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March 31, 2022
The barbell back squat is often referred to as the “King of Exercises”...the only question is, which one - the high bar or low bar back squat? Dun, dun, dun...actually, it’s not that dramatic; but it’s still a question many of us have (and, to be fair, many argue over it as well). We’re not going to get messed up in all that drama, but we do want to enlighten you on the difference between these two back squats so that you can further broaden your gym knowledge. Plus, one of them might actually be better suited for you, depending on your goals. Or maybe you should just do both. Or perhaps we should start this article and let you decide.
In this article, you will learn:
And you thought the back squat simply had you put the barbell on your back and lift. Well, that’s not too far from what you do but differences are made in your squat depending on where you place the barbell on your back. As you can guess, the high bar squat has the barbell sitting high on your back, while the low bar squat has the barbell sitting low on the back (we’ll get into the details below).
The bar placement is just the beginning of these differences, as it causes a significant change in the biomechanics of your squat. Due to the biomechanics being different, different muscles are activated to various degrees (kind of) to overcome the new forces.
Chances are that the back squat you are doing is the high bar squat, or somewhere in-between the high and low bar back squat, as that’s usually what’s taught at the beginner level. The reason being is it’s a bit easier to learn as the low bar squat requires more mobility.
However, you’ll likely to see more powerlifters using the low bar squat, and it’s exclusively what’s taught by infamous strength and conditioning coach Mark Rippetoe, the founder of Starting Strength.
Does that mean one is better than the other? No. It doesn’t. It just means that they have different purposes (think bench press and incline bench press), and you should experiment with both to find what works best for you.
Understanding the differences between the high bar and low bar squat starts with the differences in form. We’ll examine how the high bar and low bar positions produce multiple differences.
The bar position is the beginning of the differences between the high bar and low bar back squat. A difference of just a few inches sets off a chain reaction that causes the back squat to diverge into two different variations.
High Bar Position:
The high bar squat will see the barbell sit higher up on the back and rest on top of the traps. That being said, it’s important not to go any higher, or the bar will be sitting on the neck and spine. While the bar is high(er), be sure to keep it resting on the traps.
Low Bar Position:
Believe it or not, the low bar squat position will sit lower than the high bar. To be exact, the bar will sit 2 or 3 inches lower and will rest over the mid-traps and shoulder blades. The bar will rest somewhere just below the posterior delt. This means the bar will be running across the back, being pinned against it.
As the bar’s position dictates the name of these squats, you'd guess that it’s a pretty significant variable...and it is. This is due to the effect it has on the bar path. Actually, the bar path for both high bar and low bar squat are the same; straight down and above the middle of the foot. The main difference is going to be in the biomechanics of the two squats for them to keep the bar in the correct position.
Keep in mind that many of the same cues apply to both the low bar and high bar squat. The hips will be pushed back for both until the thighs hit parallel. The difference comes from the flexion of the hips and torso lean that keeps the bar path going straight down. As the barbell sits on the back, it will also move backward as the hips move backward. However, the total displacement will vary depending on its location.
High Bar Form:
During the high bar squat, the torso will remain more upright than the low bar squat. Remember that the goal for both squat variations is to keep the bar position over the middle of the foot. As the bar is up high on the body, the torso does not need to lean over as much in order to stay over the middle of the foot. Therefore, as the hips go back, the torso leans forward less than the low bar squat meaning less hip flexion. Further, the knees will see more forward travel to compensate for the torso staying more upright. This will also require more ankle mobility which is something to consider.
Low Bar Form:
During the low bar squat, the torso will need to come down further to keep the bar over the middle of the foot. Since the barbell is lower on the back, the weight would move back behind the feet if you kept an upright torso. Therefore, the torso will noticeably come forward as the hips move backward. Once the thighs get parallel to the ground, the chest will also end closer to the body/legs due to more hip flexion. In contrast to the high bar squat, the knees will stay relatively the same location with minimal forward travel requiring less ankle mobility (ankle dorsiflexion).
To help distinguish between body positions, we can then throw in the front squat. The torso is even more upright during the front squat as the weight is now in front of the body and starts directly over the mid foot. So if we were to create an order of body lean from least to greatest, it would look like this: Front Squat→High Bar Back Squat→Low Bar Back Squat
Concerning the foot stance, both versions allow a range for stance width depending on the individual’s own attributes. However, most trainees will take a wider stance and turn their toes out a bit more when performing the low bar squat. This is to compensate for the extra hip flexion and lower torso.
The grip for the low bar and high bar will be relatively the same. However, when using a low bar squat, the lifter will generally take a wider grip as it requires greater shoulder mobility to get down and under the bar. This can be an issue for some lifters who have mobility issues. If you have shoulder discomfort when setting up for the low bar squat, you will need to first use the high bar squat as you work on your mobility.
Due to the differences in the body mechanics and form, high bar and low bar muscle activation is also quite different. While both versions work the same group of muscles, the conversation surrounds to what degree this occurs. In reality, the difference in muscle activation isn’t really as big as some people like to make it seem.
That being said, the primary muscles worked are going to be the following:
Generally speaking, most people will suggest that the high bar back squat is more quad dominant as the body is more upright with less hip flexion. And, since the torso is leaned over with more hip flexion during the low bar back squat, it produces greater muscle activation in the posterior muscles; the glutes and hamstrings. That makes sense and is kind of right.
However, not as much as we tend to think. A recent study in 2020 specifically looked at the muscle activation in trained powerlifters performing the high bar and low bar squat. They found that the low bar squat did produce more muscle activation, primarily during the eccentric portion. This is great because the eccentric portion is believed to play a larger role in strength and muscle growth. However, there were “negligible” differences in quadriceps activation. However, other studies have shown that the high bar squat produces more muscle activation in the quadriceps. There could be other factors to consider as well, such as foot stance.
The main takeaway is that the high bar and low bar squat should not be seen as a “quadricep exercise” or “hamstring exercise” (If you want a hamstring exercise use the Romanian deadlift!). In essence, when choosing between high bar and low bar back squat, you should choose the one that best suits your body.
So which one will allow you to lift more weight? When it comes to max number, most people tend to be able to lift more when using the low bar squat, around 5-10%. This is due to the less torque required to extend the hips and knee during the low bar squat. Remember that the body acts like a machine and basic physics still apply. The hips act as what’s called the “fulcrum” which is the pivot point of a lever (imagine the middle part of a see-saw). Because the weight sits lower and is closer to the fulcrum, it’s easier to lift. Again, take the see-saw example. If a person were to sit on the very end, more force would be required to lift them. However, the closer they get to the middle, the easier it is to lift them. This same thing is happening with the low bar squat.
However, don’t get confused. The higher weight during the low bar squat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stronger, it just means that you’re at a better mechanical advantage for lifting. Therefore, this leaves two scenarios for lifters:
One of the last questions people have about the high bar and low bar squat is which builds more muscle mass. To our knowledge, this has not been tested specifically so it’s hard to say for sure (there have been studies that have tested muscle activation but not necessarily change in surface area of the muscle).
If we had to guess, we would go with the low bar squat due to the heavier load being lifted and higher muscle activation of the posterior muscles during the eccentric contraction. However, this is purely a guess, and the question of “how much more muscle” still exists. To answer that, we would guess that it’s probably not significant enough to make you choose the low bar squat if it doesn’t suit you.
While anecdotal, this also seems to be the recurring thought in the fitness world. Further, this is why Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength swears by the low bar squat. Again, this is specific to the posterior muscles as the quads seem to receive more similar activation. But to reiterate, it probably doesn’t matter.
As we have seen that there are differences in technique between the high bar and low bar, we’ve also learned that the differences they have on performance variables aren’t as significant as some would have you think. Therefore, how do you decide which one you should do?
Ultimately you should just try both and if possible, do both regularly. However, below are some general guidelines to follow that could tell you what one may be good for you.
Who Should High Bar Squat?
Who Should Low Bar Squat?
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You probably picked up our general feeling on this issue but to reiterate, both movements are great. If possible, you should mix both of them into your training program. If you do, don’t switch every session but rather alternate every 8-12 weeks, or however your periodization is set up. Individual circumstances could still play a factor in you primarily sticking to one variation but the only way to find out is to go squat and see what happens! One note, assuming you haven’t been doing the low bar squat, give yourself some time to adequately learn the movement before deciding if it’s for you or not. In other words, don’t decide you don’t like it after the session! Regardless, train smart, train hard, and make sure you squat to depth (no half-ass reps)!
Main image courtesy of coach frankie_dejong's Instagram
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