The Low Bar Squat
As an athlete, one of the most important aspects of strength training is improving lower body strength and explosive power. No matter the sport, all athletes need to have the ability to use their lower body to exert high levels of force as quickly and efficiently as possible. No exercise compares to the barbell squat when building lower body strength and explosive power.
The barbell squat involves and trains the same muscle groups used when running, sprinting, jumping, or resisting opposing forces. This is the primary reason this exercise is considered tremendously beneficial for athletes. Another benefit of this exercise is how a coach can manipulate the exercise to bring about specific training effects.
Whether focusing on speed-strength training, absolute strength training, or hypertrophy-focused training, the squat can be used to accomplish practically any strength training goal.
However, for this training to be maximally effective, the athlete must be capable of performing a squat with proper technique while moving the weight most efficiently. This means that not only is the athlete performing the squat safely and controlled, but the bar and hand positioning allows the athlete to produce as much force as possible.
In this article, we will discuss the low bar squat, including the benefits associated with this bar positioning and advice to help you decide if carrying the barbell in a low bar position during the squat is right for you.
The Basics of the Low Bar Squat
If you are familiar with squat training, you have likely heard the terms "high bar" or "low bar." These terms refer to the positioning of the bar on the back of an athlete when performing a barbell squat. Simply put, high bar positioning involves a bit more hip and quad with the torso upright, while low bar positioning is posterior-chain focused with the torso leaning forward.
As the name suggests, the low bar squat is performed by carrying the bar lower on the back. This bar positioning allows the weight to sit lower on the torso, providing an athlete with improved balance in the squat due to the weight being carried closer to the trunk. Improved balance means increased levels of force production.
The low bar squat can significantly benefit athletes who suffer from issues with ankle mobility or athletes who have long torsos, causing high bar positioning to feel unbalanced. However, make no mistake; the low bar squat can benefit almost any athlete.
In terms of the ability to move heavy weight, the low bar squat is typically the most efficient way to accomplish the task. Using the low bar squat form often makes sense for athletes such as powerlifters or strongman competitors. However, these athletes should still program the high bar squat as both a max effort lower variation and an accessory exercise.
One way to think about the relationship between the high bar and low bar squat is to compare them to a close grip bench and a wide grip bench with an arch. In each case, one form is excellent for improving power and strength, while the other is great for improving strength and lifting as much weight as possible.
Just because you choose one squat style to be your primary style does not mean you should abandon the other squatting style. Also, remember that just because the low bar position typically allows athletes to squat heavier weights does not mean that will always be the case. There is always a chance the high bar position will be the strongest and most efficient form for an athlete to use. It is all a matter of the biomechanics of the individual performing the exercise.
Performing a Low Bar Squat
The first thing that must be accomplished as you begin low bar squatting is to decide where to carry the barbell on the back. A common mistake many make when transitioning to the low bar squat style is drastically lowering the barbell's position on the torso. However, we recommend only lowering the barbell as much as necessary to allow for a slight lean in the torso and increased trunk engagement.
Being conservative in lowering the bar position will help avoid two issues: one, this will avoid drastically changing the mechanics of your squat form, and two, this will help avoid issues caused by a lack of shoulder mobility. We also want to avoid carrying the bar too low with the torso leaned too far forward, as this can create excessive lumbar spine flexion and wreak havoc on the shoulders.
If shoulder mobility issues materialize, there is a straightforward solution - utilizing the claw grip to grip the barbell. The claw grip is achieved by bringing the pinky fingers under the barbell, allowing the elbows to travel forward and the scapulae to sit more neutrally. This has been the preferred squat grip at Westside Barbell for the past thirty years; it is a necessary adjustment when you build the upper back and posterior shoulders the way we do.
Once proper bar positioning and setup are achieved, all left to do is brace the trunk and squat. The width of the squat stance will typically not need to be adjusted. However, if an athlete squats with the feet particularly close together, the stance may need to widen a bit to allow for the torso to lower properly during the eccentric phase and hit depth.
As the squat begins, the athlete should focus on proper trunk engagement and a controlled eccentric. Trunk engagement is critical in keeping the torso elevated and the spine protected. As the concentric phase begins, there may be some slight spinal flexion. However, the low bar squat should not look like a good morning. As the lift is completed, we want to maintain a rigid trunk until the barbell is placed back into the rack.
Programming the Low Bar Squat
When designing a Conjugate Method-based training program, you will perform all max effort squats using your dominant squat bar position. Considering the goal of max effort is to lift at intensity levels above 90% for 1-3 reps, it only makes sense to choose the squat bar positioning that allows that training to be possible.
Accessory training often features squat exercises to enhance lower body strength and muscle mass. Here are a few squat exercises we recommend low bar squatters perform, along with recommended set and rep schemes:
Giant Cambered Bar Squat - 4 x 5 or 4 x 8-10
Box Squat - 5 x 5 or 4 x 5-8
Low Box Squat - 4 x 5-8 or 3 x 8-10
Kang Squat - 4 x 5-8 or 3 x 8-10
However, sometimes, we will alternate between the high and low bar positions even if we use the low bar position as our primary squat bar position. One instance would be during dynamic effort lower training. In this case, we may perform a wave of dynamic effort squat training carrying the barbell in the high bar position. The safety squat bar is an excellent specialty bar to enhance anterior leg focus during dynamic effort squatting, which naturally places the barbell in a high bar position.
Another instance would be during accessory training when the high bar position would make the most sense to allow us to train the anterior leg muscles most efficiently. Just because we are using the low bar squat position to squat as much weight as possible doesn't mean we let the anterior leg muscles become undertrained. High bar squats performed at full ROM will help to significantly improve the size and strength of the quadriceps and hip flexors.
Here are a few high bar exercises you can add to your lower body accessory exercise training, along with recommended set and rep schemes:
High Bar Squat - 4 x 5-8 or 3 x 10-12
High Bar Low Box Squat - 5 x 5 or 4 x 5 -8
SSB Low Box Squat - 4 x 5 or 4 x 8-10
Manta Ray Squat - 4 x 8-10 or 3 x 12-15
All of the above exercises can be included anytime as a lower body accessory exercise. For athletes who use the low bar position as their primary squat form, we recommend performing one low bar-focused accessory exercise and one high bar-focused accessory exercise each week.
Troubleshooting the Low Bar Squat
The low bar squat is relatively easy to perform. However, there are some issues athletes can encounter when first starting to squat using the low bar position. The most common issues encountered by athletes are related to shoulder mobility. Some athletes may have upper and mid-back muscle mass that reduces shoulder mobility, while others may have tight anterior shoulders and pecs that limit the ability to retract the shoulder blades.
In either case, the best action is to elevate the bar position and use the claw grip to grip the squat bar. These adjustments will quickly relieve excessive shoulder strain and can be implemented without having to worry about adjusting the squat mechanics of the athlete.
Another issue athletes can encounter is reaching competition-legal squat depth when carrying the barbell in the low bar position. This issue is usually caused by the athlete squatting with too wide or too close of a stance. If the stance is too wide, it becomes challenging to reach depth due to excessive strain placed on the hips and adductors. If the stance is too close, the torso cannot travel through the eccentric to reach depth properly.
In this case, athletes should choose a stance that allows vertical shin positioning to be maintained throughout the squat and lets the hips move more naturally. A bit wider than shoulder width is a good starting point for any athlete looking to find their optimal squat stance.
The final common issue that many lifters experience is excessive flexion in the lumbar spine during the eccentric phase of the squat. This results in the athlete having to perform a good morning to complete the eccentric portion of the lift, placing great strain on the lumbar and thoracic spine. This can be dangerous under high velocity or max effort training conditions.
The answer here is simple: strengthen the back and trunk muscles. We recommend performing exercises such as good mornings, 45-degree back raises, Reverse Hypers, glute-ham raises, standing abs, GHR sit-ups, and leg raises. Remember that much of our training is focused on strengthening the back, but it is never a bad idea to include some extra work to specifically focus on reinforcing the lumbar spine.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the determining factor when deciding whether a high or low bar is best for an athlete?
A: It all comes down to movement efficiency. Typically, an athlete with a shorter torso would prefer a high bar position, while an athlete with a longer torso would prefer a low bar position. However, everything is on a case-by-case basis, so athletes should try both stances and see which feels best and allows for the highest movement quality.
Q: I am experiencing significant shoulder pain when using a low bar position. What should I do?
A: The first step should be to elevate the barbell's position on the back and begin using the claw grip to grip the barbell. If this fails to help, you can widen your grip a bit to help relieve more stress from the shoulders. If neither solution works, consider returning to the high bar position.
Q: The low bar is causing wrist pain. What should I do?
A: In this case, we recommend wearing wrist wraps when squatting.
Q: Can I use a high bar squat as a variation if I typically squat using a low bar position?
A: Yes, not only does high bar squat make a good max effort variation, high bar can also be used as a dynamic effort variation or quad and hip flexor-focused accessory exercise.
Q: How much torso lean is recommended when performing a low bar squat?
A: This will always depend on the athlete. However, we want to pay attention to excessive lumbar or thoracic spine flexion, particularly during the concentric phase. As long as the trunk is properly braced, the spine should remain relatively neutral throughout the squat, no matter how much the torso leans forward.
The Solution for Heavy Squats
For many, the low bar squat position is the optimal way to carry the barbell to allow movement during the squat to be as efficient as possible. With the barbell positioned lower on the torso, athletes will feel more stable and capable of producing tremendous force. It is simple: stability and balance lead to increased force production.
If you are an athlete competing in strength sports, the low bar position is a great way to move the most weight possible. If you are an athlete competing in conventional sports, the low bar position is a great way to use the squat movement pattern to target and enhance posterior chain strength and muscular development.
The squat form you choose to use as your primary form all boils down to which one allows you to move efficiently, pain-free, and produce high levels of force. You should always include some work utilizing the opposing bar position, no matter which bar position you choose to use as your primary. This ensures that athletes remain balanced in their strength development, avoiding letting the primarily involved muscles of the opposite style weaken.
However, if your goal is to squat as heavily as possible, it is hard to argue against choosing the low bar position when performing the barbell squat.