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I've been working on squatting recently, after going through a realization that it is really important to get your hips below your knees when you squat I've been trying to attain a full range of motion, ass to grass squat.

That being said, as part of my workouts, I've been squatting with no weight, stretching all of the muscles I need to get deeper (hip flexors, quads, calfs, etc).

I've been doing box squats and lowering it as I get small gains in flexibility. I'm to the point where the box is ~6 in below my knee while standing upright but I'm realizing that it is going to take a while - maybe years - for me to gain that flexibility. I've been going at this for a few months and even though I have small gains I'm to the point where progress is in centimeters/millimeters.

I'm pretty sure that this is a flexibility issue and not just bad form. For example, if I lay on my side with my legs in line with my torso and try to pull one foot straight back, I can't get my heel to touch my glutes. Also, many years ago, I did give myself a knee injury (damaged left meniscus) by trying to go deeper so now I'm very familiar with what a bad squat feels like and have a good sense of how my knees should feel when I'm going down.

So - with all of that being said - should I continue developing range of motion with no weight, or am I at a point where I can/should begin adding weight to my squats?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

First, I don't think you have the correct notion of ATG based on this sentence:

For example, if I lay on my side with my legs in line with my torso and try to pull one foot straight back, I can't get my heel to touch my glutes.

In an ATG squat you are going down until your calves are in contact with your hamstrings. Simple physics state that two physical objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and the stronger you are the more they will push against each other -- limiting the absolute depth you can physically achieve.

Should you add weight?

When you squat, is the crease of your hips at or below the top of your knee? If you've reached this level of flexibility, you can squat with weight and it will be beneficial for you. In many ways adding weight can help your flexibility by pushing you a little deeper than you can in bodyweight alone.

I should also mention that your back should not be rounded excessively in the lower lumbar region. I'm not talking about the minimal tuck that is normal at the bottom, I'm talking about leaning too far forward like a clamshell.

Should you really pursue ATG?

That's a personal choice, but the benefits of squats in developing the posterior chain begin when you get the crease of your hip below parallel with the top of your knee. Going so deep that your calves now add pressure to the back of your knee while you are weighted might not be such a great idea. The only competition that judges you on squat depth would be power lifting, and you are only required to get your hips below parallel with your knee. Olympic lifters tend to go deeper, but that is to get under a heavy clean or snatch. Their foot position is also a bit different than a power lifters.

If you want to go for a more Olympic style squat, that's admirable. Understand that the way you set up affects what you can do. The Oly squat is high bar, with the torso as erect as possible. The knees typically travel a bit more forward and require a higher degreee of ankle dorsiflexion. Good Oly lifting shoes help a great deal with any squatting, but particularly with the high bar Olympic squat.

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I think you should add weight to the bar. Ask anyone the best way to get better at squats is squats. Unless you start trying with weights you won't really know the feeling of a squat.

Once you start with the weights a good way to become more flexible would be to do front and overhead squats which require extra flexibility and will force your normal back squat to have better form.

Lastly it's hard to say but you may want to try widening your stance if your legs are to close it is hard to go down all the way.

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