Squatting in Action: High Bar vs. Low Bar

If you’ve ever heard a powerlifter speak, they will undoubtedly talk about their low bar squat. Conversely, if you’ve ever heard a weightlifter or a commoner in the gym talk about their squat, they’ll probably mention about how their traps are red and sore from the bar. While there isn’t a slew of differences between the two — high bar and low bar squatting — there is still large amounts of controversy between the two. But really, there shouldn’t be.

What’s a High Bar Squat?

A high bar squat is pretty self-explanatory: the bar is high while you’re squatting. It rests at the top of your shoulder blades, right underneath your traps (or the little peaks where your neck swoops down on your shoulders). Typically, high bar squats are performed by average gym goers and weightlifters. They’re also the most common squat type.

What’s Low Bar Squatting?

Again, the premise of a low bar squat is simple: the bar is physically lower down the back, about 2-3 inches. This placement requires more support from the hands, wrists, and forearms when completing the movement. It also means that the lifter needs to lean a little more forward during the squat because the weight he’s bearing is a little further down his back. But since he also gets a little more stability from resting the bar on the top of his lats instead of his traps, he can also move more weight. Not significantly more than a high bar squatter, only about 5-10% of the total weight, but enough. It’s why powerlifters tend to low bar squat for competitions and meets: since the goal of a powerlifting meet is to move the most weight, it makes sense to utilize the squat variation that will allow them to physically move more weight.

Okay, but what’s the difference?

Really, the main difference between a low and a high bar squat is the placement of the bar. The muscles — mostly the quads, which help control the knees and hip flexors — are being recruited the same amount for both low and high bar squats because the mechanics stay the same. The other difference is how much the knees track forward versus how hard the hip flexors need to work. In a high bar squat, the knees tend to move farther forward because of: 1) the higher weight placement, and 2) because your torso has a physically longer distance to travel (the difference between the bar placement in a high and low bar squat). This knee trekking does not apply as much in a low bar squat, which is another reason why low bar squatters can move about 5-10% more weight. They physically have less distance to travel with the bar in proportion to their core. Simply, it becomes more mechanically efficient to squat low bar that high bar. But again, not by much.Squatting

 

Should I change my squat form?

Squatting

Squatting

If you’re already squatting low bar, then keep at it. If you’re squatting high bar, then keep at it. The only time you should really consider changing your squat form is if you’re either bored with your routine and you want to switch it up a little bit, or you want to shift from weightlifting to powerlifting. Really, the only time switching squat form becomes applicable is when you’re competing to be the absolute strongest in the room — why not increase your squat by 5-10% if you have the option to? Just make sure you’re getting good pointers from a coach and practicing often before jumping right into the heavier weights.

(image @ www.ruggedfellowsguide.com)

Other than those two reasons, there is no real mechanical difference why any average Joe should change their squat form. The mechanical superiority of the low bar squat is slight compared to the high bar squat, and if you’re squatting with good form then it shouldn’t matter too much, anyway. In fact, the muscles can’t even feel the weight you’re using, whether it’s 25lbs. or 250lbs. All they feel is the tension of a lifter performing the exercise. So, really, unless you’re competing for the highest numbers, making sure your form is flawless and the tension is kept on the muscle is enough for significant change.

Do the muscles being recruited change per squat form?

This is a valid question. Surprisingly — and though it’s rumored that the low bar squat focuses more on the hamstrings than the high bar squat — the muscles that are being recruited do not change per squat form. In fact, the hamstrings aren’t really utilized at all during the squat. Or, not as much as people put emphasis on. The “squat booty” is a myth, I’m sorry to say. They’re only a secondary muscle to the quadriceps, who need to control both the forward extension of the knee and the flexion of the hip. There isn’t even a huge difference in hamstring activation between front and back squats, so the difference between high and low bar squats is even more insignificant (Nuckols, 2014).

So there’s no reason to change my routine?

In actuality, there is no large difference between low and high bar squatting except for the placement of the bar. That’s really all there is to it. The mechanical advantages of a low bar squat are so insignificant that it’s not even worth switching unless it’s something you’re completely passionate about. Instead, just keep working on your squat, whatever form it may be — your muscles don’t know the difference.

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