I was recently asked if squatting to full depth, thighs parallel to the ground or lower, is bad for you. To that I answered “no” but, like anything, it all depends on an abundance of variables. These variables would include mobility, comfortability/training age, strength, technique, and/or any present or past history of injury. This applies to all forms of exercise, not just squatting.
Exercising with full range of motion (ROM) is one of the most effective ways to prevent injury, increase mobility, and promotes the highest level of muscle growth and strength gains (1). Stressing the joints throughout the full ROM strengthens the muscles and increases the tensile strength, stiffness, and elasticity of ligaments. This leads to a larger cross-sectional area of these ligaments, reducing the risk of injury (2). What full ROM during exercise does is strengthen the muscle from its shortest, or most contracted point, to its longest, or most lengthened point. This leads to enhanced mobility because the body is becoming accustom to working at its end ranges of motion and has strength at that point. As the muscle rebuilds, it needs to compensate for the entire ROM possible, making it stronger and more sustainable than it previously was.
When compared to partial ROM, full ROM exercise has been proven to be more effective at increasing overall strength and mobility (1&3). One study looked at the difference between quarter squats and full depth squats over the course of 9 weeks. This study found that while the group that was doing partial depth squats throughout the length of the study was able to significantly improve their quarter squat strength, their full squat strength was not improved. The group that trained with full depth the entire time saw significant improvements in both their full depth squat and quarter squat strength (3).
Just because there are tons of benefits to achieving full ROM while lifting, doesn’t mean that partial ROM movements should be completely thrown out the window. There are plenty of exercises, such as 2-board bench press, box squats, block pull deadlifts, floor press, etc., that can be, and should be, used in your workout routine. Partial ROM still promotes muscle growth and can be helpful for various things like targeting specific muscles, adding additional weight, rehabilitation, and gaining confidence with foreign exercises that you’ve never done or struggle to perform.
When it comes to incorporating ROM into a training program, there are a few different ways to go about it. The first option is to decrease weight. This allows people that struggle to get full range of motion with moderate to heavy weight to have the confidence to move the weight effectively and with confidence. With that comes the next part of incorporating ROM into training: taking your time. There is a time and place for speed in lifting, but if you’re looking to improve overall ROM with different exercises, being deliberate with each and every movement can be very beneficial. A few other ways to work on ROM in training would be to implement pause reps (isometric movements) and eccentric movements. Two examples come to mind when it comes to pause reps and eccentric movements: squats and chin ups. By pausing at the bottom of a squat, you are able to focus more on the body mechanics of the movement, get used to being “in the hole”, all while strengthening the muscles at their end ranges of motion. An eccentric movement is when the primary muscle is lengthening during an exercise. For a chin up, the primary muscle would be the biceps. To perform an eccentric chin up you would start with your palms facing you, arms bent, and chin above the bar. From here you would slowly allow the arms to extend (either on a specified cadence or as slow as you can) and lower your body down until the elbow is fully extended. To perform multiple reps of this you could either hop back up to the top of the bar or pull yourself up. This type of exercise still allows for muscle growth and full ROM to be achieved, while really only working half of the movement very slowly.
Full range of motion during exercise can be frustrating because it’s not the easiest thing to do and it doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time and effort, but if you work at it enough, you will begin to feel and see the changes. Strength gains will be felt, enhanced mobility will be seen, and (ideally) aches and pains will eventually dissipate throughout everyday life.