It is my contention that the bottom one third of the full squat represents the primary limiting factor for most people in the increase of lower body strength and development. Since the full squat often acts as a barometer and or catalyst for the development of the entire body, then this portion of the squat may very well be a primary limiting factor for the entire body. This is also the area of the squat where the greatest potential for trauma and injuries can occur.
By bottom position, I am referring to the fully descended position to about 30 degrees above parallel. This area is the toughest part of the squat and there is often a feeling of discomfort, vulnerability and anxiety as to whether the proper depth has been achieved. This is likely due to lack of flexibility in the hips, knees and ankles and the fact that we spend very little if any time in this position in our everyday lives.
The best way to overcome this apprehension is to squat as deeply as you are able to. This negates the anxiety of wondering if you hit the right squat depth each time. Obviously a competitive powerlifter will have to spend some time squatting to break parallel, but many would be wise to squat deeper more often in order to build their confidence and overall lower body strength. From a very early age, I learned to squat much deeper than parallel in the gym and in powerlifting meets and I don't feel that it put me at any competitive disadvantage. I competed in over 60 powerlifting meets and never once received a red light for failure to hit proper depth. You can use up a lot of energy and mental focus trying to just break parallel that could be better spent on the execution of the overall lift.
The second thing you can do is to develop a habit of squatting instead of sitting whenever you can. Obviously you cannot do this at a business meeting or at church, but you can work it into daily habits such as petting the dog or picking up something from the ground. Do this a dozen times a day for about two months and you should notice a marked increase in your comfort and confidence in the bottom portion of the squat.
The third thing you can do is to perform some adjunct squat movements in your training which will strengthen the bottom one-third of the squat movement. The following are two of my favorites.
Deadstop Squats, also known as Bottom Position Squats, are an incredible exercise; in fact I predict it will someday become a contested lift in some type of strength competition. I like to do these after I perform regular full squats. Using either a power rack or a set of adjustable squat racks, place the bar as low as you possibly can and still be able to position yourself underneath the bar in the bottom part of the squat position. When you are properly set up for this lift, you should feel as though you are in a very powerful position, rather than a feeling of being cramped and "out of position" A lot of this has to do with lack of hip, knee and ankle flexibility. I have found a great way to loosen and warm-up the hips and knees is to pedal a stationary bicycle and alternate normal pedaling, with a pedaling movement in which you place the outer edge of your feet on the pedals with your knees spread out wide. It looks a bit obscene, but it gets the job done. When you first begin doing bottom position squats, you may have to initially start at about a half squat, and gradually move the pins down until you find the right starting position. Make sure your entire body is tight and then elevate the weight upwards until you are standing straight up, then, using precision control, lower the bar down the pins. Take a few breaths and then repeat for the target number of reps. You will find that your biomechanical position and technique must be near perfect when handling maximum weights. I like this movement for several reasons. When you start the movement from the bottom position, you are directing all of your initial energy into doing the toughest part first and once you break past this initial phase, the rest is easy by comparison. I also like the fact that there is virtually zero ballistic impact on the knees and I have had many people who claimed they could not squat because of pain in their knees, be able to do deadstop squats without any pain in their joints.
Pause Squats are full squats performed exactly like traditional full squats with the addition of a 3 second pause in the bottom phase of the squat. Take the weight off the supports and descend to your lowest squat position, holding that position for approximately 3 seconds, then drive the weight upwards to completion. You can use either a training partner to count off the seconds or you can do it yourself. Either way, I like to use a cadence and command of 1…..2….3. followed immediately by a powerful "GO"! Perform these after your regular squats with a rep range of anywhere from 3-6 reps per set. This exercise will teach you to stay tight throughout the entire range of motion in the squat and will greatly enhance your ability to drive out of the bottom.