Did you know that there are two different types of back squats? Let's dive in to the differences between high bar and low bar and which is best for you! Barbell back squats are a classic exercise and a staple of leg training for generations. For clients with access to a barbell, I will nearly always include some version of a barbell back squat in their programming. We might go heavy for fewer reps to really build strength, or I may have them work on more reps at a lighter weight to focus on muscular endurance, but back squats can be great for people with a variety of different goals.
Whether you're a seasoned lifter or just starting out, chances are you've come across the debate between high bar and low bar back squats. Both variations have their own unique advantages and challenges, and understanding the differences between them can help you choose the squat style that best suits your goals and preferences. So, let's dive in and shed some light on the high bar vs. low bar back squat conundrum.
The Basics: Understanding the Setup
Before we delve into the details, let's quickly touch upon the fundamental differences in bar placement for each squat variation.
High Bar Back Squat: In the high bar squat, the barbell sits across the upper trapezius muscles, near the base of the neck. This placement generally results in a more upright torso position.
Low Bar Back Squat: For the low bar squat, the barbell rests on the rear deltoids, just above the spine of the scapula. This positioning shifts the center of mass slightly lower and further back, requiring a more inclined torso angle.
Mechanics and Muscles Targeted
High Bar Back Squat: The high bar squat primarily targets the quadriceps (front thigh muscles), with significant involvement from the glutes and hamstrings. Due to the more vertical torso position, this squat variation places more emphasis on the quads and requires greater ankle mobility. If you find your ankle mobility can't accommodate this position, weightlifting shoes may help, or it might be useful to experiment with a weight plate under your heels for a "heels elevated" squat variation.
Low Bar Back Squat: Conversely, the low bar squat places more emphasis on the posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. The forward lean of the torso activates these muscles more, making it an excellent choice for developing overall lower body strength and power.
Joint Stress and Safety Considerations
High Bar Back Squat: With the bar positioned higher on the back, the high bar squat generally places more stress on the knee joint. This can make it a challenging option for individuals with knee issues or limited mobility. However, it's worth noting that the more vertical torso position helps distribute the load more evenly throughout the spine, potentially reducing stress on the lower back.
Low Bar Back Squat: The low bar squat transfers some of the stress from the knee joint to the hips and lower back due to the increased forward lean. While this can be advantageous for individuals with healthy hips and good hip mobility, it may not be ideal for those with pre-existing lower back problems.
Weightlifting and Performance Considerations
High Bar Back Squat: If you have done Olympic lifting, you might prefer the high bar squat due to its similarity to the front squat position. This variation can enhance overall mobility, stability, and technique, making it a valuable choice for athletes seeking explosive power and speed.
Low Bar Back Squat: Powerlifters, on the other hand, often opt for the low bar squat as it allows them to handle heavier weights. The more horizontal torso angle and posterior chain emphasis enable powerlifters to recruit more muscle mass, making it an excellent choice for building maximal strength.
Personal Preference and Body Mechanics
In the end, the choice between high bar and low bar back squats often boils down to personal preference and individual body mechanics. Some individuals may naturally find one variation more comfortable or biomechanically advantageous than the other. Experimenting with both styles and listening to your body can help you determine which squat variation feels more natural and effective for you. Sometimes, I find that the amount of weight I'm working with makes a difference to which feels more comfortable.
High bar and low bar back squats both offer distinct benefits and challenges. The high bar squat targets the quads more and encourages a more upright torso position, while the low bar squat emphasizes the posterior chain and requires a greater forward lean. Considering factors such as joint stress, injury history, safety considerations, weightlifting goals, personal preference, and body mechanics will help you choose the squat style that serves you best. Ultimately, both variations are valuable tools in your fitness arsenal, so don't be afraid to explore and find what works best for you. Happy squatting!