Having tried both ATG squats (for years I might add) and 90-degree squats I can tell you unequivocally that 90-degree squats are superior in every aspect.
Most movements will provide some benefit. When performed incorrectly they will also produce a variety of consequences. Optimal movement maximizes the benefits without any consequences, as the movements are therapeutic to the body. Read more about the consequences of faulty mechanics here.
Eliminating energy leaks, optimizing body alignment, maximizing core activation, stabilizing the hips and pelvis, creating high levels of intramuscular tension, maintaining neutral spinal alignment, producing proper foot and ankle activation, and maximizing eccentric induced co-contraction will inevitably produce an optimal 90 degree squat that looks almost identical across individuals. In contrast, moving significantly past 90 degrees results in energy leaks, sacrifices alignment, decreases core activation, destabilizes the hips & pelvis, produces faulty foot & ankle mechanics, and forfeits optimal levels of intramuscular tension.
Squatting significantly past 90 degrees reinforces dysfunctional movements & dysfunctional activation patterns that not only impact the squat but transfer into everyday life as well as athletic performance. And yes, there is such a thing as dysfunctional movement.
It’s time to stop beating around the bush & trying to be politically correct in the fitness industry. When something goes against the foundational elements of physiology & biomechanics then, yes, we need to call it for what it is not sugarcoat it and say it’s ok. Teaching people that dysfunctional mechanics on a squat or any other movement is acceptable as long as it feels natural is not a way to “empower” them. Instead, it’s setting them up for failure. Teaching individuals to move properly is the ultimate self-empowering tool as it provides them with the ability to move, exercise, & stay active without continual pain & injuries. Read more about pain science and injuries here.
Not only will a proper squat you spare your joints but you’ll maximize your athletic performance, alignment, muscle function, strength, & hypertrophy.
Squatting to 90 degrees requires much greater levels of muscle activation and full body tension compared to collapsing and going deeper which to a great extent relies more on passive structures rather than one’s muscles for support.
Few if any squat studies have been carried out using proper training, coaching, and cueing all of which has a massive impact on the activation patterns of a squat. In fact, with sloppy mechanics and poor intramuscular tension, an individual will likely need to use excessive depth to achieve any semblance of intense muscle activation.
A very sloppy and lousy 90-degree squat may in fact be inferior to an ATG squat in terms of growth as you’ll need the extra ROM to achieve any appreciable muscle activation. However, a crisp and perfectly dialed in 90-degree squat represents the optimal method of squatting under heavy loads and high impact. Tying together the principles of structural physiology, biomechanics, neuromuscular physiology, osteokinematics, functional anatomy, muscle spindle function, and anatomical levers leads to one conclusion: 90 degree squats are optimal!!!!! Research study findings that suggest otherwise, contradicting foundational elements of human physiology and biomechanics are likely the result of inadequate coaching and cueing of subjects – a very common issue in many kinesiology research studies. In fact when we examine in vitro studies which are often more reliable & tell us more about what’s occurring in the human body at the cellular & structural level, not just in vivo studies which often involve greater human error & poor coaching & cueing this is where it becomes quite clear that 90 degrees is optimal for the human body.
With that said it’s important that we examine all relevant forms of research and data including both in vivo and in vitro studies as well as various forms of quantitative data, qualitative data, case studies, single subject studies, human subjects studies, animal studies, in situ studies survey analysis, as well as reliable forms of experiential and anecdotal evidence from qualified professionals in the field. We then have to examine where everything is congruent and comes into alignment and agreement. We can’t simply isolate one specific area of research that happens to fit our specific agenda and push that while simultaneously disregarding all fundamental concepts of human physiology and biomechanics, which unfortunately is what many who advocate ATG squats do.
Many lifters are quick to justify their excessive squat depth by suggesting that they’re taking advantage of the stretch reflex. However, this argument is inherently flawed. In fact, what many consider to be effective utilization of the stretch reflex has little to do with the stretch reflex at all. Rather it’s a rebound effect that’s a byproduct of bouncing off of their tendons, ligaments and connective tissue as if they were flimsy and fragile springboards. This is, in fact, diametrically opposed to how one would ideally go about activating the stretch reflex mechanism. In reality the stretch reflex relies on high levels of muscular stiffness and intramuscular tension, which doesn’t occur in excessively stretched positions as opposed to moderately stretched positions such as 90 degrees. This becomes evident when watching individuals perform plyometrics as you’ll never see well-trained athletes perform these with excessive ROM. Instead they’ll use movements that are closer to 90 degrees in order to maximize the powerful spring-like reaction produced from a proper stretch reflex.
A passive 3rd world squat is used for chilling and has absolutely nothing to do with an active squat that involves high level forces, impact, and load. Don’t confuse one with the other.
Many equate a toddler’s squat with ATG squats perpetuated by the fitness industry. However, a baby’s squat represents movement that involves very little neural activation, motor control, and muscle recruitment as these tiny humans are still in the early developmental stages of motor learning. Not a single movement performed by a toddler can be considered high quality or one that involves highly skilled recruitment patterns. Instead it is considered crude and underdeveloped. So why is the ATG squat an exception? If an ATG squat, which is essentially the same as a baby’s squat, represents the epitome of optimal muscle function, then perhaps having the ability to suck on your toes should be the new standard for measuring hip mobility.
“Squat depth & range of motion should be determined primarily by your training goals. If your training goals are decreased strength, increased joint pain, degradations to natural body mechanics, herniated discs, sciatic issues, chronic low back pain, blown out knees, foot and ankle aberrations, decreased jump performance, degraded gait mechanics, constant muscle tightness, and the need to continually perform foam rolling, stretching, soft tissue work, cupping, dry needling, and other “therapeutic modalities” to eliminate the associated pain, then keep squatting ATG or below parallel. However, if you’re goal is improvements in size, strength, performance, power, body mechanics, muscle function, posture, proprioception, balance, stability, and mobility as well as decreased joint pain and muscle tightness then you’ll want to squat to approximately 90 degrees. Remember it all comes down to training goals & objectives. This has nothing to do with individual anthropometrics & anatomy but instead scientific principles of biomechanics, structural physiology, & neurophysiology that remain constant from human to human unless of course you hail from another planet. After years of studying kinesiology & neuromuscular physiology I can tell you this concept remains the same whether we’re talking about advanced athletes or geriatric populations”
Is the previous statement a bit of an exaggeration? Not really. Will ATG provide some benefit? It depends. If we take someone with no prior training, performing ATG squats will provide some obvious benefits. However, if we take an athlete trained with optimal 90-degree mechanics and have them switch to ATG squats, they’ll actually experience decreased power, strength, mobility, stability, and overall muscle function, not to mention possible joint pain. In other words, just because something works to a degree doesn’t mean it’s the optimal method. Remember good is the enemy of best.
I’ve witnessed this firsthand on multiple occasions with athletes I’ve coached who experienced decreased pain and injuries, not to mention increased power and strength, once we incorporated 90-degree eccentric isometrics. Unfortunately, in certain circumstances, once the athlete returned to their team and the strength coaches required them to squat deeper not only did they experience significant reductions in power, strength, and muscle mass but the injuries, pain, and inflammation they had before we started training, began to re-occur. So no, as evidenced by cases such as these, the aforementioned statement is by no means an exaggeration.
Just because a lifter doesn’t injure themselves when squatting deep doesn’t mean their squat is optimal. I’ve seen a very strong correlation between athletes who perform deep squats and hamstring and groin pulls. This is likely due to the carryover of deep squatting mechanics, and the associated disruption of the optimal length tension relationship in these muscles, to their sprint mechanics, which oftentimes produces over-striding and frequently results in pulls to the hamstrings, groin, and hip flexors. With that said, squatting to excessive depth really wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the effects were isolated to the squat itself. However, based on principles of motor learning we know that movement transfers and impacts other related motions. Therefore, performing movements, or in this case squats with excessive ROM, not only negatively impacts the body during the actual training session, it can also carryover to other activities including running, jumping, kicking, lunging, hinging, and even walking with long lasting detrimental effects.