Originally published on July 3, 2017

This journey started with me wanting to punch a brilliant track coach, Chris Korfist, in the face. Over a year later, it will end with one of the biggest revelations in the sports performance industry. In part one of this article series, I will reveal why 99% of our research and the criteria by which we have judged the squat for athletic development is wrong. This is a bold statement, but it is not a theory, it is an irrefutable fact and I will show you why. Before your mind starts racing, this is not the same old article arguing about 1/4 squats vs. full squats or powerlifting vs. Olympic lifting style squats. This is a mind-blowing discovery that speaks to a much more fundamental issue. That issue is how we have been incorrectly analyzing the squat for athletic development by using faulty evaluation criteria and it must change. At the end of this article, if you take nothing else out of it, you must learn that the terms “depth” and “parallel” are arbitrary and have absolutely no place in athletic development training.

When I started this process, it literally gave me an anxiety attack. I was not only angry but I had a hard time accepting my own logical conclusions. What I will present is not a hard concept to understand intellectually. Emotionally, it may be extremely hard. It was especially challenging for me because I have sacrificed a lot of my body for the sport of powerlifting. In 2004, I herniated my L5/S1 disc doing an 1100-pound squat. I went from the 4th highest total in the world all-time and having my name on the board at Westside Barbell, to not being able to dress. I worked my ass off to get back to the platform and was able to win the 2014 WPC deadlift world championship. I love and have more of an emotional attachment to the sport of powerlifting than most people on this planet. However, this article is NOT about the sport of powerlifting. It’s about an exercise, the squat, which just happens to be an event in the sport of powerlifting. This monumental distinction has created a huge amount of confusion in my life and in our industry and is the beginning of the problem we are faced with today.

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To be able to walk you through this discovery, I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. That begins with stating a simple truth: muscles adapt to load based on the joint angle and range of motions through which they are worked. This is pretty basic. But this is where it starts. Accepting this also means accepting that nobody gets stronger based on where they are in space or where things are relative to the ground. The most self-evident way I can describe this is that if an athlete lays flat on their back on the ground, the crease of their hip is below their knees and their thighs are indeed “parallel" to the ground. Yet, because my knee joint has gone through 0 degrees range of motion, there can be no strength gained in the hamstrings or quads. Super simple, it is joint angles that determine strength gained, not where something is relative to the ground. Let’s move on.

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Before I explain how it is that we have all been so misguided, we must first define how we analyze and evaluate the squat for athletic development today. The two pictures below accurately portray the false lens through which we have all been looking at the squat since the inception of the sports performance industry.

Bruno squat 1

What do you see in this picture? By most powerlifting standards, and for sure by strength coaches standards, this would qualify as a “parallel” squat. This parallel definition would then make it a “good” squat in most weight rooms around the country. As an aside, it would also hit the research standard definition of “parallel” which is around 100 degrees of knee flexion. Before we go further, let me remind you, this is not an article on 1/4 squats vs. parallel squats vs. ass to ankle squats. DO NOT even start to go there. This is an article that will revolutionize how we analyze and evaluate the squat for athletic development in our industry.

Now take a look at the squat in this picture. We all know that this would never pass in any powerlifting federation in the world. And it shouldn’t! It would also be considered a quarter squat by every strength coach I know.

For many years, I would define a squat as a full body movement, with the load on the upper extremities, that is initiated at the hips and involves the person going down until their hip joint was even to or below the knee joint, and coming back up. The problem is, this is NOT the definition of a squat.

This is merely the definition of a legal squat in the sport of powerlifting. This “parallel” definition has nothing to do with the squat or what it is. It is just an arbitrary rule that was made up as part of the defining structure of a sporting competition, namely POWERLIFTING. If you read Bryan Mann’s book Powerlifting, you will learn that Bill Clark and two other guys, in a room in Missouri, decided at the inception of powerlifting, 50 or so years ago, that this “parallel” definition would be the judgment criteria of a squat in the sport of powerlifting. This “parallel” definition in the sport of powerlifting has somehow become the word of God for all squats done in the world. Whether those squats are done by a powerlifter, gym-rat, high school, college or pro athlete, they have been held to the parallel standard and there is a huge flaw in this logic.

If everyone is going to use the arbitrary sporting rule of “parallel” to judge if a squat is “good”, then they must apply all of the other arbitrary sporting rules of powerlifting to all of the other lifts as well. There are Instagram pages dedicated to making fun of people not squatting to parallel. In a lot of weight rooms, if an athlete doesn’t squat to parallel, it is not counted. Everyone who uses parallel for their guidelines of a squat, and they are not working with competitive powerlifters, is a complete hypocrite. As much as it pains me to say, I used to be the biggest among them.

If you use the powerlifting rules for squatting, in order to not be a hypocrite, you must also use the sporting rules for the bench as well. In all my years, I have never seen a strength coach yell at an athlete bench pressing who didn’t come to a complete pause with the bar on their chest, wait for the “press” command and not put the bar back until they got a “rack” command. Yet, these are the rules of the bench press in the sport of powerlifting. I know what you are thinking, “athletes are not powerlifters, there is no need to follow the powerlifting rules of the bench press for athletes”. Exactly! We are both on the same page. There is absolutely no reason that athletes should ever follow the rules of powerlifting for any of the lifts; bench, deadlift or squat.

Parallel, like other powerlifting rules, is irrelevant to athletic development. The only thing that matters for athletes is that they move the weight through the joint angles needed to produce a positive performance outcome for whatever sport they are playing. Following the rule of parallel for athletes is as illogical as giving press and rack commands in the weight room to those same athletes. It has zero influence on helping their performance in sport. Yet where are my “No Rack Command” Instagram pages?

Apparently, we can stringently enforce that one rule of the sport for everyone who squats, yet ignore all others. This is obviously ridiculous and illogical. Yet that is what we have done for years. Again, I am as guilty as any. This ridiculousness needs to stop. Our industry must change how we analyze and evaluate the squat for athletic performance and that is what I hope to accomplish with this article.

Screenshot 2017-07-03 10.59.20

The squat is just a means to an end. A movement idea or an exercise if you will. It is a tool for us to use to help our athletes become better at their sport. Whether I lower my butt four inches or drop until my butt is on my ankles, as long as I bend at the hips, knees, and ankles, the load is on my upper extremities, and I come back up, I am squatting. Now obviously, in the sport of powerlifting, you must hit depth and go to parallel, as that is the rule of the sport. For any athlete, other than a powerlifter, you should never hold them to this standard as it is irrelevant to their athletic development.

In the beginning of the article, we all agreed that strength is gained based on the range of motion through which the joint travels. To illustrate the point that “parallel” and the term “depth” has absolutely no place in athletic development training, let's go back to our previous two squat pictures.

In this picture, which most every strength coach and powerlifter would consider parallel, I have drawn the joint angles that are reached with white lines. Now, we can all argue on exact angles and “depth” but again, please resist the urge as that is not the point of the article. The knee flexion in this picture is about 95-100 degrees, which by research and most weight room standards, is a parallel squat.

Screenshot 2017-07-03 10.36.01

Here’s where our profession has gone totally wrong. Instead of analyzing joint angle range of motion to see if the athlete is getting the necessary strength gains through the range of motion needed, we have all applied the powerlifting rule of “parallel” or “depth” to influence how we analyze and evaluate this squat.

Just 18 months ago, I too would have looked at the 2nd squat, illustrated in this picture, through the lens of the sport of powerlifting. I would have used the terms “depth” and “parallel” to shape the focus of my coaching. There is no doubt that in a powerlifting meet, as I have drawn in with the lines, this squat would be about four or five inches high. This lens of depth and parallel would have forced me to yell at this athlete for only doing quarter squats. Eighteen months ago, I would have never allowed this squat in my weight room. But I would have been wrong.

I want to make clear that I still believe in good full range of motion squats, and as a powerlifter, I’ve always seen that as going to parallel. The problem is we have all been trying to apply rules from the sport of powerlifting to athletic development for other sports. You see, he is not a powerlifter, nor is he competing in a powerlifting meet. He is an athlete and my job is to make him better for his sport. This meant I had to make the biggest shift in the way I looked at movement since I have gotten into this profession 20 years ago.

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The picture on the above illustrates just how wrong, myself and everyone else in the sports performance industry has been. Not only that but it shows just how arbitrary our definitions of certain squats have been. If you were 100% good with the 1st squat, and we have already agreed that strength is gained through the joint range of motion worked, then you must be 100% good with the 2nd squat shown in the picture here. This squat is in fact not a quarter squat, it is exactly the same range of motion squat that we showed in the 1st picture.

All I did was take the exact same lines from the 1st squat, group them together and rotate them. The fact is, the joint angle range of motion through the knee is the exact same in both squats! I will repeat it again. If you were “good” with the range of motion in the 1st squat, then you must, by your own admission, be “good” with the range of motion in the 2nd squat. It is the exact same range of motion in both! Go back and look at all pictures if you must.

I’ll let you take a minute while your mind blows…

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The problem with what we have been doing is that we have been applying the rule of a sport, to shape how we analyze and evaluate a movement that we should be using as a tool to improve athletic development. To get more specific. The real problem is that no one has been looking at one of the most integral joints for athletic development, the ANKLE.

When we squat, we utilize the ankle, knee and hip joints. All three of these joints must produce force for strength in not only the squat, but for sports performance as well. In any analysis for the squat, whether in your weight room or for research, if we do not define the angles for the ankles, knees and hip joints, then we are giving an incomplete picture of what is happening in the squat. This was made abundantly clear in the pictures above.

I know many of you are going back through the pictures, but it is undeniable, we have been analyzing and evaluating the squat for athletic development incorrectly this whole time. More specifically, we have been evaluating it incompletely because we have left an essential joint out of the analysis. Factoring the ankle in is essential for both the big picture of the squat and for athletic development.

I would have never gotten to this realization had it not been for brilliant coaches like Chris Korfist, Cal Dietz and Ian King. All I did was take partial concepts that they have spoke about for a long time and put them together in a way that made sense for a big meat head like myself. Honestly, If you're not finding this to be difficult to accept emotionally, then you're a better person than I am. This took me a long time to come to terms with.

Now that we have unequivocally proven that “depth” and “parallel” are totally irrelevant terms for athletic development and that we have been evaluating and analyzing the squat incorrectly, I want to provide the correct way to evaluate the squat for athletic development. That starts with consistent terms and proper definitions for what is happening in the squat. Without this, we can’t even begin to argue about what type of squat is best for athletic development. In Part two of this series, I do just that.

The Squat and Athletic Development: How We Have All Been F*cking It Up — Redefining the Squat

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