What you’re getting yourself into
1,800 words, 6-12 minute read time
- Cuing “sit down” vs. “sit back” may change how the squat looks visually, but muscular demands are pretty similar through the range of motion that overlaps.
- Having people “sit down” and not restricting their forward knee travel will generally let them squat deeper.
- Most people are fine just using whichever cue makes the squat feel the most comfortable for them, while powerlifters may be better off (in general) cuing “sit back” and weightlifters are better off cuing “sit down.”
Right now, I’m working diligently on a very thorough article about squatting. There are a lot of individual articles on this site that have looked at bits and pieces of the squat, but I think they’re occasionally misunderstood because it’s hard to place a particular detail in the bigger picture unless everyone also sees the bigger picture. It should be done by the middle of next week.
Edit: That article’s all finished up. If you haven’t read How to Squat: The Definitive Guide yet, make sure you check it out.
I realized when I was looking over my outline that I wasn’t planning on saying too much about how you should sit into a squat. That’s intentional. I think that’s primarily a matter of personal preference. Some people strongly prefer sitting back into a squat, pushing their butt back as they come down. Other people strongly prefer sitting down into a squat; I see (and use) the cue, “drop your butt between your ankles” a lot to describe this technique.
That being said, a new study was published this week that sheds some light on the “debate” (it really shouldn’t be a debate, but people turn it into one) from Loren Chiu’s lab at the University of Alberta. The methodology was very similar to a previous study by Swinton, but it looked at some new variables.
Both studies were performed on fairly well-trained lifters. Chiu’s study included both men and women, and the men squatted about 1.65x their body weight (146kg squat at 90kg), while the women squatted about 1.25x their body weight (84kg squat at 66.5kg). Swinton’s study was performed on competitive male powerlifters who squatted about 220kg at a bodyweight of about 100kg on average.
Both studies compared two different types of squats: Chiu compared squats with and without restrictions in forward knee travel using the same stance width in each condition, and Swinton compared “traditional” squats (close to moderate stance squats, sitting down with a lot of forward knee travel) to “powerlifting-style” squats (no artificial restrictions on forward knee travel, but sitting back with a wide stance to purposefully reduce forward knee travel). Swinton’s study also included box squats, but that’s another topic for another day.
Both of them had the lifters work up to 70% 1rm loads, using the same load for both squat variations. In Chiu’s study, it was 70% of the unrestricted squat’s 1rm, and for Swinton’s study, it was 70% of the powerlifting-style squat’s 1rm. Both Chiu and Swinton looked at joint moments, and Swinton looked at other kinetic variables like force output and power, while Chiu also measured muscle activation via EMG.
There’s a lot of data presented in both studies, so rather than bog you down with all of it, I’m only going to present the most relevant measures, primarily for the concentric part of the lift. I’m assuming, after all, that people are concerned about how they squat down because of how it potentially impacts how they’d squat the weight back up.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to the restricted group in Chiu’s study and the “powerlifting-style” group in Swinton’s study as the “sitting back” groups, and the unrestricted group in Chiu’s study and the “traditional” group in Swinton’s study as the “sitting down” groups
Joint and Segment Angles
In both studies, the sitting down groups achieved greater knee flexion, greater ankle dorsiflexion, and had more forward knee travel.
Only Swinton’s study measured forward lean of the torso, and found that maximum forward lean was actually similar in both groups.
Both studies measured maximal hip flexion, and Swinton’s found greater hip flexion in the sitting back group, while Chiu’s found greater hip flexion in the sitting down group. This was probably due to differences in stance width (the group that sat back in Swinton’s study squatted with a wider stance, whereas stance width was the same for sitting down vs. sitting back in Chiu’s study). In the real world, since most people who sit back into the squat do squat with a wider stance, Swinton’s finding (greater hip flexion at the bottom of the squat when sitting back) is probably more applicable.
In Swinton’s study, peak lumbar extension moment was about 15% higher for the sitting down group, and peak hip extension moment was about 10% higher for the sitting back group. There were a few other differences, but not in joints or planes that are likely to limit squatting performance. It’s also worth pointing out that peak knee extension moment was essentially the same (no significant or practical differences) for both techniques.
Chiu’s study gives us a slightly more thorough breakdown of moments at the knee and hip.
When comparing knee and hip extensor moments at corresponding squat depths, there doesn’t seem to be a meaningful difference in knee extensor demands during the concentric where the depths overlap, though there is for the eccentric (meaning their knees tracked farther forward when sitting down, but shifted back a bit as they started coming out of the hole). Hip extensor demands were quite a bit higher for the sitting back group through the range of motion where the depths overlapped.
Peak knee and hip extensor moments tell a somewhat different story, however. Knee and hip extensor demands peaked at the bottom of the squat for both groups. The sitting down group (without restricted knee travel) was able to squat a lot deeper than the sitting back group. So, when comparing knee and hip extensor demands at full depth with each technique, knee extensor demands were roughly twice as high for the sitting down group, while hip extensor demands were pretty similar (not statistically or practically different).
Only Swinton’s study looked at performance-related variables like force, velocity, power, and rate of force development.
There were no significant differences in any of those variables.
I’m sure someone will ask since it certainly looks like there may be differences in peak power (favoring sitting down) or rate of force development (favoring sitting back), but I checked the statistics and neither of the differences were particularly close to significance.
Only Chiu’s study looked at muscle activation.
There weren’t any meaningful differences in muscle activation. A couple show up during the eccentric, and the biceps femoris (a hamstrings muscle) had slightly higher activation right around parallel – 119-105 degrees of knee flexion – during the concentric for the sitting down group (not the sitting back group, as you may expect).
In these images, full depth is in the middle, the eccentric is on the left side of the graph, and the concentric is on the right side of the graph.
One other interesting thing from this data worth pointing out: Biceps femoris activity was considerably higher at full depth for the sitting down group (149-135 degrees of knee flexion) than it was for the sitting back group (119-105 degrees of knee flexion).
So no (in response to a common position), you probably don’t need to purposefully sit back further or limit your depth for the sake of hamstrings activation in the squat. The sitting back group in this study cut their squats right around parallel, and sat way back so their knees couldn’t go past their toes, but had lower hamstrings activation at the bottom of their squats, and similar hamstrings activation to the sitting down group the whole way up during the concentric.
However, to reiterate, the differences in muscle activation are quite small and probably unimportant.
The biggest difference between the two techniques is simply displacement: how deep you can get. When you sit back and restrict forward knee travel (either consciously as in Swinton’s study, or artificially as in Chiu’s study), you can’t get as deep. You’ll probably be able to go through just as long of a range of motion for your hips (perhaps longer) when sitting back, especially with a wider stance, but range of motion at the knee will be compromised, along with total range of motion for the lift.
There may be some small differences in peak demands at each joint, or demands at each joint through a given range of motion, but those differences don’t really show up when looking at muscle activation. If you understand how biarticular muscles (like the hamstrings and rectus femoris) can distribute forces between the knee and hip in the squat, that shouldn’t be overly surprising.
The one thing that surprised me slightly were the higher peak lumbar extension demands when sitting down in Swinton’s study. I do think that differences in spinal extension demands help explain a lot of the difference in 1rm strength when comparing front squats, high bar squats, and low bar squats, but my hunch has always been that the difference would primarily show up when looking at thoracic erector demands, not lumbar. I think bar position was the same between both conditions in Swinton’s study (but that wasn’t explicitly stated), though. However, differences in stance width could help explain the differences in lumbar extension demands. With a wider stance, your femurs are “shorter” front to back, so if your hips kick back with both a narrow and a wide stance, they can kick back more (meaning higher lumbar extension demands) with a closer stance. I wouldn’t assume that 70%1rm loads would be heavy enough to make that happen, however. At the end of the day, I think that difference is substantive and important, but I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.
Ultimately, when asking the question, “is it better to sit down or to sit back in the squat,” I think the right answer is, “it depends.”
Powerlifters are probably better off sitting back, especially when training for a competition. There are no obvious mechanical disadvantages, and it lets you limit your range of motion so you can hit depth and bottom out in the squat, benefitting from your stretch reflex without having to squat unnecessarily deep.
Weightlifters are probably better off sitting down. They get deeper, and the positions better mimic the recovery of the clean and snatch.
General trainees just trying to get stronger or more jacked are fine doing whichever feels more comfortable for them. My general recommendation would probably be to sit down to take advantage of the longer range of motion, but if you feel better sitting back, I doubt you’re really missing out on a meaningful amount of extra muscle or strength.