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The Great Squat Debate (or is it?): Low Bar vs. High Bar

By: Dane Roach, MS, CSCS, USAPL-CC

            It is one debate that will probably never end. One group believes low bar squats are superior and one believes that high squats are superior. Luckily, I have the final answer to this debate and the answer is…it depends. There is no single way that every person needs to squat, and what is optimal for one person may not be optimal for another. That said, when people debate which squat is better, they tend to bring up specific points for why one squat is superior to the other. Many times, these reasons are largely unfounded, and likely need to be put to rest. Let’s take a look…

High Bar vs. Low Bar

            Most people reading this probably already know the difference between the two main types of squats. High bar squats allow a lifter to maintain a more upright torso due to the bar’s positioning high on the traps. An individual is typically able to hit slightly greater depth using high bar squats. High bar squats are the only back squat variation performed by Olympic Lifters, and are also used by many successful powerlifters, including IPF record holder Bryce Lewis.

Low bar squats involve placing the bar a couple inches lower on the rear delts. Due to this change in position, the lifter must have more forward lean while performing the squat. This allows the bar to remain over the midfoot, which is optimal for performing the movement. Low bar squats are also used by many successful powerlifters, include Layne Norton, Mike Tuchscherer, Sioux-z Hartwig Gary, and many others.

            Some lifters prefer a happy medium, a more “mid-bar” position. That is, a bar position that doesn’t really fall into the spectrum of low bar or high bar. This is simply due to preference and what is optimal for these individuals, and there is also nothing inherently wrong with a mid-bar position.

 

 

Injury Risk

            One of the arguments I hear very often against low bar squats are that they put you at a higher risk for injury. Generally, it is thought that injury risk is increased due to the increased demand on your back due to the increased forward lean during low bar squats, and the increased demand placed on the hips when squatting low bar, as a wider stance is sometimes used when compared to high bar. However, neither of those reasons are necessarily true. It is true that a low bar squat necessitates more forward lean. As stated previously, this allows the barbell to stay over the midfoot, which is needed for optimal performance of the lift. However, forward lean does not necessarily mean greater stress on the lower back. If the lifter maintains a solid brace and a rigid torso, there is no extra risk of injury.

            Also, a low bar position moves the barbell closer to the center of turning (the hips). This decreases demand on the back due to the decreased length of the lever arm. If thought about in another way, think about the following example. If you are holding a 2.5 pound plate in your hand and you hold it out in front of you, you can probably hold it for a pretty decent amount of time. Now, imagine somebody put that plate on a 10 foot long stick(that was weightless, just for the purpose of the example) and you had to hold that out in front of you. It would put a lot more strain on your shoulder, and you would likely not be able to hold the plate up for as long, This is because the weight is further from the center of turning(the shoulder) and more force must be produced to keep the weight in front of you, even though it is the same 2.5 pounds.

            This is not to say that high bar squats are bad for your back either. While the barbell is not as close to the hips, you are able to maintain a more upright position due to the placement of the barbell. Therefore, the stress placed on the back should not be high in this scenario either. So, in essence, neither bar position should place significant stress on a lifter’s back. That said, if either variation is performed incorrectly, and a lifter loses their tightness, either variation could lead to an injury. As always, it is important to perform any exercise with proper form and technique, otherwise you are increasing your risk of injury. However, no exercise is inherently dangerous.

            In terms of increased demand placed on the hips for a low bar squat, this is not always the case. The stereotypical powerlifting squat, low bar with a wide stance, is far less common in raw lifters. Stance width, even with a low bar position, varies greatly between lifters. Some may use a wide stance, some medium, and some even a narrow stance. The demand placed on the hips will vary, but if a sensible, periodized program is used, there is no increased risk of injury there either.

            In terms of injury risk, neither squat variation is inherently dangerous. If performed incorrectly, either variation can potentially lead to injury. It is important to have someone who is experienced with the movements teach you and observe you performing the competition movements to ensure you have proper technique, and also ensure you are upholding the standard set by USA Powerlifting.

Moving Weight

            Typically, a lifter can squat slightly more weight with a low bar position. This is due to the weight being closer to the center of turning (the hips) as discussed earlier. Therefore, less force must be produced to move weight. This may seem to give low bar squats the advantage when it comes to powerlifting since, after all, whoever moves the most weight wins.  However, not every lifter can actually move more weight with low bar squats. Bryce Lewis and John Haack come to mind as powerlifters who move big weights that are high bar squatters. Is it possible that they could squat more weight if they changed bar position? Sure. However, a low bar position may not be optimal for them. As stated previously, each lifter is different and each exercise will be performed differently. There is no one set way to perform the squat, and each individual’s squat will look slightly different, but may still be optimal for them. So to answer the question of which squat will allow a lifter to move more weight: In theory, low bar squats should. However, try both, as you may find this is not the case for you.

Which is best for me?

            Many factors go into which bar position is optimal for each person. In terms of body types, a person with long legs and a shorter torso may find low bar squats to be optimal. Conversely, a person with short legs and a long torso may find high bar to be better for them. However, those are not the only variables that play into the decision. Shoulder flexibility may make low bar squatting difficult, particularly at first. High bar squats typically require more flexible hips to maintain an upright torso position.

Comfort level also plays into it. If an athlete is more comfortable with one bar position vs. another, even if they may perform slightly better if they changed their bar position, do not make sweeping changes immediately. Powerlifting is a mental game too, and if they are not confident, it is going to hurt their lifts more than having a slightly less than optimal bar position.

How a lifter feels and recovers from each variation also has an impact. Some lifters find they feel slightly more beat up from low bar squats. Others (myself included) feel the same way about high bar squats. My recommendation: try both and see which one feels better. If you aren’t close to a meet, consider even programming the opposite bar position you usually use for one of your squat days for 4-6 weeks to allow yourself to feel it out and get adjusted to it. Even if you don’t switch bar positions, it is good to use variation and be less specific when you are far from meet day, and become more specific the closer you get to game day. Neither bar position is inherently better or more dangerous than the other. It is up to a lifter and his/her coach to determine this. Taking videos of your sets, and being objective with yourself will allow you to make these adjustments and see them pay off. In general, a lifter should use whatever bar position that allows them to move the most weight in the safest possible manner. This will allow them to be a successful competitor, while also allowing them to have longevity in the sport of powerlifting. I know this wasn’t much of a debate, but I’m sure the debate in gyms everywhere will continue on long after this article is up. Always search for what is optimal for you and you alone.

 

Again, may your weights be light, and your lights be white