High Bar vs. Low Bar Squats
Two dudes are sitting at the bar, SCREAMING at each other using random fitness terms. The one dude has a massive butt and huge quads but spaghetti-looking arms with big traps. The second dude looks like he can barely wipe his ass, he has no neck but a massive back and huge legs and huge arms. Mobility, trunk stability, load on the bar, all of these terms being thrown at one another while they battle over a clearly hot topic. But what the hell are they debating?!?!? All of a sudden they are gesturing at their shoulders, their hips, their knees. Could it be?!?! Of course, what better debate to have in the bar than a high bar squat vs. a low bar squat. It’s time to roll and figure out exactly what they were screaming about.
Low Bar / High Bar
The low bar squat has the barbell sitting right at the bottom of the rear delts with the hands just about at the collars. Taking a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, keep the knees just over the mid-foot while the but pushes back until right until the hips get to ninety degrees with the top of the quad parallel to the actual ground. Load that lower back and dive up. Butt goes back, get to depth, and cue the hips under. A key factor is that athletes will feel this in their hip extensors, groin, and hamstrings. This is where it is different from the high bar. Just watch out for that elbow pain, shoulder pain, or patellar tendon issues.
If the whole purpose is to move as much weight as possible, the low bar back squat is the winner. The depth isn’t as deep as the high bar will be and it is going to be recruiting a ton from the posterior chain with the hip-based squat. If this is the sole purpose, go with the low bar. This doesn’t mean it is the winner.
Talking about sports-based transfer does not necessarily give transfer to the most weight lifted. A lot of coaches have a misconception that athletes have to lift the most weight possible to be the best possible athletes and coordinate as rapidly as can be done. That’s not the case. The heavier the weights that can be lifted while moving them quickly transfer the best. That is where the high bar back squat comes into play.
Setting up for the high bar squat the grip is about the same as a bench press, a little wider than the clean grip. The bar sits just at the bottom of the neck at the top of the traps. The stance is a little bit more narrow than the low bar. The knees break first in the high bar back squat. In the low bar back squat the hips break first. The knees travel forward as the hips go back and descend deep into the bottom position. Keep the chest up and drive up out of the hole. Drive through the full foot and engage the trunk to help the torso stay up. The high bar back squat demands more mobility in the ankles and keeping the gut more upright. It also requires more mobility in the lower back. In addition, the high bar back squat requires building up a ton of quad strength. We have also found the high bar squat does not beat up the elbows as much as the low bar back squat.
Most sports are based on acceleration and cutting rapidly. The knees track forward and get in front of the toes. Athletes need to accelerate really quickly. We know for a fact that acceleration is based on quad strength. From a sports-based transfer, the high bar is victorious when compared to the low bar. In addition, squatting full range of motion requires mobile hips, ankle joints, and an upright torso with the thoracic spine extending. This need for greater mobility helps train the body for greater positions to keep injuries away.
And oh yea! The high bar back squat transfers well to the low bar back squat. Not so much the other way around.
Regardless of what dogma of squatting one subscribes to, we need to take a step back and look at what will help the most with increasing strength, hypertrophic gains (high bar wins here as well but there are cases where the low bar back squat is applicable), mobility, and what will transfer best to specific sports being competed in. These four keys are key to judging an exercise and its application within training.
What actually happens
When executing a squat, lifters will partake in a pattern known as knee glide or dorsiflexion. This is the motion of the knee tracking forward over the foot. This will occur in varying amounts dependent upon limb length, ankle mobility, and bar placement. Typically, a high bar back squatter partaking in Olympic weightlifting will have a higher degree of dorsiflexion occurring during the squat while a low bar squatter will have a much smaller degree of dorsiflexion.
The reason powerlifters and low bar squatters like to avoid dorsiflexion can be numerous. The number one reason for a powerlifter to minimize dorsiflexion of the ankle is due to the fact that the knee will track forward when dorsiflexion occurs, forcing the lifter into a much deeper position. Typically, powerlifters want to keep their range of motion much shorter during competition while still maintaining a legal hip depth. By thinking through the biomechanics, the length of the shin is fixed on any given athlete. The further this lever (the shin) is from upright, the lower the squat becomes. Low bar squatting involves a forward lean. This forward lean is the cause of the center of mass change that we discussed earlier. Picture an athlete with a few hundred pounds on their back, if they simply leaned forward, they would fall. What actually takes place is a counterbalance in which their hips come back further to compensate, keeping the center of mass over their midfoot, where it will be in any proper squat or Olympic movement(except for split jerks for obvious reasons). When the hips come back, this stops the knees from coming as far forward and BAM, you can squat to legal meet depth without actually moving the weight as far.
Lowering the bar on one’s back also shortens the distance between the bar and the hips. With levers, the greater the distance from the fulcrum, the more of a speed advantage, and the less this distance becomes, the greater the force advantage. A low bar squat will generally have a greater weight outcome for this very reason. This is all without consideration of the muscles used in the two movements.
What is being used
In general, a high bar squat tends to be more anterior chain dominated (remember the quads on the one dude in the argument?), developing the quadriceps most noticeably, whereas a low bar squat will allow the hamstrings and glutes to play a greater role in the movement. The high bar squat tends to be more advantageous for hypertrophy training (and the size of the butt…). The high bar squat as mentioned allows for a greater range of motion and tends to create more stimulus per load allowing for more muscle growth because of the length of the eccentric portion of the lift. It also takes less of a toll on the shoulders and wrists making it less likely to inhibit other parts of training. These factors tend to make it favorable for non-powerlifting athletes as well as Olympic lifters due to the carryover to cleans and snatches.
One could assume at this point that a low bar is the way to go for powerlifters seeing that the goal is to lift more weight. The key takeaway from this post should be that every powerlifter should high bar squat at some point. This can be in the offseason, during speed days, or during a few mesocycles throughout the year. The use of high bar squat as a variation allows for an athlete to train the muscles used in the low bar squat more often while not constantly overloading the same movement 2-3 times a week all year round. This is important in achieving greater general development in new athletes and it allows more advanced athletes to accomplish the greater amount of volume they need in order to see results in those muscle groups without having to increase injury risk in bones and connective tissues. High bar squatting can also be a form of mobility work. Many athletes think that rolling out and stretching before a session is all they need to do to improve mobility, but this simply helps with passive mobility. It’s great to open up a range of motion with tissue work or stretches, but the idea is to be strong in that range of motion that those 30 minutes of work just opened up so that the body doesn’t tighten back up to avoid them again. Since a high bar squat usually requires more ankle, knee, and hip mobility than a low bar squat, an athlete can use this as a tool for maintaining joint health and injury prevention. This also will hopefully result in fewer feelings of tightness in muscles between sessions and shorter stretching and rolling sessions to be needed before a lift.
Finally, going back to the benefits of the high bar as a tool for hypertrophy, almost every athlete will have to move up a weight class at some point in their powerlifting career and not use the high bar as a tool to accomplish this would be a mistake. This goes for every lift and its variations. When dealing with a sport where we easily get caught up in weight on the bar and shortening range of motion, it is often forgotten that this is not the best way to train for all of our goals. Full range of motion bench, deficits, pulls, RDL’s, snatch grip deadlift, and the focus here being high bar squat are all tools that utilize greater ranges of motion which offer a greater stimulus for muscle growth at any given load. This will allow athletes to gain muscle without as great of an injury risk due to the lower loads needed.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.