Squats are one of the most popular and important strength training exercises around. A lot of fitness experts call squats the king of exercises. You can use squats to build bigger muscles, increase strength, burn fat, or just tone up; they’re very versatile!
As well as being a great exercise, squats are also a movement pattern that most people do many times a day. Sitting down and then standing up, climbing stairs, and getting in and out of your car are all examples of squats.
A lot of people think that the only way to squat is as deep as possible – often known as ass-to-grass squatting. While deep squats are valuable, not everyone is built to squat that deep.
Things like knee health, flexibility, leg length, and height can all affect your squat depth. For some, deep squats and especially pistols could present more risks than benefits. The good news is that there is no rule to say you HAVE to squat deep. In fact, you can get a lot of benefits from much shallower squats.
For many people, shallower squats are safer, more comfortable, and less likely to cause injury. After all, a correctly performed half-squat will always be better than a poorly executed deep squat. In this article, we discuss the what, why, and how of half-squats.
What Is A Half Squat?
As the name implies, half-squats are shallower than full-depth squats. With regular squats, most people descend until their thighs are parallel to the floor, and many descend further than this.
With half-squats, you squat down until your knees are bent to around 45-degrees. In other words, you only descend half-way. This reduction in the range of motion may take some stress off your knees and lower back and also allow you to lift more weight.
However, unlike deep squats, they aren’t as good for mobility and flexibility. Also, not squatting deeper may mean that you develop a weakness in the lower range of motion. So, despite a strong half-squat, you may still find it hard to get out of a low chair.
What Muscles do Half Squats Work?
Half-squats are a compound exercise, which means they involve several joints and work a number of muscles simultaneously. The main muscles trained during half-squats are:
- Quadriceps – located on the front of your thighs and known as the quads for short, these muscles extend your knees. The four quadriceps are rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. The quads also flex your hip.
- Hamstrings – the three hamstring muscles are biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus, and are located on the back of your thigh. Their primary functions are knee flexion and hip extension.
- Gluteus maximus – called your glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human body. Its function is the extension of the hip.
- Core – the collective term for the muscles that encircle your midsection, the core supports your lower back during squats. The main muscles of the core are the rectus abdominis, obliques, erector spinae, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, and diaphragm. Doing half-squats with heavy weights will increase core activation.
Where full-depth squats work the same muscles as half-squats, the shorter range of motion means that half-squats don’t train your glutes and hamstrings as much as the deeper variation.
However, half-squats may mean you can lift heavier weights, making them useful for strengthening and building bigger quads.
How to Do Half Squats
To get the most from any exercise, you must do it correctly. Doing half-squats improperly could result in injury and make your workouts less productive. Follow these steps to make sure every rep of half-squats you do is a well-performed as possible.
Warm-up to prepare your muscles and joints for what you are about to do. A few minutes of light cardio followed by some easy bodyweight squats should suffice.
If you still feel tight, spend a few minutes gently stretching the offending muscles. Use dynamic stretches rather than static stretches to maintain your heart rate and body temperature. If you feel like you have low energy try a pre-workout.
- Rack and hold a barbell across your upper back. Make sure it’s resting on your upper traps and not on your neck. Putting the bar on your neck will be painful and could even cause injury. Hold it firmly in place using a slighter wider-than shoulder-width grip.
- Brace your abs and step out, so your feet are between shoulder and hip-width apart. Turn your toes out slightly so that they point in the same direction as your knees.
- Keeping your chest up and looking straight ahead, push your hips back and bend your knees. Descend until your legs are bent to around 50-70 degrees. Do not round your lower back or allow your heels to lift off the floor.
- Stand back up and repeat.
You can also do half-squats using dumbbells instead of a barbell or by holding a kettlebell in front of your chest – an exercise called goblet squats.
“Go deep or go home” might make for a good T-shirt or meme, but it’s not the best training advice. Deep squats, especially when you aren’t built for them, can do more harm than good and could result in knee, hip, or lower back problems.
A lot of exercisers think they’re doing deep squats when, in fact, all they’re doing is leaning over too far or rounding their lower backs; it just LOOKS like they are squatting deep.
The reality is that, for many exercisers, half-squats are as beneficial and also less risky than full-depth squats. They’re also more comfortable and easier to learn, and you’ll probably be able to lift heavier weights too. Also great for toning muscle and losing weight.
However, while there is nothing inherently wrong with half-squats, and they can be very useful for some exercisers, they should not be used simply because they’re easier to perform than deeper squats. If you can squat to parallel or below, that’s what you should do.
When it comes to effective training, easier is rarely better. To get any results, you need to overload your muscles to force them to adapt and change. Invariably, this means doing exercise you find challenging.
That said if you want to squat, but full squats are problematic, half-squats are the ideal alternative.