How Low Should I Go For Powerlifting Squats?

The ideal position that any powerlifter should aim to achieve when squatting is known as ‘Below Parallel’. It is called this due to the fact that your hip crease should be lower than the plane of your knee when your squat is at its deepest.

This is the requirement for competitive powerlifting and should be what all powerlifting enthusiasts eventually achieve, however you should not expect to be able to do a below parallel squat on your first training session.

It takes great strength and flexibility to master this kind of squat and many peoples’ biomechanical make-up restricts them from being able to perform it. Indeed, in some instances a higher or lower squat is advisable and will prevent serious injury.

Yet, with the correct training and mindset, most powerlifters will be able to achieve a below parallel squat eventually, and will be deemed competition ready as a result.

What does a Below Parallel squat look like?

As previously mentioned, in a below parallel squat the crease of your hip should be below the plane of your knee. So let’s break down those areas and make sure you are identifying them correctly. 

  • The hip crease: this refers to the fold between your hip and your thigh that occurs when you squat. When standing your hip extends smoothly into your thigh, but when bent the all important crease appears.
  • The plane of your knee: this refers to the top edge of your knee cap, (or Patella, if we are speaking medical language) when the knee cap is bent. The knee cap is the hard, triangular bone that sits in front of the knee joint.

For powerlifting squats, the hip crease should break the plane of the knee, meaning that if you drew a parallel line from the knee plane across the body your hip would be dipped beneath it.

Important note: this position does not require the tailbone to dip towards the ground and almost touch it, as is the case in ass-to-the-grass style squats. As long as the hip crease is lower than the knee plane - you are good.

According to the International Powerlifting Federation Rules, if you can achieve this below parallel squat position you will have achieved a competition movement standard, which is the ultimate goal for many serious powerlifters and will mean that your lift will be counted if you are completing.

If you were to miss the mark during a comp however, it wouldn’t matter how much weight you managed to lift, your efforts would not be counted.

So, what is the best way to achieve the below parallel squat?

A really great tip is to ask a friend to take pictures of you during training. The pictures should be taken from the side when your squat is at its deepest.

Once snapped, you will be able to review the photos and see whether, when you draw a parallel line across the body from the knee plane, your hip crease dips below it. Actually use the draw-on line features on your phone rather than your imagination to make extra sure that you are being accurate.

When, if ever, should you squat higher?

If you are serious about powerlifting and want to compete and keep progressing to higher weights, then achieving a competition movement standard is a must.

Sure, it will feel tough at first, especially if you have been squatting differently for many years, and your body may fight you on it for a time. This is because below parallel squats are hard, but hey, so is powerlifting!

Difficulty should not be used as an excuse to give up or go easy on yourself. However… There are always exceptions. In some instances people might be required to squat higher than below parallel. 

Squatting Higher Due To Biomechanical Limitations

The first reason for squatting differently is if your biomechanical make-up does not allow you to squat below parallel. Some people’s bodies are simply not designed to support a below parallel squat and to do so would cause harm and injury. Examples include:

  1. Having tight hips
  2. Having tight calves
  3. Having weak quads / knee or hip injury

Tight Hips

If you have particularly tight hips you may find that your pelvis curls under as you squat very deeply. This ‘butt wink’ or ‘pelvic tilt’ is a weak position that is not conducive with lifting heavy weights.

For powerlifting, you want to maintain a neutral pelvis that stays in line with the spine rather than tucking under, and you will need to do exercises and stretches to improve your hip flexibility before you can attempt a below parallel squat.

Tight Calves

If you have tight calves, as many powerlifters do at first, you may find that you are biomechanically unable to keep your heels on the ground as you squat below parallel.

However, it is very important that your heels remain in contact with the floor if you wish to achieve a true below parallel position, and you will therefore have to increase your calf flexibility by doing stretches before and after exercise to loosen them up.

Weak Quads / Knee or Hip Injury

Having weak quads or a previous knee or hip injury can make below parallel squats very difficult. This is due to the lack of knee mobility it can cause, preventing the knee joint from physically bending far enough for a deep squat.

When the knee does not bend fully, people tend to tilt their torsos forward excessively to compensate for the lack of depth in their squat. This is not good technique and you should therefore work on improving your knee mobility rather than attempting to squat below parallel.

The important thing when doing any kind of squat is to keep a neutral pelvic position, keep your heels on the ground, and keep a healthy torso angle. It is always better to squat higher whilst maintaining these techniques, then to squat below parallel but exercise weak technique.

Squatting Higher If You Aren’t A Powerlifter

The second reason why you might squat higher than below parallel is if you are pursuing another exercise practice other than powerlifting. In the case of yoga, pilates, weight lifting, athletics, endurance and cardio training…

The benefits of squatting below parallel are not enough to make it an essential requirement, and you may prefer to squat slightly higher and focus your efforts on other areas of your training.

This is because the strength, flexibility, and ultimate performance improvement gained by squatting below parallel are not that significant, especially considering the time and effort such a tricky maneuver can take to master.

The benefits of squatting deep in powerlifting are great, but they don’t translate necessarily to other areas of the gym.

Why, if ever, would you squat lower?

Squatting with your ass-to-the-grass is when you actually squat deeper than below parallel, and your hip crease dips far below the invisible parallel line.

This ultra deep squat requires lots of control, flexibility and strength and can be very challenging. Reasons for wanting to achieve an ass-too-the-grass squat include:

  1. If you want to guarantee a high competition score
  2. If you want to really work your quads

Guaranteeing A High Comp Score

At any powerlifting competition your depth will be observed and judged by three refs. It can be pretty intense the first time to experience that kind of scrutiny, especially in front of a crowd.

The judges decision is speedy and decisive, and it depends a lot on their angle and vantage point. There is always room for human error and discrepancy, so the higher you squat, the higher the risk is that your lift will be rejected by one of the judges.

Experienced powerlifters only just break parallel to conserve much needed power and energy by restricting their motion. However, these guys know exactly what ‘below parallel’ feels like, and have practiced for hours and hours to be able to just cut depth without exerting unnecessary energy. You have to feel pretty sure of your own technique to pull this off successfully.

For those who are new to powerlifting, the adrenaline and nerves of the competition environment can cause you to misjudge and make slip ups, which is why you may want to opt for a safe depth. This is when you squat lower than below parallel to avoid any uncertainty and free up head space to focus on performing a perfect lift. 

Emphasising The Load On Your Quads

The second reason why you might want to practice squatting lower than below parallel is if you are training up your quads.

During a deep squat it is the quad muscles (at the front of the thigh) which are responsible for the majority of the movement. They are the prime knee extensors and are what cause the knee to extend successfully at the bottom of the squat.

As you stand up, the load transfers over to the hip and lower back extensors, but there is a particularly tricky moment for the quads right before the transfer when they carry the brunt of the load. At the moment where the quads are parallel to the ground they have the maximum load and can sometimes fail.

Many powerlifters find that, when tackling maximum loads, their quads can manage the initial push up from the below parallel position, but then fail as they move through parallel. In this instance it is desirable to build up the quads through ass-to-the-grass squats. 

By doing many reps of deeper squats whilst carrying a moderate load it is possible to build up the quads sufficiently that they no longer fail under maximum loads for a less deep squatting position. 

To Sum Up

The ideal, competition movement standard squat for powerlifting is the below parallel position, when your hip crease dips below the plane of your knee.

To progress in competitive powerlifting you should aim for this depth of squat, and it is advisable to squat deeper if you want to work on your quads and guarantee your lift is counted by the judges.

However, biomechanics can get in the way, and you should therefore make sure that your body is fit and capable before you commit to the below parallel depth, otherwise you could do more harm than good.

Kevin Harris