CrossFit 204’s founder Mike Warkentin discusses the popular misconception of deep squats, and explains proper mechanics.

Myth: squatting below parallel is bad for the knees.

This myth came from a 1961 study by Karl Klein, who found, using a measuring device he created, that deep squats created some ligament laxity in the knee. He recommended against deep squatting. Since 1961, research has not confirmed Klein’s findings and has, in fact, suggested that deep squats actually create increased knee stability.

For details, please read The Biomechanics of Squat Depth by Brad Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld said: “In conclusion, there is scant evidence to show that deep squats are contraindicated in those with healthy knee function.”

Translation: if you don’t experience any pain, you can squat deep with good mechanics. Here’s how to do it.

1. Set your feet about shoulder width apart, and point your toes out about 30 degrees.

2. Put the weight in your heels. You are not barefoot waterskiing, but the weight should be toward the back of the foot.

3. Engage your core: your abdominal muscles and all the muscles that surround the spine. Your goal is to maintain the standing position of the spine in the bottom of the squat. The thoracic and lumbar curves should be maintained as you descend.

4. Raise your hands above your head. This is not absolutely necessary but will help you keep your chest up.

5. Initiate the squat by sending your hips back as if you were carrying bags of groceries and had to shut the car door with your rear.

6. Keep sending the hips back. Imagine trying to sit on a couch well behind you. Your knees will bend, but don’t think about that. Send the hips back and the knees will bend at the right point on their own. Bending the knees too soon will push you into a “back catcher” position.

7. Be sure you are actively pushing your knees out so they are right in line with your toes. The knee, ankle and foot should be in a line. Most people will let their knees roll inside their feet, which is poor joint alignment and makes it hard to hit full depth in the squat. Shove the knees out, and you’ll be able to go lower without injuring your joints.

8. Keep descending until the head of the femur is clearly below the knee.

9. In the bottom of the squat, the chest is up and the spine is neutral. Avoid rounding of the lumbar spine by working hard to pull your chest up (this is very hard for most people). Keep the weight back in the heels. Make sure the thighs are actively engaged to keep knees in line with toes.

10. Stand up.

Two common problems:

1. Letting the knees roll in—This is usually accompanied by the weight shifting to the forefoot and can be prevented by actively shoving your knees out as you descend. For many who have squatted with the toes pointed forward, pushing the knees in line with the toes will be a new adventure that will create some soreness in the inner thighs the next day. That is a very good thing!

2. Rounding the lower back—In a perfect squat, natural thoracic and lumbar curves are maintained by strong contractions of the core muscles. If you find the back rounding, work hard to activate the core to hold the spine in place as you descend. Keep the arms raised to cue you to keep the chest up. For many, the core and hip flexors will have to work very hard to maintain the lumbar curve. As a test, stand facing a wall with arms overhead. Start about 18 to 24 inches away and try to squat down without touching the wall with your hands. If you can do it, move your toes closer to the wall and try again. Keep working on this daily until you can get very close to the wall. At CrossFit 204, some of our athletes can squat to full depth with their toes right against the wall.

A deep squat activates a host of muscles and is one of the best full-body functional movements. But it requires work and technique. Keep practicing until the mechanics are sound and the movement feels natural. When using a barbell, nothing changes except the position of the arms.

For some, achieving a good squat takes some work on the body. A qualified therapist can help these people identify tight muscles and muscle imbalances, which can then be remediated.

But learn to squat properly. You’re going to do it every time you sit down for the rest of your life, so learn how to do it right.

Mike Warkentin