Getting Your Lifters to Hit Depth

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | July 02, 2024

a lifter at the bottom of the squat - full depth

The importance of hitting depth in the squat has been thoroughly covered in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, articles published on, and the many, many form checks on the forums. The mechanics of hitting depth are well understood, but as a coach getting your lifters to hit depth can be a challenge. It's your job to figure out if it's a technical problem or psychological problem. There are many different tactics you can use in the case of a psychological problem, and you'll have to discern which method is most appropriate.

Check Technique First

The first place to check why a lifter isn't hitting depth is just basic technique. The stance must be wide enough, but not too wide, and the knees must be actively shoved apart. If the stance is too wide, the lifter's knees will cave in (valgus) in order to hit depth, or he will choose not to go lower because he can feel the excessive adductor stretch and knees caving. Make sure the stance width is right. If the lifter has a big belly, the toes may need to be turned out a little more than the standard starting place of “30 degrees.” A lifter on his first day will need to learn the bottom position with the thighs out of the way, a bent-over back angle, and the hip crease below the top of the patella.

The lifter may be too weak to squat to this position without falling down. Refer in this case to the following video: What to do if You Can't Squat the Bar. These are the common physiological problems of hitting depth, but they all basically come from learning problems or weakness problems. These usually show up the first day, but need to be confirmed again in later workouts if the lifter has started to miss depth – particularly the stance.

Lifters usually fail the squat in one of two ways:

1) They hit depth, and then at some point on the way up, stop moving up and start to go down. Then the spotters help or the lifter puts the bar down on the safeties.

2) They squat high and then finish the ascent.

The second situation is a problem all coaches have to learn to solve: when the lifter is able to squat to depth one workout, and as the weight gets progressively heavier across workouts, he will miss depth. Before anything else, ensure the basic technique mechanics are correct. The lifter may have stopped shoving his knees out, so his thighs are blocking him. Cue “Knees out” or “Knees apart” as he gets to the bottom. His balance may be getting forward as he gets to the bottom. Tell him “Sit back at the bottom to hit depth” before the set, and then as he approaches the bottom of the squat, “Sit back.” If fixing the technique doesn't fix the depth, you have a psychology problem. Fortunately, we have methods to address that too.

Check Understanding

Lifters frequently have no idea what they are doing with their bodies. Find out if they know what's going on. Ask them if they know if they got deep enough. Many will think they were correctly deep. Tell them they are not at full depth and need to get deeper on the next set. Make sure to give feedback in the middle of the set. For example, after the first rep: “Good depth.” After the second: “Get a half-inch deeper,” and so on. This is just an information problem. If they continue to be inconsistent or make no progress, ask what they feel at the bottom. Most lifters in this situation will directly tell you, “I'm scared I won't be able to come up back up if I get deeper.”

The way you squat is with your hips, and this will have to be taught to almost everybody because, again, they don't know. Popular culture holds that the squat is “quads” – “Just look at the pictures in the magazines!” A few minutes on YouTube looking at heavy squats clearly shows that the hips initiate the squat out of the bottom. If you think about driving your ass up out of the bottom, the squat immediately gets more efficient, and you now have a useful thing to think about to focus your attention correctly. You “come back up” with your hips, and thinking about that under the bar is very useful.

The interesting aspect of depth is that full depth is actually easier and more effective than hitting parallel. Squatting six inches high does not train the prime movers or stabilizers of the squat as effectively as a full-depth squat. As the moment on the hip and knee increase, the muscles controlling their joint angles require more force, thereby stressing the muscles more. Additionally, the stabilizing muscles must produce more force to prevent undesirable motion. The back, for example, will change angle because of the hip joint, but the spine should not flex or extend – it should be rigid. The back muscles are responsible for this, and if the moment arm between the bar and hip increases, so does the stabilizing force requirement on the back muscles.

As a result, it is easy to squat heavier weights high, since the range of motion is shorter, but it's also not effective for getting stronger. Squatting very deep, like six inches below parallel, is not desirable because 1.) the weight is always lighter, and 2.) most lifters have to relax muscles to get that deep, thereby removing muscle mass from the system. Even if the lifter doesn't need to relax any muscles to get six inches below parallel, lighter weight is being lifted, so it's simply less effective for improving strength.

Given these extremes, where very low is very hard and very high is very easy, it's intuitive that parallel must be easier than slightly below parallel. However, all of the muscles at parallel are not stretched effectively, so the stretch reflex – the bounce out of the bottom – is diminished. At full depth, the adductors and hamstrings are incorporated better than at parallel. Therefore, the speed on the way up in a correct squat will be faster than a parallel squat, assuming all other aspects are the same.

Pointing this out to lifters who are scared of the heavy weight can lessen their fears. But this may not be enough.

Trick Them into Hitting Depth

There are a few tricks to handle fear if information is inadequate to alleviating that fear. Try loading the bar in a non-standard way so they don't actually know what they're lifting. For example, for a 315 lb squat, instead of loading three 45 lb plates on each side, load two 45 lb plates, a 25 lb plate, one 10 lb plate, one 5 lb plate, and two 2.5 lb plates. This concept works particularly well on milestone weights like 135, 185, 200, 225, 275, 300, 315. Many lifters are intimidated by seeing a new full 45 lb plate on the bar, even though it may literally be only 2 lb more than last workout.

It can be effective to just focus on the first rep, because squatting one rep full depth is not as daunting as all five reps. Tell them, “I don't care if you get all five reps here. I just want to see them all full depth, so focus on the first rep, and get that full depth. Then focus on the next. If you only three or four or whatever reps, that's fine. Just make sure they're all full depth.” Make sure to give them feedback during the set and continue fixing technical problems too. Typically, they will be able to do all five reps.

Similarly, lifters sometimes benefit from a last warm up that is close to their set of five – even as far as doing the work set weight for a single rep as a last warm up. If they can prove to themselves they can do one full-depth rep, they will be able to do all five. This does not represent such a large amount of stress that it will negatively affect the program, just make sure they rest enough before their first full set.

Lifters who are ambitious and aggressive might miss depth because of motivation to add weight to the bar. These lifters respond well to being held back. Resetting weights to a load they can squat to full depth may be prudent when they aren't hitting depth. Or repeating a workout to reinforce the importance of depth may be a good short term decision to ensure long term expectations are correct. You can tell the lifter, “The depth wasn't good on all of those today. We'll have you repeat this next time, but they all have to be full depth, otherwise we'll have to repeat again, or we might even have to reduce the weight a little, but this has to be right.” This may dishearten your lifters for the moment, and they may even try to negotiate to keep adding weight, but it's the job of the coach to make sure they're doing the squats correctly in order to make the best long-term progress.

Counting acceptable reps is a brutal tactic that can work on lifters with the grit to tolerate it or younger lifters. Tell the lifter before the set, “On this next set, I will only count each legal-depth rep. If you squat high on the first one, I'm going to say 'zero'. If you squat full depth, I'll say 'one.' We're going to do this until I count to 'five' and then you can rack the bar. If it takes you eight reps to get five full depth, so be it.” This will scare the shit out of some lifters, so be judicious when using it. You don't want to push people harder than they can be pushed. In general, I have noticed this works well on lifters under 20 years old, because in my experience they’re not used to making openly contrary decisions. If you tell them to do another rep, they’ll at least try their best. They also usually are not aware of how capable they actually are.

Hitting depth at heavy weight is difficult but essential. It is the lifter's and coach's jobs to make sure full depth is reached. The lifter’s job is to be coachable and give every rep his best effort. It is the coach’s job to figure out what is impeding the lifter from hitting depth and using teaching, cueing, and counseling to enable him to succeed. The first assumption should be to check basic mechanics – new lifters may need to make some changes from what is typical to hit depth. Experienced lifters may have had “form creep” develop. Check and fix the mechanics. Then see if the problem is a learning problem or maybe even a psychological problem, like fear. But depth is essential and can be learned.

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