Exploring the Distinctions Between High Bar vs Low Bar Squats

Before diving into a demanding squat session, it’s important to understand the distinction between high-bar and low-bar back squats and which one you are going to do and why. 

Both variations are effective but serve slightly different purposes and target muscles differently. This article will guide you through the distinctions, benefits, and considerations of high bar vs low back squats, helping you make an informed decision. 

Main Takeaways

  • The main difference lies in the placement of the barbell on your back. 
  • Typically, powerlifters opt for low-bar squats as they provide better stability under heavier loads. 
  • High-bar squats tend to emphasize a more upright torso position, making them more common among athletes or individuals focusing on leg development. 

Understanding High Bar and Low Bar Squats

High Bar Squat: 

To do a high-bar squat, place the barbell on the upper part of your shoulders, just below the base of your neck. Coaches often say to “use your traps to make a shelf for the bar” to help you find the right spot.

Using a high bar position in squats keeps your torso more upright. This is great for beginners who might not yet have the back and core strength needed for leaning forward during the squat. It’s also ideal for athletes who usually keep their torso vertical in their sport. 

Low Bar Squat:

In a low-bar squat, position the barbell lower on your back, across your shoulder blades. To find the right spot, think about resting the bar on the backs of your shoulders, or the posterior deltoids. This creates a lower “shelf” for the bar. Unlike the high-bar squat, where the bar sits on your shoulders, you’ll need to focus on firmly holding the bar in place during a low-bar squat, rather than letting it rest there.

In the low bar squat position, your torso will lean more forward, with the amount of lean depending on how low the bar is placed on your shoulders. This position shifts the weight closer to your hips which loads the posterior chain more, allowing you to lift heavier loads. This makes it a popular choice in powerlifting, as it enhances strength in the squat. 

High Bar Vs Low Bar Squat Execution

There are subtle differences between high-bar and low-bar back squats, which you can start to see when looking at how to execute the two lifts:

High Bar

  1. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, tighten your core, and grip the bar just outside of your shoulders. Keep your shoulders down, engage your traps, and rest the bar securely on the shelf created by your upper back tension. 
  1. Stand up to lift the bar off the rack. Once the bar is stable, step back and reset your feet and create intra-abdominal pressure to brace your core. 
  1. To begin the lift, push the hips backwards and bend at the knees (whilst pushing them outwards) to lower into your squat. Keep your trunk upright, so the bar stays above your midfoot.  
  1. Lower until your thighs are just below parallel, then push through your feet to return to standing. 
  1. Re-set and re-brace your core and repeat. 

Low Bar

  1. Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, tighten your core, and pull your elbows back while engaging your lats to form a shelf with your rear delts for the bar to rest securely on. Adjust your hand position as needed, possibly wider than shoulder width, to accommodate your shoulder mobility while maintaining a tight grip on the bar.  
  1. Stand up to lift the bar off the rack. Once the bar is stable, step back, reset your feet, and create intra-abdominal pressure to brace your core. 
  1. To begin the lift, push the hips backwards and bend at the knees (whilst pushing them outwards) to lower into your squat. Allow your torso to lean forward slightly while ensuring the bar follows a straight path over your hips.  
  1. Lower until your thighs are just below parallel, then push through your feet to return to standing. Throughout, engage your core and lower back muscles so that they are one solid unit, allowing you to maintain the same shape, angle, and bar path throughout. 
  1. Re-set and re-brace your core and repeat. 

High Bar Squat Vs Low Bar Squat: The Comparison 

Differences between high bar vs low bar back squats (Adapted from BarBend)
Differences between high bar vs low bar back squats (Adapted from BarBend)

The main difference between high-bar and low-bar squats is placing the barbell higher or a little lower on the traps, which influences posture and muscle engagement of the squat.

Posture

The high bar squat keeps your torso upright. This is great for beginners who might not yet have the back and core strength needed to lean forward during the squat. It’s also ideal for athletes who usually keep their torso vertical in their sport. 

The low bar squat places your torso in a forward lean, with the amount of lean depending on how low the bar is placed on your shoulders. This position shifts the weight closer to your hips which loads the posterior chain more, allowing you to lift heavier loads. This makes it a popular choice in powerlifting, as it enhances strength in the squat. 

Muscles Worked

Regardless of whether your high-bar squatting or low-bar squatting, both are a full-body movement that will work your quads, glutes and core massively and if you’re lifting heavy enough, will tax your central nervous system. Having said that though, the bar placement biases certain muscles:

The high bar squat tends to recruit the quadriceps more intensely, while the low bar squat shifts the focus towards the posterior chain end glutes, offering a more balanced leg and back development.

Strength Development

The low bar squat typically allows for lifting heavier weights and ecicits greater muscle activity (in the glutes) than high bar back squats due to the biomechanical advantage of the bar placement. Therefore, if your aim is to improve your one-rep max and a powerlifting, then the low-bar squat will be more effective. 

Muscular Hypertrophy

Both high-bar and low-bar squats can promote muscle growth. However, muscle hypertrophy typically requires higher rep ranges.

Since the low-bar squat places greater demands on the posterior chain and lower back, there is a higher risk of technique breakdown with more reps. Therefore, high-bar squats might be a safer option for muscle growth, until you can maintain the correct back position and maintain your shape throughout those higher rep ranges. 

For Athletes

If you are a powerlifter, and one of your key lifts is the low-bar back squat, then you will want to train that.

If you are an Olympic weightlifter, CrossFitter then the low-bar back squat will be better for you.

If you are an athlete playing a sport, the high-bar squat forms the basic squatting pattern that most closely relates to the athletic position/stance to help transfer over into athletic development. Given that it places less stress on the back, it is more optimal for athletes playing a sport. 

Ease of Learning

The high bar squat is generally considered easier to learn for beginners due to the more natural bar placement and upright posture. 

So which one should you choose – high bar back squat or low bar back squat?

If you’re new to squatting or aiming to build general strength and improve other key lifts like power cleans, the high bar squat might be the better choice. On the other hand, if your goal is to increase your one-rep max in the squat, the low bar squat could be more effective for you. 

High Bar Vs. Low Back Squat Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of high bar squats?

High bar squats are beneficial for building overall leg strength. They promote a more upright torso poition, which can reduce strain on the lower back relatively to the low bar back squat. This makes the high bar back squat an excellent choice for beginners, athletes looking to improve their general strength, and those working on other lifts like power cleans. 

What are the benefits of low bar squats?

Low bar squats are advantageous for lifting heavier weights and increasing your one rep-max in the squat. They engage the posterior chain more effectively, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lowerback which can lead to greater overall strength chains. 

Which is better, high or low bar squats?

The choice between high bar and low bar squats depends on your goals and individual preferences. High bar squats are typically better for beginners, those looking to develop overall leg strength, and athletes who need to maintain an upright torso for their sport.

Low bar squats are better suited for individuals aiming to maximize their squat strength, particularly powerlifters, as they allow for lifting heavier weights by engaging the posterior chain more effectively. 

Can you lift more with high bar or low bar?

Generally, you can lift more with a low bar squat. The low bar position shifts the weight closer to your hips, which allows for better leverage and engages the larger muscles of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstring, and lower back). This biomechanical advantage typically enables lifters to handle heavier weights compared to the high bar squat. 

Which specialty bar are most beneficial for the high and low bar squats? 

For high bar squats, a standard Olympic barbell is typically sufficient. For low bar squats, using a powerbar with a more aggressive knurling can help keep the bar secure on your back. 

I have poor shoulder mobility, is a low bar position still recommended?

If you have poor shoulder mobility, the low bar squat may be challenging and uncomfortable. It can place additional strain on your shoulders. In this case, high bar squats or using speciality bars like the safety squat bar, which reduces shoulder strain, might be a better option. 

I want to focus on developing my quads, is high bar squatting best?

Yes, high bar squats are generally better for targeting and developing the quads. The more upright torso position shifts the emphasis to the front f of the legs, making it an effective exercise for quad development.

What do I need to focus on to become a better low bar squatter?

To become a better low bar squatter, focus on building strength in your posterior chain, improving your hip and ankle mobility, and practicing proper technique to maintain stability and control. It’s also important to strengthen your core and lower back to handle the increased forward lean. 

I struggle to hit depth when carrying the barbell in a low bar squat position. What can I do?

If your struggle to hit depth in a low bar squat, work on your hip and ankle mobility to improve your range of motion. Practicing with higher weights and focusing on technique can also help. Box squats and pause squats can be useful drills to help you achieve and get comfortable with the correct depth. 

How should high bar and low bar squats be programmed?

How high bar and low bar squats are programmed depend on your training outcome. If your goal is to build maximal strength, then they are typically programmed for lower reps and higher intensity, whereas for hypertrophy and general strength phases, they are often programmed for higher reps and volume. 

Which barbell position for squats is safer? 

Both barbell positions can be safe when performed with proper technique. However, high bar squats generally place less strain on the lower back and shoulders, potentially making them safer for beginners and those with challenges with mobility. The key to safety in either squat variation is using correct form and progressively loading the weight. 

Conclusion

Both high bar and low bar squats are valuable exercises for lower body development. The choice between them should be based on your specific training goals, physical condition, and personal preference. Whether you’re aiming for improved athletic performance or increased strength, selecting the right squat variation can be a game-changer in your training regimen.

Related Squat Articles

  • Squat Form and Technique: Mastering the Basics
  • What Muscles Does a Squat Work?
  • Squat Variations for Complete Lower Body Development

Understanding the nuances between high bar and low bar squats allows you to tailor your training approach to best suit your goals, leading to more effective workouts and improved overall fitness.

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