As a powerlifting coach, it’s important to instruct my athletes on how deep they should be squatting.
So how low should you go for powerlifting squats? For powerlifting squats, you need to get the crease of your hip below the plane of your knee. This position is described as ‘below parallel’. However, when just starting to squat, you’ll want to go only as low as your natural mobility allows. You don’t want to force yourself into a deeper range of motion before you’re biomechanically ready.
In order to determine whether you’re ready to do deep squats, you’ll want to learn some basic biomechanics. There are several instances where as a coach I’ve purposely instructed athletes/clients to either squat higher or lower. So let’s find out why.
Interested in taking your squat from a beginner to an advanced level? Then read my article on the top squat progressions.
Want to improve your squat technique?
What Does Having the Crease of Your Hip Below Parallel Look Like?
The “crease of the hip” is where you see a fold between your .hip and thigh.
You won’t notice your hip crease when standing. But as you squat, it will be evident as you come into hip flexion.
The plane of the knee is defined as the top of the patella (your knee cap).
Getting the crease of the hip below the plane of the knee is called the ‘competition movement standard’. It’s the standard that all powerlifters are held to in competition (International Powerlifting Federation Rules). The easiest way to determine whether you’re following the “competition movement standard” is to take a video from the side, pause the video, and then draw a straight line from the top of your knee back toward your body. If your hip crease is below this line then you’re squatting deep enough to pass a lift in competition.
Should you always squat this low?
If you’re a competitive powerlifter, or you want to get involved in powerlifting, then most definitely.
But there are exceptions to this rule…
When Would You Squat Higher?
The powerlifting purest will probably shake their head at me when I say there are reasons to squat higher than the ‘competition movement standard’.
But yes, there’s two primary reasons that would be acceptable for squatting higher.
1. If your biomechanics don’t allow you to go any deeper
I don’t want you to confuse this with ‘things feel awkward and weak when I go deeper’. When you change your movement pattern, the lift is going to feel awkward and weak until you develop the motor control. If this is how you feel, that’s fine. Keep squatting deeper.
What’s not fine is developing compensatory movement patterns when you try to squat deeper. A ‘compensatory movement pattern’ is when your body compensates for either a lack of mobility or strength in order to accomplish the movement.
Some examples of this include:
- Pelvis dumping under you rather than staying neutral (known as a ‘butt wink’ or ‘posterior pelvic tilt). Main cause: having tight hips.
- Heels coming off the ground and can’t stay flat. Main cause: having tight calves.
- Lacking forward knee bend, which causes you to have an excessive forward lean. Main cause: having weak quads or prior hip/knee injury.
If you experience any of these things you’ll only want to squat as deep as you can while 1) maintaining a neutral pelvis, 2) keeping your heels on the ground, and 3) maintaining a proper torso angle.
Depending on your limitations, the range of motion will vary between people. You won’t want to use your limitations as excuses though. You should implement exercises that address the underlying issues in mobility and strength so you can push your depth further over time.
(FYI: If you’re curious about your torso angle while squatting you should check out the article I wrote discussing where you should put the bar when squatting)
Here’s the second reason why you would squat higher than the ‘movement standard’….
2. If you’re not a powerlifter.
If you’re not a powerlifter, you need to ask yourself whether you can still get the same sport performance/hypertrophy/strength benefit from squatting a bit higher.
The answer is probably: yes.
For all the time and effort you might spend developing the strength, control, and mobility to squat deeper, the added benefits for you being a non-powerlifter is likely marginal. Therefore, you might want to prioritize other aspects of your training that work you toward your end goal.
I will say, however, that most gym folks need to squat deeper. Just don’t obsess with increasing your range of motion if your goal is not to squat like a powerlifter.
I discuss more about the different squat depths in another article comparing the Olympic vs Powerlifting squat.
When Would You Squat Lower?
There are two reasons why you would squat deeper than the “movement standard” — hip crease below parallel. This extra-deep squatting is considered ‘ass to grass’ squats, where the crease of the hip extends far below the plane of the knee.
1. You want to guarantee that your squats will pass in a powerlifting competition
As discussed in my article on powerlifting squat technique rules, if you’re a competitive powerlifter you will have three referees judging your depth. Judging depth happens quickly, and is based on the subjective vantage point of the referee. The higher you cut your squats, the higher the risk you run in having referees turn your lift down.
Advanced powerlifters use a tactic to ‘just break parallel’ and not go any deeper than necessary. This approach is less overall range of motion, and therefore less effort. However, newer athletes may be nervous about cutting their depth like this, and not passing their lift by a referee.
If this is the case for you, then you should aim for ‘safe depth’.
The ‘safe depth’ approach is knowingly going well below parallel in order to make sure there’s no doubt in the referees’ minds that the squats are deep enough. Over time, you could aim to cut your depth like the pros in order to save energy, but for the first few squats in competition, you might want to err on the side of caution.
Here’s the other reason why you might want to go ‘ass to grass’…
2. You want to put a particular emphasis on your quads.
The deeper you squat, the more demand it places on your knee extensors. The muscles responsible for knee extension are your quads. Therefore, your quads are the prime mover at the bottom of the squat.
As you stand up from the squat, the load transfers from your quads to your hip and back extensors, which are the glutes and erector spinae.
What does this quick anatomy lesson have to do with going ‘ass-to-grass‘?
Under maximal loads, I’ve had athletes who fail their squats when their thighs are about parallel. They get the appropriate depth, but when they initiate the ascent, they stand up a few inches and fail.
While this could be caused by several factors, one of them could be because their quads weren’t able to handle the loading demand to extend the knee in that range of motion. For my athletes who experience this movement deficiency, I program ‘extra deep’ (ass-to-grass squats) — usually at a moderate load with higher reps. This extra depth places greater load demand on their quads so that when we return to heavier loads, we’ve done a significant amount of volume with a particular emphasis on their quads.
You might be wondering whether other exercises can target the quads to overcome this deficiency?
Yes. Another such exercise is squatting with your heels on plates.
But, when it comes to coaching powerlifters, I like to have at least one quad-dominant movement that’s more specific to the squatting movement pattern rather than an isolation exercise by itself.
Read my other article if you get tailbone pain when squatting deep.
Squatting so that your hip crease goes below the plane of your knee will allow you to be successful in a powerlifting environment. However, the exact range of motion is going to depend on your training goal. When you do choose to increase your range of motion, make sure your biomechanics allow for you to squat deeper.