Wait, please don’t stop reading yet.
I know, this subject makes me nauseous as well. We’ve all been bashing half squatters for years, hoping our memes would bring enough shame to stop this horrific trend. Still, it’s abundantly clear that this question isn’t going anywhere.
So yes, we’re going to address the parallel squat. Not just for beginners, but for all the grizzled, seasoned powerlifters out there too.
In short, the answer comes down to whether or not you compete.
If you’re a competitive powerlifter, parallel squats are the only squats that matter
Look, competitive powerlifters should squat to full depth whenever possible. You want to practice how you compete, and that’s all there is to it. Except, of course, in one, specific case: injury.
Injury is the only exception
For example, I’m currently dealing with some pretty severe adductor pain that flares up right as I hit the hole of my squat. I’ve been stretching and doing my mobility work like crazy, but after 6+ weeks of hoping that this would resolve the issue, it’s time to admit that I have to take some time away from performing my comp squat.
Does that mean I’m simply cutting depth and proceeding as normal? Of course not.
Option 1: Half Squats?
Half squats aren’t really the best idea. Proponents like to argue that it helps target sticking points at the top end of the movement. That may be true, but let’s be real here. How often do lifters fail the top half of the squat?
I have coached literally hundreds of athletes at this point, so when I say that the vast majority of squats fail right out of the hole, you can believe it. The bottom position is where trouble begins; not the top.
Option 2: Three-quarter squats…?
Get that mess out of your life. 3-quarter squats are one of those things that work in theory, but not in reality. At best, they get lifters accustomed to the wrong movement pattern and not hitting depth at competition.
Solution 3: Pin Squats
Ah, now we’re talking. If you have to do a partial squat, pin squats are the way to go.
Luckily, I have a super smart coach who handled this injury the same way I would have, by programming pin squats right above the spot where my pain starts to flare up.
Yes, this squat still has a limited range of motion, but depth is limited by the pins rather than the lifter. Because of this, I am much less likely to get into the habit of cutting depth on my comp squat.
Pin squats will also better allow lifters to truly target sticking points as it forces you to practice staying tight at the point where the bar meets the pins. If you’re looking for more information on how to perform a pin squat, check out our recent article on why they’re a far superior alternative to the box squat.
Besides injury, is there any time a competitive powerlifter shouldn’t squat to depth?
Not really. Some pin squats halfway up or pause squats out of the hole may have a place in a lifter’s program to address a sticking point, but these are generally performed after the competitive movements anyway.
Remember, our goal is to only program variations that directly contribute to the success of our 3 main lifts.
To draw an analogy to another sport, you might see a football player playing basketball with some friends in their offseason. It’s a fun change of pace and it helps them to stay in shape and maintain some of their athleticism. But is that going to help them to improve their football skills? Nope.
The only difference between that analogy and powerlifting is that we have no true offseason in powerlifting. There’s time between meets, sure, but the nature of our sport allows us to constantly improve. We can’t squat 1 RMs every week, but training our competition movements at submax weights will help us perform far better on meet day than indulging in variation for variation’s sake.
If anything, variations should be something harder than your comp movement to allow for greater stimulus with less weight being loaded onto the body such as an SSB squat, tempo squat, or pause squat.
In other words? Stop looking for excuses, and start squatting to depth.
How about non-competitive powerlifters?
Now, many of you likely have no interest in competing and are simply looking to get bigger, stronger legs. Should you be squatting past parallel? You guessed it—yes.
If your goal is simply to gain size and strength, then weight on the bar is no object. Your goal should simply be to induce stress on the musculature of the legs. A deep squat with a full range of motion is going to induce much greater stress and yield far greater results with a lesser load and thus less wear and tear on the hip and knee joint.
Again, injury limitations may change this answer, but besides that you should be squatting as deep as possible while keeping a neutral torso.
About Keeping a Neutral Spine
Squatting to depth means the hip crease is below the top of the knee joint, but you should not be collapsing and rounding your back to achieve this position. Maintaining a neutral spine is crucial to lowering the risk of injury. If your erector spinae become active movers in your squat, you’ve got a big, big problem.
That being said, if you struggle with keeping a neutral spine, you’re far from alone. This is often the most difficult part of technique for beginners to pick up. However, the topic of proper bracing goes a bit outside the scope of this article and is something that is better dealt with in person or via online coaching.
What if you’re not a powerlifter at all?
The last group of lifters who ask this question are athletes in other *ahem* real sports. A hot topic in the industry a few years back was this video of Lebron James “squatting.”
While I’m unable to give him the benefit of the doubt for his complete lack of bracing and massive back arch, I will accept his lack of depth to some extent for one reason: it’s sport-specific.
You’ll never see a basketball player jump up for a rebound from an ass to grass squat. Instead, they’re starting this jump in an athletic stance with the knees only slightly bent, similar to Lebron’s squat depth.
Now, we’re talking about professional NBA player and potential GOAT Lebron James. I better not hear any of you washed up ballers reference this argument in regards to your weekly pickup games at 24 hour fitness.
Shut up and squat to depth.