A Guide to High Bar vs Low Bar Squatting
So which squat is right for you, the high bar squat or the low bar squat?
A question as old as time and for all beginners out there, there is more than one type of squat.
Whatever happens your body is exceptional at making the most of it’s mechanics and ‘reverting to type‘ when it comes to strength. Essentially you’ll always use your strongest muscle groups unless you work on your weak points.
At >90% 1RM, your body will find the best possible solution to complete the lift. If you’re more quad dominant, you’ll find your knees tracking out further. If you’re more hip dominant you’ll fold over more and sit back a little deeper. Science baby!
The Differences Between High Bar and Low Bar Squatting
High Bar Squat Position
In the high bar squat, the athlete places the bar on top of the shoulder blades, where the neck and shoulders meet and maintain a much more upright posture when squatting.
Low Bar Squat Position
The low bar version requires the individual to retract their shoulder blades to form a shelf about 3 inches below where the neck and shoulders meet. In doing so, the athlete can afford to lean forward slightly more and employ lower back strength more so than in it’s high bar counterpart.
Low bar is a slightly more hip dominant variation of the squat. High bar is more quad dominant. But that doesn’t mean your glutes and hamstrings won’t play an active role in each.
But who should use what?
Powerlifters traditionally prefer the low bar squat whereas weightlifters and athletes tend to use the high bar variation* as it has greater carryover.
But carryover is all relative and entirely depends on what your goals are, which is why picking the right accessory exercises for squats is vital.
*or front squat / box squat variations
Does the High Bar or Low Bar Squat allow you to lift more weight?
As a powerlifter, your entire purpose is to lift the most weight possible in the big(gest) 3 lifts- the squat, bench press and deadlift. The overwhelming majority of powerlifters should (and do) utilise the low bar variation when executing their maximal 1RM.
Employing lower back muscles increases the athletes potential to lift heavier weight when compared to the quad and hamstring dominant high bar squat.
What this does require however is a robust and powerful posterior chain that’s incredibly injury averse; deadlifts, RDL’s and good mornings are the best exercises to assist this, but there are downsides to squatting in this way.
So why does this mean I can Squat more weight with the Low Bar variation?
Both high bar and low bar squats should result in a bar-path that goes up in a straight line. This straight bar path is the result of the torque muscles produce at your joints.
The greater the weight, the greater resistance your muscles have to overcome. Ergo, that requires greater torque.
Yes quite. But this becomes very relevant when discussing squats. With the low bar variation, the bar rests around 2-3 inches lower down your back, nestled on your retracted shoulder blades. This means you need to lean slightly further forward to keep the bar over your centre of gravity.
By dropping the weight further down your back, you’re essentially decreasing the moment arm.
As your knees won’t track as far forward, you don’t have to produce as much force (torque) to move the bar back up to the top of the lift.
Essentially low bar squatting increases your body’s efficiency at moving the weight.
Mechanically speaking you’re operating at closer to 100% of your potential with the low bar.
If you find when you squat >90% max that your back angle becomes more horizontal, the chances are your quads are at maximum effort and your back has to take over to help you complete the lift.
Similarly if you get stuck halfway through your squat and the bar speed decelerates, your hip extensors are grinding.
Squatting Injuries with the High Bar or Low Bar variation
From personal experience I have found that high bar squats allow me to squat more frequently and with greater consistency. Max Aita of Juggernaut Training Systems is quoted as saying:
“The high bar squat is the best way to build leg strength, the low bar squat is the best way to express it”
I’ve long believed this to be the case. The stress on your body when high bar squatting is lower, so for long-term improvements with a mitigated injury risk you should build strength (with volume) in the high bar squat and express it with a heavy single in the low bar position.*
This is akin to the differences between sumo and conventional deadlift training styles. Sumo has a lower injury risk and therefore makes sense to train consistently for long-term progress.
But conventional pulling is a more effective to express true strength.
When low bar squatting you’re more likely to incur lower back related injuries.
It places significantly more stress on the hip joint and when working with 85% + of your 1RM, your lower back muscles are forced into action.
If you have stronger hips and lower back, then low bar squatting is perfectly fine.
Otherwise stick with high-bar until you’ve had the chance to build up a stronger lower back.
*Of course you have to have effective technique in both positions, especially for heavy singles
Low Bar or High Bar Squat for Athletes
Now here’s where it gets a little trickier. Traditionally most athletes will front squat for athletic performance because it’s:
- More quad dominant
- More akin to explosive movements (jumping, sprints etc)
- Lighter weights for benefits equivalent to back squats
Although recent studies have shown front squats can help improve speed, in this study, heavy back squats were shown to produce significantly greater speeds compared with the front squat when used as a warm up exercise, which suggests the muscle activation used in a back squat is more suitable for sprinting than a front squat.
Athletes sprint faster by producing more concentric force utilising the hip extensors (gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, and hamstrings) and hip flexors, and then absorbing it (in the eccentric phase) in the hamstrings and quads.
So it makes sense for athletes who incorporate the squat into their training programmes to produce more force.
Obviously there’s a cutoff point where the additional mass requires more energy than can be created to move faster – but at an ideal point squats will improve strength and speed potential.
Now Read: How often should you squat every week?
This study on football players demonstrated that increases in squat strength increased overall strength and sprint performance.
By training 1RM in the squat consistently over 6 weeks, the athlete’s relative and absolute strength increased and their sprint performance improved over 5m, 10m and 20m distances.
Front squats are more taxing than back squats and the issues many beginners (or those unaccustomed to the front squat) have are based on a particularly poor thoracic extension from sitting at a desk all day, whilst having a problem with the grip.
In lieu of this, high bar squats are far more transferable than low bar. As an athlete trying to train explosiveness, obviously jumps are high priority.
Which you can read all about in this guide to the Westside Method.
But in order to improve true leg strength and keep the likelihood of injury low, high bar trumps all for frequency, recovery and explosive potential.
So which Squat is right for you?
So there are 4 core principles that you must consider which squat type is right for you:
- Is it safe to perform consistently?
- Can the athlete recover sufficiently?
- Can significant and positive stimulus be trained and created?
- Does it fit well in context with the rest of the athlete’s training?
If an athlete struggles to recover when lifting x% of their 1RM in a high bar back squat, then that move probably isn’t right for their training program.
If hip development and thrust is a major prerequisite in their sport of choice, then hip thrusts or box squats should be the exercise of choice (everything being equal of course).
When an athlete is in season, using an overloaded squat variation (max 100% of their 1RM) such as a chain squat or pin squat is going to absolutely fry their CNS and make recovery almost impossible.
Out of season, a properly periodised training cycle can include >100% of their 1RM but if you push an athlete too hard you’ll ruin their recovery and therefore their performance.
Which is shit. Obviously.
Which Squat style is best for your Sport?
High Bar Squat – because a low bar squat has almost 0 carryover to a clean and snatch. The squat is such a quad dominant lift (not particularly effective for training your hamstrings) that when used appropriately it’s ideal for Olympic lifts. But the low bar variation is too far removed from the catch position in both lifts.
Although there’s minimal difference between muscles involved with low and high bar, Olympic lifting requires a particularly upright torso. The more horizontal back angle employed by the low bar variation makes it much less specific.
The same goes for crossfit. Just train high bar and front squat.
I like the High Bar Squat to build strength & Low Bar Squat – to express it. But it’s absolutely fine to focus on low bar if you feel more confident in that position. If you’re going to express your 1RM with the low bar squat, then it makes sense to be as proficient in that as possible.
In order to maximise efficiency, you need to train the lift consistently. This means you might low bar squat twice a week and high bar once a week.
I personally think it’s important to train both, but since you’re trying to shift the most weight, if you don;t learn how to efficiently squat low bar you’re hurting your chances.
If your best high bar squat was 200kg and your competitor could high bar 195kg then that’s great. But if they use a belt, proper shoes and can squat low bar, there’s every chance they could squat 230kg with proper equipment and refined technique.
So do whatever you have to do and remember that every skill takes practice. If you’ve never squatted low bar before then it’s going to feel awkward to begin with. But it will increase your potential in the long-run.
Once you’ve mastered the low bar feel free to almost exclusively train high bar as it’s a better builder of leg strength with a lower risk of injury. Then transition back to low bar as you get closer to the meet to improve your motor patterns.
In an ideal world you should Front Squat – to train explosiveness and an improved vertical jump and Box Squat – to improve hip development and power production.
But really you should train with whatever variation you feel most comfortable with. Once that reduces the risk of injury and allows you to increase your performance. The weight lifted isn’t anywhere near as relevant.
American Footballer / Rugby player
This really is Position development, but ‘larger men’ want to improve size and strength, so high bar squats to develop strength and to mitigate injury risk. ‘Smaller men’ would want to focus on front squats and box squats to develop explosive power off the mark.
But again, whatever you feel comfortable with that allows your on the pitch performance to improve. If lifting heavier makes you feel more mentally prepared, low bar. If it increases fatigue, drop it down and only do high bar.
Front Squat / Box Squats – much lighter weights simply to focus on power production, explosiveness and to mitigate injury risk.
How Deep should you Squat?
This is a contentious topic. If you are training to gain leg strength, then below parallel is the only way truly effectively way to train your glutes and quads. But different sports have different needs.*
*There’s virtually no difference in hamstring activation with any form of back squat variation or even front squat when comparing healthy individuals. The elicit similar knee extensor demands and the back squat(s) creates a higher compressive force running through your knees.
If you are a powerlifter you have no choice as competition rules dictate at least below parallel. So to train anything other than that consistently would be futile.
Likewise as an Olympic weightlifter you need to train explosive leg strength from as deep as possible, so squatting ATG (ass to grass) is tried and tested. If you were a bodybuilder, squatting above parallel is an effective way to train quads and reduces the risk of injury.
If you as Louie Simmons from Westside Barbell he’ll say that squatting to deep reduces your hamstring and glute potential, so training to parallel with box squats is the best method to develop athletic potential. So as an athlete, combining this style of squatting with box jumps is certainly one effective way to mitigate injury risk and improve your contractile force.
In short there are too many goal-dependent variables to give an accurate squat-type for everyone, but by following some of the above principles you can help incorporate squatting into your training regime.
This complete guide to Periodisation can help you create a tailored program for your sport of choice.
What squat types do you use? Let me know in the comments