Low Bar vs High Bar Squat – What’s all the Fuss About?

Within the health and fitness industry there are a few truths that are (in my humble opinion) undeniable.

1)      To promote fat loss, you need to maintain a weekly energy deficit.
2)      To improve performance, you need to train for strength and power.
3)      Strong and active glutes are integral to the health of the spine.

Outside of that, the details become debatable.

And boy, do we like to debate them.

From what diet is the best, to what exercise is promotes optimal Tibialis anterior development (I kid, I kid..... kind of..), we love to discuss the minute.

One of those discussions that come up regularly is low bar vs high bar squatting. People will argue for hours about the differences between the two, often aligning themselves to one entirely.

Which is funny, because in the end the differences is a couple of inches.

Seriously.

hunter bennett performance

 

Two inches (if you’re lucky) higher or lower, and that’s the differences.

Well, there is a little bit more to it that, but honestly, not a whole lot more.

 

Bar Placement

As mentioned already, the difference ultimately comes down to the position of the bar on your back. With high bar squats, the bar sits on top of the traps, while with low bar squats, the bar sits just above the spine of scapula and slightly above the rear delts.

While this change is relatively minimal, it does result in some variances in technique further down the chain.

You see ideally, with a squat, the bar should sit over the middle of the foot for the duration of the lift. This is where those variations in technique come into play.

hunter bennett performance

 

Torso angle and Joint loading

To maintain the bar over the mid-foot, the angle of the torso changes slightly. With a high bar squat, a more upright torso is required to keep optimal bar position, whereas with a low bar squat greater trunk lean is required.

Maintaining a more upright torso places slightly more torque at the knee joint than what would typically occur during a low bar squat where there an increased trunk lean is observed (It is important to note that this is not a bad thing, it is just what happens biomechanically). As a result, the hips are loaded less, and we see a subsequent reduction in shear force through the lumbar spine.

Using a low bar squat position forces us to sit back and load through the hips, which subsequently causes an increase in the shear force on the spine (again, not necessarily a negative).

If we look at this from a muscular perspective, a high bar squat is going to place increased demand on the quads. A low bar squat is going to place an increased demand on the glutes and spinal erectors.

This isn’t to say that during a high bar squat there is no demand on the glutes and erectors (and vice versa in regards to a low bar squat and the quads), just that the demand is slightly reduced in comparison to the alternative.

It is also important to note that as a direct result of bar position, the extensors of the thoracic spine are going to be under less demand during a low bar squat in comparison to a high bar squat (this is in my opinion, why some people can squat more low bar than they can high bar).

 

Practical Implications

So what does this actually mean?

In reality, not a whole lot.

I often find that people who may not have had a whole lot of experience in the gym pick up the high bar back squat better as it more closely replicates goblet squats and front squats (which I typically use as a regression). As a result, we often start with those.

From there though, what I recommend becomes goal dependant.

If an individual’s goal is purely hypertrophy based, I will opt for whatever variation is more comfortable. This is because the muscular load is quite similar between the two lifts, and from a hypertrophy perspective, glutes and quads are going to get a heap of work either way.

From an athletic performance perspective, I would typically recommend a high bar back squat as the joint angles more closely replicate movements that require vertical power (AKA Jumping), and there is less load on the erectors (which are typically already copping a heap of load from exercises targeting posterior chain strength).

For someone trying to build a big ass squat, I would recommend low bar. As the thoracic extensors are taken out of the equation, we effectively eliminate what is often the weakest link in the chain. As a result, the hips and quads should be able to handle maximal load, increasing the amount of weight we can move.

 

But seriously, in the end, the difference is a couple of inches. High bar squats are still going to build strength, low bar squats are still going to improve performance.

The differences are minute.

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