Squat Training: High Bar vs. Low Bar

Guest Blog by: Benjamin Harris

This topic has been discussed time and time again by a number of coaches, but the goal of writing this is to give a unique perspective that I do not think many other people have on it. I believe my perspective is unique because despite primarily being a powerlifting coach and strictly competing as a powerlifter, I compete high bar. If you do not know what these two squat variations are, you most likely do not know that this is extremely uncommon.

High bar squat is simply a squat where the bar is sitting on the athlete’s traps where a low bar squat the bar is going usually across the crease of the rear delts, lower on the upper back. This greatly changes the physics of the lift because it changes the center of mass and the length of a lever. These two changes when using a low bar squat typically result in the athlete to be able to lift more weight. The change in center of mass is crucial because of how it changes the motion of the squat below the knee.

When watching a squat, a process takes place called knee glide(dorsiflexion). This is the motion of the knee out over the foot. This will occur in varying amounts from almost none looking at a wide stance low bar squatter vs. massive amounts in world-class Olympic lifters. Generally, the more knee glide there is, the lower an athlete is able to go, and advantage in Olympic movements. In powerlifting, this statement changes to the more knee glide there is, the lower the athlete has to go. Using some basic logic, the length of the shin is fixed on any given athlete. The further this lever is from upright, the lower the knee is. Since a legal squat in powerlifting requires that the hip crease of the lifter drops below the height of the knee, it is a great advantage to limit this knee glide because they simply need to move the weightless.

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 the simply leaned forward, they would fall. Game over. 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 are, the greater to force advantage is. So a low bar squat will generally have a greater weight outcome for this reason. This is all without consideration for the muscles used in the two movements.

In general, a high bar squat tends to be more anterior chain dominated, developing the quadriceps most noticeably, where a low bar squat will allow the hamstrings and glutes to play a greater role in the movement. The high bat squat tends to be more advantageous for hypertrophy training. 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. 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.

Since this is a powerlifting blog, one could assume at this point that low bar is the way to go for powerlifters seeing that the goal is more weight. This clearly contradicts my choice to train and compete exclusively as a high bar squatter. Before I dive into explaining my personal choices and the coaching choices for most of my athletes, I want to step away from all of my biases and personal methods. 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 which often tend to adapt and recover slower than muscles do.

Click here to watch Ben squat 562lbs!!

 

 

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 to not use the high bar as a tool to accomplish this would be a mistake in my opinion. 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.

 

My choice to compete with high bar squats along with many of the athletes I program for is due to the nature of the programming used. Most of the volume in my programming comes from Olympic lifts. This means that much of this volume replaces my accessory work. With this being the case, there is a much greater carryover of these movements into my high bar squat. I also find that not training low bar squats has less interference with my deadlifts and bench as it is less taxing to the posterior chain and results in much less load on my wrists and elbows. It is as simple as high bar squatting fitting slightly better into my hybrid personal training split and an effort to prevent injuries at the sacrifice of mechanical advantage on meet day.

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