It seems enticing doesn’t it, the ass-to-grass squat. In the gym it looks pretty impressive, and no one can question your commitment to hard core, no-bullshit barbell training. It definitely passes any seriousness test. Above all they are relatively simple to perform and possibly even easier to teach. Just go as low as you can and more or less until your hamstrings touch your calves. Simple enough, right? And by the way make sure you keep your back straight while doing them.

However, when it comes to pure Strength Training they are not ideal. The sure look great, and they will definitely work the whole range of motion, and, again, they sure do look awesome in a gym, but still they are imperfect, at least for maximal strength training.

When it comes to training for Strength gains a compound movement should cover three very important criteria to be considered effective:

a.    The movement must involve the most possible muscle mass.

b.    It must allow the greatest amount of weight to be lifted.

c.    and over the longest effective range of motion.

You would think that ass-to-grass squats satisfy these criteria, but they do not, and here’s why:

-For a muscle to be involved in a movement it has to actively produce contractile force concentrically, eccentrically or isometrically. In the squat, the “sweet spot” is just below parallel. That’s where all the muscle mass of the knee extensors, the hip extensors and the spinal stabilizers are working all together at optimum capacity.

Any higher than that and the muscles don’t have to work that hard. That is why quarter squats are “easier” than squatting to parallel, because the distance travelled under load is not as long, it doesn’t cover the longest effective range of motion.

On the opposite end, any lower than that and something has to “relax” down there. A more closed hip and greater knee angle means that the hip and the knee extensors have bailed out of their position-holding task at parallel.

In an ass-to-grass squat, glutes, quads and adductors have to release tension to reach the depth. In most cases some lumbar flexion is required as well, so erectors have relaxed as well. The hamstrings may not completely relax, as the distance between origin and insertion may remain constant, but even at constant length the may well reduce their isometric force production.

All this does not imply that ass-to-grass squats are inferior mind you, as one of the fundamental principles of strength training is specificity. That is, that our training environment needs to be specific to our objective. If your objective is Olympic lifting, then ass-to-grass squats are essential, as they are required to catch a snatch at the very bottom of their squat range.

If, however, the objective is to lift the most amount of weight possible to increase overall strength, then the just-below-parallel is definitely a better squat movement and the one that best mitigates potential injuries. It is also the one that best enhances the stretch-reflex effect, thus enabling more weight to be lifted.

The downside of the just below parallel squat is that it not completely natural. You need to make a conscious effort to decelerate the bar and start your concentric phase, (you don’t need to do that in an ass-to-grass squat as the concentric phase starts when you literally can’t go any deeper), and, as the weight increases the depth decreases, and now that squat that was just an inch below parallel turns out to be an inch above parallel, so it needs constant coaching and monitoring.

Good depth is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and incompatible with the conventional back-angle/stance/knee position/eye-gaze direction wisdom. This is why the correct squat remains the hardest of the lifts to perform and coach correctly. But it's not optional, so you'd better apply yourself instead of just going 6 inches deeper.

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