Let's talk about "squatting below parallel"—a critique of Starting Strength

What you're in for: 
1,993 words, about 11 minutes read time

Key Points:

  • "Below parallel" is a common directive and, in the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, is described as an essential component of a technically correct squat.

  • Depth and range of motion are related, but not identical, and increasing depth through the use of weightlifting shoes or a wider stance does not necessarily incur a corresponding increase in range of motion in the knees and hips—indeed, those 'fixes' may reduce the range of motion.

  • For many athletes, the directive to squat below parallel is unnecessary and even counterproductive. Focus should instead be on maintain the 'tripod foot' through the longest effective range of motion.

I like Starting Strength. A lot, actually. I've used it myself, and I've found it to be a helpful guide for many aspiring athletes with little or no experience under a barbell. And heck—sometimes those who've been training for years can benefit from a little coaching and fine-tuning of their technique. The linear progression model of programming advocated in the book, while nothing particularly special in terms of producing strength gains, effectively helps novice athletes refine their technical execution of basic barbell lifts as they gradually acclimate to heavier weights. Consistent technical execution and gradual progression into heavy loads—definitely a great approach.

I think that like many instructional guides in strength training, the book works best when— like the Pirate Code—it is viewed as a guideline. It will help many novice athletes get stronger and improve their execution and confidence with barbell-oriented lifts. But over the years of following the Starting Strength community, listening to podcasts, and engaging in online communities, I've found that too often those guidelines are presented as dogma—rules that all aspiring athletes must follow to get stronger in the fastest, safest, and most efficient manner. 

There are a couple of contentious issues surrounding the way the squat is taught in Starting Strength. One is the advocacy of "low-bar" squats. Greg Nuckols, writing for Stronger By Science, penned a superbly well-researched article on squat variations which concludes, more or less, that for most people (non-competitors) the squat variation used doesn't really matter that much. I strongly recommend giving it a read. 

But today I want to tackle another issue: the prescription of "squatting below parallel."

A rule, or a guideline?

In Starting Strength, 3rd Edition, author Mark Rippetoe declares, "If it's too heavy to squat below parallel, it's too heavy to have on your back." He later emphasizes, "Any deviation from this position will constitute bad technique." He claims that a below-parallel low-bar squat uses "the full range of motion of the hips and knees." But there are several problems with these statements, the most relevant being that depth is not the same thing as range of motion. They're closely related, certainly, but it's important to understand the difference and how to apply it to your own training or coaching. 

The concept of squatting below parallel comes from competitive powerlifting. It's a simple way for judges to ascertain, as fairly as possible, whether someone did a "complete" repetition on the competition platform. This simple rule demarcates a clear standard to which all competitors must adhere. While this is fine for the purposes of competitive powerlifting, there are three variables which determine the effective range of motion for an athlete:

  • The individual's anthropometry
  • The individual's squatting stance
  • The individual's mobility

A lifter with short femurs and a long torso will generally have a considerably easier time squatting below parallel than a lifter with longer femurs. Longer femurs substantially increase the demands of ankle dorsiflexion required to achieve proper competition depth. This can be abated somewhat with a wider stance—which also reduces the range of motion required by the hips and knees. 

By assuming a wider stance or simply being blessed with good genetics for squatting, some people can achieve competition depth—"below parallel"—fairly easily. It does not mean, though, that they are squatting through a fuller range of motion at the hips and knees. This bears repeating: depth and range of motion are related, but distinct. "Depth" is the arbitrary point at which a squat is considered a "good lift" in competition, " regardless of stance, anthropometry, or mobility; range of motion" occurs at the joints. So what about those individuals who aren't gifted with the anthropometry of an elite powerlifter? 

"Squat Shoes"

To better understand the issue of depth vs range of motion, I like to talk about lifting shoes, which the coaches at Starting Strength regularly recommend, going so far as to argue that you "need shoes for squats" (you do not). Low-profile powerlifting-oriented shoes, such as the Adidas Powerlifts, have a slight heel-to-toe drop around a half inch. Olympic weightlifting shoes, such as the Nike Romaleos and Reebok Legacy Lifters, have a considerably more exaggerated heel-to-toe drops—average is 18.5mm, or about 3/4"; the Legacy Lifters have a 22mm drop, and some weightlifting shoes even have a 24mm drop (a full inch!). Olympic weightlifters are required to squat ass-to-grass with a nearly upright torso, and even elite weightlifters don't always have sufficient ankle mobility to pull this off. Even among those who do have exceptional mobility, a weightlifting shoe makes the upright torso position easier to attain. 

What's interesting about these shoes is that even doing low-bar squats, many users report their squats feeling much better. Where they might have struggled to consistently hit parallel without excess lumbar flexion or valgus knees, now they are consistently and easily hitting that arbitrary depth with few if any technical errors. "These shoes feel great!" As Rippetoe himself says in the book, "Olympic weightlifting shoes have a little lift in the heel that makes it easier to get the knees forward just in front of the toes. Your choice will depend on your squatting style and your anthropometry." Well, why? What's really happening when you squat with an elevated heel?

The answer is that you are essentially cheating the amount of ankle dorsiflexion required to achieve a below-parallel squat. You are not actually increasing the range of motion through which the knees and hips are traveling; indeed, with a high enough heel drop, you may even be using slightly less range of motion in your knees and hips to reach the same arbitrary depth. 

It's not hard to see why this usually feels better. When you lack sufficient mobility in dorsiflexion, as you descend into the bottom position of the squat your body will try to compensate in some way. The weight distribution will shift off the midfoot and pitch forward or back, and the lumbar spine will go into increased flexion. It can feel like you really have to force your body to get into that below-parallel position—because if you're like a lot of lifters, you do! Cheating the degree of dorsiflexion required allows you to achieve the same below-parallel depth without bending your knees and hips any further. But you aren't actually utilizing a greater range of motion—you've just changed the angle of your ankles. 

Starting Strength online communities abound with threads on the best Olympic weightlifting shoes to purchase for low-bar back squats, and comments from users about how much better it feels to squat with them. But in addition to the dubious advice of spending up to $200 on shoes designed for an Olympic sport to perform the relatively less demanding mobility requirements of low-bar squats, the use of shoes with elevated heels can present problems because they subtly alter the kinematics of the lift.

A common error among novice weightlifters is, when pulling the bar from the floor in a snatch or clean, a tendency to pitch forward onto the balls of the feet. This error can occur in part because of the footwear—the elevated heels incline the foot and naturally cue the lifter to push from the balls of the feet. It takes time and practice to find stability over the middle of the foot while utilizing a shoe with a heel drop. This is important, because weightlifting shoes should never be considered a quick fix—they require an understanding of what they do and how to adapt to them. A less expensive fix is to stretch the soleus. A quicker fix is to simply quit worrying about squatting below parallel.  

An alternative to below parallel: the tripod foot

In The Squat Bible, Dr. Aaron Horschig, DPT, describes the "tripod foot"—even pressure on the ball of the foot behind the big toe, the ball of the foot behind the little toe, and the heel. A cue such as "knees out!" (a common one among Starting Strength coaches) should always be followed with an emphasis on the tripod foot, so the athlete does not mistakenly abduct the knees so much that their weight shifts to the outside edges of their feet. 

Any cue or error correction a coach can offer in a squat will always ultimately be about preserving the tripod foot. The center of gravity can only be properly maintained over the midfoot if the tripod foot is engaged through the full range of motion. Excess lumbar flexion or an incorrect torso angle will cause the weight on the foot to shift forward or backward (depending on the lifter's anthropometry). Valgus knees (knees collapsing inward) will cause the weight to shift off the outside balls of the feet and, often, the heels. 

For some athletes, the time and trouble of squatting to an arbitrary competition depth is simply not worth the effort. A woman with long femurs who has spent two decades wearing high heels will have a more difficult time squatting to "depth" than a woman with short femurs and a lifetime of wearing mostly flat shoes. Regularly stretching the soleus muscles can often produce significant changes to squat depth, but not everyone is built to do equally deep squats, which is apparent even in elite international Olympic weightlifting competition. If an athlete has invested considerable time and effort into improving their ankle mobility and made considerable improvements to their depth but still cannot consistently achieve an error-free below-parallel position without elevating their heels with an expensive shoe, it's probably time to ease up and focus on getting that person stronger within their functional range of motion by having them squat as low as they can while maintaining the tripod foot. Chances are, the client is not a competitive powerlifter and this will work just fine. If they are a competitor and they have to hit that arbitrary depth, tell 'em to buy some lifting shoes.  

Is squatting below parallel bad?

There's nothing inherently wrong with squatting below parallel, provided the athlete can achieve it without technical errors and without the assistance of an elevated heel. Some coaches like it because it provides a clear metric by which to measure an athlete's strength gains. If squat depth varies erratically, it can be difficult if not impossible to determine whether the athlete is actually getting stronger—regardless of whether they're adding weight to the bar. But even this is not a perfect metric, and even elite lifters show some variance in their squat depth from session to session. Loose clothing and even slightly varied viewing angles may make it difficult to ascertain precisely when the athlete has achieved parallel. Further, any variation in foot stance from session to session will directly affect the lifter's ability to squat below parallel. A coach need only say, "That's about right."

Accordingly, it should not be difficult to ensure someone is progressing in strength as long as they are squatting to a consistent depth with a consistent stance. If their stance changes, their depth may look better or worse but that doesn't mean the range of motion in the hips and knees has changed. A coach's aim should be to establish a correct stance and consistent depth through the longest effective range of motion possible for that athlete, and then focus on consistent technical execution of the lift and progressive load. If the athlete is able to squat below parallel, that's great. If a little light mobility work allows them to achieve that depth, that's great too. But if they're still having difficulty after weeks or months of training, hammering them on an inch or two of "depth" is counterproductive, especially if they are not competitive athletes. 

I should reiterate, as I emphasized at the outset, that though I have my nitpicks with it, I have used and frequently recommend Starting Strength. There are quite a few outstanding strength coaches who hold the titular certification, and the programming and exercise instruction have helped many novice athletes get stronger. But it's important that technical instruction of any lift be adapted to the needs and goals of the athlete. That's why "squat below parallel," while a useful guideline in many circumstances, need not be a primary goal for many athletes and should be applied judiciously—not dogmatically.