When it comes to strengthening exercises for the lower body, the squat is king. And while it may seem like one of the most intuitive movements an athlete can perform (after all, a baby can do it), the details of proper squat form can be a pretty controversial topic. 

The big question that arises when talking about squats is “how low should you go?” While more cautious lifters advocate for stopping when your thighs are parallel to the floor to save your knees, others say if it’s not “ass to the grass,” it’s not a true squat. What the question of proper squat depth ultimately boils down to how to get the greatest benefit from the exercise while preventing injury.

So What’s The Verdict?

According to a number of exercise scientists and trainers, your focus shouldn’t be on the depth of the squat, but on the spine instead. As it turns out, in order to reap the benefits of the squat in terms of building strength and muscle, you don’t really need to go any lower than bending your knees at 90 degrees. But, because of the amount of pressure that the weight on your shoulders puts on your spine, squatting lower than you are able to while maintaining proper form can lead to back pain and even serious spinal injury. The recommendation according to the experts:

Don’t squat any lower than the point where your hips start to tuck and you can no longer maintain a neutral spine.

An individual’s ability to maintain a neutral spine at different squat depths depends on their hip and knee flexibility, strength, and other physical characteristics. For example, deep squats come easier to those with shallow hip sockets, which is simply a matter of genetics. Lifters with long legs relative to their torso may also be better off stopping at 90 degrees as they need to lean forward in order to shift their weight back for the squat.

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Ultimately, the answer is to consider your own physical composition and fitness level to find your personal ideal squat depth. 

Finding The Right Squat Depth For You

The easiest way to figure out your proper squat depth is to take a video of your squat from the side. Watch for the point where your pelvis starts to tilt and the natural curve in your spine starts to round. 

Keep in mind that your ability to perform deeper squats can improve as your strength and flexibility improve. Don’t get discouraged if your squats aren’t where you’d like them to be. The best way to improve your mobility in a squat is to squat more. 

How To Do A Proper Squat

Regardless of the depth of your squat, performing the exercise properly is your best bet for preventing injury and getting the most strengthening bang for your buck. Here’s how you should be doing it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and toes turned out slightly (not parallel).
  2. Take a deep breath and engage your core. Keep your core muscles tightened for the whole duration of the squat.
  3. Plant your heels firmly into the floor and push your hips back a few inches while driving your knees out and lowering into the squat.
  4. Stop when your proper depth is reached (before your hips start to tilt forward).
  5. Keeping your chest up, push through your heels to drive up into an upright standing position.
  6. Exhale as you return back to standing.

The ascent and descent of your squat should also be done at the same speed. Falling too quickly into your squat can put your knees and your spine at risk. You also lose out on some of the benefits of the exercise if you’re using momentum, instead of strength, to bring yourself back up. 

If you’ve been experiencing pain in your back or knees while doing squats, checking your squat depth might be the solution. Keep in mind that the backs of your thighs don’t need to meet your calves for you to see results. But if increasing your squat depth is a goal for you, keep working on improving your mobility and keep on squatting.