Cutting Through the Bull: Low Bar vs. High Bar Squats

The Low-Bar Squat

First, let's define our terms: the high-bar squat requires the barbell to be rested on the upper trapezius; the low-bar squat requires the barbell to be rested on the posterior deltoids, just below the upper trapezius. The high-bar squat demands more external rotation and abduction of the hip to maintain an upright posture, as well as ankle mobility to prevent a posterior pelvic tilt (aka "buttwink") in the lowest portion of the movement. The low-bar squat uses a more inclined torso, and the shins remain relatively vertical while the hips are pushed back, while in the high-bar squat the knees must pass forward past the toes. 

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The low-bar squat has several advantages: it's easier to teach, as many novice athletes lack the mobility to correctly perform a high-bar squat. It also allows the athlete to use a little more weight than a high-bar squat, presumably because of superior posterior-chain activation. This means that if the goal of the athlete is a maximally efficient increase in strength, the low-bar squat would appear to be more effective. 

There are primarily two situations in which a low-bar squat is ideal:

  1. The athlete lacks the mobility to perform a high-bar squat.
  2. Competitive powerlifters whose goal is to lift the most amount of weight possible to an arbitrary depth (usually until the crease of the hip is below the knee).

Aside from these two situations, there's nothing particularly special about the low-bar squat and several reasons why it might not actually be ideal.

The High-Bar Squat

The high-bar squat requires quite a bit more mobility than the low-bar squat, primarily in the hips and ankles. However, the positions required by a full-depth high-bar squat translate very well to both front squats and overhead squats, both of which require a very upright posture. The forward-leaning, hips-back motion of the low-bar squat works well for low-bar squats, and that's about it. If you want to develop a pistol squat, it will be necessary to first develop the mobility required in a high-bar squat.

This reflects part of the limitation of programs centered on low-bar squatting: they're generally simple, easy-to-learn strength training programs targeting more novice athletes. If one's goal is only to increase general strength or to excel in the lifts that comprise competitive powerlifting, such simple programming can be reasonably effective. But a great many athletes have more multifacted goals: they want to be strong, yes; but they also want to be lean, muscular, fast, and agile. They may want to train in the Olympic lifts (the snatch and the clean & jerk)—both of which require much more mobility than low-bar squatting—or they may simply desire to train a movement that has better transfer to other types of squatting. 

To cloud matters a bit further, the research does not support claims that low-bar squatting leads to greater muscle activation; it simply leads to different muscle activation. The primary reason we can squat more in a low-bar position than we can in a high-bar position is because of leverage: the low-bar squat provides greater mechanical advantage, and effectively limits the depth the lifter can achieve. [1, 2]

Squatting for Olympic lifters

Mark Rippetoe, founder of Starting Strength, has said that he doesn't think Olympic lifters should do high-bar squats; they should low-bar squats for "general strength" and front squats to directly overload the positions required in a clean & jerk. 

The problem here is that for the Olympic lifter, the goal is to overload the positions demanded by the sport. The positions in the high-bar and overhead squats are virtually identical; heavy, full-depth high-bar squats train strength and confidence in the receiving position of the snatch. And while a front squat requires a slight more upright torso, loading on the legs is reduced because of the load placed on the spinal erectors (which have to resist flexion during the lift). So while this is a fine accessory lift to overload the receiving position of the clean, it's not ideal for overall leg strength in the deep-squat positions weightlifters require—and research indicates that strength gains are joint-angle specific [3]. Ultimately, weightlifters really have little need to worry about their absolute one-rep max in the squat; their sport requires power and speed more than absolute volitional strength, so maximizing leverage to lift more weight is counterproductive. 

The verdict

At Styrka, we teach the low-bar squat to beginners. It's easier to learn than the high-bar squat because it does not require as much mobility—mobility that novice athletes often lack. We also use the low-bar squat in our powerlifting programs because it is necessary to train the lift as it would be tested in competition. But for most athletes, we want to progress them toward a high-bar squat. We want to see the athletes' mobility, strength, and posture translated to a variety of squatting movements, and we want to leave open the possibility of developing proficiency in the Olympic lifts. For all these goals, the high-bar squat is the superior movement.