach to coach to athlete. Let’s focus on the word “minimum” for a few moments here if you don’t mind (because I’m not annoyed by this any at all, of course).
First, in Powerlifting, it is not against the rules to go lower; one will not get their attempt turned down by doing so. In fact, I could argue that powerlifters would benefit tremendously from doing some upright, full range of motion squats (Olympic lifting squats). This would assist in mobility, provide an alternative stimulus, and potentially patch a hole or imbalance. The same is true for certain Olympic lifters doing SOME powerlifting squats.
In regards to this standard in CrossFit, my impressions are based on my CrossFit Level 1 Certification AND through developing/leading the CrossFit Weightlifting Advanced Trainer Course for two years (where I worked hard to synergize their teachings with mine). During the “air squat” portion of my L1, as the lead instructor observed me pausing in the bottom of my squat he took a few steps back while scratching his chin and said, “that’s the best-looking air squat I’ve ever seen!” I tell you this mostly for the opportunity to brag when and where I can of course (thank you, thank you very much), but also to point out to you that he made this statement as I was as low as I could possibly go. My butt was inches from the floor with my ankles at their end range (knees were forward beyond my toes). I was upright and the overall quality very good: no collapse of the arch in my foot, no caving in of the knees, and no rounding in the back. He did not say, “you are too low, you need to come up a little” with the goal of putting me dead-on that standard of “hip crease below knee.” Instead I believe that he felt it was so good because I maintained this quality in such a low position (my lowest position, to the point that I could not go any lower). My understanding when I left the course that day was that their goal with “hip crease below knee” was to give a more manageable and realistic depth level to newcomers from all walks of life.
Unless you have been an Olympic lifter for a number of years, surely you haven’t been in a full squat for any reason since you were a toddler and have likely lost at least some of the mobility/flexibility to do so well through the rigors of life (namely inactivity, sitting at a desk all day, etc.) So this more shallow, partial range of motion squat would allow participants to begin to move through CrossFit workouts (and all the many forms of the squats within) to achieve its primary health benefit of increased work capacity. But, my perception of them wanting you to go lower if you can has certainly proven to be different than most coming out of that certification and in the CrossFit community as a whole. Many will question if there is really any reason for athletes to go lower, especially when it makes sense that many could go faster and expend less energy moving through a lesser range of motion. I can confidently say the answer from most in the community would be no. Of course, I don’t believe this to be true when you have a comfortable, quality bottom position and you’re doing a long workout where pacing and efficiency is necessary. Alas, I believe most CrossFit coaches cue and correct to exactly just below parallel. But should the Crossfitter be ok with just the minimum when they squat?
I see athletes ALL THE TIME (crossfitters, recreational lifters, and even some elite lifters alike) do their front squats to exactly “hip crease below knee” (or to some other partial depth), but ultimately receive their heavy cleans in extreme depth. (Extreme meaning as low as their body can physically go, and far lower than the squat depth they were using in their front squat.) It would appear that both athlete and coach are ok with this extreme depth in the reception (and the compensation that comes along with it for many of them), but still won’t go below “hip crease below knee” in the front squat because this standard is engrained in either coach or athlete, the athlete is able to lift more weight by not going all the way down, the athlete is simply being lazy, or they’re not aware of this all too critical connection between squat and reception depth.
When we are talking about using the squat for best preparation of the snatch and clean reception (and that IS exactly what we’re talking about here), then we need to keep descending until we cannot descend any further. We must squat as low as we can; we must find end range in the bottom of each rep (ankles and knees bending completely). If you are not maintaining this true, full range of motion depth standard, then on top of missing out on some of the best, continual mobility work/maintenance you could be doing, you are not optimally preparing for the best AND UNAVOIDABLE reception of your snatches and cleans. The lower you can go, the more potential you have to get under your heaviest weights, and remember, the reception should be a reaction. At some point, you won’t be able to control that depth and the body will completely compress (that compressed position is the only thing that can stop the weight; but you’ll learn to use that compression as a strong and efficient change of direction point).
I’ve now said the phrases “full range of motion,” “extreme depth,” “completely compressed,” and I love using the word “buried” to describe the depth I want you to squat to. And yet, I still find myself having the following conversations:
How low can you go?
Athlete: (looking over at me from a squat position; more than likely a struggled one) “Am I low enough?”
Me: “You tell me.”
Athlete: (turning their head forward and then looking down at their legs in confusion as they are starting to shake from holding the position) “I think so.”
Me: “Can you go lower?”
Athlete: (sinking down inches below where they were and now more easily holding the position but still confused and believing that this could not possibly be the answer) “Yes.”
Me: “Then the answer was ‘no,’ BUT now you’re there!”
Athlete: (with a concerned and almost frustrated look on their face, but truly sitting in the bottom of the squat where I want to see them): “Am I too low?”
Me: “There is no such thing!”
Athlete: (doing the best they can to keep their torso upright): “But, I feel my back rounding, and my heels slid in and my toes turned out as I was going down.”
Me: “You are right, but it’s OK. Now that we know what your lowest position looks like, and you’ve felt it, we just need to solidify the foot position and work on the quality. This could be as simple and quick as finding the right cue, or implementing individualized mobility work and specific drills to make the changes over time.”
A Fresh Start
Athlete: (seasoned athlete I’ve witnessed executing a quality buried position in the bottom of the squat): “Am I supposed to go all the way down on every squat rep that I do?”
Athlete: (as they squat down in as low a position as possible, and then looking up at me) “This low?”
Me: “Yes, exactly!”
Athlete: (still perplexed and trying to reason with and move past everything they’ve been taught about the squat and now been putting into play for many years) “Even the heavy ones?!”
Me: “Yes, how else will you get that bottom position and range of motion strong and usable for the reception of your snatch and clean?”
Athlete: (as their eyes widen and realization dawns on them) “Makes sense, I just don’t understand why it is taught differently, and I feel like I’ve wasted so much time!?”
Me: “Well, unfortunately there is a big disconnect in the community. You certainly have not wasted your time, you have surely benefited from the squats you’ve been doing. But you can take this opportunity to make a change, start over so to speak, refresh, and squat with greater purpose now more than ever before.”
Isn’t it unsafe?
Athlete: (with a confident look on their face, assuming that surely they are going to stump me with new information): “But it is unsafe to go that low, and also to let your knees travel beyond your toes; this sets athletes up for injury.”
Me: (smiling inside since the athlete has taken the bait from being meticulously set up for the conversation I have been preparing for my whole life): “If I agreed with you and said that yes it is in fact very dangerous, and then you were scheduled to perform heavy, maximal cleans tomorrow where your body was unavoidably executing end ranges and this compressed depth, would you still do the workout?”
Athlete: “Yes, I would! I am too in love with the Olympic lifts to stop now.”
Me: “For that reason alone, why not squat to these extremes to better prepare? Additionally, let me take away the Olympic lifts needing to be a “guilty pleasure” by informing you that it is statistically one of the safest sports in the Olympics and safest physical activities you can perform (e.g., 0.0017 injuries per 100 participation hours versus USA football at 0.10 or UK Cross-country at 0.37)! With this information, it doesn’t at all add up for a coach to tell any athlete not to squat so low, or not to let their knees past beyond their toes because it will cause injury; weightlifters around the world are executing complete depth daily (in the squat and within their receiving positions) and are a part of these studies.
Athlete: “But it does put more stress on the knees when they travel past the toes?”
Me: “Correct, but the moment of greatest stress on the knees is somewhere in the middle of the descent/ascent as opposed to in the true full range position. In any case, this stress is not bad; anytime we go into the gym we are purposely “stressing” our bodies in many different ways, knowing that it will respond and get stronger. Same thing here, you are strengthening the knee. Most elite weightlifters that have been squatting for years or decades with the knees passing the toes as completely as they can, and to full depth, have very strong, healthy knees.”
Athlete: “I just cannot bring myself to believe that it won’t cause pain in my knees.”
Me: “Honestly, I’ve seen it go both ways: it can almost immediately relieve knee pain for some, but for others can cause initial knee pain – but only through a phase of adaptation. Usually the athletes that go through this adaptation period are the ones that are generally tighter.”
Many people question if the deep forward knee position seen with squatting is safe or not. Yet, is it really all that dangerous? By allowing the knees to move forward, the weightlifter can descend into a deep clean or snatch while staying balanced. While shear forces have been shown to increase in the deep squat position with forward knees, research has shown that the body can handle them appropriately without risk for injury as long as excessive loading is limited and good technique is used. Remember, the knee is only a hinge joint. As long as it is kept stable (in line with the feet) we should not worry about them.
Athlete: “Is it ‘normal’ to go that low?”
Me: “The lowest point of a true, end-range squat is a natural, functional position for the human body. Think about a toddler or young child playing comfortably in their squat. Unfortunately, most of us just lose it somewhere along the way, usually due to a more sedentary lifestyle, so people don’t think about these depths/end ranges being functional as an adult. But how about what is known as a “Korean squat” or “Asian squat” where people USE their end ranges to sit on (this means they are not stopping short in a squat and holding themselves up) for long periods of time to relax, or even work? Whether they realize it or not, to lift a heavy object (or human) for example, a firefighter/paramedic must squat down to get as low as possible and underneath the load to be as strong and efficient as possible. From a number of military personnel I’ve worked with through the years I’ve been told that the full squat used to be the standard shooting position. There are also a number of athletic movements where this range of motion and/or depth is ideal, and at some point unavoidable to achieve the best results (such as a max height box jump, yoga, or being a catcher in baseball). Heck, it’s a recommended position for childbirth, and even to use the bathroom (it’s supposedly the healthiest way to relieve yourself)! ”
Athlete: “But if it’s so normal, why is there so much hesitation to squat completely and misinformation out there?”
Me: Dr. Aaron Horschig of Squat University has a great blog post about a study done in the 1950’s that concluded with an individual putting forth a theory that sparked fear up to this day about squatting deep; to the extent that it was literally banned. This theory was never proven and in fact, current exercise science and biomechanics research continue – and with more resolve – to clear all of this up.”
It takes time to first create awareness of this extreme depth, and then develop confidence to go there and USE that bottom position with your heaviest squats. I want to give you an idea of what this extreme depth FEELS like as in many cases, athletes aren’t anywhere near where they think they are. So, let me hammer this into the ground as deeply as I can (pun intended) and make sure that this “buried” position is sufficiently defined: “Full range of motion” for the squat means flexing one’s ankles and knees as much as possible; it is about literally sitting down on your end ranges. What does it really mean to sit down and what does that feel like? If you aren’t already, literally go sit in a chair. Be aware that you and your muscles are not holding you up; the chair is supporting you, and your legs are disengaged (specifically quads and hamstrings). Now, if you are sitting in that chair with good posture, this is exactly what we want in the bottom of your squat (just significantly lower of course)!
To uncomfortably prove a point from the get-go (and quite honestly, also for my own enjoyment), I regularly start my clinics with what I call “inside-out tabata air squats.” I ask participants to perform air squats down and up without pausing for 10 seconds, and then rest at the bottom for 20 seconds – for 8 rounds. It may not feel like “rest” to some; those that do not understand the bottom position will attempt to hold themselves up the entire 20 seconds through the first handful of rounds. But by the end, MOST of the participants (the ones that aren’t already “sitting down”) finally give up and sink down to their lowest position somewhere within rounds 4-7 as their legs fatigue. Now that they’ve been exposed to the concept, a common adjustment that I’ll recommend to those that need it is to perform the first 4 rounds or all 8 rounds with their heels elevated. (This will offer assistance by increasing their ability to sink down lower and maintain more quality; elevated heel squats are a tool that we’ll discuss and teach you to apply later). If you still don’t know where your bottom position is, what it feels like, and what your capabilities are within, give this tabata exercise a try! Once you’re able to truly sit in the bottom and do so comfortably, this will become a relatively easy workout (but still amusing to me, though now I’ll also be admiring your improved position).
Without understanding the depth you need to go to in the squat, there is less chance for consistency and connection between squat and reception. Proper foot position (or heading in the direction of doing so) as we’ve discussed previously (here, here, and here) isn’t enough. If you are not getting into a full range of motion bottom position on each rep WITH the recommended foot position, then you are likely to compensate on your receiving position. Most commonly, I’ll see feet jumping out wider and turning out more than the ideal in reception. Let me say this one more time in different words: without being purposeful and consistent in maintaining a full ROM depth standard, your squat and receiving position will be further away from matching up. Am I greedy for wanting both; the combination of the recommended foot position AND buried depth? Well, wait, I want more still: give me QUALITY as well! The ability to sit down on your end ranges and maintain quality, good posture, and an upright torso may take time to learn and develop. And OF COURSE this requires a sufficient level of mobility and flexibility throughout your entire body – which is why developing a high level of ability within your bottom position is also very powerful for any other athletic movement, as well as your overall health and longevity.
Whatever it takes, we should ALL be greedy in pursuing and maintaining the ideal foot position, range of motion, AND quality! Be ready for assessments and protocols to help you on your own journey toward these goals.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW