Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
If you are a die-hard ATG (ass-to-grass) squatter who believes the ATG squat is the one true squat, STOP now. You need not read any further. There is nothing here for you.
If you view strength training primarily as a means to enhance athletic performance and muscle function, have injured yourself squatting ATG, or are willing to consider the possibility that there is an optimal way to squat other than ATG, then read on.
My goal in writing this is not to attract more followers, or clients, or to drum up business. I’m simply stating the facts as I’ve observed and experienced them over the past 16 years while pursuing bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees in exercise science and kinesiology, researching the neurophysiological basis of muscle function, and training hundreds of clients of all ages, sizes and shapes, backgrounds, ethnicities, skill, ability and fitness level, from sedentary individuals to weekend warriors, high school, college or pro-athletes, bodybuilders and more, who came to me with or without injuries, and whom I’ve trained for as little as one or two sessions, a few months, a year, or more than 5 years.
After all my years of study and training what I found is this: with appropriate instruction (and minimal cueing), every single individual will naturally gravitate to a 90-degree joint angle squat and everyone’s squat will essentially look the same. Read more about proper squat form here.
This video features a very small fraction of the many athletes and clients I train performing a wide variety of squats, from barbell back squats to unique front-loaded variations, and reflects the wide variety of populations mentioned above in terms of gender, age (12 - 71 years), ethnicity, training background, presenting injury, and time spent training with me. To that last point, a handful of the clients in the video are clients with whom I literally spent less than 1 minute before filming the clip. And no, that’s not an exaggeration as we have new athletes periodically come through our facility in large group settings and some of these were shot on their first day with very little time under my tutelage. So no, the reason everyone’s squat looks the same is not because I have spent years with each person molding them to my system and forcing them to squat a particular way. Instead, it represents what the human body will naturally gravitate to when given the opportunity. My coaching simply provides that opportunity, nothing more, nothing less.
With that said here are 100 + truths about the squat as well as 8 myths and facts that should change your perception of what optimal squat mechanics entail and reasons why everyone’s squat should look the same.
(Note: For more information on this topic check out my previous squat article as well as my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED which goes into great detail with hundreds of references). It should also be noted that the aforementioned squat article was written over 3 years ago. While everything in that article still holds true, over those last 3 years I’ve come to realize that the parameters and guidelines for what constitutes proper movement is even more stringent and precise than I had originally understood. With that said I know hold to the 90 degree principle rather than “somewhere between 90 degrees and parallel) as it represents a more precise and accurate parameter for defining optimal squat mechanics.
There is no such thing as an optimal or correct way to squat as each person will squat differently based on their individual differences and anthropometrics.
When we examine and integrate principles of neuromuscular physiology, biomechanics, muscle physiology, osteokinematics, and functional anatomy we find strong support for the notion that there is, in fact, an optimal method of squatting for the human body, particularly under conditions of intense loading and force, that should look almost identical from person to person.
An optimal squat involves approximately 90-degree joint angles. This is typically 10-30 degrees above parallel. A parallel squat involves approximately 100 to 120-degree joint angles as a thigh position that is parallel to the floor cannot form a 90-degree joint angle with the tibia unless the latter is perfectly vertical and perpendicular to the ground, which is only possible during wall sits or smith machine squats.
The type of squat and loading position will tend to dictate how close a 90-degree joint angle and parallel squat are to each other. Typically, a 90-degree barbell back squat will be moderately above parallel, whereas a 90-degree front loaded squat will be closer to parallel. Likewise, 90-degree wide stance squats tend to appear closer to parallel than close stance squats simply because the wider position involves a more vertical tibia than the close stance squat where there is greater tibial inclination. With that said, There’s no such thing as a right or wrong stance width, just like there’s no such thing as a right or wrong grip width for the bench press. Some individuals may be find a particular stance width more comfortable based on hip structure while others may intentionally select different widths for various goals. What does stay constant regardless of stance width is joint angles and ROM.
The optimal squat involves a neutral spine, straight foot alignment, hips set back, weight back on the heels while gripping down with the toes (particularly big toe). There should also be proper alignment, i.e. a fairly straight line, between the feet, ankles, knees, and hips. The hips and knees should bend at approximately the same rate so that by the time they reach the bottom position there is an approximately 90-degree joint angle at both the hips and knees.
Occasionally, some individuals, particularly those with prior injuries, orthopedic issues, or extreme mobility restrictions, may find their optimal squat ROM to be slightly above 90 degrees. However few if any individuals regardless of how healthy they are will find their optimal squat depth to be significantly below 90 degrees.
The optimal squat involves a knee position that is slightly in front of the ankles and either behind the toes, or roughly in line with the toes. Many in the fitness industry have recently been suggesting that allowing the knees to drift significantly past the toes is perfectly acceptable. In reality, for most squat variations this represents a dysfunctional position in which stress is no longer distributed equally between knee joint and hip joint. In other words, the movement is lacking joint centration between the various joints (i.e. equal force distribution across the primary joints being acted on). Although eliminating all knee drift would place too much strain on the hips and also be potentially hazardous, allowing the knees to travel significantly past the toes represents a significant form of dysfunction as the lifter is not adequately loading their hips and is also placing excessive tension onto the front of their feet and knees. In other words, the forces are no longer perfectly stacked in the vertical direction.
Note: It’s not so much about knee position (i.e. knees pas toes) as it is a question of where the force vectors are coming from. For instance, I periodically perform landmine squats on my toes or the balls of the feet as there are both vertical and horizontal force vectors involved, similar to going down the stairs or during certain athletic movements. In such scenarios the knees will in fact move slightly past the toes. The key here is to match up our force vectors with the incoming forces. A snap shot of this, rotated 20-40 degrees, would show very similar joint mechanics and positions as the optimal 90-degree squat, with proper joint stacking of the ankles, knees, and hips. In contrast, when we allow the knees to move past the toes during a traditional squat, we’re producing a horizontal force vector against a primarily vertical force, which represents a mismatch of force vectors that not only compromises force production and absorption, it also places undue strain on the joints and connective tissue as the muscles are in a biomechanically disadvantageous position to absorb and produce force. The same is true of a lunge or split squat.
Individual differences and anthropometrics dictate our optimal range of motion.
When it comes to movement, anatomical differences only indicate what’s possible for the human body, not what’s optimal.
Individual differences in anthropometrics determine maximal range of motion, not ideal range of motion. Just because an individual can squat to extreme depth with no apparent aberration in technique or spinal alignment (i.e. butt wink) does not mean this is their ideal squatting depth. It only indicates what their maximum depth is. In fact, these same individuals typically exhibit significant laxity in their hips and hypermobility throughout their body, both of which can be problematic.
Regardless of unique anatomical differences, anthropometrics and joint morphology, as well as variability in achievable range of motion (ROM), mobility, joint limitations, and movement restrictions, what does not change is what optimal movement and body mechanics look like from person to person. Simply put when performed optimally, every movement pattern including the squat will look nearly identical across individuals.
Individual differences manifest themselves primarily when movement patterns are performed sub-optimally, as there are endless variations of what faulty mechanics can look like. In contrast, optimal mechanics on any movement including squats, presses, pulls, hinges, lunges, etc. produce a very similar biomechanical outcome from person to person.
The farther someone squats past 90-degree joint angles the more they tend to produce movement aberrations and dysfunction that are unique to that individual’s body. This is where we begin to see a variety of individual differences which in reality are nothing more than unique forms of dysfunction and compensation patterns specific to each person. In contrast, the closer individuals are to 90 degrees when squatting (generally speaking) the less movement aberrations we observe as each person’s squat begins to look more and more similar as they get closer and closer to hitting what is optimal squat form for the human body.
In terms of squats, observed differences still adhere to the principle of 90-degree joint angles. In other words, although a 90-degree squat position may vary ever so slightly in terms of torso and tibia angles as a result of anatomical differences and morphology, the difference is usually quite subtle. What does not change is the approximately 90-degree joint angle across each squat.
I frequently have folks shadow me to watch my training sessions. One of the most common things I’ll hear from each person is how similar all the athletes’ movements look including the squat. What also surprises them is how little coaching and cuing I have to give them to hit that 90-degree position. In reality the human body is very good at finding these positions, naturally gravitating towards anything that is biomechanically and neurophysiologically sound.
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of athletes who had had years of training experience before coming to me, many of whom were forced to squat deep ATG or below parallel by their coaches. Once they find their 90-degree squat using eccentric isometrics and their own sensory feedback and proprioception, I never have to work to convince a single one of them that they should stick to 90 degrees. They’re sold almost immediately as they feel the powerful effects and therapeutic benefits of 90-degree squats. No convincing necessary. Read more about eccentric isometric squats here.
Even if you were to disagree with the 90-degree squat ideology I’m espousing here and label it as “wrong”, is it not ironic that each person’s “improper” squat is nearly identical across the board even with little to no prompting or cuing from me? The implication is clear: it has nothing to do with my incredible coaching skills and everything to do with what constitutes natural movement for the human body.
Is every single squat from every single athlete I work with perfectly identical? No. Are they incredibly similar and nearly identical in many regards? Yes!! individual differences can create very small alterations in movement, however, it’s orders of magnitude more subtle than what most coaches suggest.
Perhaps the most obvious criticism of this article would be that my athletes perform nearly identical squats (i.e. hit the same 90 degree squat depth) regularly simply because I am so strict about it and dedicate so much time trying to get them to achieve this position during our training sessions. Let me explain why this is an invalid argument.
When it comes to following orders athletes, particularly professional, collegiate, and high school athletes, can be very stubborn, hard-headed, and almost rebellious, oftentimes refusing to listen as they feel they know what’s best. I often catch them trying to short change exercises, perform less sets or more sets, reduce the reps, increase the reps, minimize time under tension, load more weight on the bar than I recommended, use less weight than I recommended, more rest, less rest etc. In other words, some will try to make things harder and some will try to make things easier. The one thing I never have to argue about with my athletes and try to convince them of is the 90-degree principle, whether on squats or any other exercise. Once they experience it, it’s as if something clicks in their body and almost nothing will cause them to revert no matter how much a coach tries to persuade them otherwise. In fact, many of them will return to their teams during the season and report to me how the coaches tried to change their squat, but they refused to give in as they feel so comfortable and healthy with the 90 degree variations we used. Unfortunately, some coaches refuse to accept this which ends up being quite problematic for the athlete. Simply put, this has nothing to do with me constantly yelling and dictating that they stop at 90 degrees. It’s something they choose of their own free will and volition.
Which begs the question: how is it that everyone stops at 90-degree joint angles so similarly and almost identically? In other words, if I gave any other number, say 120 degrees or 70 degrees, I couldn’t make it stick. In fact, I’ve tried other methods in the past, just as other coaches have, and inevitably everyone’s squat tends to look quite different. The fact that each and every person hits an almost identical 90 degrees when given the chance to listen to their body’s feedback is a very strong illustration of an innate, built-in sensory mechanism that ensures the body will naturally gravitate towards optimal movement. In other words, this is either insane coincidence or the human body has an innate and instinctive sense of what constitutes optimal mechanics such that when given the chance, and not over-cued to squat deeper or to use maximal ROM, everyone’s body will gravitate towards the same 90-degree squat as it represents the strongest safest position for the human body. Yes, it’s almost unbelievable, but it’s true.
Over the past 5 years I’ve changed my coaching style significantly. Rather than trying to force someone to squat or move a specific way and getting them to listen to every specific cue and detail about movement technique, I typically have them employ eccentric isometrics with only a few basic cues. These cues include “stay tight”, “activate the feet”, “keep the feet, knees and hips aligned”, “keep a neutral spine”, “go slow and feel the natural stopping point”, and “make subtle adjustments so there’s no pain”. I actually don’t use the words ‘stop at 90 degrees’ (how would they gauge that anyway) or force them to stop at exactly 90 degrees or require them to squat a particular way. In other words, I keep it simple by substantially limiting my coaching cues and avoiding over-coaching (something I used to be quite guilty of).
If each person listens to their own sensory feedback (a byproduct of using eccentric isometrics), what inevitably occurs is each squat not only looks almost identical, each person ends up hitting the same 90-degree position. Although I’ve now witnessed this phenomenon literally hundreds of times it never ceases to amaze me. I find it quite extraordinary to say the least. In other words, the same repeatable 90-degree squat has little to do with my coaching skill and more to do with what the human body naturally gravitates to provided it’s given the opportunity. I simply guide the person and teach them how to use their body’s own sensory feedback to master their movement using as few basic cues involving eccentric isometrics.
Note: Breaking the 90 degree principle is perfectly acceptable when picking up objects off of the ground as is in fact necessary for daily living and manual labor. The key difference is that during this form of “deadstop” lifting, there is no significant eccentric pre-loading or pre-stretching from a prior eccentric contraction. Simply put, the 90 degree principle is most applicable when applied to movements that involve repeated cycles of eccentric-concentric phases, not necessarily deadstop lifting. However it should also be noted that applying the 90 degree principle to deadstop training is in fact a very effective form of training, just not quite as essential when compared to movements where a significant eccentric/deceleration/force impact phase proceeds a concentric contraction. This concept is discussed in greater detail in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
Each human should squat as deep as they can using a pain free range of motion
Just because the human body can do something doesn’t mean that it should. Similarly, just because a movement is possible doesn’t mean it’s optimal or beneficial.
Having tried both ATG squats (for years I might add) and 90-degree squats I can tell you unequivocally that 90-degree squats are superior in every aspect.
Most movements will provide some benefit. When performed incorrectly they will also produce a variety of consequences. Optimal movement maximizes the benefits without any consequences, as the movements are therapeutic to the body.
Eliminating energy leaks, optimizing body alignment, maximizing core activation, stabilizing the hips and pelvis, creating high levels of intramuscular tension, maintaining neutral spinal alignment, producing proper foot and ankle activation, and maximizing eccentric induced co-contraction will inevitably produce an optimal 90 degree squat that looks almost identical across individuals. In contrast, moving significantly past 90 degrees results in energy leaks, sacrifices alignment, decreases core activation, destabilizes the hips & pelvis, produces faulty foot & ankle mechanics, and forfeits optimal levels of intramuscular tension.
Squatting significantly past 90 degrees reinforces dysfunctional movements & dysfunctional activation patterns that not only impact the squat but transfer into everyday life as well as athletic performance. And yes, there is such a thing as dysfunctional movement.
It’s time to stop beating around the bush & trying to be politically correct in the fitness industry. When something goes against the foundational elements of physiology & biomechanics then, yes, we need to call it for what it is not sugarcoat it and say it’s ok. Teaching people that dysfunctional mechanics on a squat or any other movement is acceptable as long as it feels natural is not a way to “empower” them. Instead, it’s setting them up for failure. Teaching individuals to move properly is the ultimate self-empowering tool as it provides them with the ability to move, exercise, & stay active without continual pain & injuries. Read more about pain science and injuries here.
Not only will a proper squat you spare your joints but you’ll maximize your athletic performance, alignment, muscle function, strength, & hypertrophy.
Squatting to 90 degrees requires much greater levels of muscle activation and full body tension compared to collapsing and going deeper which to a great extent relies more on passive structures rather than one’s muscles for support.
Few if any squat studies have been carried out using proper training, coaching, and cueing all of which has a massive impact on the activation patterns of a squat. In fact, with sloppy mechanics and poor intramuscular tension, an individual will likely need to use excessive depth to achieve any semblance of intense muscle activation.
A very sloppy and lousy 90-degree squat may in fact be inferior to an ATG squat in terms of growth as you’ll need the extra ROM to achieve any appreciable muscle activation. However, a crisp and perfectly dialed in 90-degree squat represents the optimal method of squatting under heavy loads and high impact. Tying together the principles of structural physiology, biomechanics, neuromuscular physiology, osteokinematics, functional anatomy, muscle spindle function, and anatomical levers leads to one conclusion: 90 degree squats are optimal!!!!! Research study findings that suggest otherwise, contradicting foundational elements of human physiology and biomechanics are likely the result of inadequate coaching and cueing of subjects – a very common issue in many kinesiology research studies.
Many lifters are quick to justify their excessive squat depth by suggesting that they’re taking advantage of the stretch reflex. However, this argument is inherently flawed. In fact, what many consider to be effective utilization of the stretch reflex has little to do with the stretch reflex at all. Rather it’s a rebound effect that’s a byproduct of bouncing off of their tendons, ligaments and connective tissue as if they were flimsy and fragile springboards. This is, in fact, diametrically opposed to how one would ideally go about activating the stretch reflex mechanism. In reality the stretch reflex relies on high levels of muscular stiffness and intramuscular tension, which doesn’t occur in excessively stretched positions as opposed to moderately stretched positions such as 90 degrees. This becomes evident when watching individuals perform plyometrics as you’ll never see well-trained athletes perform these with excessive ROM. Instead they’ll use movements that are closer to 90 degrees in order to maximize the powerful spring-like reaction produced from a proper stretch reflex.
A passive 3rd world squat is used for chilling and has absolutely nothing to do with an active squat that involves high level forces, impact, and load. Don’t confuse one with the other.
Many equate a toddler’s squat with ATG squats perpetuated by the fitness industry. However, a baby’s squat represents movement that involves very little neural activation, motor control, and muscle recruitment as these tiny humans are still in the early developmental stages of motor learning. Not a single movement performed by a toddler can be considered high quality or one that involves highly skilled recruitment patterns. Instead it is considered crude and underdeveloped. So why is the ATG squat an exception? If an ATG squat, which is essentially the same as a baby’s squat, represents the epitome of optimal muscle function, then perhaps having the ability to suck on your toes should be the new standard for measuring hip mobility.
“Squat depth & range of motion should be determined primarily by your training goals. If your training goals are decreased strength, increased joint pain, degradations to natural body mechanics, herniated discs, sciatic issues, chronic low back pain, blown out knees, foot and ankle aberrations, decreased jump performance, degraded gait mechanics, constant muscle tightness, and the need to continually perform foam rolling, stretching, soft tissue work, cupping, dry needling, and other “therapeutic modalities” to eliminate the associated pain, then keep squatting ATG or below parallel. However, if you’re goal is improvements in size, strength, performance, power, body mechanics, muscle function, posture, proprioception, balance, stability, and mobility as well as decreased joint pain and muscle tightness then you’ll want to squat to approximately 90 degrees. Remember it all comes down to training goals & objectives. This has nothing to do with individual anthropometrics & anatomy but instead scientific principles of biomechanics, structural physiology, & neurophysiology that remain constant from human to human unless of course you hail from another planet. After years of studying kinesiology & neuromuscular physiology I can tell you this concept remains the same whether we’re talking about advanced athletes or geriatric populations”
Is the previous statement a bit of an exaggeration? Not really. Will ATG provide some benefit? It depends. If we take someone with no prior training, performing ATG squats will provide some obvious benefits. However, if we take an athlete trained with optimal 90-degree mechanics and have them switch to ATG squats, they’ll actually experience decreased power, strength, mobility, stability, and overall muscle function, not to mention possible joint pain. In other words, just because something works to a degree doesn’t mean it’s the optimal method. Remember good is the enemy of best.
I’ve witnessed this firsthand on multiple occasions with athletes I’ve coached who experienced decreased pain and injuries, not to mention increased power and strength, once we incorporated 90-degree eccentric isometrics. Unfortunately, in certain circumstances, once the athlete returned to their team and the strength coaches required them to squat deeper not only did they experience significant reductions in power, strength, and muscle mass but the injuries, pain, and inflammation they had before we started training, began to re-occur. So no, as evidenced by cases such as these, the aforementioned statement is by no means an exaggeration.
Just because a lifter doesn’t injure themselves when squatting deep doesn’t mean their squat is optimal. I’ve seen a very strong correlation between athletes who perform deep squats and hamstring and groin pulls. This is likely due to the carryover of deep squatting mechanics, and the associated disruption of the optimal length tension relationship in these muscles, to their sprint mechanics, which oftentimes produces over-striding and frequently results in pulls to the hamstrings, groin, and hip flexors. With that said, squatting to excessive depth really wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the effects were isolated to the squat itself. However, based on principles of motor learning we know that movement transfers and impacts other related motions. Therefore, performing movements, or in this case squats with excessive ROM, not only negatively impacts the body during the actual training session, it can also carryover to other activities including running, jumping, kicking, lunging, hinging, and even walking with long lasting detrimental effects.
Maximizing mobility and range of motion is vital for performance and function.
For any movement pattern whether it’s the squat or a chest press, we want an optimal & natural range of motion not excessive or maximal ROM.
No, there are no studies that unequivocally prove what constitutes optimal ROM and there likely never will be. However, as already noted, the principles of structural physiology, biomechanics, & neuromuscular physiology all point to 90-degrees as being optimal when it comes to heavy loads & high impact. Besides saving the joints, I’ve found 90-degree eccentric isometrics to be superior not only in terms of their therapeutic benefit but also for increasing functional strength & size as well as power & proprioception. This is true for most movement patterns.
Limiting ROM to 90-degrees, the optimal end range for high load/impact activities, actually enhances mobility & ROM by optimizing the health of our musculoskeletal system. This is true of squats and all other movement patterns. In contrast, the opposite is true of deep squats and other movements performed well in excess of 90-degree joint angles. Over time these frequently degrade mobility and ROM due to the chronic inflammation & aggravation of joints/connective tissue caused by the very use of excessive ranges of motion and hanging out on, or otherwise over-stressing, tendons and ligaments. Read more about this topic in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED where I highlight dozens of supporting studies.
Want to strengthen your core and make it more stable? Start using 90-degree joint angles!!! Nothing crushes the core more than sticking 90-degree joint positions as this requires maximal full body tension, particularly throughout the core. Similarly, nothing destabilizes the core and spine faster than performing strength movements with excessive ROM.
When it comes to strength training and exercises with an exaggerated ROM, such as ATG squats, one must perform a cost-benefit-analysis. Ultimately, the potential benefits must outweigh the potential risks. If the potential harm outweigh the potential benefits, then it's not ideal for most folks. Ultimately, it boils down to what is optimal for the human body. Obviously deep squats carry some benefits but the potential consequences for most folks outweigh the benefits, which begs the question: why take the risk when there are superior alternatives that provide greater benefits and fewer risks.
More and more powerlifters are using limited ROM movements in their training. These include floor press, board press, pin press, Spotto press, & partials, not to mention above parallel box squats. Coincidence? I think not. They’ve likely been forced to adapt their training to incorporate 90-degree mechanics as a means of avoiding injury while saving the extreme ROM scenarios for competitive circumstances.
99% of the movements we perform in daily life, sports, and other activities that involve high forces and impact involve approximately 90-degree joint angles. Training significantly beyond this for prolonged periods does little for functional performance other than degrade it.
I’ve lost track of the number of cases I’ve witnessed over the last 8 years of individuals who had experienced significant pain and injuries in their hips, knee, back, ankles, and neck as a result of squatting deep yet who were able to squat pain free in a matter of minutes when taught how to perform a 90 degree eccentric isometric squat. There’s nothing fancy or magical about it. It’s just a matter of teaching them how to move the way God intended them to.
Pain is the most effective coaching cue and sensory feedback mechanism we have access to when it comes to perfecting our movement. It’s our body’s way of telling us when our movements are putting our body in danger. Rather than tuning it out, use it to help you master your body mechanics. Read more about pain science here.
Most individuals are capable of squatting below parallel if they make modifications to their squat and improve their mobility.
Going significantly past 90 degrees requires at least one if not multiple neuromuscular or biomechanical deviations to occur in most folks.
If I were in fact set on having my athletes and clients squat below 90 degrees or parallel I would have to make modifications to each squat variation as each person’s body would attempt to compensate differently in order to best achieve what are biomechanically counterproductive positions with negative ramifications.
Everyone’s body responds to a particular dysfunctional position differently. If you’re going to have someone perform a specific squat technique it had better be the optimal one. Some people will respond poorly to toes out, some will respond poorly to extreme ROM, some will respond negatively to anterior knee drift. However, one thing is for sure, everyone responds to an optimal 90 degree squat the same; their bodies love it and they naturally gravitate to it as it represents the optimal position for human beings. Simply put, some people’s bodies will totally reject a certain type of dysfunctional position whereas other’s bodies will accept it but not without consequences unless it’s the perfect squat. So, if you’re going to try to fit everyone into one mold it better be the most optimal mold. The 90-degree squat represents just that.
Many of my clients, as well as I, used to be able to perform squats only once every 1-3 weeks due to pain and inflammation. Since incorporating optimal 90-degree squats many of them, and I, perform squats 5-7x per week without any issues.
Many acute injuries can actually be traced back to chronic dysfunctional use in which the tissues were repeatedly stressed inappropriately one too many times. Tissues only adapt so much. When repeatedly misused they will, over time, develop structural weaknesses until they eventually give out. This illustrates exactly how many of the ACL injuries we see in sports occur. Training one’s body to withstand faulty and dangerous positions (including end range positions) will only result in further breakdown of connective tissue rather than strengthening it. Instead, teach your body to avoid these hazardous positions in the first place to prevent the wearing down and over-manipulation of tissue, ensuring it remains healthy so that when it’s placed into a hazardous position it will handle it much more efficiently and safely. Furthermore, the muscles will more effectively act as shock absorbers in these positions rather than as limp noodles in which the length tension relationship has been negatively altered by over-manipulation and extreme ROM. In other words, teach what is optimal body mechanics. And yes, in case you were wondering, there is in fact such a thing. One simply has to examine structural physiology, biomechanics, motor learning, functional anatomy, and neuromuscular physiology and put the pieces of the puzzle together. The answer is there if we look closely.
Individuals who regularly perform cleans and snatches with ATG squat catches as well as other forms of deep squats also exhibit some of the most dysfunctional body mechanics, particularly when running and sprinting. They may be able to jump high and produce good power from a stand still position on a single rep, but watch any Olympic lifter, powerlifter, or CrossFit athlete run or perform any movement that requires quick, repeatable cyclical movements in a rhythmic and coordinated fashion, and you’ll notice some pretty significant aberrations in their running mechanics. Many of their strides resemble those of a cowboy from the Wild West who just completed a marathon horse-back ride. Much of this is due to the fact that their natural gait has been altered through disruption of the length tension relationship of their muscles and ingrained faulty musculoskeletal alignment (i.e. excessive external rotation, hip spread, and toe flare). The optimal 90-degree squat not only avoids such forms of dysfunction, it helps correct them by actually improving body alignment and muscle function.
A 90 degree squat doesn’t “count” as a squat in competition so stop training in that fashion and start squatting to “competition depth”.
The rules of powerlifting, in terms of competition depth, were not designed to optimize human biomechanics or physiology.
“Competition depth” is a normative measure and systematic method that allows an individual’s squat depth to be judged using the naked eye. Unless you’re competing for the sport of powerlifting, you’re better off squatting to 90 degrees.
Competitive Olympic weightlifting is an exception to the rule where the lifter is rewarded for going deeper in order to drop lower under the weight, ultimately allowing heavier loads to be lifting during competition.
Many, if not most, of the extreme squat positions Olympic weightlifters move into during their squats would be impossible without the assistance and support of the artificial structure of the weightlifting shoe. It’s as if they need the support of the shoe to allow them to collapse and achieve extreme depth. If we were able to examine the actual structure of the foot and ankle complex inside the weightlifting shoe, particularly during extreme squatting positions, we would likely see very unusual and unnatural forces, torques, contorted positions, and activation patterns. Simply put, the weightlifting shoe not only allows such aberrations to occur, it actually disguises and conceals these various abnormalities, as we can only see the outside of the lifting shoe, not the foot and ankle complex underneath this bulky synthetic structure.
A majority of the individuals we see who advocate ATG are in their 20’s to early 30’s. You’ll rarely see a lifter much past their mid 30’s argue for ATG as most individuals find they can’t handle such biomechanically stressful forms of movement past their early years of training. Sometimes it takes getting injured before we see the light.
If you can’t squat deep in a pain free manner or using “good form” then you simply need to incorporate a variety of mobility drills, corrective exercises, stretching, foam rolling, FRC drills, and other modalities to increase your ROM and mobility.
Performing mobility work to become more mobile sounds logical, however, this can be the very issue that limits mobility.
The popular rise of FRC, foam rolling, soft tissue work, and other “supposed” therapeutic modalities is likely associated with the widespread practice of squatting ATG and performing other basic movement patterns with suboptimal mechanics. Use proper 90-degree positions on your movements, including squats, and you’ll dispense with all of those unnecessary “therapies”.
Overdoing it on mobility exercises, stretching, soft tissue work, as well as deep squats, can desensitize muscle spindles allowing the lifter to perform movements such as squats with excessive ROM. This leads to localized chronic inflammation which over time is the very thing that limits mobility and range of motion.
The single biggest problem with a majority of lifters and their squat pattern is not mobility but rather lack of stability, tightness, and motor control. As the lifter gains stability their body naturally begins to perform the movement pattern with the ideal range of motion. In other words, gain stability first and optimal mobility will naturally follow, not the other way around. The last thing you want to do is gain ROM that you cannot stabilize.
There is an enormous amount of misinformation available regarding the use of corrective exercises, mobility drills, soft tissue work, and contortionist stretches to gain greater ROM and improve squat depth. When you teach optimal 90-degree squats you’ll be surprised at how many frivolous drills you can eliminate as the body will naturally gravitate towards proper positioning without the need for excessive coercion and over manipulation.
I’ve yet to see a single case where squatting to 90 degrees did not immediately resolve butt wink and “ankle mobility issues”. What the fitness industry has erroneously labeled as mobility and ROM restrictions is oftentimes nothing more than motor control and stability issues reflected as “form aberrations” that arise as a byproduct of the body attempting to resist excessive depth. Focus on hitting 90 degrees and the majority of your supposed mobility restrictions, instability, alignment, balance, symmetry, and form deviations will inevitably resolve themselves.
The popular ideology of gaining more and more mobility in an indefinite and unlimited fashion is completely contrary to the laws of human movement and is simply based on the physical therapy myth that “more is better”. Unfortunately, few if any elements of human physiology function under the “more is better” approach as we never want too much or too little of anything when it comes to the human body. Instead what we want is the optimal amount. Simply put, the goal should be to find optimal mobility and maintain it. This applies to nearly all movements including the squat. Furthermore, all movements have both a maximal ROM and an optimal ROM. Rarely do the two coincide. The same is true of any athletic skill or basic movement such as punching, sprinting, throwing, kicking, hitting, etc. Each has an optimal range of motion and the goal is to find the perfect balance between overly compact motion and excessive ROM. Gaining too much mobility ultimately requires us to sacrifice joint stability and motor control, as well as strength, force production, and force absorption capabilities.
Until you can prove that a 90-degree squat is ideal there’s no reason to apply this approach.
Proof one way or the other is very hard to come by as there are very few things that can be proven or disproven in this life. What we can do is study the science, think critically & logically, and provide a strong argument.
In reality, we can find evidence supporting and refuting both sides of almost any argument or theory including squat depth. To truly solve such a debacle requires us to eventually look at all areas of science related to the discussion (not just a single area of research based on the human body) that would support the notion of using maximal ROM. There is in fact volumes of literature to support the idea that 90-degree joint angles are optimal and very little to support the use of maximal ROM although neither side can be proven.
You should question everything, including what is in this article. Don’t take anything at face value, including squat form. Unfortunately, the fitness industry has pushed the ATG notion for so long most people can’t think independently or critically when it comes to squat depth. Do your own investigation, your own research and your own trial & error experimenting.
If we try to figure out optimal squat depth based on specific squat studies, we’ll never find the answer as there is, and always will be, conflicting data. What we must do instead is use logical reasoning and deduction by examining and tying together all the foundational elements of kinesiology including neurophysiology, biomechanics, structural physiology, and functional anatomy. Once we do this, we’re able to find the answers that longitudinal strength training studies will never provide.
The deep squat ATG dogma that permeates this industry stems entirely from what has been passed down as an old school weight room ritual and tradition from coach to coach, oftentimes as an ego statement and badge of toughness. The ATG squat mantra was not established on scientific principles of physiology, biomechanics, and neurophysiology. It began with what coaches and lifters believed to be "common sense assumptions” or "trendy” methods for creating “tough” athletes based on the misguided “more is better approach” when it came to ROM. The 90-degree squat ideology on the other hand is based entirely on scientific principles, not on pre-existing traditions or uninformed assumptions.
What I lay out in this article is nothing magical, new, or unique. In fact, it couldn’t be more simple or basic, as it is information we’ve had access to for decades but have ignored in favor of misinformation perpetuated by the mainstream fitness, physical therapy, and strength industries, as well as old school coaching methods. The concept is simple as it relies solely on foundational principles of kinesiology, and more specifically, neuromuscular mechanisms of muscular contractions. Additionally, the concept and constructs are congruent with structural physiology, osteokinematics, neurophysiology, biomechanics, anatomical levers, elastic energy, length tension relationship of muscles, proprioception, motor control, reciprocal inhibition, and co-contraction of reciprocal muscle groups. When you examine each of these concepts, they all point to the same thing: 90-degree joint angles are optimal for the human body. If you don’t believe me examine the literature yourself. Once you do, you’ll likely come to a similar conclusion.
If after reading this article the reader chooses to analyze the information presented, they will inevitably be faced with making a decision about me as a coach and the information I’ve presented. One, and only 1 of these 3 options can be true:
1. Either I’m the luckiest coach on the face of the planet who just so happens to have coincidently stumbled upon hundreds of athletes who happen to have the exact same joint anthropometrics and anatomical differences thereby causing me to become delusional in my thinking and training philosophies,
2. I’ve intentionally lied as I’m a fraud, cheat, and charlatan trying to lead people astray for the sake of satisfying my ego or some other strange personal need for gratification in which case my career in this industry would have likely ended years ago,
3. The conclusions I’ve arrived at by piecing together existing information are valid and grounded in scientific principles that represent simple yet often times overlooked fundamental elements of exercise science, much of which can be found in any basic level kinesiology textbook.
Although most of the above sections describe my personal experience based on 16 years of training as well as my years of higher education in a university setting, many readers will likely want more information in terms of the research and science that supports these claims. Much of this information is highlighted in my original squat article as well as my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED which includes dozens of references on the subject, however, the following should provide some additional insight.
Although some research suggests squatting beyond 90 is ideal, there is also significant research that suggests the opposite.
A recent study comparing the effects of training at different squat depths on joint angle specific strength, as well as transfer to sprint and jump performance, found that both partial squats (slightly less than 90 degrees) and parallel squats (slightly greater than 90 degrees) significantly improved vertical jump performance, with slightly greater improvement observed in the partial squat training group, while far less transfer was found from the deep squat training protocol (significantly greater than 90 degrees) to sprint or vertical jump performance . In other words, deep or ATG squat training improved individuals’ ability to perform ATG squats but did not appear to enhance other sports related performance attributes. In contrast, the groups that trained at squat joint angles closer to 90 degrees produced superior results with significant improvements in jump and sprint performance. Perhaps the best results would have occurred had the researchers used a group that employed exactly 90 degree joint angles rather than slightly above or below.
Contrary to what has incessantly been preached in the strength conditioning industry, a study by “Glute Expert” Bret Contreras examining the effects of squat depth on muscle activation, showed that moving significantly past 90 degree joint angles or parallel positions did not produce greater muscle activation in any of the primary lower body muscles including the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) .
Another fairly recent study examined 3 different squat depths: significantly above 90 degrees (20 degrees of knee flexion), exactly at 90 degrees, and significantly deeper than 90 degrees (approximately 140 degrees of knee flexion) . While most practitioners would have predicted that the deepest squats (140-degree joint angle) would produce the greatest muscle activation in the quadriceps and gluteal muscles due to the greater degree of stretch, the results indicate the exact opposite. More specifically, 90-degree joint angle squats appeared to produce the greatest muscle activation in the thighs and glutes, followed by the short or partial squat group (20 degrees of knee flexion), with the deep squat group (140 degrees of knee flexion) producing the least activity in the lower body musculature. It should also be noted that glute activity was unusually low in the deep squat group (140 degree) relative to the other groups, further contradicting the common, yet false belief, that deeper squats are ideal for glute development. In reality, they’re quite inferior when compared to proper squats at approximately 90-degree joint angles.
A similar study showed that incorporating partial squats with a range of motion of approximately 90 degrees of knee flexion in maximal strength training, produced superior results in terms of dynamic and isometric measures of maximal strength, as compared to performing only full ROM squats with a larger range of motion (i.e. 120 degrees) . Ironically, the group that performed partial squats not only improved their ability to produce force at 90-degree angles but also at larger 120 angles. In other words, it appears that using optimal 90-degree joint angle mechanics may increase strength and force production at larger joint angles, such as 120 degrees, even more so than training exclusively at these larger joint angles. This is likely due to the increased motor unit recruitment and improved body mechanics associated with approximately 90-degree joint angles, which increases strength and muscularity to a far greater degree than does collapsing and using excessive range of motion.
Although more research is warranted, the results of these studies, as well as others highlighted in prior sections, indicate that 90 degree joint angles represent the optimal biomechanical positions not only in terms of producing and absorbing force, and protecting the joints, but also in terms of producing the highest levels of muscular recruitment.
There is conflicting research as to where maximal shear and compressive forces occur during squats. Some studies suggest it’s at the deep positions significantly below 90 degrees while others suggest it’s right at 90 degrees . Regardless of which side is correct, the notion that high shear and compressive forces are inherently dangerous is an outdated argument when it comes to the analysis of movement. If we relied on this reasoning, we would never have anyone run or jump for fear or blowing out their knees, hips, and joints instantaneously. Additionally, we would have eliminated movements such as RDL’s, hip hinges, and lunges long ago as these involve incredibly high levels of shear and compressive forces. Oftentimes the positions and movements that involves the highest levels of shear and compressive forces also happen to be the most biomechanically sound, functional, and therapeutic positions, provided the surrounding muscles are activated and doing their job correctly. Just because something is associated with high compressive forces and shear forces doesn’t necessarily mean it increases the risk of injury. Therefore, examining compressive and shear forces in isolation provides little if any practical insight.
Just because one has semi-limited mobility and is unable to move into extreme joint positions doesn’t place them at greater risk for injury. In fact, it may suggest just the opposite, provided it’s not all the way at the opposite end of the scale. For example, a study examining dancers found that individuals who had shorter range of motion (ROM) and less mobility actually had reduced levels of patellofemoral pain and associated joint issues compared to dancers who were able to achieve those extreme joint positions . In other words, it appears that the inability to produce the exaggerated positions is a blessing in disguise, as it may prevent joint issues associated with extreme range of motion activities.
If we further examine data on professional dancers (e.g. ballet, Russian dance, eastern European dance, gymnastics) who use very exaggerated positions and excessive ROMs to produce aesthetically pleasing movements, we find that the incidence of joint pain in the hips, knees, ankles, and back is unusually high and severe compared to other populations [8-10]. This has been shown to impact their mental state not to mention their overall physiological health. Many of these individuals have incredible flexibility and mobility but, unfortunately, the movements they perform produce a host of consequences. Oddly enough it typically takes 5-20 years for them to manifest many of the extreme symptoms associated with their exaggerated movements, oftentimes requiring the need for surgery and/or face living with extreme pain for the remainder of their lives.
These are folks who’ve been introduced and exposed to end range positions and extreme ROM for many years. If anyone’s body should have adapted it’s theirs as most of them started at an early age and gradually increased their training volume and training stimulus. Unfortunately, because many of these positions represent dysfunctional movements (as do most extreme ROM movements), the body never fully adapts or evolves to adequately handle the stress. Instead it breaks down, as is evident by the many extreme joint issues (hip, back, knees, ankles, neck, shoulders, and more) they eventually have to deal with and that leaves many of them nearly incapacitated during and after their careers. What’s ironic is that the ones who are most easily able to assume these extreme positions are the ones who end up having the most joint issues. There are dozens of studies in dance, ballet, and gymnastics that provide similar findings. Remember just because the body can do something doesn’t mean it should. This same concept applies to ATG squats.
75. In fact, Dr. Stu McGill, known as a worldwide leader in the area of spinal biomechanics, has suggested that if we look at the countries around the world that report the highest rates of hip dysplasia, we’ll also see excellence in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, dominated by those that can squat to greater depth . This further highlights the fact that just because the human body can do something doesn’t mean it should. Furthermore, maximal ROM and optimal ROM are two very different things. Perhaps we should be more concerned about using excessive ROM rather than too little ROM, although optimal ROM at an approximately 90-degree joint angle is ideal.
Although some EMG analyses support the statements made above, some EMG data also contradicts them. However, EMG is not the end-all-be-all when it comes determining the best method of movement. In fact, it is only one very small part of a much larger and more complex picture. That’s because EMG, as an acute measurement of motor unit recruitment in an experimental setting, tells us very little about how biomechanics, muscle damage, micro-trauma, protein synthesis, satellite cell signaling, neural adaptations, structural overload, systemic responses, neurophysiological and structural components such as proprioception, intrafusal muscle fiber innervation, agonist antagonist co-contraction, reciprocal inhibition, muscle stiffness properties, elastic energy, lever arms, length-tension relationship of muscle fibers, somatosensory feedback and the hormonal effects of training contribute to maximizing functional hypertrophy, strength, and performance.
In reality, some of the most biomechanically dangerous and faulty positions, such as the guillotine bench press, produce some of the highest levels of EMG amplitude suggesting that a high EMG signal (particularly in conjunction with poor biomechanics) might actually indicate that the body is in a potentially hazardous position where injury is likely to occur. In other words it may indicate the body is working against itself biomechanically leading to increased activation and motor unit recruitment patterns to compensate for dysfunctional movement. This likely has little if any benefit for improving functional strength and size as improved neuromuscular efficiency is requisite for maximizing strength and body composition.
Athletes who engage in MMA fighting, martial arts, rock climbing, dancing, and other unique sports and/or arts will inevitably be required to include precarious joint positions and maneuvers during their training. However in terms of training it’s best to save those odd positions for the actual sport and to perform only therapeutic and more natural, biomechanically sound movements during training. This actually helps keep the body (muscles, joints, and connective tissue) much stronger, healthier, and functional, as well as ready and able to handle any unusual position or maneuver one can throw at it when needed. Performing too many odd positions such as pistol squats, ATG squats, or deep Cossack squats during training breaks the body down and makes it more vulnerable and prone to injury, not to mention it provides less of a strength and muscle hypertrophy stimulus.
Furthermore, the exaggerated range of motion required by these movements (i.e. ATG squat, pistol squat, and Cossack squat), creates inflammation in the joints and connective tissue. Over time this happens to be the very thing that actually limits mobility, flexibility, and range of motion. As a result, it is more difficult to perform odd maneuvers when they are actually needed as part of the sport or competition. In other words, the body is more likely to inhibit these movements in response to the inflammation and extensive breaching of the protective barriers produced by the excessive training positions.
Similarly, I’ve noticed a common trend in my athletes where, once we eliminate deep ATG squats and pistol squats from their training, when needed, such as during testing, they're actually capable of assuming these deep positions (e.g. ATG squat) more easily than when they were actually training with ATG and pistol squats. Most likely the reasons for this are the same as those stated above. It's as if their mobility and range of motion including joint end range positions are freed up by eliminating all contra-therapeutic positions during training and properly performing only therapeutic movements, such as eccentric isometrics with approximately 90-degree joint angles.
Pain is only one of many consequences and warning signs that arise from improper movement. Just because a movement does not cause pain does not mean it’s ideal for the body. The consequences of faulty movement go far beyond the scope of pain and physical discomfort. If a movement is biomechanically and neuromuscularly incorrect it will produce a number of negative physiological side effects, not to mention deteriorating performance as, when the body does not function optimally, both from a neurophysiological standpoint as well as a biomechanical standpoint, it negatively impacts physiological function. Some individuals may be fortunate enough to never, or rarely, experience pain, however, the physical symptoms may manifest themselves differently such as impaired breathing, spastic muscle function, excessive sympathetic tone, poor reflexes, mental issues, poor sleep, impaired digestion, weakened immune function, anxiety, lack of motor control, impaired balance, and other symptoms associated with the “Muscle Malady Cascade Effect” discussed throughout my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
It’s also important to discuss the topic of existing pain vs. eventual pain. Although some lifters can temporarily “get away” with faulty mechanics and poor technique without significant pain or discomfort, eventually it will produce negative ramifications. I’ve seen this occur numerous times in individuals I’ve consulted for, as they describe how they were able to perform various movements the same way for years with no pain or discomfort only to eventually have it hit them like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there seems to be a tipping point where a once seemingly healthy lifter begins to experience injuries, incredible pain, and extreme inflammation throughout their body, as well as other physical symptoms. For some this may occur after weeks or months while for others it may take years, even decades. Regardless of the time frame, their bodies eventually break down. Had they employed optimal mechanics and range of motion (e.g. optimal 90-degree squats) their overall strength, performance, muscle function, joint health, wellness, quality of life, and overall physical health would likely have improved to a much greater degree.
Many ATG squatters point to research studies on the incidence of injuries in weightlifting as one of the key arguments as to why squatting to extreme depths is, in fact, not dangerous. For instance, various studies over the years have concluded that the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting (which incorporate deep squats) involve similar injury rates as other sports . Some studies even show a slightly lower rate of injuries in weightlifting and powerlifting compared to contact sports, such as football and wrestling, while demonstrating similar rates of injuries to other non-contact sports. Although at first glance this appears to be a compelling argument in favor of deep squatting and other weightlifting-related movements, a closer look suggests this is not only a poor argument, it actually supports the notion that the ATG squat is, in fact, counterproductive (unless you’re a competitive lifter):
First, the rate of injury in sports is measured based on the number of injuries per unit of athlete-exposures (e.g. every 100 or 1000 games, practices, or player time). Because the risk of injury increases with time, more frequent exposure would inevitably lead to a greater risk of injury. Therefore, considering traditional weightlifting and powerlifting movements that involve deep squats as a sport with an associated rate of injury, an athlete who incorporates these movements for strength and conditioning purposes is technically participating in 2 sports, thereby increasing their exposure and, therefore, risk of injury. In fact, due to the nature of intense training, overtraining, and overuse injuries, it’s not farfetched to assume that given the cumulative effect of intense training, and the fact that injuries incurred in one sport likely carry over and predispose an athlete to injuries in the other sport, the combined risk of injury to a competitive athlete who includes traditional weightlifting and powerlifting in their training, would be exponential not just additive .
This leads to the next point, which is that unless the goal of an athlete is competitive lifting, incorporating strength training into any athlete’s routine is intended to improve athletic performance in their sport(s), making them less injury prone, stronger, and more explosive. Hence, the participation in strength training for the purpose of athletic performance should be a therapeutic modality for the sole purpose of performance enhancement that, if performed properly, should not only be largely injury free, it should also greatly diminish the risk and rate of injuries athletes experience in general. In other words, when performed properly, strength training should not produce injuries, it should prevent them. Therefore, for a strength coach to adopt training methods used in the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting, including ATG squats and other movements with excessive ROM, known to be associated with injury commonly seen in those sport, seems counterintuitive and a good reason to get many strength coaches and trainers swiftly fired. In fact, had I employed such methods myself I might personally be out of business as many of my athletes would have fired me and rightly so. Simply put, strength training should be applied to athletes for the sole purpose of improving athletic performance, not for turning the athletes into weightlifters, unless of course that’s their goal.
It would be one thing if the effects of ATG squats were restricted to the strength training session itself. However, based on principles of motor learning we know that movement transfers and impacts other related motions. Therefore, performing movements, or in this case squats with excessive ROM, not only negatively impacts the body during the actual training session, the effects are long lasting with detrimental carryover to other activities including running, jumping, kicking, lunging, hinging, and even walking. In essence, the trainee has improperly re-programmed the neuromuscular system to consistently operate under conditions of structurally compromised positions, both from a force production and injury standpoint. Rather than allowing their body to gravitate towards movements that involve 90 degree angles (which are the biomechanically strongest and safest positions), they’ve now re-programmed their nervous system and muscles (i.e. altered the length tension relationship of their muscle fibers) in such a way that their body gravitates towards larger joint angles. Besides being grounded on basic foundational principles of motor learning and muscle physiology, this is something I’ve personally witnessed firsthand as athletes who routinely practice ATG squats seem to be highly injury prone both in and out of the weight room.
Many amateur and professional lifters including powerlifters and Olympic lifters train with a wide array of lifting accessories including, belts, wraps, knee sleeves, lifting shoes, and other paraphernalia that provide false support and assistance. In fact, many of the lifts and attempts would be impossible and highly dangerous without such accessories. Even if such a form of training were optimal (which it clearly isn’t), most athletes don’t have the time or the desire to allocate a portion of their training time to going through a modified mummification process just to lift a heavy weight. In other words, if you have to wear a suit of armor every time you train intensely as a means of avoiding the negative consequences associated with faulty training positions (i.e. deep squat), it’s probably time to re-assess your training methodology regardless of how popular and mainstream it is.
Perhaps the most glaring flaw with using weightlifting and powerlifting studies to demonstrate low incidence of injury is related to the criteria used to measure injuries in these studies. For instance, most studies define an injury as something that involves a significant incident or physical damage that forces the powerlifter to oftentimes refrain from training. Powerlifters and weightlifters are some of the most mentally tough individuals when it comes to training around injuries and will typically do whatever it takes to continue training unless the injury is so severe that it forces them to refrain. With this in mind it’s no wonder that most studies have shown a low prevalence of injuries in lifting related sports.
Interestingly, a recent study in 2018 provides greater insight on this topic, with a more accurate assessment of injuries . In this particular study an injury was defined as a condition of pain or impairment of bodily function that affected powerlifters’ training but did not necessarily prevent or cause modifications to their training. Using this definition the results indicate that injuries are very common in powerlifting as opposed to previous studies that concluded that injury rates are relatively low. In fact, prevalence of injuries was exponentially greater as 70% of the 104 participants (53 female and 51 male) reported being injured at the time of the study, and 87% experienced an injury during the prior 12 months. Additionally, more than half of the powerlifters reported injuries in at least 2 different body regions during that time period. Furthermore, the squat seemed to produce the highest incidence of injury (43%) even when compared to the bench press (27%) and deadlift (31%).
What’s perhaps even more interesting is that only 5% of participants reported that lifting technique was the reason for their injuries, a finding the researchers themselves found surprising, especially considering recommendations regarding the importance of proper lifting technique to avoid injuries. This may suggest that current definitions of proper lifting technique (particularly squat below parallel) are flawed given participants were simply following current mandates of what’s considered “proper form”.
While the above numbers may not be enough to cause powerlifters and weightlifters to refrain from their training, it would be more than enough to impact elite and non-elite athletes alike and compromise their ability to compete at the highest level.
Many individuals who promote ATG squat will point to theories on end range training that suggest that consistently training to end range positions actually prepares us to tolerate and withstand such positions without becoming injured when exposed to them. Besides the fact that there’s very little literature supporting this or suggesting that training to end range of motion is ideal, there are numerous reasons why this is ideology is flawed.
When we examine the incidence of injuries in sports we see that a large percentage of injuries are non-contact related and typically occur during running, jumping, landing, throwing, hitting, kicking, skating, cutting, acceleration, and deceleration [14, 15]. Additionally, it’s thought that the severity of most contact injuries appears to be significantly related to the degree of musculoskeletal deformation that occurs during contact (i.e. the degree of “poor” biomechanics our body is forced into) as well as how well the incoming force is absorbed. All of this suggests one key finding: our external circumstances don’t dictate our movement mechanics and degree of injury. Rather, it’s our ability to control our muscles and body via neuromuscular activation patterns that truly determines the frequency and severity of injuries.
For instance, an incoming valgus force can cause anywhere from zero collapse with no injury to an extreme collapse and season ending injury. The difference has little if anything to do with your ability to tolerate “bad” positions, as an extreme collapse will almost always result in the same result - full ACL tear. Instead, it appears to be linked directly to our ability to prevent extreme manipulation and avoid musculoskeletal deformation into those “bad” positions by using our central nervous system, motor control, and strength.
Additionally, when we look closer at ACL injuries, we see that we really cannot coerce the body or force it to truly adapt to poor positions. Otherwise people who demonstrate consistent valgus collapse when training would be less prone to ACL tears since their bodies should be adapted to these positions. In reality, these are the very people who end up experiencing ACL tears.
Now, obviously an ATG squat and valgus collapse aren’t quite on the same scale of dysfunctional movement, however, most biomechanists would agree that neither is desirable for sport (with the exception of Olympic lifting) therefore both should be considered faulty positions that should be largely avoided when possible, particularly on the playing field.
So, what does all this suggest? When an athlete is pushed or placed into a poor position, particularly in non-contact injuries, it’s not because it was inevitable or unavoidable, but because they didn’t possess the ability to prevent or avoid such hazardous positions in the first place. And just because we don’t consistently train poor positions doesn’t mean we won’t tolerate them when they periodically occur. For instance, before the dawn of the iron game and fitness industry athletes were just as likely to be put into precarious situations and extreme positions as they are now yet injuries were markedly less frequent (albeit the increase in forces present today obviously plays a role). Even though they never trained to joint end range (as this concept had not yet been developed) their bodies were more than capable of handling these positions when periodically required.
In other words, just because you don’t train end range positions doesn’t mean that the moment you’re placed into positions significantly past 90 degrees you’ll immediately blow your joints out and tear a muscle. If anything, the opposite is true. Save those precarious positions for competitive circumstances when we actually need them. But certainly don’t train for these extreme positions as we’re not only breaking the body down and producing contratherapeutic movement, we’re now ingraining faulty mechanics and dysfunctional positions into our nervous system, making it exponentially more likely that we will in fact be moving into these biomechanically disadvantageous positions that much more frequently, ultimately leading to greater potential risk of injury.
Based on the laws of neuroplasticity that dictate how motor learning works, the way we practice and the way we move off the field ultimately trickles into all other movement on and off the field. In other words, we should not train “bad “positions. We should train proper positions as this prepares the body adequately to handle any situation, including poor positions, while also reinforcing the repeated practice of proper movement, making it more likely that the athlete will perform within the parameters of optimal human mechanics when playing their sport and competing.
In other words, don’t practice getting into faulty positions as this only wears the structures down over time and ingrains faulty mechanics, making it that much more likely that you’ll injure yourself from constantly placing your body, joints, and muscles into biomechanically hazardous and faulty positions. Learn to ingrain proper body mechanics so that your body consistently operates within the confines of what is proper movement. That way when placed into a faulty position the body will actually have a greater ability to protect the joints as the muscles will be playing their role (absorbing force) and the joints and connective tissue will be at peak health instead of worn down.
Still not convinced? Let me remind you of the ballet artists, gymnasts, and dancers mentioned earlier. These individuals consistently train to joint end range motion, constantly trying to push the limits of mobility and ROM, yet suffer from debilitating pain, injuries, and inflammation, both during and after their careers, particularly in their hips, low back, knees, and ankles. Such inflammation and injuries end up being the very thing that limit their mobility and quality of movement. In other words, the ideology of training with end range motion is flawed at best.
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