Weightlifting: The Great Squat Debate

I seem to have stepped in on the middle of a long and very polarized debate here. And, I’m kind of lazy. Can anyone, from either experience or knowledge of the history, summarize the positions of the pro and anti “full squat” factions? I’ve been messing around with both (on the guided rack), and it’s clear the deep squat really works the muscles, especially the hamstrings, a lot more – I’m lucky if I can finish a set with half the weight that I would be able to do with a half squat.


Some people believe that the added risk of squatting deep is too high to justify doing it. Other people don’t. There are a bunch of arguments traded back and forth, but in the end, that’s what it comes down to.

Edit: Back when I was reading a lot on the subject, I never saw any data that suggested that the full squat was particularly dangerous, and plenty that seemed to indicate that it isn’t. The site that runner pat linked to seems to be about as good a summary as you’re going to get of mainstream scientific thinking.

When I squat, I go down till my ass touches achilles heels. I don’t go too heavy on squats, but there ya go.

I say experiment on your own and decide for yourself. Do some reading but take it all with a grain of salt. I’ve found weightlifting, nutrition, and economics all have really smart people rabidly screaming opposing arguments at each other. Don’t let yourself worry too much about it.

Slightly off topic… but if you chose to only squat til your thighs are parallel to the floor, can’t you just pair it with the deadlift to cover the full range of leg motion?

No, because the deadlift and the deep squat emphasize different muscles.

Deadlifts don’t use the full range of motion.

Whatever you decide, please stop doing squats on the Smith rack immediately. Doing so forces your body into a fixed plane of motion and I can hear your knees whimpering from here.

In the end it boils down to flexibility and safety. Done properly a squat is one of the most efficient exercises possible, recruiting some of the largest, most powerful muscles in your body. Most people experience this as getting their asses absolutely kicked by a proper set of squats - this is a good thing! Big, multiple-muscle, heavy-weight compound movements are finally getting the love they deserve in the workout world, and I couldn’t be happier. I hate doing squats (god do I hate it) but they work, period.

The problems arise when one isn’t capable of executing their squat without losing form. This frequently occurs due to insufficient flexibility. Sedentary westernized living has done horrible things to our posture - your average keyboard jocky will have tight and over active quadriceps, hip flexors and anterior deltoids. I bet you’ve got them right now - just look at how you’re seated at your computer! You can find an excellent list here - and I’d be shocked if most people reading through the page didn’t exhibit at least two of the symptoms. This also tends to lead to poor recruitment of the posterior chain - which in itself can contribute to knee tracking problems. (Stand with your toes straight ahead. Do your knees point inwards? Flex your ass. Did that help?)

So, instead of maintaining a nice, tight, tensioned arch in the lumbar spine, keeping the chest and head high and lowering the bar under control past parallel whilst maintaining that posture - most people load up way too much weight and do some lazy quats (quarter-squats), bending at the knee instead of the hip, leaning themselves forward, shifting their weight onto their toes and allowing their lower back to “tuck” under transferring shearing force onto the spine. This is unbelievably common and why lots of people get sore joints from squatting.
The general argument on squats goes like this:

“Squats are awesome, they totally work all these muscles and let us more tons of weight wow!”

“Yes, but they’re dangerous.”

The fact is that improperly preformed squats are dangerous, and that it’s much easier to do an incorrect squat than a perfect one. Otherwise it’s as safe as a bicep curl. Same holds true for deadlifts. If you’re interested in picking up either of these excellent exercises in earnest you consider starting with Box Squats which do an excellent job of ‘training’ your form.

There is also a discussion about it (with cites) in this Metafilter thread.

I have garbage hip flexors. I have to spend about 10 minutes doing weightless squats and that stretch where you prop your elbows against your knees before they become loose enough for me to comfortably go below parallel.

Ah crud. This is apparently a sub-debate. Even among the pro-deep-squat crowd, I can’t get a straight answer. One friend, a former Olympic-style competitor, is firmly in your camp, but I suspect he’s just suspicious of anything other than barbells as being some sissy crutch. The other, a former wrestler, said you have to use the Smith rack precisely because it guides your motion. Can anyone elaborate a bit more on why you think the rack might be bad for the knee?

I wouldn’t use the Smith Machine if for no other reason than it doesn’t work any stabilizer muscles. You might as well be doing the seated leg press. Don’t think if you can squat 315 on the Smith that you can squat 315.

From the site I linked to upthread. ExRx.


That is putting it mildly. If I can squat 340 on the rack going only to parallel, going all the way down took me to half of that, if that. I can’t imagine what going to a free weight, deep squat will do but we may be starting in the low 100s and working upward. Oh well, the number’s less important to me than the functional results, and the links provided here have me thinking deep and free may be the most useful expenditure of time. The one thing that will help me from the stability perspective is I’ve messed around in the past with high-rep (bodyweight) Hindu squats a la Matt Furey, which seem to attack just about every aspect of the various leg and lower back muscles, so I think my foundation is a bit ahead of where it otherwise would be for an unstable movement.

Meant to add: it would strike me that the deep squat, which really requires an explosive movement upward, would be a better lead-in to plyometric stuff, which I’ve been intrigued with trying a bit more once I get the basic strength/flexibility to a suitable level.

I squat at least once a week, sometimes twice. I haven’t gone above 225 in a loooooong time, and tend to mostly do lots of sets with lots of reps at 135. I reason that I’m not a professional football player or a power lifter, so low weights with high reps and a full range of motion is pretty much all I need to do. Squats, stiff-legged deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and calf raises are pretty much all I do for my lower body. YMMV.

Well, shit. I had this nice essay in the works - then I bothered to read runner pat’s most recent link. It is most excellent, although in my opinion fails to stress enough how common this:

problem is. So, in short, you might say that when done properly Smith rack squats can be just fine. But, no offense, I’d bet that you probably aren’t doing them right. Not without some coaching. Even then, frankly, freeweight squats will be better because, well, they’re harder. They’re also plagued with the same common postural deficiencies as their guide-barred brethren, but in my opinion remain superior. Either way, read all of the common biomechanical deficiencies listed here, take them to heart, and spend a week or two at least doing some serious flexibility and form training.

Might I recommend front squats? You can even start them with the bar on the catchpins and explode upwards from a standstill. They’re also excellent for people who can’t/won’t fix their posture as there’s much less hip flexibility required.
ETA: I should add that I’m generally not a fan of ass-to-the-grass squats. They need a LOT of flexibility and it makes the problem of the lower back ‘tucking’ in even more common.