In the fitness world, much emphasis is placed on being able to squat below parallel—meaning squatting to a depth where your hip crease is below your knee.
And not just because failing to squat below parallel equals a no rep at a powerlifting or CrossFit competition….
There’s a way more important reason everyone SHOULD have or work to regain the ability to squat below parallel: The very simple life task of sitting down and standing up. And as importantly, for bowel health!
As a society, we have pretty much accepted that some people lack the ability to squat to parallel, let alone below parallel, hence the reason we raise toilet seats so high.
Here’s the thing, though: Accommodating this deficiency is actually doing people a disservice!
When it comes to bowel health, your body is much more effective at emptying your bowels when you go to the bathroom on a lower toilet seat. When you’re on a high toilet seat, your puborectalis muscle actually blocks off your anal canal, preventing your bowels from emptying properly. This back-up in your bowels can lead to all sorts of digestion and gut issues, which is pretty common among older people who require higher toilets in order to stand back up again.
So, the high toilet doesn’t actually solve the overarching problem; it simply puts a Band-Aid on a wound that is never going to heal.
Now, I’m not suggesting you try to squat below parallel before you’re able to do so safely. I’m suggesting that you work to fix whatever is currently stopping you so you can stand up, sit down, and live independently with healthy digestion until you’re 90 years old.
While there are a multitude of reasons someone isn’t able to squat below parallel, some of the most common limitations include:
Lack of hip flexibility. Lack of ankle flexibility. Lack of strength.
If Your Ankles Are the Issue
If you find yourself feeling like you just can’t keep your heels on the ground when you squat, this one’s for you.
I will be honest: Ankle flexibility is incredibly tough to improve, especially if you have pre-existing ankle or Achilles injuries, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’ll just take a little bit of work.
First, try this test.
Set up by a wall. Move 5 inches away from the wall. Keep your heel on the ground and see if you can touch your knee to the wall. If you can’t do this 5 inches or further from the wall, improving your ankle flexibility is a good idea for you.
I really like the lacrosse ball massage to help with ankle flexibility. Simply place the lacrosse ball under your foot and massage it around to loosen up the soft tissue on the bottom of your foot. You can also do this along your Achilles and calves. Use as much pressure as you’re able to without feeling excruciating pain.
For more information, check out this video by Kelly Starrett.
Calf raises are another great way to improve your ankle flexibility. You can do these on a plate or on a box. Try to get as much range of motion as you can during these calf raises. Let your heel drop as low as it can at the bottom of the calf raise to really feel a good stretch and then raise yourself as high on your toe as you can. Hold onto a wall for balance.
If you need to use a bit of assistance with your other foot to get a bit higher on you toe, that’s OK, but the idea is to slowly increase your usable, active range of motion on one leg.
Log 20 calf raises on each leg.
If Your Hips Are the Issue
Tight hips, usually the hip flexors, are another common reason for the inability to squat below parallel.
Passive stretching can help your him flexors relax. Check out this article for videos and descriptions of four different stretches to improve hip flexibility.
Another really helpful component for healthy hips is active range of motion. While stretching can be useful, it’s also important to gain more active range of motion in your hips. You can use the below two exercises to help with this.
Banded Lateral Step-Overs
Focus on getting your hip and knee as high as possible as you step over the band and back again with control.
Log 3 sets of 1 minute of continuous step-overs.
All-Fours Hip Rotations
On all fours, raise your leg and hip out to the side as high as possible while keeping a neutral spine, and then rotate until it’s facing behind you. Then do it in the reverse direction. Keep these super slow and controlled.
Perform 3 sets of 5 rotations in each direction on each leg.
If Strength Is the Issue
Ever notice when a squat gets intimidatingly heavy, the first thing you do is cheat your depth? For some, especially older people, even a bodyweight squat can feel like this.
More strength is needed to get back up again!
Below are two ways to improve your squat strength and confidence.
Goblet Squats to a Box
I like these for various reasons:
They help you keep an upright torso. They allow you to monitor the depth and maintain a consistent depth on each squat. They help teach you how to brace properly. They’re a great way to monitor depth progress over time.
The idea here is to set a box to a depth you’re currently comfortable squatting to. As you gain strength and confidence being able to stand back up again from the box, you’ll be able to slowly lower that box until you’re eventually able to squat below parallel.
The idea here is to isolate the leg that’s on the box. Load your front leg and use only that leg to stand up onto the box. The @3131 tempo means you take three seconds to stand on top of the box, one second to pause at the top of the box, and then three seconds to slowly lower back down to the ground again.
Can you do 5 @3131 tempo step-ups on each leg with just your bodyweight? If so, then consider adding weight or raising the height of the box.