Author | DIAKADI Trainer Allan Mateo One of my all time personal favorite discussion topics is whether or not it’s safe to perform a “full squat” (a hip angle less than 90 degrees), and since this is my blog, and I was explicitly told that I could speak my mind on the matter, here it is: ABSOLUTELY! If done PROPERLY, it is not only safe, but more so beneficial for the gluteal and biceps femoris complex, as it requires more recruitment from these muscle groups (posterior chain); which would be better regarding an overall balance of hip strength between posterior and anterior chains, thus decreasing the likelihood of any hip dysfunction and low back pain.
However, (this is my DISCLAIMER) a proper assessment of your client’s physical abilities will give the trainer a better idea of how well the client understands basic movement patterns, and more importantly what they can or cannot do. So what I’m saying is: if your client can barely sit into a squat without falling back or simply keep their heels down, then its safe to say they have other issues that you need to attend to before you start loading them up with weight on their back, or even try to get them to perform a full squat for that matter. Again, for those clients with knee and hip limitations, it’s probably not a good idea for them to be squatting that low any way.
With that said, for those of you that can, the problem is FLEXIBILITY! I can tell you that a large number of the population has some sort of hip flexibility issues regarding tight hip flexors (dominant and or overactive) in comparison to weak and or underused hip extensors. You ask, “Allan how do you know this?” Well I’m glad you guys asked, my answer to that is: watch a 2 year old squat (I saw my son do this a couple of times on his practice barbell. That’s right….) and see how far they go down. You will notice that their butt will touch their heels, keeping a flat back, chest up, knees and feet slightly externally rotated, and most importantly they’re stable at the bottom. They can do this (my son included) because they have yet to be conditioned to sit in a chair that forces them to sit at a hip angle of about 90 degree’s five days a week, which can and will cause some hip and knee dysfunction issues when attempting to squat with an external load.
More specifically, regarding the large forces acting on the hip and knee’s during a loaded squat, most of that, if not all can be attributed to the eccentric component of the movement. Proper deceleration of hip flexion during the eccentric phase of the full squat is made possible by strong hip extensors. A lack of hip flexibility and hip flexor tightness will lead to improper movement patterns, which would likely lead to hip and knee ailments. My point is, optimal hip strength is developed through proper muscle recruitment and strengthening of the posterior chain, and this my friend will get us back to squatting like a 2 year old. Awesome! With that said, safety is paramount.
A recent study by Caterisano et al. (2002) looked at three different types of squat depths: full, parallel, and partial to determine which of the four chosen hip and thigh muscles (i.e. Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Biceps Femoris, and the Gluteus Maximus) are being utilized during the back squat, with the use of an EMG (electromyography) (p. 429). They suggested that, “In conclusion, the results of our study support the theory that increasing the squatting depth (from a partial [ø2.36 rad at the knee joint] to a parallel [ø1.57 rad at the knee joint] to a full squat [ø0.79 rad at the knee joint]) has no significant effect on the relative contribution of the BF to the total electrical activity of the major muscles involved in the lift. The activity of the VL and the VMO also appears to be fairly consistent across the 3 depths tested, with the exception of those variations reported in the VMO. The primary difference appears to be in the EMG activity of the GM among these 3 squatting depth” (p. 431). The data showed that although both the VL and the VMO contributed during the concentric action of the full squat, it was the GM that showed a significantly larger contribution; in relation to the partial and parallel squats that were performed, where the VL and VMO proved to be the major contributors, in contrast to the GM. Furthermore, In looking back at table 1 for the concentric phase of the squat, the percentage of GM utilization was greater during the full squat than in both the partial and parallel squat.
I know what you’re all thinking, and some of you might have specific questions such as: “Allan what are you trying to say, am I doing something wrong? Are you saying that everyone needs to be doing full squats? What makes you the expert on squatting?” To answer your questions….“Yes. Yes. And because I said so!” All jokes aside though, my point is to provoke more questions than answers, in hopes that it will lead us to not only think about the exercises we incorporate into our training programs, but to also do our own research based on what the evidence (research) says and what we’ve learned from our own experiences.
Thank you for reading this blog, if you’ve gotten this far….
Caterisano, A., Moss, R., Pellinger, T., Woodruff, K., Lewis, V., Booth, W., & Khadra, T. (2002). The Effect of Back Squat Depth on the EMG Activity of 4 Superficial Hip and Thigh Muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(3), 428-432.