The high bar vs. low bar squat: which one is best for you?
Whatever you are training for, squats are one of the best exercises you can do. You can use squats to build lower body muscle size, strength, or endurance, and they’re useful for burning fat too. Deadlifts and power cleans might involve more muscles, but squats aren’t called the king of exercises for nothing. A workout without some form of squats is barely a workout at all!
Squats are actually as much a movement pattern as they are an exercise. Most people do dozens of squats per day; they’re hard to avoid. Getting out of a chair? That’s a squat! Getting in and out of your car? They’re squats too!
So, even if you don’t care much about leg size or improving your performance for sports, squats are critical for your ability to carry out a wide number of everyday activities. In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how beneficial squats can be, so here is an article detailing the 20 Greatest Benefits of Squats.
There are lots of different types of squats you can do to condition your lower body. The main ones are:
- Bodyweight squats
- Goblet squats
- Zercher squats
- Deck squats
- Front squats
- Overhead squats
- Back squats…
But, did you know there are two main ways to perform back squats? They’re called high bar squats and low bar squats, or sometimes bodybuilding squats and powerlifting squats. They’re both great exercises, but different enough that it’s worth knowing about each one so you can choose the right one for you.
High Bar Squats
With high bar squats, the barbell rests across your upper trapezius muscle and just below your C7 vertebrae. Feet are typically shoulder-width apart, with the toes turned slightly outward.
This high bar position can be uncomfortable if you don’t have much in the way of upper trap development. Many lifters get around this problem by using a foam bar pad or placing a towel between the bar and their upper traps. However, when well-developed, the upper traps should provide all the padding you need, even for really heavy high bar squats.
High bar squats keep your torso in a relatively upright position, which reduces lumbar (lower back) stress. However, forward knee travel is all-but unavoidable, which means high bar squats can cause knee stress, especially if you have longer-than-average femurs or are quite tall.
This squat variation also tends to increase quad activation. Glutes and hamstrings are still intensely involved, but it’s the quads that really benefit from high bar squats. For this reason, bodybuilders often use this exercise to increase muscle size. On the downside, reducing glute and hamstring recruitment means that you may not be able to lift as much weight compared to low bar squats.
High bar squats are easier when you wear good weightlifting shoes. This allows you to squat a little deeper by increasing ankle mobility. If you don’t have weightlifting shoes, you can achieve a similar effect by doing your squats with your heels on a low plank of wood or small weight plates.
Providing you have healthy knees and a decent level of flexibility, high bar squats allow you to squat deeply. If you want to squat below parallel, this is the squat variation for you.
High bar squat summary:
- The bar rests on the upper traps
- Bar placement can be uncomfortable if you’ve got small traps
- More upright torso
- Emphasizes the quads
- May increase knee stress
- Allows for a deeper squat
- May limit the amount of weight you can lift
Low Bar Squats
With low bar squats, the bar rests on your upper back and roughly level with your posterior deltoids. This should be a good 3-4” lower than for high bar squats. Hands are typically held wider to accommodate the low bar position. Compared to high bar squats, this variation is usually done with a wider stance. We’re not talking sumo wide, but slightly wider-than shoulder-width is the norm.
Low bar squats place the bar closer to your hips, which takes stress off your lower back. To keep the bar in this position, lifters lean forward more, which increases glute and hamstring recruitment. That’s not to say the quads are inactive in low bar squats. However, high bar squats work them harder.
Low bar squats are best done in flat shoes, such as Converse All-Stars or minimalist running shoes. This helps keep your shins more vertical, which further increases glute and hamstring recruitment. More vertical shins also reduce knee joint stress. Low bar squats require less ankle mobility than high bar squats.
Lifters performing low bar squats tend not to descend lower than thighs parallel to the floor. In powerlifting, a legal squat must hit parallel, and going below this is just a waste of energy. Also, the wider stance makes going below parallel very hard unless you have exceptional flexibility.
The wide stance, low bar position, increased posterior chain activation, and shorter range of motion means that low bar squats may allow you to lift heavier weights than high bar squats. That’s why most powerlifters do low bar squats, especially in the bigger weight classes.
Low bar squat summary:
- The bar rests on the upper back
- Torso is more inclined
- Emphasizes the posterior chain
- More vertical shins for less knee stress
- Difficult to squat much below parallel
- Allows you to lift more weight
- Requires good upper body flexibility
With all types of squats, there are exercises you can do that will help improve your performance. We call these accessory exercises, and here are ten of the best!
Here are a few items of equipment that, whatever type of squat you end up doing, will aid your performance.
1. Fit Viva Barbell Pad
- PAIN FREE TRAINING – Ergonomically designed to cradle your neck...
- ENHANCED GRIP – From squats to lunges and hip thrusts, nothing is...
- FREE SAFETY STRAPS – When you’re using a protective pad, you want...
High bar squats can be uncomfortable if you don’t have much in the way of upper trapezius development. This Fit Viva Barbell Pad fits standard and Olympic barbells and has a preformed notch, so it sits snugly on your upper back. Use one until your traps are big enough to provide a natural shelf for the bar.
2. Fitness Reality 810XLT Super Max Power Cage
If you are serious about squatting heavier weights, high bar OR low bar, you need a power cage. You can set the safety sidebars so that you won’t get stapled to the floor by the bar if you miss a rep. As an added benefit, you can also use this Fitness Reality 810XLT Super Max Power Cage for bench presses, overhead presses, pull-ups & chin-ups, and rack pull deadlifts too.
3. Harbinger Knee Wraps
- Pair of knee wraps for knee stability and positioning during heavy...
- 3-inch wide competition-grade elastic provides maximum support,...
- 78-inch extended length allows for overlap and different wrap styles
Knee wraps are elasticated bandages that, wrapped tightly around your knees, can help you squat more weight. They stiffen your knees and provide an extra boost out of the bottom of each rep. Used by powerlifters, knee wraps are NOT comfortable to wear, but if you want to squat as much weight as possible, these Harbinger Knee Wraps can definitely help.
4. Inzer Advance Designs Forever Lever Belt
- 10mm thick, genuine leather belt with suede finish, lever included
- Four rows of lock-stitched, corrosive-resistant, hi-density nylon
- Guaranteed FOREVER, Made in USA
Inzer makes some of the best powerlifting and weightlifting gear around. This Inzer lever belt will provide you with all the support you need to squat heavy weights. This belt is also guaranteed FOREVER, so it could be the only and last belt you ever need to buy. The Inzer Advance Designs Forever Lever buckle makes it easy to put on and remove, even one-handed.
5. New Age Performance 6DS Sports and Fitness Weight-Lifting Mouthpiece
- Case Included With All Mouthware – All New Age Performance...
- Lower Jaw Mouthpiece – Non-Contact Pro 6DS Mouthpiece is designed to...
- Increase Performance – Providing instant results – an overall...
Squatting heavy weights, or just repping out to failure, can make you clamp your teeth together. This causes dental wear, and you could even break a tooth.This weightlifting mouthpiece means you can clench your jaw as hard as you like without damaging your teeth.
High Bar Vs. Low Bar Squats – Final Thoughts
When it comes to different types of squats, and different exercises for that matter, a lot of people want to know which one is best. The truth is that, when determining which one you should use, your decision should be based on your training needs.
Both high and low bar squats are effective exercises, and it’s impossible to say that one is better than the other. YOU are what determines which of these two exercises is best.
If your goal is to get as strong as possible, emphasize your posterior chain, and even train for powerlifting, low bar squats could be your best option. They can also be easier on your knees and are useful for tall lifters as the low bar position takes stress off the lumbar spine.
Conversely, if you want to build bigger quads, like squatting below parallel, or prefer a more upright torso, you may find high bar squats more useful.
Choose your goal and then work back from there. Invariably, the best squat for you is the one that will help you achieve your goals more quickly and easily. Also, feel free to use the other type of squat from time to time – the variety could help you avoid training plateaus.
Finally, whichever one you choose, make sure you always squat with correct form. This will ensure you get more from your preferred type of squat and minimize your risk of injury.
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