Practically every major fitness publication throws such a term around; squatting to parallel, with some even suggesting that one should descend deeper than this parallel point.
But what exactly does squatting below parallel even mean?
To put it in a nutshell, squatting below parallel means lowering oneself to a depth wherein the knees are above the crease of the pelvis during the eccentric phase of a barbell back squat repetition - thereby altering the base exercise in several ways.
Squat depth refers to the lowest point of a barbell back squat repetition, wherein the lifter’s hips and buttocks descend to a certain elevation prior to the lifter rising back to a standing position.
Though seemingly simple, the depth to which an exerciser will descend during the barbell squat can actually have wide reaching effects on their risk of injury and eventual muscular hypertrophy, with certain angles of hip depth in relation to the knee resulting in a higher risk of patellar injury.
When someone uses the term “parallel” squat, they are referring to the position of the pelvis in relation to the knee during the bottom of a squat repetition. A parallel squat depth indicates that the pelvis (or the crease of the hip, which is more visible) is in line with the knee.
The parallel squat depth is considered to be the “safest” and most advisable depth to which a lifter can lower themselves to, while still maintaining significant posterior chain muscle group recruitment.
Now that we’ve established what a parallel squat is, we can see that the term “below parallel” squat indicates a lifter performing the conventional back squat to a depth that brings the pelvis below the knees at the lowest point of the exercise’s range of motion.
This particular level of squat depth is somewhat less popular due to the misconception that it places greater stress on the joint of the knee - something that, when performing the squat correctly, is of minimal impact at best.
Generally, squatting below a parallel depth requires a greater level of muscular strength and mobility, increasing the difficulty of the movement itself.
While it may be somewhat difficult to determine whether or not your squat is below parallel during the repetition, sufficient practice and external coaching should teach you to subconsciously recognize when you’ve reached the correct depth.
Whether or not a squat should go below the parallel point of depth is often debated - serious weightlifters and powerlifters will argue that gluteal and hamstring muscle group recruitment is significantly better when squatting below parallel, while those opposed to it cite studies that show greater shear force placed on the knee in such a position.
In truth, both sides of the debate have merit to their arguments, and as such it requires less of a generalized answer than simply “yes” or “no”.
For lifters with poor mobility or a history of knee injury, it is entirely fine to stick with a parallel squat depth, as pushing the knee too hard in terms of pressure and force is not worth the additional training stimulus in exchange.
Whereas powerlifters, individuals with lagging posterior chains, weak quadriceps or those wishing to take advantage of the gluteal stretching effect may prefer to squat below the parallel level.
It should be noted that transitioning from a parallel squat to a below parallel squat does not need to be within a single sitting, and it is entirely possible to gradually switch from one to the other so as to avoid mobility or form issues.
Though squatting below parallel primarily increases the contraction of the quadriceps femoris muscle group, it also significantly improves activation and explosive rate of force development in the gluteus muscles and the hamstrings.
This is both due to a longer dynamic time under tension placed on such muscles, as well as a greater stretching of the musculature, improving both mobility and range of action stability when under load.
As the lifter drops below parallel level, a greater level of resistance is placed along the patellar joint, thereby requiring greater knee flexion strength to occur in order for the lifter to rise to a standing position once more.
The quadriceps femoris’ primary biomechanical function is to initiate knee flexion, wherein the legs straighten due to the muscles pulling in the opposite direction.
This, in turn, results in greater quadriceps training stimulus as they are recruited to a more significant degree at the absolute bottom of the repetition.
Powerlifting competitions often set strict criteria on how a competition lift is to be performed, and the barbell back squat is no exception.
Practically every powerlifting meet will require the lifter lower themselves to a depth that is below parallel or just so - with any squat repetitions that are deemed above the parallel level being disqualified from the competition.
For example, page 27 of the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) rulebook provides a picture of what they deem the "parallel line" and the top surface of the legs at the hip joint below this imaginary line.
While powerlifting rules do not necessarily require the lifter to go far below the parallel level, the majority of advanced powerlifting athletes do so in order to minimize the risk of referees or judges mistaking a parallel depth squat as one that is above parallel level.
Bringing the depth of a squat below parallel equates to the eccentric phase of the movement taking a longer length of time to complete.
While this does indeed equate to the repetition being significantly more difficult (and therefore also reduces maximum weight), it also means that the muscles placed under tension will receive greater training stimulus in response.
This is especially useful in developing muscular endurance and the ever useful neuromuscular recruitment factor.
Achieving a below parallel squat depth may be difficult for lifters that are unfamiliar with such a mechanic, with some being unsure of exactly how far their average squat depth really is.
One method of ensuring that you are achieving parallel squat depth (or lower) is to record yourself performing a squat from the side.
If, during the transition between the concentric and eccentric phases of the repetition, your hip crease is within a parallel line to the top of your knee joint - then yes, you have reached a parallel squat depth.
Otherwise, if you still have trouble achieving below parallel or parallel squat depth, try the following tips.
The most common reason behind a lifter being unable to achieve a proper squat depth is a lack of sufficient mobility in their lower body joints.
These can be stiffness and poor mobility in the hips, ankles, or even the lower back in some cases - with the easiest remedy simply being the addition of mobility work targeting these areas.
Issues in parallel or below-parallel squat execution like bending forward, difficulty extending the pelvis backwards or the knees caving in are all issues relating to poor mobility of the legs.
Depending on the length of the lifter’s femurs or the width of their hips, the standard advice of spreading the feet hip-width apart may be inapplicable. This is especially true for particularly tall women, or men with poor external hip rotation mobility.
Though it may not apply to every individual, widening the distance of the feet from one another can aid in achieving parallel or below-parallel squat depth while simultaneously reducing the total range of motion involved.
Squatting at a larger range of motion equates to more energy being expended in order to complete a repetition - also equating to the musculature of the exerciser being exhausted far more rapidly.
One reason why many lifters are unable to complete a full set of below-parallel squats at their normal working weight is simply because going below parallel is more difficult, and as such it is advisable to lower the weight of the exercise in order to account for this factor.
Many lifters make an error during the eccentric portion of the squat, wherein they attempt to lower their pelvis straight downwards instead of pushing the hips back as they bend at the knees simultaneously.
Vertically lowering yourself in a straight line will both make the squat needlessly more difficult as well as make achieving below-parallel depth quite difficult without significant ankle mobility.
As such, instead of visualizing your pelvis as dropping downwards during the squat, it is instead more advisable to “sit” down by extending the pelvis backwards, both ensuring maximum posterior chain recruitment and greatly reducing demand placed on the knee and ankle joints.
As you can see, squatting below parallel can be both a problem and an advantage, depending on your training level and goals. Whether or not to go below the parallel point during the squat is entirely up to you and your needs.
So long as proper form is followed, there should be little issue with the average healthy weightlifter performing squats to such a depth - and, it is our personal advice that most lifters do so, even if just for the sake of greater posterior chain development.
1. Cotter JA, Chaudhari AM, Jamison ST, Devor ST. Knee joint kinetics in relation to commonly prescribed squat loads and depths. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1765-74. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182773319. PMID: 23085977; PMCID: PMC4064719.
2. Bryanton, Megan A.; Kennedy, Michael D.; Carey, Jason P.; Chiu, Loren Z.F.. Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2012 - Volume 26 - Issue 10 - p 2820-2828 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31826791a7