Train the Squat Through a Full Range-of-Motion

There is one exercise that is in most, if not all, athletic training programs: the squat. However, the misconception that full squats (where the hamstrings cover the calves) are dangerous still persists. As the saying goes, “There are few ‘bad’ exercises, just poor execution.”

Many coaches often design strength training programs that do not properly work muscles through their full range-of-motion. For example, squatting to only parallel (where the thigh is parallel to the floor) will overload the middle- and top-end range of the squat, but neglect the bottom range.

The result is an athlete who can squat heavy loads, but only through a limited range-of-motion. It has been established that athletes who perform the squat through a full range-of-motion have fewer incidence of knee injuries. Squatting to parallel is a common in powerlifting. However, powerlifters are attempting to lift the heaviest loads they can, but do so in a very short range-of-motion. Ultimately powerlifters are training for their sport of powerlifting, not necessarily for athletics. Partial range exercises do have their place in a strength-training program, but the muscle imbalances that occur when training exclusively through a partial range-of-motion only increase the chance of injury. There is a common misconception that squatting deep, through a full range, is dangerous. However, every legitimate study produced on the safety of the squat says quite the contrary: Squatting deep may actually provide greater knee stability. “Research does not support the contention that full squats are detrimental to those with healthy knee function.” “Given that deep squatting confers a number of important benefits, including greater muscle activation and development, improved functional capacity, and better athletic performance, there is little reason to avoid this exercise provided no medical contraindications exist.” (Schoenfeld, 2012) In Olympic weightlifting, typically up to 25 percent of an athlete’s training volume can revolve around full squats, yet the rate of knee injuries that compromise knee function in Olympic weightlifting is very low. These athletes even “bounce” at the bottom of the “squat” portion of their contested movements! A 1999 study analyzed the rates of injury over a 6-year period of elite Olympic weightlifters and found the injuries sustained by elite weightlifters were typically overuse injuries and not traumatic injuries that compromised joint integrity. (Calhoon & Fry, 1999) The knee joint is the most stable at full extension, as in standing, and at the bottom of a full squat. It is the least stable at the mid-way point (approximately 90 degrees), which makes it the worst possible place to stop and change direction of movement under load. In a full squat, the glutes and hamstrings absorb the forces imposed on the body, whereas with a half squat the less powerful muscles of the knee absorb a considerable amount of the forces at a point where the ligaments of the knee provide little stability. “The knee has four main protective ligaments that keeps the femur from displacing on the tibia (the ACL, PCL, MCL and LCL). These four ligaments are most effective at their protection during full extension and full flexion of the knee. When the knee is at 90 degrees of flexion, these four ligaments are almost completely lax and cannot exert much, if any, of a protective force at the knee.” (Zatsiorsky, 1998) In another paper on the squat, the author states, “Regimented resistance training confers an adaptive response in connective tissue, increasing its strength capacity. A stronger ligament serves to improve tolerance to load, thus further reducing the prospect of injury.” (Schoenfeld, 2010) In addition to strengthening the connective tissue of the knee, performing full squats also thoroughly targets the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) creating more balance between the four heads of the quadriceps because they all “pull” on the patella (kneecap) in slightly different directions. However, the VMO, (the teardrop shaped muscle on the inside of the knee) is the only head of the quadriceps that crosses the knee joint, which makes its development critical for knee stabilization. Together with the semimembranosus muscle of the hamstrings, a thoroughly developed VMO helps protect the medial (inside) aspect of the knee. The VMO is usually underdeveloped in many athletes because coaches are often overly concerned with squat weight, at the expense of proper technique. Consequently, the athlete never squats through a full range and frequently neglects remedial exercises, which leaves the VMO undeveloped and the knee prone to injury. The full squat remains a staple in athletic preparation because when implemented correctly it is not only effective at building bigger, stronger and faster athletes, but, when implemented correctly it also has the potential to make athletes more resistant to injury.