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The thin line between Champ and Chump; Squat depth in Powerlifting

Article written by Josh Mac
Squatting is hard. As an exercise and as a powerlift it requires balance, coordination, strength and concentration. It’s also subject to the most criticism and vitriol of any of the three powerlifts.  Rightfully so, as the determining factors as to whether a lift is good or not is on the line, whether a world record remains intact or is shattered is left to three strangers making an on the spot decision individually for a collective verdict.  Them and potentially a few million self appointed experts on the internet for years to come, despite that many of those don’t even lift.  The difference between powerlifting hero and YouTube villain can be as little as an inch, so in addition to being able to stand with a heavy load on your shoulders you’ll have to be able to get down there with it for it to count.

So what is the standard that we measure by?  Do we focus on how close the butt cheeks come to the floor?  How about the top of the quadriceps muscle?  But, what if the squatter is wearing knee wraps?  Are sleeves “raw?” and of course the most important question:

“HOW DEEP DO I HAVE TO SQUAT AT A POWERLIFTING MEET?!”

Well that depends on the federation, its interpretation of what constitutes the legal depth threshold to satisfy their rules, and of course the judges making the on the spot call.  Butt cheeks and quads and knees wraps aside, let’s take a look at a few actual powerlifting rule books.  You know, those long wordy blocks of paragraphs that nobody even bothers to skim until the night before their big meet.  The one that tells you how wide of a belt you can wear and how long your crotch inseam can be.  Yeah, that one.

According to Powerlifting watch, there are over 30 powerlifting federations in the good ol’ U.S.A. alone.  Wow, no wonder there are so many world records!  For the sake of preventing carpal tunnel, I’ll choose ten in no particular order and compare their definitions of a legal squat.  Ready?  Here we go:

 

  1. 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation

100% RAW Powerlifting Federation is… well, 100% RAW!  They formed back in 99 because they were tired of lifters shooting up evil drugs and not taking the squat elevator to the ground floor. 

From their homepage: “No Supportive Equipment & No Drugs – This is 100% RAW POWERLIFTING!” 

They’re not kidding either, they even go as far as to pledge to have full on pee testing to weed out the dopers at their meets.  Basically, these guys are raw as faurk, and they don’t mind telling you.  Let’s see how low them-there hips gotta get:

According to their updated 2015 English book o’ rules: “Upon receiving the chief referee’s signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.” 

(100% Raw Powerlifting Federation example, his side profile makes him look like he has a job selling flood insurance.)
(100% Raw Powerlifting Federation example, his side profile makes him look like he has a job selling flood insurance.)

Notable 100% RAW world record squat:

Scott Weech: 826.7 lbs 12/2006

 

  1. APA (American Powerlifting Association)

The APA formed back in 1987 in Vermont by Scott Taylor. Its international arm is the WPA (World Powerlifting Alliance.) The APA defines their legal squat depth a little differently, making mention specifically of the knee cap and hip joint. 

From their rule book: “Upon receiving the signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top of the thigh at the hip (not the hip joint), is lower than the top of the knee (not knee cap) (picture).

So NO HIP JOINT or KNEE CAP, got it.  I’m just glad to see a pair of knee wraps, that’s my kind of cheating!

 

(APA/WPA legal squat example.  Dude’s jacked!)
(APA/WPA legal squat example. Dude’s jacked!)

Notable APA record squat:

Chris Duffin: 881lbs @ 220 on 10/04/14

  1. APC (American Powerlifting Committee)

APC and their international affiliates the IPO (International Powerlifting Organization) and the GPA (Global Powerlifting Alliance) see things a little differently than the APA, saying in their rulebook:

“Upon receiving the head referee’s signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.

Huh, so the APA doesn’t look at the hip JOINT, but the APC does. Unfortunately, the APC doesn’t include an illustration in their rulebook, so it’s up to the lifter to figure it out.  That is, until I made this awesome diagram below!  You’re welcome APC lifters!

(What pops in my head when I read the APC rule book)
(What pops in my head when I read the APC rule book)
  1. APF (American Powerlifting Federation)

The American Powerlifting Federation was created by Ernie Frantz in 1982. Its drug tested arm is the AAPF and the international arm is the World Powerlifting Congress (WPC.)  This is what I picture when I think of that:

 

(The bar is loaded and now in session)
(The bar is loaded and now in session)

Anyway, their definition is simple enough… for algebra:

 “Upon receiving the head referee’s signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint are lower than the top of knees. (See Diagrams 1, 2, 3 and 4).”

(APF squat as performed by R&B sensation SISQO)
(APF squat as performed by R&B sensation SISQO)

Notable APF record squat:

Ernie Lilliebridge Jr. 804lbs @ 198 on 12/06/14

  1. EPF (Elite Powerlifting Federation)

Hailing out of Keene, NH is a federation that I’ve never even heard of.  Notwithstanding, they offer a diagram in their book, so let’s take a look see:

Upon receiving the head referee’s signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint are lower than the top of knees. (See Diagrams A & B)”

(EPF laying down the law on a skwattin. Sweet crease, bro.)
(EPF laying down the law on a skwattin. Sweet crease, bro.)

Notable EPF record squat:

Andrzej Stanasazek 639lbs at 123 on 05/09/02

  1. IBP (Iron Boy Powerlifting)

Perhaps the oddest choice of name for a powerlifting fed that I’ve seen; the IBP holds meets all over the country.  I personally would have named this federation literally anything else.  Their squat rule reads:

 “Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.” 

No mention of knee cap is made and no diagram is given as an example.  Drop it like it’s squat if you want these white lights.

Notable IBP record squat:

Michael Neal 800lbs at 308+ (SHW) on 09/22/07

  1. SPF (Southern Powerlifting Federation)

Now we’re talking!  This is the one federation that everyone clicked the link for.  Let’s see what type of shenanigans these guys are pumping out.  For the Official SPF book of the rules updated as of 6/21/11:

Rule 6.1: “A legal squat is performed when the top of the upper thigh at the hip (the crease of the hip) passes below the height of the knee.”

Rule 6.5: “The squatter should descent until they break parallel as indicated in rule #1 and then return immediately to the beginning stance, standing completely erect with the knees locked.  There should be no bend to the knees.”

Unfortunately, no diagram is given so I’m left to my own imagination.

(Country sensation and NC native, SQUATTY McCreery)
(Country sensation and NC native, SQUATTY McCreery)

 

Notable squat:

Stan Efferding: 854lbs @ 275 on 5/15/11 (raw, no wraps)

  1. IPA (International Powerlifting Association)

The International Powerlifting Association holds meets in many states including Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Connecticut and the Carolina’s. The IPA’s motto is “Lifters for lifters” and personally I’ve found it to be just that.  Hell, they passed my squats so what more could I ask?  Regardless of the chatter in the forums calling them the HIGH P.A. or I Pass Anything, the IPA has similar a standard to their federation peers.  From their Rules:

The lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top of the thigh at the hip, NOT the hip joint, is lower than the top of the kneecap.”

(This grainy little image that looks like it was taken from the space station can be found on the IPA rules webpage)
(This grainy little image that looks like it was taken from the space station can be found on the IPA rules webpage)

Notable IPA Squats

Mike Miller’s 1220 in 2006

Dave Hoff’s 1210 @ 275 (Westside Pro Invitational)

Chuck Vogelpohl’s 1180 @ 275 in 2011

  1. USAPL (IPF)

Generally known as being a bunch of hard asses when it comes to judging squat depth, the USAPL and it’s international affiliate the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) don’t word it much differently.

From their Rules effective Jan 1, 2015:

“Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.

In addition to the pass/fail judging of the lift, the judges also use colored cards to classify the reason WHY the lift was missed.  For the squat, the failures are classified by red, blue and yellow cards.  Their criteria are as follows:

Failure 1. (Red card)

“Failure to bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint are lower than the top of the knees.”

Failure 2. (Blue card)

“Failure to assume an upright position with the knees locked at commencement and completion of the lift.”

Failure 3. (Yellow card)

Stepping backward or forward or moving the feet laterally.  Rocking the feet between the ball and heel is permitted. 

Failure to observe the Chief referee’s signal at the commencement or completion of the lift.

Double bouncing or more than one recovery attempt at the bottom of the lift or any downward movement during the ascent.

Contact with bar or lifter by the spotters/loaders between the Chief Referee’s signals, in order to make the lift easier.

Contact of elbows or upper arms with the legs, which has supported and been of aid to the lifter. Slight contact that is of no aid may be ignored.

Any dropping or dumping of the bar after completion of the lift.

Failure to comply with any of the requirements contained in the general description of the lift, which precedes this list of disqualification.”

The diagram used in the IPF’s rule book is the same as the APA’s above.

Notable squat:

Jessie Norris: 750lbs @ 198 on 12/13/14 (raw, no wraps)

  1. USPF (Unites States Powerlifting Federation)

The USPF was formed in the early 70’s by Bob Hoffman as a branch of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) but it came into its own as one of the first powerlifting federations in 1978.  It’s affiliated with the WPF (World Powerlifting Federation) for you overseas cats. Legendary names like Larry Pacifico, Rickey Dale Crain, Kirk Karwoski and Ed Coan grace the USPF’s hall of fame, so they’ve judged a few squats in their day.

USPF’s rulebook states: “Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal, the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.”

(Wonderful artwork from the USPF book o’them there rules)
(Wonderful artwork from the USPF book o’them there rules)

Notable USPF squat records include:

Ed Coan’s single ply 859.8 at 198 back on 7/7/85 as well as his 961.2 at 220 later on 7/27/91

Dave Pasanella’s 1019.6 back in 88.

  1. WABDL (World association of Benchers and Deadlifters)

Just Kidding.

So what does it all mean?  Hip joints, knee caps, hip creases?

(What in the actual F^&#...)
(What in the actual F^&#…)

Whew!  That was a lot of mumbo jumbo.  To summarize:

feds

These ten feds use different language to describe their ideal “break parallel” squat.  Some describe the “top of knees” while others use the “knee cap.”  The depth point at the hip is described as the “top of the legs at the hip,” or “the “crease of the hip” or the “hip joint.”   Hips don’t lie.

But despite their use of different terms, they remain pretty consistent throughout, you must break parallel.

One thing that will be the same across all feds is the fact that the line which separates the champ from the chump, the white lights from the red lights and 9/9 from bombing out is an imaginary and invisible line whose axis through disputed points is in the heads of the three individual judges who preside over your lift.  No, it’s not perfect; it’s subjective. Deal with it.

Although the hip crease/joint lowering beyond the top of knee may indicate a higher position than the knee cap, they’re all really pretty similar. I mean, you’re down there for like a second.  Get your hips low.  If you catch a red, make sure to ask the judge who threw it for and explanation… POLITELY.

The take away here is that if you’re squatting somewhere around parallel, you’re leaving your lifts fate in the hands of the officials.  There is one remedy to the confusion that is almost sure to supersede any kind of rule interpretation or political judging: squat to unquestionable depth on every attempt.  It’s either that or roll the dice and see how high you can cut it with two whites. It’s your meet total after all.

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