High bar vs low bar squat
Squating is without a doubt one of the great pillars of fitness, people of all training levels recognize it’s value and seek its benefits. But there comes a point in every person’s fitness journey when they begin to recognize the differences in squat variations and begin to wonder “is one better for me than the other?”.
It’s no different when it comes to the high bar vs the low bar squat; we know both are excellent lifts, but which is more excellent for me? My hope is that this article will clear some of that up for you, and you may get a little more informed along the way!
Squatting is one of the best forms of exercise for increasing muscle strength and improving power performance in the hip and knee extensors. As you can imagine these benefits are of particular interest to those trying to increase their 1RM like powerlifters, a group who use both forms of squats.
The high bar is generally favored by Olympic lifters as it mimics the catch position of multiple competition lifts like the clean and snatch. The low bar is mainly used when you want to load on as much weight as possible. This heavier load is explained by the shorter movement arm of the low bar squat as well as the ideal conditions for the hamstrings, glutes, and adductor muscles.
Think of it like this; if you were to fully outstretched your arm in front of you and someone were to hang a 30lb. weight on your wrist, your arm wouldn’t stay upright long. However if someone were to take that same 30lb. weight and hang it from your elbow, you’d likely keep your arm up for a longer period of time. This is because as the weight moves closer to your fulcrum (the shoulder) it requires less force to generate the needed torque at the joint.
So in the case of the squat, as you move the weight further down your back to perform the low bar squat form, you are shortening the lever of your trunk for this movement.
Now does that mean low bar is all around better for the muscle of the lower body? Well, that’s debatable, but it does definitely allow for a heavier load.
In general it’s still not clear what parts of the lower body experience greater muscle activation between high and low bar squats.
High Bar Squat Form
The high bar squat is the most most familiar (and probably the most practiced) form of squat in fitness. The defining feature of the high bar squat form is the placement of the barbell, which in this case is at the top of the trapezius muscle- just below the process of the C7 vertebrae if you wanna get technical.
This form uses a more upright position, and as a result creates greater range of motion at the ankle and knee joint while recruiting more of the quadriceps. While at first glance this squat form seems to be the easiest to grasp, it’s still helpful to go over the steps to it.
-as you step up to the bar, be sure to align your body at the center of the barbell and directly under it.
-with your shoulders level, rest the barbell over your traps, contracting the muscle in order to balance the weight during the set.
-stand up in a neutral position and once the weight settles take a couple steps back to create enough space between you and the rack.
-keep your knees slightly pointed outward and begin bending them, slowly lowering your hips while keeping your upper body as upright as possible.
-when your thighs are parallel with the floor or a little lower than parallel, force your feet into the ground and drive your thighs upward into its original standing position.
Low Bar Squat Form
The low bar squat form is characterized by a more forward lean of the torso and a decreased moment are because of the bar placement lower on the back and higher activation of posterior muscle groups.
On paper there’s very little that makes the low bar squat form that much different than the high bar squat, it is still a squat after all. However those slight difference make all the difference in execution, muscles targeted, force production, and volume lifted.
-set your feet a little further than shoulder width apart, making sure that the bar is centered on your shoulders and your body is balanced
-contract your core, bracing your torso for the weight of the barbell. Keep your arms bent and your elbows pointed behind the barbell, creating considerable tension in your lats. Rest the barbell across your rear delts, using this strip of muscle to support the weight on your torso. At this stage you may want to keep your hands further than shoulder width apart to get a comfortable grip on the bar.
-the bar should be firmly resting on your back. If you feel like the bar is slipping at any point when it’s untracked, re-rack it immediately.
-stand in a neutral position to begin with the barbell balanced on your back. Once the weight and your body have stabilized, take a few steps back from in front of the rack.
-slightly flair your knees out and sit into the squat, making sure the barbell and your upper body don’t lean too far forward (stay right over the mid foot)
– once your thigh is around parallel with the floor, drive with your feet and propel your thighs back into a standing position. Repack the weight after completing the set.
The High Bar Or Low Bar Squat: Which Is More Effective?
Based on certain studies, there is a lot to unpack from this question. I believe that on a subjective level some exercises are more effective for certain people based on their build (tendon insertion points, bone length, etc.), lifting experience, past injuries and so on, but researchers did find some objectively different outcomes when analyzing high bar vs low bar squats.
In one 2020 study comparing high bar vs low bar squats at varying weights (60, 65, 70% of 1RM), there were significant differences in EMG muscle activity for both exercises. The research found that muscle activity during the eccentric phase of each movement was much higher for all selected muscle groups during the low bar squat compared to the high bar squat. Those muscles by the way were the lumbar erector spinae, gluteus maximus, bicep femoris, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and vastus medialis. The study also found the most substantial differences were in the hip extensor muscles; the gluteus maximus, bicep femoris, and the lumbar erector spinae (1).
During the concentric phase, there was far more muscle activity during low bar squats in the lumbar erector spinae, glute max, and bicep femoris for all loads. This essentially means that the muscles of the backside (posterior) were engaged far more during low bar, likely due to the forward lean of the torso and the deeper stretch of the hamstrings.
A separate study found increased muscle activity in the vastus medialis, rectus femoris, and the lower part of the erector spinae during high bar squats compared to its low bar counterpart (3).
Researchers speculate that the barbell position on the shoulders creates a larger movement arm on the hip joint, thus stimulating the various muscles.
The biggest difference in muscle activation between the two squats occurred in the gluteus maximus and lumbar erector spinae, researchers figured this was due to a few reasons; the greater anterior pelvic tilt caused by the bar placement during the low bar squat, as well as the forward torso position and the wider foot stance.
These findings are interest when you consider that another study found no differences between squat variations (front or back) and very little difference when incorporating elastic bands and chain attachments to the bar.
Putting It All Together
Knowing these results is well and good, but how does it help you decide which one is better for you?
The truth is: the squat variation that’s the most effective will really depend on the individual and their specific goals. There is no one size fits all exercise that achieves every goal, and that’s not taking into account an individual’s physical advantages or limitations. For example the above study may have elicited the results it did (especially with low bar squats), but you have to keep in mind this was performed by powerlifters preparing for competition.
These lifters may have had much more experience with the low bar squat than most casual lifters. The motor pathways they’ve developed to produce those results may differ from you or I, we don’t know, all we can do is move forward based on the information we do have.
In A Nutshell..
People looking to put an emphasis on hip musculature should consider low bar squats. Also for those looking to lift the heaviest load possible, low bar squats may be preferable. High bar squats are better suited for people looking to practice movements that mimic a more upright torso position, like the snatch and clean. They are also ideal for those looking to put more emphasis on muscles surrounding the knee joint (2).
Using low bar squats to raise your strength would make since it usually allows you to load the bar with more weight. The percentile between the two may be minimal, but if your goal is to increase your 1RM, it probably wouldn’t hurt to give low bar squats a try.
As far as muscle building goes, you can definitely work either squat form at a higher hypertrophy rep range for greater muscle growth. If you were to apply the above study, you might want to incorporate low bar squats into your routine for its increased activation of the gluteus maximus and hamstrings during the concentric and eccentric phases.