How to Improve Your Squat Depth and Why It Matters

Struggling to break parallel during the lower-body exercise? Use these tips to start hitting your desired squat depth in no time.

Deep Squats

Read through any guide on ideal squat form, and you'll likely find notes about the importance of keeping your knees in line with your toes, engaging your core, and maintaining a proud chest. While those form cues are undeniably important, the handbooks may be overlooking one key component to performing the exercise effectively: squatting to an ideal depth.

Yes, how close your booty gets to the ground makes a difference, and not squatting low enough could be making your lower-body workouts less productive. Think your squats have some room for improvement in this regard? Keep reading for insight on why you're not reaching your full potential for squat depth and tips on how to take it to the next level.

Why Squat Depth Matters

A person’s ideal squat depth all depends on their goals. Powerlifters will want to squat low enough that their hip crease is below the top of their knee in order to meet the sport's requirements. But casual strength trainers should aim to dip low enough that their hips are at least parallel with their knees or slightly beneath them, says Alyssa Parten, M.S., C.S.C.S., an NSCA-certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, and powerlifting coach. 

And hitting at least parallel is the key to scoring the strength-building benefits of the squat exercise. ICYDK, the agonist muscles (aka the primary movers, or the muscles that are primarily responsible for driving a movement) for a squat are the quadriceps and glutes. The lower you sit into your squat, the more you’ll need to contract your quads and glutes to return back to standing, says Parten. These muscles also engage as you descend to keep you stable and control the pace of your movement, she adds. “A deeper squat is going to essentially stretch those muscles to a greater extent,” she explains. “That means they're going to have to contract harder to reverse out of that position." In turn, you'll build even more strength and muscle, she says.

Building strength in your quads can not only improve your performance in other exercises (think: lunges, box jumps), but it can also support knee health, says Parten. The muscle group is primarily responsible for extending and stabilizing the knee, and if it's weak, you could experience instability and pain in the joint, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

4 Factors That Can Limit Your Squat Depth

If you’re struggling to hit parallel or squat below it, there could be a number of factors to blame. Here, the four most common issues that can prevent you from meeting your squat depth goals. 

You’re lacking in neuromuscular coordination.

Folks who have difficulty squatting to parallel may be struggling with their neuromuscular coordination, says Parten. Any movement you do requires stimulation from the brain, which sends neurons to your muscles and causes a contraction to take place, she explains. Movements that you’ve learned over time eventually get “stored” in your brain, making them feel like second nature. “However, if a movement — like squatting deeply — is new to someone, they may have difficulty coordinating their nervous system to the desired movement pattern,” explains Parten. “A lot has to happen for the neuromuscular system to coordinate a movement with good form.”

What’s more, specific neurons in the tendons (which connect muscle to bone) called Golgi tendon organs relay information to your brain about tension in your muscles, says Parten. When newbies try to squat to parallel for the very first time or increase their range of motion (read: try an unfamiliar movement) those neurons perceive the increased muscular tension as dangerous and send red flags to the brain. In response, the brain tells the muscle to stop contracting, preventing the squatter from continuing to put additional tension on the muscle, she says. “When this happens in a squat, either the person stops at the depth they can find before feeling restricted, or they compensate with other muscles or movements in an effort to make themselves hit depth,” she explains. 

You’re excessively rounding or arching your spine.

Most often, troubles squatting below parallel stem from small issues with your spinal position, specifically in your upper or lower back, says Parten. During barbell back squats, your weight may shift forward, for example. In turn, you might unintentionally round your upper back in an attempt to simply “get lower” or below parallel. This movement compensation may lower the bar, but it doesn’t help your hips drop closer to the floor — which is necessary in order to squat to your desired depth, says Parten. The same rounding may occur if you’re lacking the core or upper-back strength necessary to keep your torso upright throughout the movement, she adds. 

On the flip side, initiating the movement with an arch in your lower back — known as an anterior pelvic tilt — can close off your hip joint capsule, limiting your hip mobility and preventing you from sitting into a deeper position, says Parten. Whenever you move those hips back into that neutral position, the hip joint can move more freely in the socket of the pelvis,” she explains. 

You’re not externally rotating your hips.

You may also be able to blame your lack of squat depth on your hips. In order to successfully complete a squat, you’ll need to externally rotate your hips throughout your descent, which allows you to sit your hips low while keeping the barbell in line with the mid-foot (aka the center of mass), says Parten. Maintaining that alignment helps you maintain proper form and technique, and the hip rotation also keeps your knees safe from potential discomfort or injury. But if you’re struggling to open your hips into that external rotation, which can be the case if you’re lacking hip mobility, you might struggle to sit below parallel, says Parten. 

You have limited ankle mobility. 

A lack of ankle mobility, which can result after suffering an injury to the joint, can also be to behind your squat-depth struggles, says Parten. In this instance, you might be shifting your weight into your toes, rather than keeping your weight evenly distributed, and your heel may even be lifting up off the ground, which can prevent you from sinking below parallel, she says. 

How to Improve Your Squat Depth

Luckily, improving your squat depth isn’t too demanding of a process, and making just a few tweaks to your form, performing the exercise with new tools, and improving your strength and mobility can all make a difference. 

But first things first, you need to pinpoint what, exactly, is preventing you from squatting to your desired depth. That’s why Parten recommends filming yourself squat with your usual choice of equipment (or bodyweight only) before using any of the below pointers. “Looking at your technique and breaking it down into segments might help,” she says. As you watch your video, ask yourself: Is my upper back rounding? Am I externally rotating my hip? Am I arching my lower back? Am I shifting my weight into my toes? Once you have an idea of the problem, use Parten’s tips to start making progress on your squat depth. 

Have a Reference Point

For beginners who are having trouble sinking their hips down to parallel due to potential neuromuscular coordination issues, Parten recommends practicing the exercise with a plyo box, bench, or exercise ball behind your butt. These objects act as a physical reminder of how low to squat and help you gradually increase your range of motion, she says. “That helps tremendously for people to be able to piece together how to move,” she explains. “They can sit their hips to the reference point, and that just reinforces the movement pattern.” Start with a taller object, then progressively lower it until you need no point of reference to successfully squat to parallel, she suggests. 

Practice Goblet Squats and Front Squats

Dealing with a rounded upper back? One of the easiest ways to correct your form, and in turn, squat deeper, is to ditch the barbell back squats and instead practice goblet squats, says Parten. “Holding something on your back makes it way harder to distribute your weight, causing your upper back to round,” she explains. “But holding a weight that counterbalances [your body] weight will help you to sit into a much lower position.” Once you’ve built up your depth during a goblet squat, you can progress to a front squat  — which still involves holding the weight on the front of your body — before moving on to a back squat, she adds. 

Build Upper Back and Core Strength

Rounding of the upper back as you sink into your squat can also be caused simply by a lack of strength in your back muscles or your core (which, BTW, is responsible for keeping your spine upright and stable), says Parten. “Making sure that you are adequately bracing your core for a heavier squat, which is when we might see this [issue], and strengthening your abdominal muscles can be helpful.” The fix: Add exercises such as the bent-over row, reverse fly, Paloff press, and plank into your strength-training routine. 

Change Your Cue

The typical cue for a squat is to sit back as if you’re going to take a seat in a chair, but that prompt can cause an anterior pelvic tilt, says Parten. That’s why she coaches her clients to sit their hips to their heels, which tends to prevent the excessive arch while still giving you the same movement pattern, she adds. 

Still, some folks naturally have an anterior pelvic tilt and may need to make a slight tweak to their form to settle into a neutral pelvic position, says Parten. “So they can more fluidly sit into their swat, I'll have them clench their glutes and tuck [their hips] under just a hair to even that [tilt] out,” she explains. “That might exacerbate the issue if they don't have a low-back arch, but for people who do, it kind of puts them in a more normal position.”

Add Hip and Ankle Mobility Exercises to Your Warm-Up

If you suspect hip mobility issues are behind your lack of squat depth, moving through some exercises that loosen up the joints before you start lifting can be helpful. During your warm-up, spend a few minutes practicing the 90/90 hip stretch and other mobility exercises, as well as sitting in a deep squat while doing T-spine rotations, suggests Parten. “There are a bunch of different moves that you can look for to help get your hips opened up so you can sit into that squat position freely,” she adds. 

For ankle mobility limitations, do a few reps of an exercise called banded ankle distractions, recommends Parten. Stand with one end of a long-loop resistance band wrapped around the front of one ankle and the other end attached to a stationary object, then while keeping your feet flat on the floor and tension in the band, slowly drive your knee forward so it's in line with your toes. (Need a visual? Watch this video demo.) The band will try to pull your joint backward while you simultaneously push it forward, which ultimately will help your ankle move more freely during your upcoming squat session, says Parten

No matter which approach you try to improve your squat depth, remember to avoid going too heavy with your weight, moving through the exercise too quickly, and forgetting about your technique, says Parten. And if you still can’t deepen your squat after using Parten’s tips and tricks, there’s no shame in booking an appointment with a pro, such as a certified fitness professional or physical therapist, to get to the bottom of your troubles.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles