Question of the Week: Squats to Parallel or Ass-to-Grass?

Question of the WeekAllow me to introduce the first ever Project Swole Question of the Week. In this section we will be tackling all those important questions like, “What is the best tasting protein bar?”, and “Should gym bunnies be allowed to distract us by wearing spandex while they workout?”

This week’s question is one that has been much debated throughout the years.
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My opinion is this: when you squat all the way down, it does put unnecessary pressure on the patella (knee). A lifetime of squatting this way could cause one to need knee surgery in their later years. Often someone that squats as low as they can go, will squat down with a greater velocity than if they had to stop themselves at a certain point (parallel). This greater velocity, combined with the stretch reflex used if they bounce out of the hole, could certainly lead to unnecessary tendon and ligament damage over time. So if you know how to squat correctly, and you do not bounce, and you are not attempting a max effort PR, then I guess I don’t see a problem with squatting to the floor; I just don’t recommend ass-to-grass barbell back squats for the average trainee.

Back Squat

Under no circumstances should you execute a half squat or a quarter squat, unless you are making a rare attempt at a super-heavy load that is higher than your 1 rep max. Occasionally I used this protocol to feel out a new weight just to expose my legs to the load. At one point (e.g. back in college) when I was squatting on average 405 lbs for 3-5 reps, I loaded up the bar to 475 and completed 3 half squats with that weight. Using this strategy helped me to attain a 465 1 rep max, because I already knew what that heavier weight felt like, so I had more confidence when I tried to attempt a similar weight for a 1 rep max.

In conclusion, I would say that 90% of the time, one should only squat to parallel or just below parallel. It is not worth sacrificing your knees just to be able to say “I squat ass-to-grass”. Perhaps you might squat all the way down with dynamic effort low box squats, jump squats, or strongman training when practicing events such as the Atlas Stones.

What do you think?
Feel free to vote and leave a comment explaining your opinion.

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9 Responses to “Question of the Week: Squats to Parallel or Ass-to-Grass?”

  1. I don’t think that’s correct. When you go down below parallel the load should naturally transfer to your hips. As a matter of fact I never have knee pain after squatting and I used to get patellar tendonitis all the time back in the days when I thought you just had to go to parallel. I think the idea that going ATG is bad for your knees has it backwards — IMO it’s actually better for your knees, therapeutic even, because you are using the full ROM.

    That said, if you really want to do an ATG squat, you need to forget all about all the technical cues that make squatting sound like such a difficult exercise to learn. Just drop down on your haunches and pretend you’re a monkey. Make sure your knees are out so you can sink lower and experiment with positioning your feet so you can stand up naturally while keeping your weight on your heels– there you go, you just learned how to ATG squat, it’s that simple.

  2. Thanks for sharing your opinion Tom Zylkin. I see what you are saying, but you must realize that it is far more dangerous to put a heavy load on a fully extended joint. The potential damage caused to the ligaments and tendons by descending into that bottom ATG position with a heavy load is great indeed. Bouncing or taking advantage of the elastic reflex just exacerbates the potential for damage. I don’t think either position, ATG or parallel, causes a HUGE amount of damage relative to each other. I recommend choosing the best solution for yourself regardless of what the ‘experts’ say.

  3. In the example photos the deep bend in the third picture makes it look like more of a back lift than a leg lift. As far as the idea of bouncing, any lift done with a bounce or tendon rebound will quickly result in injury. As Mike Mentzer said, “it’s weight lifting, not weight throwing.”

    In a proper “ass to grass” squat your feet should be 1 1/2 to 2 times shoulder width apart. This helps prevent a back bend in the lift and keeps your back near vertical. A pause of half a second at the bottom takes the inertia out of the lift. This to me is why the rock bottom squats feel better.

    It is very common for people to use back strength to come out of the hole on a parallel squat, essentially making the lift a good morning, not a squat. That is a very punishing way to get a back workout that could be better had through proper deadlift form.

    If you’re going from parallel to rock bottom squats and expecting to move the same numbers you are asking for an injury. If you want to move numbers stick with parallel squats. If you want to make gains, go all the way down, pause at the bottom and keep your back as straight as possible throughout.

  4. After two lateral meniscus tears in my right knee that were scoped, a lateral meniscus tear in my left that I’m still dealing with, and a re-occurring hip problem……. I’ll listen to the several surgeons I’ve talked to who all have said I should never go ATG. All have stated going to 90 degrees (parallel to ground) is adequate. Maybe genetically other people’s knees are better suited to go full ROM with heavy weight, but mine are not. So I need to deal with not only pain, but A-holes in the gym who talk trash about me doing “half squats”. So, next time you see a guy in the gym who might not be doing it ATG, there might be more reason behind it than him being a dummy without a clue. BTW I’m only 33 and these knees are meant to last me another few decades.

  5. Bri C, the problem is that even medical doctors are fairly clueless about anything outside their specialty. I wouldn’t listen to a GP on nutrition because they spout the usual cholesterol/saturated fat is always bad, organic is healthier, uninformed bullshit. Likewise I wouldn’t listen to any advice on lifting from a surgeon unless the surgeon was a serious lifter. Even then, I’d take it with a pinch of salt and do my own research.
    TL;DR – Don’t take anything anyone tells you as the gospel truth without researching it yourself.

  6. Hi all!
    This isn’t as simple as you believe. Doing a squat to parallel might reduce some forces but it increases others. By the way going below parallel is much more effective at recruiting hamstrings and gluteal muscles. I go as low as possible without reducing tension on the muscles. Doing so will put more stress on the knee joint of course. Going parallel will increase shear forces, they are rather dangerous, I’ve been told.

  7. Take this articles advice! During P90x legs and back I developed patella tendinitis specifically because I modified all the exercises into more of quarter squat positions gradually increasing the weights, in order to get a deeper glute work out. I have been stuck doing yoga while recuperating my knees for almost 2 months and the way it is healing I would say that I will require another months at minimum for it to be as if this problem never existed. My precious amazing ass has diminished in size I cant wait to get it back hehehe.

  8. I’ve been to more than a few gyms in my 9 years of lifting and I am not in any way exaggerating when I say that 60-80% of people in the gym that even bother squatting (or working legs in general) do them above parallel. And worse of all, these guys usually look like they are suffering through the exercise.

    I’ve recently started squatting ATG exclusively and the results have been amazing! They just feel right, and after training with ATG for a few months I’m already at my old parallel weight but with better muscle development in my legs.

    To all you lifters who are too afraid to squat ATG you don’t know what your missing!

  9. Have suffered with knee problems my entire life but they COMPLETELY vanished after switching to ATG. A personal trainer felt the need to come lecture me (even though im in much better shape) so I figured I’d do some independent research.

    Keep in mind im 6’2″ 195lbs 6%bf and NEVER squat more than 225. More interested in fitness/strength aspect of lifting as opposed to piling on more muscle than my tendons want to deal with.

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