High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squats

Whether you’re new to the squat or whether you’ve been squatting for a while, you probably have dabbled with placement of the barbell. With one placement, you may find you’re better able to generate power. With another, you might be able to get better depth or feel more comfortable. While focusing on powerlifting, I’ve primarily used the low bar back squat, but I started with the high bar back squat. Both bar placements have their merits. Let’s talk about what high bar vs. low bar back squats entail, and how you can decide which placement is right for you.

High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squats

What Does High Bar or Low Bar Mean?

The placement of the barbell on your traps/shoulders is what determines whether it’s a high bar squat or low bar squat.

  • A traditional “high-bar” back-squat is done with the barbell placed across the top of your traps. This type of squat is commonly used by Olympic weightlifters and Crossfitters. Why? The position is similar to a catch position in Olympic lifts like the snatch or clean and jerk.
  • A “low-bar” back squat has the barbell on the lower traps, just over the rear delt and along the spine of the scapula. This type of squat is what you see often with powerlifters. Why? They may be able to generate more power and lift a heavier load.

Where you place the bar will directly affect your body’s center of mass. Think back to your high school math classes. Where your body’s center of mass lays will impact which muscles are activated most.

The placement of the bar during a back squat affects the joint angles involved and influences how force is applied to the back, legs, and hip/knee joint musculature.

High Bar vs. Low Bar Back Squat Muscle Activation

A recent study took a look at high bar vs. low bar back squats among male Olympic lifter, powerlifters, and recreationally trained athletes [1].

What the researchers found is that small to moderate effect size differences were observed between the powerlifters and Olympic lifters in joint angles and ground reaction force, although none were statistically significant. However, significant joint angle results were observed between the experienced powerlifters/weightlifters and the recreationally trained group.

They also concluded that if the goal is to place emphasis on the stronger hip musculature, athletes should consider the low bar position. The researchers also suggest that the low bar position may be preferable when trying to lift the greatest load possible.

Conversely, the high bar position is more suited to replicate movements that exhibit a more upright torso position, such as the snatch and clean. The high bar position will also place more emphasis on the associated musculature of the knee joint.

If your focus is powerlifting, consider using the low bar position more often. If your focus is Olympic lifting, consider using the high bar position more often.

Quick Tips for Choosing Bar Placement

Here’s when to use a low bar squat position:

  • When trying to emphasize the hips and hamstrings, since the torso is positioned more forward
  • With females, since girls tend to already be more quad dominant. Focus on balancing out those quads with extra hip and hamstring work.
  • If someone lacks ankle mobility, since a low bar position accommodates a more hip-oriented squat
  • For those with the shoulder mobility to adequately support bar placement

When to use a high bar squat position:

  • When trying to emphasize quad size and strength, since the body position will remain more upright
  • When working using lower loads and higher repetitions
  • When trying to create more time under tension
  • When working on ROM as the ROM the knees and hips go through is often greatest with high bar placement

Now, if you have limited external rotation in your shoulders (or limited thoracic-spine extension) that makes it uncomfortable to perform either high or low bar squats, then find a squat alternate that works. Front squats can be done in a variety of ways – with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells…

Bar Placement How To

High Bar

In this type of back squat, you’ll place the bar on your traps, at the bottom of your neck. You want to try and squeeze your traps to support the bar and prevent it from digging into your spine. You’ll often hear coaches telling their athletes to “stay tight.” This is one reason why. Your torso will be more vertical when you squat high bar to keep it balanced over your mid-foot/arch. Your knees may come more forward (depending on your unique anatomy) and your hips may move less back, but more down.

Low Bar

With the low bar back squat, the bar will fall somewhere between your traps and rear shoulders, near the top of your shoulder blades.  Your muscular anatomy in your rear delts and traps will be a factor, as well as your shoulder mobility. Once again, you’ll squeeze your muscles (here, it is your shoulder blades) together to create support for the bar. You’ll lean more forward when you squat with low bar placement to keep it balanced over your mid-foot/arch. Your hips will move more back and your knees may come less forward.

Here’s a quick visual showing some of the difference in body positioning depending on bar placement:

Mark Rippetoe

Final tip! No matter which bar position you choose, do make sure you stay centered. If you squat with the bar resting more on one side of your body, you’ll load your spine, hips, and knees unevenly. This is definitely not good. This can cause pain, imbalances, and injury both now and in the future. Squat with the bar centered. Center yourself before you unrack the weight.

Most bars (i.e. power bars) have rings you can use as markers. I like to make sure that as I step into the rack and under a bar, my shoulders are about equal distance from each ring. You can also ask someone in your gym to make sure you are centered. We’re all in this together!

Many people I know start with the high bar squat – it feels more natural to most. Why? Well, high bar is often easier on the shoulders, wrists, and elbows. However, in the powerlifting world with which I am most familiar, many transition to the low bar back squat as they start really striving for a new 1RM. I’ve seen suggestions that people are able to squat about 15% more in a low bar position than they can in a high bar position.

High bar or low bar? Where is your bar placement?

High Bar or Low Bar Back Squats?

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