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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
December 26, 2021
Safety squat bars could be the most valuable piece of equipment in the gym that you’ve never seen…or even heard of. That’s a shame as this bar offers so many different benefits that it places it above the regular barbell in various situations. To be clear, we’re not saying that the safety squat bar is better than a standard barbell; we’re just saying that it’s pretty freaking awesome, and we think everyone should be using it. That’s what this entire article is about; what is the safety squat bar, and its benefits. In other words, why do you need to start using it in the gym! In this article, we’ll go over;
The safety squat bar is a type of barbell that was initially designed by those in the strength community, specifically powerlifters. The bar looks significantly different from the standard barbell in several various aspects.
Note: Safety Squat Bars are sometimes referred to as a Yoke Bar.
Due to the extra material used to fabricate a safety squat bar, they will weigh more than your standard barbell. While different brands will have different weights, the vast majority will weigh around 60-65lbs. Again, there is some variance here, so check with your manufacturer of choice just to double-check.
Above we went over the 3 defining design features of the safety squat bar. The cambered design has the weight sitting low, the handles allow easier holding, and the extra padding makes lifting more comfortable. Combined, these three differences make a huge difference in squatting.
The cambered design is the most significant feature of the safety squat bar. Essentially, this makes the weight sit lower and in line with the center of gravity. Further, the cambered design will allow the weights to be manipulated so that they can swing forward to line up with your enter of gravity (see below). Or you can also manipulate other positions for a different stimulus.
The safety squat bars are there for a few purposes. The first is that it simply allows you to stabilize the weight by bringing your arms out in front of your body. This is huge if you are someone who suffers from mobility issues in the shoulder. Ideally, you can correct the mobility issues, but sometimes we can’t. Or perhaps you have injured your shoulder and are in recovery. Still, maybe your shoulders just need a break from supporting heavy loads with a traditional barbell.
Secondly, the handles allow you to rotate the bar some to manipulate the position of the weight.
We wish there was some really cool physiological reason for the padding…but there’s not. As mentioned above, the barbell will sit much higher on your upper back and come across your upper traps. This can be very painful on your spine and muscles, and we don’t want that. Therefore, the pads are merely there for comfort.
However, safety squat bars are VERY comfortable. You will appreciate this, even more so when you start lifting heavy weights as a standard squat bar can be painful, even when positioned low. While pain is a part of lifting, we’d be lying if we told you that squatting with high loads and zero discomforts wasn’t an attractive benefit.
Regarding safety squat bars, there are not many options on the market. The price for a safety squat bar can range from around $240 to over $600. If you're looking to purchase one, check out the Best Safety Squat Bars on the market that suit all budgets.
The above three features combine to offer many benefits that come in real handy when you’re a serious lifter. In fact, there are certain exercises that can ONLY be done with the safety squat bar, which we’ll discuss in greater detail below. This section will discuss the biomechanical advantages of the safety squat bar in greater detail and what makes it a “safety” bar.
When we look at the body from the side, the center of gravity runs straight down the middle through the middle of the skull. Ideally, this is where we keep the bar path during squats. However, because of the straight design of the Olympic bar, the weight will either sit behind the center of gravity during the back squat or in front of the center of gravity during the front squat.
However, due to the cambered design of the safety squat bar, the bar can rest on the back but the weight can be pushed forward so that it falls right in line with the center of gravity. Therefore, when a trainee goes down in the squat, the center of gravity is pulling straight down, thus mitigating awkward pulling forces. This makes the squat easier for those with injured backs or those who just want to give their back a rest.
Another great back-saver is that the bar sits so high on the neck. This works in unison with the center of gravity to allow you to “back squat” with a significantly more upright torso. Further, it will enable the front squat to be performed flawlessly as it doesn’t require as much mobility in the upper body while adjusting the center of gravity as well (again, we will discuss below further).
This is important because squatting with an upright torso significantly relieves pressure from the lower back. Because you are not bent over, a higher percentage of the load is delivered straight down into the spine, leaving only a fraction out in front, which is responsible for increasing torque (i.e., it’s what hurts your lower back).
One of the most significant issues people have when training the barbell back squat is that they highly underestimate shoulder mobility. This is why you’ll often see trainees back squat with the barbell bending the wrists; they cannot position their arms in the correct position to wrap their wrists around the bar.
This isn’t an issue at all as the safety squat bar has handles that come down in front of the trainee. Therefore, the trainee can quickly just grab the bar in front of them, completely eliminating any discomfort in the shoulder. Further, the wrist won’t be forced to take the brunt of the load.
Taking these two benefits above together, the safety squat bar is the perfect piece of equipment to give your joints a rest while still allowing you to lift heavy loads.
Together, those three unique characteristics make squatting movements much more enjoyable for all lifters, whether you need the added mobility support or not.
So now, let’s look at some exercises that you can do with the safety squat bar.
The obvious safety squat bar exercise is the classic back squat. You will set up the bar in the same manner as a back squat for this movement. Next, walk up the bar and place your head in between the handles, so the padded parts are snug against the very top of your neck and traps. Grab the handles for support and unrack the weight.
You will notice that if you don’t pull or push on the handles, they will naturally point down towards the floor. Take some time to experiment with manipulating the handles to see how it affects the feel of the movement. The more you push up on the handles, the more forward the weights will come.
Get in a normal stance for squatting and begin the movement as you would with a squat. You want to come down to maintain a very upright torso as you come down. Luckily, this will almost happen automatically as your body will move to accommodate the weight, much like how doing a goblet squat will “force” a trainee to also squat with an upright torso.
Come down until you hit parallel and pop back up. One thing to be cautious of is excessive pulling on the handles. Often, trainees will pull down hard using heavier loads, similar to barbell back squats. However, similar to the barbell back squats, you want to keep this pulling motion to a minimum.
Everyone knows about the obvious safety bar back squat, but now we’re getting into other incredible movements you can do with a safety squat bar. First, we’ll look at the front squat.
Again, set the safety squat bar up in the same manner as using an ordinary barbell. As you approach the bar to unrack, you will notice that the handles are pointing down. These handles are going to actually rest on top of your shoulders. Therefore, this will require you to lift the handles upwards so that your head can slide in between the handles and your neck is tight against the padded spot.
Next, the grip is much more different as instead of using a racked position, you will instead just bring both arms up to grab the barbell, almost like you’re hugging the bar. Well, actually, it does look like a racked position; however, your hands are holding the padded area with your hands palm down instead. This single aspect will instantly make the safety squat bar front squat your movement of choice when performing front squats. As we know, front squats are fantastic but require significant wrist and shoulder mobility. Even then, it can still be uncomfortable. Sure, you could just get used to it, OR you could just use a safety squat bar.
Next, unrack the bar, get into a normal position, and perform the movement in the same manner as a front squat. The main cue to remember is just like the barbell front squat. As you drive upwards, don’t let your elbows fall. Doing so will start a chain reaction where your whole body will start to lean forward. You don’t want that. Therefore, continually drive your elbows upwards up as you come up. This will ensure you maintain a proper upright position.
This is one of those movements you’ve likely never tried before but definitely should! The Hatfield squat is the squat that really made the safety squat bar famous. It was named after Fred Hatfield, and it is a movement that is specific to the safety squat bar. The Hatfield squat is unlike any other squat, and it’s something you need to include.
To execute the Hatfield squat, you’ll need a safety squat bar AND a regular barbell. First, set up the safety squat bar at the typical height for a back squat. After, you’ll want to set up the next barbell. This should be set at a height that is just a tiny bit higher than chest level. The reason being is that you will actually be using this bar as a brace to hold onto. Therefore, you want to always be able to pull down on the barbell.
Note: A lot of people prefer to use a hip (or just above hip height) for the barbell rather than chest height. You'll have to try and see which you prefer.
Go up to the barbell and use your hands to manipulate the handles to allow you to get under the bar. First, use the handles to unrack the bar, and once settled in, you’ll then let go of the safety handles and place your hands on the regular straight barbell. Before you start, make sure you have pulled the safety squat bar all the way to the edge of the lip on the hooks so that the bar doesn’t jump during the movement.
The handles will naturally turn into your body, so don’t be concerned about it falling off; it won’t. Well, it could, but it would mean you somehow managed to get flipped upside down, and we’d then have more significant issues to address.
Unrack the safety squat bar and step out from the rack while maintaining a hold on the barbell. You will now perform squats, as usual, using the straight barbell to help stabilize and even assist you with reps.
The Hatfield squat is a fantastic exercise for those who want to add serious volume to their squats without wrecking their backs. Hatfield squats are almost always done with high reps; sometimes really high reps in the 20+ range. Therefore, while an awesome movement, it’s rarely done as a primary exercise but almost always as an accessory to the squat or a brutal finisher.
Note: Hatfield lunges are also great. You do the same set up, but do a reverse lunge rather than a squat.
You guessed it, overhead pressing with a safety squat bar should be set up in the same manner as you would if you were going to use a normal straight bar. Approach the bar so that the handles lay against your chest and grab outside the handles. This will be a bit awkward at first, but you will get used to it. We promise.
Next, you’re going to unrack the safety squat bar. Immediately, you will start to feel why this is so different from pressing with a regular bar…in fact, why it will be more challenging. Above, we talked about how the weight can move to adjust for center of gravity, which was beneficial as it made the lift easier. Well here, the weight still moves but makes the movement considerably harder as your muscles will need to fire extra hard to stabilize the weight.
Everything is exactly the same minus the required extra stabilization from here on out. Word to the wise; DO NOT use heavy loads when you start this movement. Work up very slowly to allow your muscles to get used to the wobble of the bar. However, once you can press the same weight using a safety squat bar, you can feel confident you’ll press the same with a straight bar.
When we first start using the safety squat bar for pressing, we like to use it as an accessory for overhead pressing. For example, you could run maybe a 4X4 strict press followed by 2XAMAP with the safety squat bar. From there, slowly use progressive overload until you’re more confident pressing heavier loads with the safety squat bar. After, you could alternate the safety squat bar overhead press and barbell pressing for our main movement.
Do you have to use the safety squat bar? You don’t have to, but rotating it into your workouts will benefit you in the long run. Here is a list of populations who should be using the safety squat bar.
As you can see, basically anyone will benefit from using the safety squat bar in their rotation. This means you. It’s perfect for building strength and muscle hypertrophy when trained with a proper resistance training program.
So we talked about all of the mechanical differences that are seen with the safety squat bar, but how does it actually affect strength and muscle growth? Well, there’s actually a couple of studies that looked at differences in the biomechanics when using a standard barbell and a safety squat bar while also examining the effect on physical adaptations.
The first study from 2019 set out to examine the differences in biomechanics. They made a few significant discoveries.
Some surprises as the lower body activation were less. Still, the fact you squat a bit lower isn’t entirely surprising as your front squat is also significantly lower, which uses a more similar body position.
Regardless of this study, another study examined the change in performance after 9 weeks of training with either the barbell back squat or the safety squat bar. Surprisingly, they found performance improvements in vertical jump and lower body strength were similar for both bars despite higher loads being used with the barbell back squat.
From this, we can assume that unless you are a powerlifter or an athlete who needs to use barbell back squats, there seems to be a toss-up between using the safety squat bar squat or barbell back squat. Again, you’d be best off just rotating both.
Related: Standard Barbell Weight & Size Chart
As you can see from this article, you NEED to be doing the safety squat bar squat. Well, maybe not “need” to, but you’d love it if you tried. It offers SO MANY benefits due to its design; it mitigates the load on the lower back, is joint-friendly, and you can even do exercises that aren’t possible with a straight barbell!
If you are getting bored of squatting or have found you’ve stalled, you should 100% check out using a safety squat bar. In reality, everyone should be using a yoke bar!
Related: Best Safety Squat Bars to Buy
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