Partial squats can sometimes be okay.
There, I said it.
I have a feeling this is probably going to be the most controversial article that I write for some time.
Now. I can feel the Internet Form Police getting heated already. Thousands of angry keyboard warriors tapping away at their phones in fury. “Dan,” they rage, “how can you be so stupid? Ass to grass or nothing bro”.
I know. And I used to agree with you. I have often been the judgmental gym-guy myself, looking over at some gym newbie with the misplaced self-confidence of the gym lifer. A quick eye-roll, a raised eyebrow, and a puff of the cheeks. “Whew boy”.
But not anymore. Firstly, there’s enough judgemental a-holes in the world, so let’s keep them out of the gym. I repent my sins.
There is also the realization that I have come to, after a long career of lifting. Sometimes, in some situations, for some people. A partial squat is OK.
When is a partial squat NOT OK?
Firstly, before you think I’ve gone soft, we should just clarify that there are some situations where a partial squat is still definitely not OK.
If someone does not know they are doing a partial squat, it is not OK. If someone is under the impression that they are squatting using correct form, it is not OK. If someone is trying to show off to their gym friends by putting 500lbs on the bar and then slightly bending their knees – it is not OK.
In these situations, partial squats are a by-product of poor training, poor information, or poor judgement. If possible, you should help these people, but some are not interested in our help, or don’t know how to take criticism on board. Sometimes the best thing is just to leave them to it, unless they ask for your help.
So, with that said, let’s explore the three situations where partial squats are not the end of the world.
The inflexible newbie
This partial squat needs a little bit more patience than the other two on the list. There is no hard scientific reason for why the inflexible newbie gets a pass, but I implore you to give them one.
If someone is just getting into strength and fitness, especially as an adult, then it’s likely that they will have poor hip mobility from living a sedentary lifestyle. Tight hips can be a big factor in someone not being able to hit squat depth.
If someone is in the gym, has very little weight on the bar, and they’re barely bending their knees, then chances are they’re just learning the ropes. Depth and flexibility come over time but remember it’s better to do something than nothing. The fact that this person is here at all should be celebrated, when for everyone one person in your town or city that resolves to come to the gym there are thousands that are deliberately choosing not to. Don’t be that guy.
The sport-specific partial squat
On twitter recently, a friend posted a video of LeBron James doing some very dubious looking partial squats. In short, he looked ridiculous. His legs were too wide, he was sticking his butt out like an Instagram model and he was going to quarter-squat depth at best.
But I defended him. Firstly, I’m British so don’t know anything about basketball loyalties – keep me out of that one!
What I did see was an athlete performing a movement that was specifically tailored to his sporting skill set. Think about it. When you jump, do you start from a full squat position? The quarter squat position is a natural priming of the start of a jump. By adding weight in that position, you are training the explosivity that is necessary for a bigger jump.
A study was performed on 28 college athletes over 16 weeks, separated into full, half and quarter squatting groups and only permitted to squat to this depth for the full 16 weeks. Athletes doing the half squats used a higher load than athletes doing the full squats, and the ones performing the quarter squats used a higher load still because a shorter range of motion (ROM) allows for more weight to be moved.
After 16 weeks, the full squat group were achieving better full squat 1RMs than the other two groups, but the quarter squat group were achieving much higher jumps and sprints than the full and half squat groups.
This tells us that sometimes, doing a quarter squat for a specific purpose like running faster or jumping higher is fine. LeBron is rich enough and famous enough to not need me defending him, but his partial squats, as amusing as they were to look at, were scientifically sound.
The deliberately programmed strength athlete
Our final category is one that needs no sympathy. For competitive powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters, a full squat is an absolute necessity and can be the difference between winning and losing.
However, some clever lifters over the years have calculated that they can increase their full squat 1RM by getting stronger at partial squats. One such genius was legendary strongman Paul Anderson.
Anderson was an unorthodox man, an Olympic gold medallist in 1956 and a big influence on the future sport of powerlifting, he was a behemoth of a human – the very definition of a gentle giant who spent his spare time helping orphans and driving the church bus around the town in Georgia where he lived. He had some very unorthodox ideas around training too. Two of them relate specifically to partial squats.
One of the ways he would train squats – as he did not have the money for fancy strength equipment – was by getting wagon wheels from the local junkyard and attaching them to a steel bar. He would then use stools to place the wheels on, and squat from the bottom up. Because of the size of the wagon wheels, he would only be able to perform a partial squat but the massively overloaded weight in the partial certainly lent itself to squatting in competitions, with Anderson having a recorded 1200lbs squat
The second – even more crazy idea that he had was to dig himself a hole and perform partial squats while standing in it. When the weight became easy to do for reps, he would dig the hole a little deeper and start again. This might sound crazy but actually has good sense behind it.
By keeping the weight the same but slowly changing the range of motion, Anderson gradually increased his strength through a more complete range. The weight didn’t change, only the depth of his squat. This allowed him to handle huge loads with confidence as his body would adapt to it over time.
To this day, a bottom-up squat from the pins is known as an Anderson Squat and is something you can try in any commercial gym with a power rack. Simply set the pins at a height that is about a quarter squat and load the bar with something about 150% in excess of your true squat 1RM.
Position yourself under the bar and push up explosively, lower back down to the pins slowly. This is one rep. When you can do 5 reps comfortably, set the pins down one hole and start again. Within a few months you will be able to squat the heavy weight you started with to a sufficient depth with almost no perceptible change in effort. Magic!
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Squatting heavy weight to depth is something that we all should aspire to, but there are times when it’s not practical or appropriate. Don’t be so quick to judge someone in your gym who is hitting partial reps. They might be working to a plan you’re not aware of. If partials are good enough for Paul Anderson – they’re good enough for you!
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