Tuesday Q+A: How to Achieve Greater Squat Depth – video tutorial on proper squat form for a deep squat by John Sifferman

posted in: Exercises, Q+A, Strength Training, Videos | 21
John
John in a rock bottom squat.

QUESTION: Hey John, great video about pistols! just wondering, I’m 6 foot 3 inches tall, and can’t for the life of me do a bodyweight deep squat, and keep my HEELS on the ground – they always rise. You show good form here and just wondering how tall are you? And any tips to get that deep squat? keep it up! ta, Jon

ANSWER: I’m 5’9″ tall.

Before you watch the video, let’s go over some definitions, so we are clear on what a deep squat really is.  There are three levels of squat depth in my mind.

First, the squat for sissies, which is the most common (AKA the “1/4 squat”).  This is the squat that you usually see at health clubs by the same guy who’s doing biceps curls in the squat rack.  The lifter usually loads up the bar way too much for their current strength level, steps into the squat rack and shoulders the weight.  Stepping back with the weight, they proceed to grunt and scream as they move the bar about 2-6 inches in space – down and up, down and up.

The sissy squat is virtually useless.  It won’t count in a powerlifting meet. It won’t count in an olympic weightlifting meet.  In fact, the only thing that the sissy squat is useful for, is blowing out a disk in your lumbar spine.  Don’t do the sissy squat.

The next level of squat depth is the powerlifting squat.  This squat ranges from legs fully locked to knees bent slightly past the 90 degree mark.  This is a great squat depth for building strength in the legs, and it is used in powerlifting meets to test one rep maxes.

The third level of squat depth is the rock bottom squat (AKA the “deck squat,” or “@$$ to grass squat”).  This is the deepest squat that comprises a full range of motion.

In the bottom position of this squat: the tailbone is tucked underneath the pelvis (lower back rounded forward) and the hamstrings are resting on the calf muscles.  This is a very difficult position to achieve, especially for taller people.

You mentioned about having trouble squatting and keeping your heels on the ground. Here’s a quick tutorial to help you achieve a deeper squat:

How to Achieve a Deeper Squat by John Sifferman


Note: in my experience, the most common reason for having trouble with getting into a deep squat is due to a lack of mobility and flexibility – the hips and ankles being the usual culprits, but it can also result from problems elsewhere. If you think that’s you, then check out this free joint mobility program (follow-along videos): The Intu-Flow Joint Mobility Program: Beginner Level. I’ve coached and witnessed many people get significantly deeper into a squat after just a few minutes of targeted joint mobility work. This stuff works.

Now, the first issue we have here is leverage.  The taller person usually has much longer femur’s (thigh bone) than the shorter person.  When squatting down, this puts much more strain on the femur and the adjacent joints than it does on someone who is shorter.  Essentially, when someone who is taller and has longer femurs squats, their torso is further back and at a leverage disadvantage compared to a shorter person.  The longer that femur is, the further back the torso will be, and the more difficult to achieve a rock bottom squat.

While the first issue for tall lifters is leverage, the second issue is having to lift weights a further distance.  Shorter people have another advantage in weightlifting because they don’t have to move a weight as far as someone who is taller.  The actual distance from the rock bottom position to standing is longer for taller people, equaling more total force that must be produced to move the weight.

It’s true.  It’s more work to lift weights when you’re taller.

Now, if you’re tall, these things might discourage you – but don’t let them.  You see, there are many different options you have for increasing your squat depth, and for training your legs in general.  This is what I would do to increase your squat depth naturally.

1) Try Front Squats

If you’ve been doing back squats regularly, try switching to front squats. Sure, you’ll have to use less weight (and that’s probably better for you anyways), but it will help you to squat “taller,” with your chest up due to the improved leverage.

2) Practice Rock Bottom Squats With Assistance

Try squatting while holding onto a railing, or squat rack with your hands.  Get as deep as you possibly can until your heels feel compelled to rise.  Push the limit, and every day move another millimeter deeper into the rock bottom squat.

3) Increase the Mobility of Your Hips and Lumbar Spine

This will help allow a full arch when squatting, which could be a limiting factor for you.  Seriously, if you don’t have full range of motion control over your hips and spine, you better get to work on it no matter how tall you are.  Living with tight hips or an immobile spine is like walking around as a ticking time bomb, an injury waiting to happen somewhere.

4) Strengthen The Legs With Different Exercises

The good news is that squats are not the only great exercise for your legs.  Squats are definitely one of the best overall exercises, on average.  But when you’re tall, it’s probably not the best for YOU.  There are tons of other great exercises that will give you a tremendous training effect in a natural range of motion.  Some of these exercises are…

lunges (forward, reverse, walking, lateral, diagonal, reverse diagonal, plie, and loaded variations of all)

bench step-ups (forward, lateral, rotational, etc.)

single leg squat variations

bulgarian split squat (rear leg elevated on bench)

dragon twisting

Chinese squats

deadlift variations

swings

There really is no reason to dread not being able to squat.  If you work on your rock bottom squat, and just can’t seem to do it without raising your heels, don’t sweat it.  It doesn’t mean you’re any less athletic or unhealthy, it’s just not one of the literally infinite exercises that works for you.  You’ll just have to choose a different exercise from the many that are available.

Getting better at bodyweight squats? Want to try one-leg squats (aka pistols)? Check out my tutorial with multiple progressions for all skill levels here: How to work up to Single Leg Squats.

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21 Responses

  1. That was great advice, thanks.

  2. very helpful, especially as I’m 6’6″! it may be time to give up hopes of achieving the full deck squat

  3. John:
    Thanks for the advice. I’m also tall and have found to prefer front squats over back squats. I’ve been told that front squats should not be done for high reps. How true is that? Or could you do front squat for say sets of 10?

  4. Rocko,

    I’ve never heard that myself.

    A front squat is only bad for high reps if it’s performed poorly. There is no cutoff for maximum repetitions. I know many fighters who will do high rep front squats for strength-endurance – sometimes 50-100 reps.

    If you’re healthy, free from pain and injury, then your goals should dictate your repetition amounts. 10 rep sets are suited for hypertrophy goals.

    Best,

    John

  5. Thanks for the reply John. I’m looking to use the front squats as an assistance to my deadlifts, since my quads are a little small and week compared to my back which is very strong. So 10 reps will work great.
    Deadlifts and Overhead presses are the only barbell exercises I use for strenght ( 3-5 reps) I use chinups/pullus, dips/pushups (various types) as an assistance for the overhead press and back extensions, hanging leg raises and now front squats as assistance for the deadlift.

  6. hi john just wanted to ask, what is the difrence betwen a rock bottom squat and a trinity squat, i been doing flow fit for a while but dont now the diffrence. thank you for your time and advice.

  7. Hi Ramiro,

    a rock bottom squat is simply a bodyweight squat that involves a full range of motion – going all the way down to the lowest depth possible. It’s pictured above, just lose the keg.

    a trinity squat is a bodyweight squat, but with an emphasis on 3 different levels of breath upon descent – clavicular level breath, intercostal level breath, and diaphragmatic level breath. Essentially, the further down you squat, the more of an exhalation you will require if performing a trinity squat.

    When doing a rock bottom squat using the Trinity breathing protocol, you’ll have to tap into your diaphragmatic level of breath at the very bottom of the exercise – exhaling pretty much everything you’ve got in your lungs.

    Does that make sense?

  8. hi john, well is a little confusing, specially when on the flowfit dvd it doesnt say much about the levels of breathing, would it be to much if you could give a demo on how to do that type of breathing?

  9. I probably couldn’t do it justice. Sonnon explains it pretty well in his Intu-Flow program. For now, just focus on exhaling completely when doing rock bottom bodyweight squats. When you’re in the bottom position, your lungs should be almost completely empty.

  10. thank very much for your advice, flow fit has been one of my favorite work outs. i will start looking into the intu flow program.
    again your site is realy great.

  11. full depth squats REALLY weren’t happening for me. then i tried goblet squats. these are the absolute greatest. do you think you could do a video on this exercise? thanks for the help!

  12. Jon,

    holding a weight in front of you can really help you to counter-balance during a full squat. look for a quick tutorial video on the goblet squat this week.

  13. could you explain what a chinese squat is please?

  14. This advice helped a lot but I’m a Tackle in Highschool,and I’m pretty big, 6’4 290, I’m kind of off balance when i squat or clean I can do a high amount of weight, just poor form,any particular advice for bigger lifters?

  15. Was trying to check out the pup but this dude kept getting in the way! ;-)

  16. Thanks so much! I’m just a new mom trying to get back in shape. I held my baby in front (for the front load!) and that is the deepest squat I’ve ever done! I’m pretty tall gal, 5’10” and all legs. I’d never considered the leverage issue. You just made my day! :)

  17. What is your furry assistant’s name?
    Thanks for squat ideas. I’m only 5’2″ and have never been able to do, even as a small kid.

  18. Hi

    Thanks a lot for your video, its really useful. Just a small question, when doing the rock bottom squat, can my feet be pointing outwards? something like a V shape, i can only achieve a full rock bottom squat with a straight back that way, i cant do it with my feet aline and pointing forward. how do i work towards have aline feet while squating?

    Regards

    Jeffrey

  19. 5-7 here, very long femur to shin length ratio, can’t even get NEAR parallel with body weight only. Long femurs force me to stop at about midway. If I force going further I must lean WAY forward, almost like you do to puke. All the exercises and flexibility in the world cannot overcome very long femurs.

    If I hang onto something in front of me and go to parallel, then leg go, I’ll fall backwards. The long thighs force my hips (center of gravity) to be very far back, and my torso isn’t long enough to counteract this by leaning forward. So out of proportion am I, that it does NOT seem that strenghening my anterior tibialis will do any good.

  20. I am 6’3″ and easily do a deck squat, always been able too. But I am a pretty flexible person. My friend is slightly smaller and can’t even go parallel because of bad ankle mobility. But for all tall people, don’t use it as an excuse. Find out if it is your hips/ankles/back/hamstrings that are lacking the mobility and do exercises to stretch them. You’ll get there!

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