There are a lot of powerlifting purists who don’t think anyone should use partial squats because it’s considered ‘cheating’ compared with the full squat.
While I do think the full squat should be used most of the time, the partial squat has some important benefits, which should be considered based on the training goal of the lifter.
So, what is the partial squat? The ‘partial squat’ is also called the ‘half-squat’, which is where the knees don’t go below 120-135 degree flexion. The glutes are activated more during a partial squat and heavier weight is typically used. You can use the partial squat to break through sticking points, overload the movement, and build confidence.
In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits of the partial squat so that you know whether or not to implement them into your training program. I’ll also discuss the muscles worked, whether they are safe or not, the differences between the partial squat and full squat, and the pros and cons.
Partial Squat: Exercise Demo
The partial squat is the same as the ‘half-squat’, which is where your knees are between 120-135 knee flexion. In other words, the partial squat is roughly halfway between where your thighs are parallel to the ground and fully standing.
Don’t get confused though, as the partial squat is not the same as the parallel squat. The parallel squat is where your knees are at 90-degrees, or when your thighs are parallel to the ground.
Partial Squat: Muscles Worked
So which muscles do partial squats work? The glutes are used to much more of an extent in the partial squats compared with any other squat variation.
I wrote a full guide on the muscles used in the squat, including different variations of the movement, but let’s summarize the most important muscle groups when it comes to the partial squat.
- Top half range of motion: From just above thighs parallel to standing, the loading demand will be greater on your hip extensors. This means that your glutes, adductor magnus (inner thigh), and to a lesser extent, hamstrings, are most activated in this range of motion.
- Bottom half range of motion: From about thighs parallel and below, the loading demand will be greater on your knee extensors. This means that your quads are most activated in this range of motion.
Think of the muscles used in the squat as a sliding scale from the bottom of the lift to the top. When you’re at the bottom, you’ll use more quads than glutes. Then as you stand-up, you’ll use less quads, and more glutes.
7 Benefits of Partial Squats
The 7 benefits of the partial squat are:
- They place greater emphasis on the glutes
- They can be used to overload the squat
- They can build confidence under heavy weight
- They can add muscle mass to your lower body
- They can increase jump performance
- They can transfer more effectively to athlete performance
- They can be programmed with full range squats to get superior results
1. They place greater emphasis on the glutes
Within the squat, there will be more emphasis on certain muscle groups over others depending on the range of motion used.
Since the partial squat is only targetting the top half range of motion, we need to understand the muscles responsible for top-end strength.
As you stand up from the bottom of a squat, there is a scaling effect where less quads and more glutes are used. Therefore, if you only squat in the top half range of motion, like in the partial squat, then you will primarily load the glutes.
If you need to build up the strength in your glutes, then the partial squat can be an effective exercise compared with the full squat.
2. They can be used to overload the squat
Overloading is the principle of using a greater load for a reduced range of motion. For example, a lifter doing more weight for the same number of reps in the partial squat than they normally would be able to do for the full squat.
The reason why overloading is used in partial ranges is that the most challenging part in the squat is somewhere between the bottom of the movement and halfway up. Once lifters standup beyond the halfway point, they can essentially produce ‘less force’ as they know the lift will be successful since they’re beyond the hardest part of the lift.
The partial squat forces the lifters to produce greater levels of force in the top range where otherwise they wouldn’t be required when using a lighter load squatting to full depth.
The idea is that when you return to the full range of motion squat, you’ll be able to apply greater amounts of force as you drive through the mid and top-end range of motion.
Another overload squat variation is the High Box Squat which much of the same principles as the partial squat.
Overload training was mentioned as a “special method” in my article on 10 Special Exercises To Improve Your Powerlifting Movements.
3. They can build confidence under heavy weight
If you’re someone who lacks confidence when attempting heavier loads, then partial squats can be a great way to build your trust in handling max efforts.
The idea is that once a lifter feels the heavier load on their back, they will be more confident to execute this weight in a full range of motion.
If this is you, then you have a few options:
- Perform a partial squat with a load that’s 5-10% heavier than you normally would do.
- Perform a partial squat to the safety pins with a load that’s 10-20% heavier than you normally would do. In this scenario, the safety pins would be set up so that your hips would be forced not to drop below 120-degrees. This is just a safety precaution in case you fail a rep.
- Rather than performing a partial squat, just simply walk the weight out into your start position, hold the weight on your back for 10-20 seconds, and then return the weight to the rack.
4. They can add muscle mass to your lower body
Full squats are actually better for adding muscles to your lower body vs partial squats.
However, partial squats can indirectly add muscle by allowing you to get stronger, in the short-term, and then using more weight for your full range squats, in the long-term.
Here’s how that works:
- Partial squats have higher amounts of force production than full squats, which can be used as a method to get you stronger.
- Building muscle and changing your body composition doesn’t rely on high amounts of force production. Building muscle relies more on the total work performed. In other words, doing a high amount of volume through a full range of motion with a weight that feels challenging.
- But, if you can get stronger by using the partial squat, and then return to doing the full squat with newfound levels of strength, you’ll be able to handle greater loads for higher volumes than you otherwise would be able to do previously.
To implement this into your program correctly, do one block of training using partial squats focused on higher-intensity followed by a block of training using full squats focused on higher volume. This would produce successful results in increasing both strength and hypertrophy in the long-term.
5. They can increase jump performance
Squatting will increase jump performance, as discussed in my article on Do Squats Increase Jump Performance? However, do partial squats have more of an impact on jump performance compared with full-depth squats?
A study by Weeks et al. (2011), compared 8-weeks of squat training using different squat depths and its impact on vertical jump results.
Participants completed 6-weeks of squat training followed by a jump test. One group squatted with 90-degree knee flexion (not quite full depth,) and another group squatted with 135-degree knee flexion (considered a parallel squat).
Both groups increased their jump performance with no statistical difference between the two. This shows that partial squats can still be highly effective in increasing jump performance compared with deeper squats.
6. They can transfer more effectively to athlete performance
If you’re an athlete who isn’t required to build strength in deep knee flexion, then the partial squat may be a better way to build strength that transfers more effectively to your sport skills.
For example, if you’re a speed skater, you’re required to have strong legs, but you’ll never be required to drop your hips below parallel when doing your sport.
Therefore, full squats will probably have little transfer effect when speed skating, so partial squats may be more appropriate for your goals.
With that said, if you’re a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, where your sport requires you to squat deep, then you’ll want to prioritize full squats over partial squats.
The key is to assess why you’re doing squats in the first place, and then pick the variation that will work you toward your goal in the most efficient way possible.
7. They can be programmed with full range squats to get superior results
There has been some research that suggests programming full range squats together with partial squats can produce greater strength results compared with full-depth squats alone.
A study by Bazler et al. (2014), compared the difference between people who used full depth squats with people who used both full depth squats and partial squats on 1RM strength.
At the end of the study, the group that did both the full depth squat plus partial squat improved over the full depth squat group by 3.1% in a 1RM full-depth squat test, and 4.7% in a 1RM partial squat test.
They concluded that partial squats in conjunction with a full-depth squats may be an effective training method for improving maximal strength, especially in men with prior training experience.
Are Partial Squats Safe?
Partial squats are safe as long as you implement the correct form while squatting. However, this is true for all squat variations, not just the partial squat.
The difference between the partial squat and other variations is that you will likely be using a heavier load than normal.
As such, it’s important to create a safe training environment, such as using a weightlifting belt, setting up the safety pins in the rack, doing a proper warm-up, and not compromising technique for stacking on extra load.
With that said, there is one technique deficiency I notice often with people doing partial squats, which is having their knees too far forward.
This happens when the lifter starts the squat by bending their knees first. This will put additional strain on the knees, especially if the load is beyond what they normally would do for a full squat.
The correct movement pattern should have the lifter bend both their knees and hips at the same time while focusing on keeping the line of force directly over their center of mass, which is the mid-foot.
What Are The Differences Between The Partial Squat vs Full Squat?
Below are some of the main differences between the partial squat vs full squat.
It’s important to note that each of these squat variations has more similarities than differences, and I don’t hold one above the other in terms of its utility or function. The goal should always be to assess your training goals and then select the variation that suits your needs at that specific time.
|Partial Squat||Full Squat|
|Purpose||Used as an overload method to build strength||Used to take the muscle through the full range of motion to build hypertrophy|
|Depth||Thighs halfway between parallel and standing||Thighs below parallel|
|Muscles Worked||All major lower body muscle groups, with an empahsis on the glutes||All major lower body muscle groups, with an empahsis on the quads|
|Ideal For||General strength athletes or gym goers||Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and any athlete requiring to build strength in deep knee flexion|
|Limitations||A heavier weight than normal is required to get the desired training effect, which may be limited by a lifter’s overall technique||A full range of motion is required, which may be limited by lifter’s mobility and flexibility|
Pros & Cons Of The Partial Squat
Below are the pros and cons of the partial squat.
Partial Squat Pros
- Easier to execute if limited in mobility and flexibility
- You can gain confidence under heavier weight
- You can overload the movement for building greater levels of strength
- You can prioritize working the glutes
- It can be beneficial to increasing your jump performance
- They don’t place as much loading demand on the knees
Partial Squat Cons
- Some people may ‘lift with ego’ and do more weight than their technique allows
- Can lead to an inflated understanding of your actual levels of strength
- You don’t get much quad activation, which may be important based on your goals
- May require additional training equipment like a belt and safety rack
- If done too frequently, it may lead to a lack of recovery because of the heavier weight needed
The partial squat has an important function in a lifter’s overall training program, but in my opinion, it needs to be coupled with the individual lifter’s goals in mind and the phase of training.
For powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, I would only program the partial squat sparingly, as your sporting demands require you to build strength in deep knee flexion.
For other types of athletes or general gym-goers, you can likely do partial squats more frequently, but you’ll still need to program full squats to get the hypertrophy benefits and recover from the maximal loads.
Bazyler, C., Sato, K., Wassinger, C., Lamont, H., Stone, M. The efficacy of incorporating partial squats in maximal strength training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28(11): 3024-3032.
Weeks, Trevino., Kimpel, B. (2011). Effects of squat depth training on vertical jump performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 25, 32-33.