Whether you have dreams of competing as a powerlifter or weightlifter, or just want to get the benefits of squatting lower, there are a host of exercises and mobility drills that can help you get there.
How low you should squat can vary depending on your goals. However, I found both my overall squat performance and lower body strength improved once I put in the time and effort to begin comfortably breaking parallel. Therefore, we’re going to focus on the types of exercises you can do to improve your squat depth.
The top 22 exercises to improve your squat depth are:
- Banded Dorsiflexion
- Wall Ankle Mobilizations
- Slow-Eccentric Calf Raises
- Bird Dog
- RKC Plank
- Banded Hip Distractions
- Rear Foot Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
- Pigeon Stretch
- Frog Stretch
- Squat to Stand with Overhead Reach
- Cossack Squat
- Banded Hip Abduction
- Lateral Band Walk
- Banded Side-Lying Clamshells
- Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
- Single-Leg Knee Extensions
- Slow-Eccentric Step Ups
- Paused Goblet Squats
- Pistol Squat Variations
- Squat to Target
- Front Squats
- Pause Squats
While the list is long, you may find some exercises work better for you than others depending on what factor(s) are specifically limiting your depth. In the article I will cover off some of those underlying factors as well as exercises to directly target those weaknesses.
Tip: Start recording your squat from a side angle that way you can assess your current starting point and then see the progress you make over time and which exercises from the list are working for you.
While this article focuses on depth, check out my complete list of 20 Exercises That Improve Squat Strength more generally.
Why Is Your Squat Depth Lacking?
While poor squat depth is multifaceted, the two main reasons for why you are having trouble hitting depth can be grouped into either: poor mobility and/or a lack of strength at the bottom of the squat.
You don’t have the mobility to squat deeper
The underlying cause of poor squat depth in beginners is often is lack of time spent squatting position which means a restriction in the range of motion of the ankles, knees, and hips.
For example, if your ankles are immobile you might have your heels rise as you descend deeper into the squat. This is why some people squat with plates under their heels, which is only masking their inability to get lower.
A 2015 Study found a greater range of motion in the hip, ankle, and knee joints was associated with deeper squat depth. Therefore, beyond just adding lower-body accessories to your training program to build muscle, some mobility and flexibility drills will likely be most beneficial for you if this is your limiting factor.
You don’t have the strength to squat deeper
Are you able to squat to depth fine with an empty barbell but then barely hit parallel as soon as the weight starts getting heavier?
Your quads, hips, and core may not have the strength yet required to hold the load in a fully squatted position, even if you have the mobility to achieve the position. For you, selecting exercises that focus on knee extensor strength and squat movement patterns may be of most benefit.
Remember, no matter your weaknesses, the more you continue to do squats and squat-related exercises, the more demand you will place on the joints and muscles which will result in a more consistent and improved squat depth over time.
Therefore, incorporating exercises and mobility drills in your program to exploit these weak areas, whether they are mobility-related, strength-related or a combination of both is a good idea.
Want to improve your squat technique?
Exercises To Improve Your Squat Depth & Mobility
I have organized the 22 exercises to help improve your squat depth and mobility into 6 categories based on whether they target mobility, strength, or fundamental squat mechanics:
- Ankle and Calf Mobility Exercises
- Core Exercises
- Hip Mobility Exercises
- Glute Activation Exercises
- Knee Extension Exercises
- Squat Variations
Ankle and Calf Mobility Exercises To Improve Squat Depth
Try any or all of the following exercises if you have tight ankles. This will especially be the case for anyone who has ever fractured or injured their foot or ankle in the past.
1. Banded Dorsiflexion
Banded dorsiflexion is a great dynamic warm-up exercise if ankle mobility is a limiting factor for you in achieving depth.
To perform a banded dorsiflexion set up a medium-sized resistance band around a stationary post then place it around the top of your foot and place the foot on an elevated surface. You will then need to lunge forward enough so that your ankle is working against the band.
You can alternatively also perform a variation of this by sitting down with your legs straight in front of you and pointing your toe toward your body as the band pulls away from you.
In our article, Should Powerlifters Do Yoga, we explain how certain yoga poses may help increase your squat depth.
2. Wall Ankle Mobilizations
Wall ankle mobilizations are a great dynamic exercise before a squat session if your ankles or calves are typically tight.
While this exercise can be done by just lunging into the wall like in the video, if you have a resistance band or even a training partner around, have the band or the partner provide some light resistance by pulling back on your calf to release any tension in the calf muscles specifically.
Sometimes tight ankles are the result of tight calves and you may find this extra step to be particularly helpful.
3. Slow-Eccentric Calf Raises
Slow-eccentric calf raises are commonly prescribed for those recovering from Achilles tendinitis; however, they are an excellent dynamic exercise for improving calf flexibility and ankle mobility.
Calf raises force your ankle into both dorsiflexion and plantarflexion, working to warm up and mobilize the joint as well as the calf muscles.
Read more benefits of training calves in my article on Should Powerlifters Train Calves?
Core Exercises To Improve Squat Depth
The following core exercises can be helpful for those who may be having hip positioning issues related to anterior pelvic tilt, or the arching of your back during squats.
4. Bird Dog
Bird dogs are a great exercise for bringing awareness and stability into your core. Your pelvis, or hips, should be slightly tucked while doing the bird dog to create a back position that isn’t overly arched.
When doing the bird dog make sure to resist any urge to tilt side to side, keep the movement controlled and try pausing for a few seconds while your opposite arm and leg are extended out.
5. RKC Plank
An RKC plank brings muscular awareness to your glutes, core and quads, and can help cue the tucking of your pelvis.
The RKC plank differs from a regular plank because it requires you to actively flex your glutes and quads and actively push your forearms in the ground creating a slight rounding of the upper back.
This should be performed for a quick, but intense, bout of 10-15 seconds.
Hip Mobility Exercises To Improve Squat Depth
Hip mobility exercises are great for those who are generally sedentary outside of the gym and find even doing a bodyweight squat to below parallel difficult.
For a complete list, check out my article on the best hip mobility exercises for squats.
6. Banded Hip Distractions
Banded hip distractions can be great if you experience pinching in the front of your hip when trying to squat that’s affecting your depth.
The band should be wrapped around your hip and fastened to a sturdy post as you sink into a lunge at different knee angles
7. Rear Foot Elevated Hip Flexor Stretch
A rear foot elevated hip flexor stretch is a good dynamic warm-up for those who have tight hips and quads.
The exercise is performed with one leg in front bent at a 90-degree lunge position, while the other ankle is supported on a bench behind you with the knee on an elevated block or mat.
8. Pigeon Stretch
The pigeon stretch is a hip opener where you focus on one hip at a time.
It can be a tricky position if you have very restricted hips. However, just work within your range of motion and keep it dynamic.
9. Frog Stretch
The frog stretch is a great hip opener done on all fours with your knees spread where you rock back and forth into your hip sockets.
Make sure to keep the movement dynamic and to not overstretch your inner thighs to the point of pain or unbearable discomfort.
10. Squat to Stand with Overhead Reach
This exercise is one of my favorite dynamic warm-ups before squats because it warms up your hips, thoracic spine, and has the specificity of putting you into a squatted position.
For the squat to stand with overhead reach, start in a standing position and grab the front of your toes and sink into a squatted position. Once in the squat, reach to each side with your arms extended. Reverse the movement to get out of the position and then repeat until you start to begin to notice your depth improving.
11. Cossack Squats
Cossack squats are a great way to strengthen the hips while also warming up and mobilizing your ankles and hips.
They can be used as a pre-squat warm up as well as an accessory exercise added to your regular training. If you can’t perform a proper cossack squat due to mobility restrictions, check out some of these Cossack Squat Alternatives.
Glute Activation Exercises To Improve Squat Depth
Knowing how to activate your glutes can be a challenge especially for novices and beginners and is often the culprit for poor squat depth. These exercises will engage your glutes as well as mobilize your hip joint.
12. Banded Hip Abduction
Banded hip abductions are a great exercise to practice opening the hip socket to allow for deep squatting and it can be performed seated or in a standing position.
Using a mini resistance band around your knees, engage your glutes and push your knees away from each other.
I like to pair banded hip abductions with banded squats to really practice both opening up the hip socket and then sinking right into it.
13. Lateral Band Walks
Lateral band walks can be used to help engage the glutes by taking small, controlled steps to the side with a mini resistance band around your legs just above the knees.
When performing the exercise making sure not to let the stationary leg cave in and keep the band stretched out throughout the movement.
14. Banded Side-Lying Clamshells
Banded side-lying clamshells are a great hip opener because they let you isolate each side individually.
When performing the clamshells make sure to focus on engaging the glutes rather than just moving the knee as far as possible.
Knee Extension Exercises To Improve Squat Depth
Your knee extensor muscles are part of your quads and the exercises to strengthen them should be included in your program particularly if you struggle with hitting depth as the weights get heavier.
15. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Front foot elevated split squats are a great quad developing exercise and have the added benefit of extra range of motion that mimics being in the bottom of a squat.
With your foot elevated on a low platform, lunge into your front leg. This can be added as an accessory movement to any program and made more challenging with dumbbells or a barbell.
16. Single Leg Knee Extensions
Single leg knee extensions are a machine isolation movement; however, they directly work the muscles in your quads responsible for extending your knee.
In a controlled manner, extend your leg by activating the muscles in your quads until you feel them flexed. Make sure to lower and bend the knee in a controlled manner as well and to lower the weight if you are experiencing any knee pain.
17. Slow-Eccentric Step ups
Slow-eccentric step ups are a great tool to isolate each leg and improve any asymmetries as well as a way to improve ankle mobility.
With one foot elevated on a low to medium height stool, step or box, bring your body up without pushing off the ground with the non-elevated leg. Once at the top lower yourself as slow as possible, gently reaching the ground again.
This exercise is one I leaned on heavily to teach me how to sink into my hip below parallel and activate both my quads and hips to come up strong out of a bent knee position.
Related Article: Step Ups vs Squats: Differences, Pros, Cons
Squat Variations To Improve Squat Depth
The squat variations listed below are excellent mainly for their specificity to the barbell squat, but will also build strength in your knee extensors as well as contribute to improved mobility in your joints.
18. Paused Goblet Squats
Paused goblet squats are an excellent exercise particularly if depth is difficult to attain on bodyweight or barbell back squats because the weight is loaded at the front.
While holding a weight at your chest bring your body into the deepest squat position you can and hold. The hold at the bottom is important because you’re trying to teach yourself how to stay engaged in your core, glutes and legs while at the bottom of a squat.
Bonus Tip: To make this exercise into a mobility drill you can gently sink side to side into your ankles or hold the weight with outstretched arms and sink forward into your ankles.
Check out my other article on Goblet Squats vs Front Squats: Form, Benefits, Differences.
19. Pistol Squat Variations
A pistol squat is a one-legged squat exercise that builds strength in your legs and glutes as well as mobility in both your ankles and hips.
A “textbook” pistol squat takes you to full depth with your body sinking so low your hamstrings eventually meet your calves. However, this can be difficult to achieve especially if you are restricted in your mobility, but there are several pistol squat alternatives or progressions to help you still reap the benefits and improve your strength and mobility.
20. Squat to Target
Squat to target means squatting to a stationary box, step, or any item that can externally cue the target level of depth you’re trying to achieve.
While working on hitting consistent depth, use a low box or step you can quickly sit or lightly tap as you hit the bottom of the squat position.
This tactic can be implemented with any squat variation and is particularly good for novices who simply just don’t know how low is low enough.
Check out my article on Should You Squat Ass To Grass?
21. Front Squats
Hitting depth with front squats is easier because the weight is loaded on the front and it provides a helpful counterbalance for those struggling to hit depth on barbell back squats.
Choosing front squats over back squats until you get comfortable staying strong in the bottom of the squat may be a great method to help you improve your depth and strength with other squat variations.
Although goblet squats do accomplish the same thing by providing a counterbalance, barbell loaded front squats will allow you to build more strength comparable to a back squat and can be used as a main movement in your program.
22. Pause Squats
Pause squats are a great way to place stress on the quads and knee joint and build strength in the deepest portion of the movement.
This is a great exercise if you’re finding that you can normally squat to depth but it becomes compromised as the load on the bar becomes heavier. Pause squats are also a great substitution for regular back squats because you can do them with a barbell and still go quite heavy with them.
Related Article: 1.5 Squats: How-to, Benefits, And Should You Do It?
Struggling with squat depth is fairly common especially with beginners, but can even be a weakness many avid gym goers and intermediates.
And while there are other ways to help you squat a little deeper, such as adjusting your stance or getting squat shoes, adding any of the exercises and drills mentioned in this article into your routine are sure to help you along the way and ensure your depth is never up for debate.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.