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Squats: Full or Parallel?
Q. Iím 39 years old and have been squatting regularly for about eight years. I keep my back in a strong arch and go as deep as possible. My knees travel over the tip of my toes, because thatís what happens when I squat. Recently a couple of personal trainers at the gym have criticized my form; they say it puts too much pressure on the knees. I told them your knees have to go over the toes when you go deep, otherwise your back rounds; you lose the arch in your back. They tell me I shouldnít go so deep.
I was taught to squat this way by an Olympic lifter with international experience. I continue to do deep squats, because it feels natural to me. It doesnít seem to hurt my knees. Am I wrong?
A. No, I donít think so. The knees should travel over the tip of your toes at the bottom of the squat; that shows good flexibility in your ankles and suggests a deep, upright position with a strong back arch. I squat the same way. Look at the picture of me squatting. Youíll note that my back is arched and my knees are well in front of my toes.
This photo shows me in a deep upright position, with a strong back arch. Note the bar high on the shoulders and the knees well out over the toes. (All photos by Carol Bass)
The personal trainers in your gym are confusing the high-bar squat used by Olympic lifters Ė thatís what you and I are doing; the bar sits across the top of the shoulders at the base of the neck Ė and the low-bar squat used by powerlifters. Powerlifters position the bar a little below the top of the shoulders and squat with their hips shooting back and their lower legs almost vertical. The low-bar position puts more stress on the lower back, because the back is tilted forward rather than upright. Olympic lifters go all the way down and powerlifters generally endeavor to stop at parallel.
I believe in going all the way down in the squat. Iíve done it that way for 50 years. Iím comfortable in the deep squat position; it provides a strong base for coming up with the weight. It sounds like you are also comfortable in the deep squat. I suggest that you keep doing what youíre doing as long as it feels good to you.
You should be aware, however, that the personal trainers in your gym represent conventional wisdom, which says going below parallel is bad for the knees. Thatís probably the majority view.
Iíve been doing full squats for 50 years and my knees are fine.
One person who disagrees is Rob Faigin, author of Natural Hormonal Enhancement (Extique, 2000). I donít agree with his theory of macronutrient cycling, but Rob and I are on the same page when it comes to performing the squat. "Half squats produce half results," says Faigin, because they donít target the glutes and hamstrings. Whatís more, he takes the unconventional position that parallel squats are bad for the knees.
"If I am right," says Faigin, "there is a perverse situation prevailing in gyms across America: People are doing the right exercise (squats) the wrong way (half-way down) for the right reason (to protect their knees)." The half squat, according to Faigin, forces the knees to absorb the stress of stopping the weight midway through the movement. "By contrast," says Faigin, "in the deep position, the movement reaches its natural termination point, and in rising from the bottom position the knees get assistance, not merely from the quadriceps but also from the hamstrings and the glutes." He believes full squats strengthen and stabilize the knees.
One point where everyone agrees, however, is the need to control the weight on the way down and avoid a forceful bounce at the bottom. "Never, ever, bounce out of the bottom position," says Faigin. "Ease into the bottom position, and then rise from the bottom position in a forceful but fully controlled manner."
That doesnít mean you should pause at the bottom, however; stopping would put extra stress on the knees. Itís okay to use the cushioning effect at the bottom when the leg biceps comes in contact with the calves to start the upward movement. Thatís what I do. In my experience, a slight controlled bounce feels good and does not hurt the knees. As I suggested above, it provides a solid base for coming up with the weight.
As you obviously know, itís very important to maintain a strong back arch at all times, going down and coming up. As I said in Challenge Yourself, "Donít allow your back to round." Again, note the position of my back in the photos.
Some people find it easier to maintain an upright position with a strong back arch if they place small weight plates under their heels. Note how my leg biceps come in contact with my calves; this has a cushioning effect and provides a strong base for coming out of the bottom position.
Unfortunately, the proper performance of the full squat does not come naturally for most people. As Tommy Kono says in his book, Weightlifting Olympic Style (see review on this site), "It must be learned." Iíve been doing the full squat for so long that itís second nature to me, but Iíve found from observing the people who come here for consultations that this is not true for most people. Flexibility in the ankles and hips Ė and sometimes the knees -- is often a problem. This makes it difficult for many people to maintain a strong back arch at the bottom of the squat; when they go below parallel their back rounds.
Rob Faigin suggests doing squats without weights the first few times, and then practicing with the empty bar, which generally weighs about 45 pounds. I believe thatís a good idea, because it gives you a chance to get the feel of the movement and build flexibility before you start piling on the weight. If you have trouble maintaining a strong back arch at the bottom, it often helps to put thin barbell plates under the heels (2 Ĺ or five pound plates usually work).
If you have trouble going low in the squat without rounding your back,
practice with the empty bar until you develop the necessary flexibility. Take your time.
Donít start piling on the weight until you feel comfortable in the deep squat position.
Finally, always warm-up your knees before squatting. I do this without weight. As suggested in Challenge Yourself, itís a good idea to do the first few squats with your hands on the floor to take some of the weight off the knees initially, and then, come upright and continue full range knee bends. Of course, you should also warm up with light weights before moving on to heavy squats. In other words, do a general warm-up without weights, and then a specific warm-up with progressively heavier poundages.
Always warm-up your knees before squatting.
I do bodyweight squats, starting with my hands on the floor to take the initial stress off the knees.
A final caution: If you have a bad back or bad knees, consult your physician before doing any kind of squats, parallel or full. What's more, if it hurts donít do it. Some people are simply not built for full squats; my wife Carol is an example. If you canít go all the way down without rounding your back, donít force the issue. Stop at parallel or whenever position is comfortable for you.
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