There are numerous form factors to master when it comes to perfecting your compound lifts like squats, or deadlifts (conventional or stiff legged)—that is, any lift involving more than one joint. The hips, knees, and ankles are naturally the focus of the squat, but what you do with your upper body—especially how you hold the bar—has immediate effects on the lower body; after all, they’re kinda connected, aren’t they?
The squat is one of the most fundamental human movements, requiring the use of the body’s largest muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. The squat has many variations, but the two most common in barbell training are the high-bar squat and the low-bar squat.
The names high bar and low bar squat have nothing to do with the equipment you’re using (both involve a standard barbell), but instead, refer to where you hold the barbell on your back while squatting.
It is important to understand the distinction between a high and low bar position. It has the potential to influence which muscles are worked. Here’s how to figure out which version is best for your needs.
The High-Bar Squat vs. Low Bar Back Squat — Differences In Form
The primary distinction between low-bar and high-bar squats is the placement of the bar on the back. To perform a high-bar squat, place the barbell on top of your shoulders, just below the C-7 vertebrae. People frequently cue high-bar squat placement by saying, “Use your traps to create a shelf for the bar.”
The bar is placed lower on the back, across the shoulder blades, in the low-bar squat. “Lay the bar across the posterior deltoids (backs of shoulders”),” is a common cue for low-bar squat placement. In this case, you’ll be making a “shelf,” but much lower down. With the low-bar squat, you’ll be more concerned with actively “pinning” the bar to your back rather than letting it “sit” there.
Aside from where the bar presses into your back, the primary difference you’ll notice while squatting is that your torso remains more upright and your knees travel farther forward in the high-bar squat than in the low-bar squat.
Whether you’re squatting with a high or low bar, the bar path should always be directly over the midfoot. Because pinning the bar into your shoulder shelf places the bar behind you, the low bar squat will produce a slight forward lean — you’ll lean forward very slightly to ensure that the bar is over the center of your feet. In contrast, placing the bar on your traps with the high-bar squat raises the bar above the midfoot almost automatically. In any case, your goal should always be to keep that vertical bar path above your midfoot.
Performance Differences – High Bar Squats Vs Low Bar Squats
You must have noticed that using the low-bar position rather than the high-bar position allows you to squat 5 to 10% more weight. Many people believe that the low-bar squat is better for muscle gain because it allows you to use heavier weights.
First, let me dispel the myth that high-bar squats are better for quad training and low-bar squats are better for glute and lower-back training. A study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics by scientists found that muscle activation of the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors was identical in well-trained weightlifters using both the high-bar and low-bar squat positions.
That is, both squat variations equally trained all relevant muscle groups.
Other studies have essentially found very similar results when comparing muscle activation during front and back squats, as well as full range of motion(“ass-to-grass”) and parallel squats.
So the point is – as long as you’re squatting with heavy weights close to failure and using proper squat technique, all squat variations train your quads, glutes, lower-back muscles, and hamstrings roughly equally.
Which Is Better For Increasing The Strength Of Your Main Lifts?
What it boils down to is the type of squat you use on a regular basis is determined by your primary lifts. If you’re a powerlifter, the low bar back squat is one of your main lifts, so you’ll want to train with it the majority of the time. However, if you’re an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFitter — or simply enjoy training with snatches, cleans, and jerks — the high bar back squat will significantly strengthen your main lifts.
That being said, just because your main lifts require one type of squat or the other most of the time doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from switching it up from time to time. Periodically varying your training stimuli can help you avoid plateauing and iron out any weaknesses or inefficiencies with the lift you’re used to using. So, if you’re a weightlifter, don’t dismiss the low-bar squat entirely — you might want to incorporate it into your routine when you’re working on overall strength. If you’re a powerlifter, try cycling in the high bar to incorporate hypertrophy into your training.
How To Ensure That Your Form Is Correct?
The best option is to hire a coach, but other than that? You should concentrate on a few points. First, keep your abs braced the entire time. You may compare it to performing the first 10% of a crunch while filling your midsection with air like a balloon, which creates tension to keep the core solid and the lower back from swaying.
Second, your hips and knees should bend at the same time, so that the bar (in either position) is always over the centre of your feet. It should move down and back up in the same consistent vertical plane. You may also want to film yourself from the side which will help you determine where the weakness in your form is.
Finally, as you return to standing position, drive hard against the bar. High-bar squatters typically push up vertically against the bar, whereas low-bar athletes push back vertically against the bar, as if someone is attempting to push them down and they are actively resisting.
Another tip for good body positioning is to focus on where your eyes are looking. To maintain a neutral spine, you will look relatively down for a low bar, as if there is a tennis ball stuck between your chin and your neck. You’ll be looking straight ahead for high bar, never forcing your chin up or down.
The age-old battle between low-bar and high-bar back squats may have no winner — only mutual admiration. Both types of back squats will help you get strong, build muscle, and work your entire body AND both lifts will provide massive benefits. If you’re an Olympic lifter, CrossFitter, or new to lifting in general, the high-bar squat may be more applicable to your current experience and goals. So whichever version you choose (both are good), squat to depth and keep that vertical bar path perfect.
The most important thing to remember is that the amount of weight on the bar isn’t what causes your muscles to grow. It’s the amount of tension you force your muscles to produce that matters and research shows that high- and low-bar squats produce roughly the same amount of tension in your muscle fibers (technically, activation, which is a decent proxy).
Thus, both types of squatting (and front squats, for that matter) are roughly equal in terms of muscle-building ability.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.