Squatting in Action: High Bar vs. Low Bar (updated July 2019)

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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.

How to Improve Your Big Lifts (updated July 2019)

What Are the “Big Lifts”?

The Big Four

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The “big four lifts” refer to compound movements. These exercises are generally accepted to be the deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press (OHP) because they recruit the most muscle groups. While other lifts are also considered compound movements, they do not recruit as many muscle groups as the big four. Other forms of compound movements include exercises such as: lateral pulldowns, barbell rows, push-ups, etc.

Typically, weight lifters will utilize these four main lifts the most. They can improve multiple muscle groups at one time while also improving the lift overall. In addition, working one main four exercise can help to improve some others. For example, training your deadlift helps to improve your squat. This occurs because the hamstrings are recruited in both scenarios. Likewise, perfecting your bench improves your overhead press because both develop the anterior deltoid.

How do I Pick Which to Do?

Really, anyone can train the big four lifts. In fact, performing a compound movement is actually more beneficial for fat burn than isolation movements. This is because the metabolism speeds up with greater muscle density; muscle burns more calories per day than fat does. Compound movements activate more muscle groups, which, in turn, increases muscle density. You’ll become a fat burning machine!

However, a word of caution before embarking on the big four lifts. These lifts are compound and powerful for a reason. It is imperative to nail the form for each one before increasing weight. Having improper form for any exercise can result in serious injury. This warning increases tenfold with compound lifts, however, because of how much more demanding they are. Ask a friend or colleague to demonstrate the proper form for you before beginning! After that, you’re home free.

How to Increase the Big Four Lifts

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So you wanna train hard and lift heavy, huh? Good for you! Big lifting is not only more beneficial to the metabolism and the body’s muscle density, but they’re also lots of fun. Who doesn’t like throwing around some heavy weights in the gym every now and again?

There are a few key ways to improving your big four lifts, whether you’re primarily training the lower or upper body exercises. They include:

1. Proper Programming

It goes without saying, but having a solid program in place is the most beneficial way to increase your big four lifts. Proper programming refers to something either you or a paid coach has written (or a fitness friend, who knows?). This program generally lasts over the span of about six to eight weeks. This time frame gives the trainee (i.e, you) ample amount of time to work upon and improve his lifts.

Your programming should also reflect future strength gains. If your program only has you increasing your big lifts by five pounds every few weeks, then it’s not a solid program. With proper guidance, you should be increasing by either one repetition or five pounds every time you perform the exercise.

Now, there can be outside factors that affect these numbers. But generally speaking, you should be increasing by either five pounds or one rep each week. You should also not perform the exercise for strength — or high weight with a rep scheme of 4-6 repetitions — more than once a week. The same holds true for power training, or repetition sets of 1-3 reps.

2. Proper Recovery

Whether in-between sets or in-between days, you need to give your body the recovery it deserves. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • foam rolling / myofascial release
  • trigger therapy
  • massages (regular or deep tissue)
  • sleep
  • stretching
  • yoga
  • ice baths, hot tubs, and/or saunas
image @ www.rocktape.com

Any one of these recovery practices emphasize releasing the tension from the muscle. This reduces the stress placed on it and allows it to fully heal. And since muscle growth is the healing of muscle tissue, recovery becomes just as important as exercising.

In addition, program your training days well enough so that there are no conflicts with muscle groups. For example, do not train lower body two days in a row, or even over the course of three days. While performing heavy lifts, the muscles are under greater stress than isolation movements. Therefore, they need greater time for recovery in between training days. Aim for three or more days in between big lifts. This time frame gives your muscles ample time to recover before being fired again.

3. Accessory / Isolation Work

What good is an underdeveloped muscle group? If the muscle is underdeveloped, it cannot function properly. Likewise, if one muscle group is lagging another will compensate for it. This puts unnecessary pressure on the developed muscle, while the underdeveloped muscle does no work. In the end, both are injured and your lifts suffer.

The answer to this dilemma is accessory work. Accessory and/or isolation work is directly targeting the muscle. This forces that one particular muscle under constant stress, instead of being integrated with other muscles in a compound lift. For lagging muscles, this tunes them up without overdeveloping surrounding muscles. You can also directly target supporting muscles to the big four lifts, which will help increase them in the long run.

4. Hypertrophy Days

Hypertrophy refers to increasing the size of the muscle tissue. Hypertrophy lifts follow a repetition scheme of 8-10 reps per set. This repetition range adds just enough stress to tear the muscle while also making sure the weight can be heavier than lighter load days.

Hypertrophy days should be very similar to strength days in terms of exercise choice. However, the weight and repetitions change to support muscle growth instead of strength growth. This will not only help you to practice your form, but will also help develop all the working muscles of that exercise.

Hypertrophy days should be about three days or more apart from strength days. Or, they should change week by week: one week train for strength, one for hypertrophy. This latter tactic will take longer for strength development, but can still help to improve the lift.

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So if the big four compound lifts are in your future, remember these key points. Nothing will increase your strength better than proper programming, isolation work, hypertrophy work, and proper rest and recovery!