Differences in High Bar vs. Low Bar Squats
Over the years, there has been much debate regarding bar positioning during the squat. This debate has likely been fueled by the need for influencers to create content that causes controversy and gets folks engaged with their social media accounts. The truth is that there should be no debate between the high bar vs. low bar position in the squat; both positions are helpful, depending on the circumstances.
If you observe the different strength sports, you will notice that athletes typically prefer one type of bar position in each discipline of lifting. For instance, in sports like Olympic weightlifting and CrossFit, most athletes prefer to carry the squat bar in the high bar position. However, most athletes carry a mid to low bar position in sports like powerlifting or strongman.
Does this mean you should only train using the bar position associated with your sport? No. Both provide benefits to all athletes regardless of sport or training focus. However, it is important to understand how and why we choose to use each bar position.
What's The Difference Between High Bar and Low Bar?
Ironically, for as much debate as this topic has caused, there is not a tremendous amount of difference between the execution of a high bar squat compared to a low bar squat. The main difference is obvious; you're carrying the barbell a little higher on the traps or a little lower.
However, there are a few differences between each style. A high bar position will allow an athlete to perform the squat with the torso in a more vertical position. This works well for beginners, considering they may not have the posterior chain and trunk strength necessary to squat with the torso in a leaned position.
High bar squatting is also suitable for athletes who perform most of their sports tasks with the torso in the vertical position. As mentioned above, the high bar position works well for Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes, considering the movement patterns involved in the lifts commonly performed in these sports.
The low bar position comes into play when it is time to focus on absolute strength development and maximal muscle activation. Many believe the high bar position to be the better option to activate the anterior muscles of the legs, but it has been discovered that the low bar position causes greater muscle activation in the legs. The low bar position also places the weight closer to the hips, giving the lifter an advantage over the barbell and the ability to squat heavier weights.
The most significant difference between high bar vs. low bar positions is how the shoulders and torso are positioned. With a high bar position, you will not need to worry about spending much time learning how to position yourself under the barbell. High bar will require less shoulder mobility and torso strength to execute correctly.
If you squat using a low bar position, you want to find the correct bar position on your back and the ideal hand position on the barbell. Where you place the barbell and the hands will depend on your torso size and shoulder width. Some low bar squatters may carry the barbell almost mid-trap with a slight lean, while others carry the barbell relatively low on the traps with a significant torso lean.
Ultimately, it will be up to the athlete to try both styles of bar position to find what's most comfortable and which position allows them to squat with as little pain as possible while still preparing for the demands of their sport.
High Bar vs. Low Bar Squat Execution
Again, there will not be a significant difference between high or low bar positions, but we will describe what would be considered optimal setup and execution for each position:
1. Place the hands on the barbell and set the traps. Ideally, the shoulders experience little strain, and the barbell will be placed onto the top of the trapezius muscle.
2. Roll your shoulders into and under the barbell, aiming to have the elbows in line with the torso (elbow position can vary depending on shoulder mobility and injury history).
3. Create intra-abdominal pressure to set your brace and lift the barbell out of the rack.
4. To begin the lift, we want to push the hips rearward slightly while keeping the torso as vertical as possible, followed by a release at the knees to enter the eccentric phase of the squat.
5. While maintaining an upright torso position, we will reverse the barbell's path and enter the lift's concentric phase.
6. Rack the barbell.
1. Place the hands on the barbell and set the traps. Set the hand position a bit wider than you would with a high bar squat to alleviate the strain experienced by the shoulders when squatting with the bar in a low position. The bar should be carried mid to low on the traps, depending on how much torso lean you prefer.
2. Bring the chest up, and flex into the barbell. If your hands are correctly placed on the bar, and the barbell is in a low bar position, you should be able to wedge into the bar and exert significant control over its movement. As you unrack, you will notice less back and forth motion in the torso now that the barbell is sitting lower.
3. Starting with the chest up and the torso slightly leaned, create intra-abdominal pressure to set your brace and lift the barbell out of the rack. Having your rack height set correctly is crucial for a successful low bar unrack.
4. To begin the lift, we want to push the hips back and allow the torso to lean while maintaining a straight-line bar path over the hips. How much you need to move your hips back and lean will depend on your height and proportions, so use lighter weights to practice and find what works best for you. Once the hips are rearward and the torso is in position, we can release the knees and begin the eccentric phase of the lift.
5. As we descend, we want to use our trunk and mid/low back strength to control the barbell and allow the hips and legs to exert as much force as possible once the concentric phase begins. Focus on keeping the chest from dropping further than the position you start in when initially unracking the barbell.
6. While maintaining our brace and torso position, we will reverse the barbell's path and enter the lift's concentric phase.
7. Once the concentric phase begins, we want to continue maintaining our chest and torso positions to reduce flexion in the spine. It is common for the chest to drop slightly as intensity increases, but it is nothing to worry about as long as no excessive lumbar flexion occurs.
8. Rack the barbell.
The high bar squat is simpler to execute and can be performed by beginners or athletes without worrying about intensive movement instruction or excessive lumbar spine flexion. A low bar position isn't difficult to execute but will take a little more time for an athlete to dial in and feel comfortable.
Again, the correct position is the one that best serves your training goals and leads to the adaptations you are seeking.
Which Bar Position Should I Choose?
As you have likely figured out by now, both styles of squatting serve a purpose. How you program your squats will depend on your current situation and training goals, and thus the proper bar placement for squats is the one that best serves the athlete. For instance, someone new to weight training would benefit from the high bar position considering the natural feel of the movement and the ease of carrying the barbell.
Beginners have enough to worry about when it comes to learning, so it is best to leave the low bar squat lesson for later on in the training process.
Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes can benefit from a good mix of both styles. High bar squatting allows these athletes to train the squat at joint angles similar to the other lifts involved in their sport, while the low bar position provides adequate levels of hypertrophy and develops absolute strength.
Regular low bar squatting comes into play when you focus on absolute strength and increasing muscle mass. This means for powerlifters, strongman competitors, and bodybuilders, carrying the barbell in the low bar position during the squat will provide you with greater strength and muscle mass adaptations. High bar squatting is an option for these athletes but will typically be performed as an accessory exercise.
High Bar vs. Low Bar Squat Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the benefits of high bar squats?
A: High bar squatting is easy for a coach to teach and an athlete to understand and perform. The high bar squat features a greater range of motion, typically feels natural for most athletes, and places less stress on the shoulders.
Q: What are the benefits of low bar squats?
A: Low bar squatting allows the athlete to lift more weight and activate more muscle. This results in increased absolute strength and muscle mass.
Q: Which specialty bars are most beneficial for the high and low bar squat?
A: For high bar squats, you want to go with the safety squat bar. For low bar squats, the giant cambered bar is your best option.
Q: I have poor shoulder mobility, is a low bar position still recommended?
A: The benefits associated with low bar squatting are hard to mimic any other way. We would recommend performing shoulder mobility exercises and manipulating your hand position on the barbell to find a comfortable shoulder position. The bow bar or giant cambered bar can help alleviate low bar squat shoulder pain.
Q: I want to focus on developing my quads, is high bar squatting best?
A: Contrary to what some believe, the low bar squat position activates the most muscle, including the quads. Go with front squats, hack squats, or goblet squats if you need another squat variation to focus on the quads.
Q: What do I need to focus on to become a better low bar squatter?
A: Strengthening the trunk, back, hips, glutes, and hamstrings. Mobility-wise, focus on the shoulders and hips. Good mornings are a great exercise variation for any athlete, especially a low bar squatter.
Q: I struggle to hit depth when carrying the barbell in a low bar position. What can I do?
A: Focus on hip position, particularly how much you sit back before you break at the knees. Also, squatting to a box can be a great way to test barbell positions and mobility to begin troubleshooting issues and develop adequate mobility to execute a low bar squat properly.
Q: How should high bar and low bar squats be programmed?
A: Not much will change in terms of volume and intensity; the only difference is in exercise selection. As mentioned above, beginners want to perform squats using a high bar position until strength and mobility improve.
Athletes can benefit from an even high bar vs. low bar split, while strength athletes benefit most from low bar position. When used as a main exercise, we will program both styles of squatting for 1-3 reps. We will perform either style for 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps when used as an accessory exercise.
Q: What bar position is recommended for dynamic effort squatting?
A: You will carry the bar the same way for your dynamic and max effort squats. If you prefer the high bar position during max effort, then use high bar during dynamic effort, and vice versa.
Q: Which barbell position for squats is safer?
A: Both bar positions are safe, provided you understand the proper execution and meet the prerequisites. However, the high bar position is easier for a beginner to learn. Low bar requires a particular level of shoulder mobility, along with a strengthened trunk and posterior chain, to ensure execution is dialed in.
Less Talk, More Work
If you spend enough time around strength sports and strength coaches, you will notice every few years a debate regarding the effectiveness or proper execution of specific exercises will arise. While it is good for coaches to discuss these things with colleagues, it often becomes a battle of egos instead of informative. This ultimately leads to the beginners and intermediates reading these debates to doubt their own training.
When it comes to high bar versus low bar squatting, you need to choose the option that best serves you as an athlete. This means selecting the style of squatting that allows you to reach your training goals in a rapid and safe manner. In our experience, both styles serve a purpose, with a low bar position providing the most significant benefit for athletes concerned with strength and size.
You need to take the time to develop your style with each bar position. Maybe what works best for you isn't considered textbook high bar or low bar, but it is getting you the results you seek while remaining pain-free. If that's the case, don't let a coach or social media post talk you out of what you know works.
No matter how well-schooled or experienced a coach may be, the athlete will ultimately know what feels and works best for themselves. As coaches, it is our job to ensure we set our egos aside and collaborate with the athlete to discover what movement pattern works best for them. What matters most is getting the work done, not debating the small bit of nuance between the two basic styles of squatting.