High Bar and Low Bar Squatting 2.0

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What you’re getting yourself into:

  • ~4200 words, 10-15 minute read time
  • There’s a graphic and video at the end with the bulk of the information if you’ve given up on reading like the youths these days (*shakes cane*)

Key Points

  1. If you assume similar mechanics, bar position makes little difference in the challenge presented to the quads and hip extensors.
  2. The major mechanical differences arise because the quads are most challenged at the bottom of a squat, and most people are capable of squatting more low bar (so the knees and hips both shift back a bit).
  3. Since the quads are maximally challenged at the bottom of both high bar and low bar squat and you’re capable of squatting more low bar in spite of greater hip extensor demands, the logical separator:  back strength (specifically thoracic spinal erectors).
  4. Training and technique considerations flowing from this understanding are presented near the end of the article.

high bar squatBefore reading this article, it would probably help to brush up on a few past pieces.  I’m going to assume they’re background knowledge when reading this post.  I’ll briefly re-introduce concepts when applicable, but I won’t dwell on them too long (otherwise I’d have to basically re-write all the old articles in this one).

The first article about high bar and low bar squatting on this site was very well-received on the whole, and with a shade under 70,000 reads, it’s one of the most popular articles on the site.  The only general criticism was from a few people who wished I’d have gone a bit further into the nitty gritty details.  Hopefully this’ll clear up those concerns for people who like nuance and specifics.

I also want to let you know about our giant How to Squat guide. It covers everything you need to know about every aspect of the squat – from biomechanics to correcting weaknesses to technique. Click here to open it in a new tab so you can check it out after you’ve finished reading this article.


First things first, just to retrace my steps a bit: How does bar position actually change squatting mechanics?   It changes the effective length of the torso.  Since the bar will basically stay over midfoot, the length of the torso can be treated as the distance from the hips to the bar.  Bar position doesn’t make a particularly big difference – only 2-3 inches.

So how does that actually look?  Below are sketches of how bar position influences forward lean, assuming the same degrees of knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion at each position. (The sketches were created using graphing software to ensure all the segments were the right lengths – body segment data based on average proportions.  You can click on the picture to see it larger if you’d like to zoom in.)

Figure 1

High bar low bar depthAs you can see, all the squats look pretty similar.  The only difference is that with low bar (the shorter torso segment), there’s about 3 degrees more hip flexion at each point in the movement (partial squat, parallel squat, and ass-to-grass squat; comparing measure of angle F’BE to FBE).

However, that’s not an entirely realistic depiction.

Why not?

The most challenging position of the squat for the quads is from full depth to about parallel.  Since you can usually squat about 10% more weight low bar, that will mean that the knee extensor moment arm needs to be about 10% shorter (distance from D to E’E’ – in the picture below, 2.7 instead of 3.0).

Figure 2

high bar low bar parallelAs you can see, the resultant hip flexion angles at around parallel now have a ~5% spread instead of 3% (60.33 degrees on the left – high bar – versus 55.62 degrees for low bar).

Of course, this raises another interesting quandary.  With 10% more weight and a 10% shorter moment arm for the knee extensors (resulting in the same required torque from the quads), you wind up with a 6.5% longer moment arm for the hip extensors which, when combined with 10% more weight on the bar, means the hip extensors have to do about 17% more work.

I’ll pause right now for the sake of the less mathematically inclined reader to say, “Don’t worry too much about all these numbers.”  The main purpose they serve is to illustrate “more” and “less” and, to some degree, how much more or less.  The exact values aren’t very important.  As long as you understand at this point that low bar means more forward lean and hip flexion, the same amount of knee extension torque, and a fair amount more hip extension torque than high bar, we’re on the same page.

So, at this point, you may rightly be thinking, “17% more required hip extension torque?!  If that’s the case, then how the heck can people squat more low bar?”

Because low bar squats are probably less likely to be limited by back strength than high bar squats.

I realize that’s a counter-intuitive idea.  Here’s how I came to it.

1) In the squat, even with 90% loads, demands of the movement don’t get particularly close to the maximum hip extension torque you’re capable of producing.

Bryanton hipsThis study measured the maximum amount of hip extension torque the participants were able to exert, then compared those values to the minimum hip extension torque necessary to squat a certain weight.  You’ll notice two things: 1) With 90% loads, the average participant was in a position of only needing to produce ~77% of the hip extension torque they were capable of producing; 2) The rate of increased hip extension demands did not increase at the same rate as weight on the bar.  Each 10% jump in barbell load only led to a ~5% increase in required hip extension torque (so there’s no reason to believe it would jump from ~77% to 95%+ by increasing the load from 90%1rm to 100%1rm).

Now, keep in mind that this study was looking at minimum hip extension torque necessary to move the weight, whereas in the real world, the net joint torque will always exceed the minimum required because of the activity of antagonistic muscles and simple inefficiencies of movement.  In this case, activation of the hip flexors (rectus femoris for sure since it’s also a knee extensor, and perhaps others like the iliopsoas to aid in pelvic stabilization) plays a role as well, forcing the hip extensors to work harder to produce enough net hip extension torque.  So obviously this study doesn’t make the whole case.

2) A given load challenges your spinal erectors more for a front squat than a back squat.

This is one of those funny pieces of information that we all “know,” but that most of us would disagree with if we were asked about it in the wrong way.

For example, if you ask most people, “Which is harder on your back, a low bar squat or a front squat?” most wouldn’t hesitate to say the low bar squat.  You’re so much more upright when front squatting, after all.

But then, if you asked most people, “Which would you say happens most often:  You miss a back squat even though your legs were strong enough, but your back rounded and you couldn’t complete the lift?  Or you miss a front squat even though your legs were strong enough, but your back rounded and you couldn’t complete the lift?”  Most people (who regularly front squat and back squat heavy) would answer that back strength obviously impacts their performance in the front squat more often – their legs can handle a heavier load than their spinal erectors can.

The reason this gets confusing is that we’re used to looking at the posture of the body – the relationship of the shoulders to the hips or the angle of the torso relative to the ground.  However, what’s more appropriate is looking at the relationship of the bar to the hips, since the bar is what’s going to be situated over midfoot.

Just to use my own proportions, I’m about 7 inches thick, front to back (from my clavicle, where a front squat would sit, to the shelf of my rear delts, where a low bar squat would sit), and the distance from my hip to my clavicle is about 25 inches.  If I’m standing in a position where the bar would be directly over my hips if I were low bar squatting, then in that same body position, the bar would be 7 inches in front of my hips if I were holding it in a front squat position.

high bar low bar front squat
B = hips. B’ = low bar back squat. B” = front squat.

Notice, that puts me in ~15-16 “extra” degrees of effective hip flexion – not a measure of flexion at the joint, but rather the angle of the bar relative to the hips.  More importantly, it makes the movement much more challenging for the spinal erectors.

From Diggins, 2011
From Diggins, 2011

Notice how until the very bottom of the spine, there’s a much greater distance between the bar and the spine for a front squat than a back squat.  It should be immediately apparent that front squats are certainly more of a challenge for the thoracic extensors than are back squats (with a larger difference for low bar squats than high bar).  However, some research even suggests that they’re harder for the lumbar spine as well with the same absolute load.  This study, though it used light loads, and the same load for front and back squats, showed ~25% higher EMG activity for the lumbar spinal erectors when front squatting than when back squatting.  In fact, the lumbar spinal erector EMG readings were similar for the front squat (even with a very light load – only 40kg) and the superman, which is a pure back extension exercise.

From Comfort, 2011.
From Comfort, 2011.

So, where am I going with all this?

Remember the puzzle we were trying to solve:  Most people can squat more low bar than they can high bar, even though the added weight and the shorter moment arm for the knee extensors (and thus, longer moment arm for the hip extensors) mean they have to produce ~15-20% more hip extension torque to do so.  The most obvious and straightforward answer:  Why can you high bar squat more than you front squat?  It’s easier for your back.  Why can you low bar squat more than you can high bar squat?  Extending this principle a bit further, the high bar squat shifts the weight forward a few inches as well, making it a sort of midpoint between the low bar squat and the front squat – you can squat more low bar because it’s easier for your back.

At the risk of being misheard, I’m not saying “easier for your back” to mean “lower injury risk” or “lower risk of long-term degeneration” (that’s not my area of expertise).  I’m saying “it requires less work from your spinal erectors to keep your spine extended.”  It’s very possible that your back may be more sore from low bar squatting than high bar or front squatting.  However, the likely reason is that the dreaded “buttwink” tends to be more common with the low bar squat.  Here’s a great article about the causes of buttwink and how to address them.

Also, even though lumbar spinal erector EMG is higher for the front squat than the back squat with the same absolute load, with the same relative load, it’s about the same. For example, if you front squat and back squat 315, your spinal erectors (lumbar, and especially thoracic) will be working harder when front squatting.  But if you front squat and back squat 80% of your max for each exercise, your lumbar spinal erectors are working just as hard for both, but the front squat is still considerably harder for your thoracic spinal erectors.

Just to illustrate how this concept applies to high bar versus low bar squats, check out this figure:

high bar low bar t spine

Notice how there’s the same absolute difference in moment arm length for the high bar and low bar positions for both the thoracic and lumbar spine, but how there’s a much larger relative difference for the thoracic spine – that’s the same principle as comparing back squats and front squats, though the difference is a bit smaller.

What actually got me on this line of thinking was trying to wrap my mind around how freaking strong of squatters weightlifters are.  They do everything “wrong” for squatting a ton – narrow stance, high bar, often beltless (and certainly not the same type of belt powerlifters use), often with no knee support (and certainly not powerlifting-style knee wraps).  In spite of all that, many elite weightlifters squat similar numbers to elite powerlifters.  Some squat more:  Here’s Vladislav Lukanin, an ex-weightlifter, setting the world record squat in his weight class with a high bar, weightlifting-style squat.  And here’s Boyanka Kostova squatting 200kg at 60kg – 440lbs at 132 – which would break the with-wraps record in her weight class by 22lbs.

One of the biggest factors separating weightlifting and powerlifting training:  the sheer amount of upper back work.  When you’re doing dozens and dozens of heavy pulls every week with a premium on keeping your t-spine extended, and front squatting just as often as you’re back squatting, upper back strength probably isn’t going to limit squatting performance.  Remember, that 15-20% extra hip extension torque was the result of 1) assuming you can lift about 10% more low bar and 2) the implication proceding from assumption 1 that you must then shorten the moment arm the knee extensors are working against (by shifting the hips back).

Without those two assumptions, high bar and low bar squats are pretty darn similar (Figure 1, before we introduced those two assumptions). This is why, when you take weightlifters and put them on the powerlifting platform, even if they change to the low bar squat position, their technique as a whole looks more similar to a high bar squat than what we typically think of as hinged-forward low bar squat form (For example, here’s Max Aita squatting 320kg/705lbs and Chen Wei Ling squatting 170kg/375lbs).

So, Factor 1: You’re less likely to be limited by your spinal erector strength – particularly thoracic erectors – in the low bar squat.  Most people, especially those who have a large strength gap between their low bar and high bar squat, are most likely limited by thoracic extensor strength for the high bar squat (with the low bar, back strength, quad strength, and hip extensor strength are all in play).  Moving on.

Factor 2: where you catch the bounce.

The bounce I’m referring to is the combination of the stretch reflex and the passive elastic contractile properties of the muscle when it’s lengthened.

Recall that you’re in ~5% more hip flexion at any given point in the movement when squatting low bar.  That has two major implications:

1) You hit “full depth” sooner.

Most people can simply squat deeper high bar than low bar.  This is a good thing for generalized training effect (longer ROM is usually better), but not a great thing for acute performance.  Once you’ve been under the bar for a while, you know that you can usually squat more by sinking a squat and catching the bounce out of the hole than by cutting the lift an inch or two higher – not an inch or two above parallel, but an inch or two from where muscular tension would usually catch you and start the reversal.  With the low bar squat, you simply don’t have to squat quite as deep to reach that point.

2) Your stretch reflex helps you through a more relevant portion of the movement.

Most people’s sticking point is a bit above parallel.  Based on Hales et. Al (2009), this is what that position looks like (all joint angles accurate within a degree).

high bar low bar sticking pointIf you hit the bottom of the squat in an ass-to-grass position, that bounce has long since left you when you get to this position above parallel.  You’re relying solely on “horsepower” (i.e. muscle contraction with minimal passive contribution) through the weakest part of the lift – from parallel through your sticking point.

However, if you catch the bounce just an inch or two below parallel, it helps you build some speed through the first few inches of the ascent, and that extra speed can help you “carry through” the sticking point to some degree.

Training Implications

1) Intent

The quads should do what they can.  The hips should do what they must.

If there was ever a simple phrase to help you understand what’s going on from the waist down in the squat, that’s it.

If the quads are strong, then you can maintain a more upright posture when squatting, minimizing the chance of your back strength becoming a limiting factor.

With heavy loads, increased forward lean will happen naturally.

Why?

Because you eventually reach a load at which the quads are “maxed out,” thus shifting more of the load to the posterior chain musculature which isn’t operating at “full capacity.”

I’m also pretty sure the principle I wrote about here plays into this shift as well.  Since biarticular muscles (hamstrings and rectus femoris) transfer knee extension torque to the hips and hip extension torque to the knees, if we assume both sides of that system operate at equal efficiency, then both the “hip-dominant” and “knee-dominant” squat should allow for the same amount of weight to be lifted.  However, to nuance that point a bit, I’m almost certain the hamstrings function as a more effective conduit for force transfer than the rectus femoris because the hamstrings are stronger knee flexors and hip extensors than the rectus femoris is a hip flexor or knee extensor.  For this reason, a more “hip-dominant” squat allows for the total muscular force (linear) of the system to be distributed more efficiently, resulting in more total extension torque (angular).  However, that statement comes with the caveat that the more reliant you are on hip extensor torque, the more apt you are to be limited by back strength because it necessitates greater forward lean.  For this reason, even if your low bar squat is more “hip-dominant” a major key is still quad strength.  Stronger quads:

1) give you the ability to stay more upright with any absolute load (meaning it takes a heavier load to necessitate more forward lean and the potential for hip extensor or back strength to limit you).

2) aid in hip extension to a greater degree than hip extensors aid in knee extension.  So an increase of “x” in quad strength may mean an increase of “.2x” in potential hip extension torque, whereas an increase of “x” in hip extensor strength may mean an increase of “.1x”  in potential knee extension torque.  Basically, you get more bang for your buck with increased quad strength than with increase hip extensor strength.

3) look awesome.

Certainly don’t take that as an invitation to neglect hip extensor or back training, since they can certainly be limiting factors as well.  I just wanted to make certain that people wouldn’t read “more forward lean = more efficient distribution of muscular force throughout the system” and interpret that to mean “all posterior chain, all the time” and neglect the quads.

If you’re wondering why I’ve still been talking about knee and hip extensors separately in this piece in spite of the “Biomechanical Black Magic” article, this is why:  though the total extension torque produced is distributed throughout the system, the BULK of the hip extension torque still comes directly for the hip extensors and knee extension torque from the quads.  This is why we can start with the observation that most peoples’ knees track further forward when squatting high bar, provided they DO squat more low bar, and explain it primarily as a function of quad strength.

To nuance things a bit more, the timing of powerful hamstrings contraction matters.  The hamstrings can produce ~1/2-3/4 as much knee flexion torque as the quads can produce knee extension torque.  A powerful hamstrings contraction at the bottom of the squat would very much limit how effectively you could extend your knees.  However, as you rise above parallel, the hamstrings begin contracting much harder to play their role as hip extensors.

Only pay attention to the top line with points marked by triangles. Notice how quad EMG spikes as you reverse the weight, then drops off, whereas hamstrings EMG rises gradually coming out of a hole, peaking at about 70-80 degree of knee flexion - the sticking point.
Only pay attention to the top line with points marked by triangles. Notice how quad EMG spikes as you reverse the weight, then drops off, whereas hamstrings EMG rises gradually coming out of a hole, peaking at about 70-80 degree of knee flexion – the sticking point.  From Wilk, 1996

I suppose you can do one of two things with that information:

1) Teach a squat with increased forward lean since that is the position people will wind up in anyways with heavy loads.

2) Teach a more upright squat to ensure people are striving to delay the point that their lower back becomes a limiting factor.

I can understand both positions, but I still lean toward the second one for this reason: When the quads are “maxed out,” you will naturally shift the load more to the posterior chain, with accompanying increased forward lean.  However, if you’re still fighting to stay upright, you can ensure that the weight you eventually miss must be the one that your back simply wasn’t capable of handling.  Whereas when purposefully striving for a more “hip-dominant” squat, you may artificially find yourself in a position where your back strength is limiting you with a lighter weight than you would have otherwise been able to move if you were slightly more upright.

That opinion seems to match that of the vast majority of really good lifters I’ve known.  When you see them lift max loads, they may look like they’re in a “hip-dominant” position, but they’re not there by choice.  They drop into the position that allows for the greatest rebound, and then fight to get upright and get their hips back under the bar as fast as they can.

Two quick examples:

1) Chad Wesley Smith

Look at how relatively upright he stays throughout the movement on this “light” set of 765×2.  Maximal forward lean occurs at the very bottom of the squat, and he fights (successfully) to get back upright as he comes out of the hole.

Compare that to this set of 855×1 (his PR without wraps).  As he comes out of the hole, he leans forward a bit more since the weight is too much for him to move while staying more upright and relying more on his quads.  However, by fighting to stay upright, he keeps his hips from drifting further back to the point that his back or hip strength would cause him to miss the lift.

2) Blaine Sumner

Blaine may have the most hip-dominant-looking squat of anyone I know.  Check him out here with 400kg (881lbs).

However, his intent is the same as Chad’s:  Fight to get upright as fast as possible, purposefully fighting to keep the hips from rising too fast.

Essentially, you can’t really make a squat too “quad-dominant.”  If you’re too upright to move a given load, then the load will sort that out for you, putting you in a stronger, more hip-dominant position even as you fight to stay upright.  However, you certainly can make a squat too “hip-dominant” and be limited by back or hip strength with a weight you could have lifted if you were fighting to get your hips under the bar and your chest up.

2) Exercise selection

Since back strength may limit you to a greater degree for the high bar squat and front squat, it is probably wise for a powerlifter to cycle in all three variants.  The front squat will help build great thoracic extensor strength, increasing the weight you can lift in the back squat before back strength limits you (this also gives it great carryover to deadlift strength).  The high bar squat is the most well-rounded of the three, allowing heavier loading than the front squat because back strength is somewhat less of a limiter, while also permitting a longer ROM than the low bar squat.  Finally, the low bar squat is the least limited by back strength, meaning it can be loaded heavier yet for leg and hip musculature development.  Also, since it’s how most powerlifters compete, it should obviously be included in your training routine because it’s highly specific sports practice.  On top of that, especially if you tend to get pitched forward with loads significantly lower than your max, direct quad work would probably help you out.

For a weightlifter, this simply reinforces the advantages of the high bar squat and the front squat over the low bar squat.  The low bar squat’s two key advantages are that it allows for a shorter ROM (you catch the “bounce” higher) and it’s less likely to be limited by back strength.  These advantages are, incidentally, two disadvantages for weightlifting where strength through a long ROM is necessary, and upper back strength is paramount.  Simply put, if your upper back is weak enough that squatting high bar significantly limits your performance, then the answer isn’t to low bar squat to strengthen your legs and hips more (which are clearly disproportionately strong already), but rather to high bar squat or (even better) front squat more to strengthen your back, which is the weak link.  Once that’s shored up, the low bar squat is essentially just a high bar squat (similar weight with similar demands of the knee and hip extensors – refer again to Figure 1) through a shorter ROM that is less specific to the sport (catching lifts as upright as possible).

For anyone else:  Just squat.

p.s. Anywhere I’m talking about forward lean, make sure to note whether I’m comparing different exercises or shifts in technique for the same exercise.  A more upright front squat may mean more work for the back than a low bar squat with more forward lean, but a low bar squat with more forward lean will mean more work for the back than a low bar squat with less forward lean.

p.p.s. I’m sure someone is going to post a picture similar to the one at the top of the article and say something along the lines of, “this is nonsense.  The high bar squat and low bar squat are nothing alike.  Look how upright this person is at the bottom of a high bar squat.”  If you’re tempted to do so, keep in mind that the “important” part of the squat is what happens from parallel through the sticking point.  All of those people with super upright bottom positions will have their hips kick back a bit as they start the ascent.  This video illustrates that perfectly (and Klokov is always a good note to end an article on):

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Graphic detailing high bar vs. low bar.

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60 thoughts on “High Bar and Low Bar Squatting 2.0”

  1. So why do bodybuilders often do frontsquats in order to develop their legs? Wouldn’t they be better of doing lowbar squats? Considering leg developement plays a greater role than lower back for winning a show.

    1. I’m not totally sure what you’re getting at. Would you care to elaborate? I said that front squats are more challenging for the upper back. On the other hand, you can generally take the knees through a longer ROM with front squats, and increased joint ROM has hypertrophic benefits of its own.

  2. First of all, thats a great article ( as always).
    yet i have a question about strength limiter.

    you said that the limiter is lower back,yet i see no attitudinizing to abs.

    when i do high bar,i feel more like the limiter is my abs which i cant squeeze any more/enough which leads to my torso lean forward and then my lower back works harder and is the limiter as you said.

    yet i think that the first weak link is not the lower back but abs (at least in my case).

    I would really appreciate some of your thoughts on it.

    1. Thanks Mickey!

      Upper back, not lower back. I don’t think there would be much difference for lower back.

      If it feels like abs, you may just not have enough experience with the movement yet. I don’t think ab strength would be a limiter, but ineffective bracing very well could be.

  3. Hey Greg,

    Great article. This something I’ve been reading about a lot lately. I did have a question though! When you’re discussing levers the number you use at the hips is 17%. That is, if the load is 10% higher, the moment arm at the knee is 10% shorter, and the moment arm is 6.5% longer at the hips, then certainly they must work harder to produce 17% more torque. So my question: aren’t the posterior muscles here that act on the hip (namely the glutes) capable of producing that torque? Certainly they’re working harder and being recruited more due to the increased lever and length, but aren’t they ultimately capable of more force output than the quads meaning increased demand/recruiting them more here would be an advantage? Also, what about the elastic quality of muscle tissue itself when it’s stretched? I’m sure you know that when a muscle is given a bit of length it’s stronger as there is more potential for linkages between the actin and myosin filaments in addition to the passive/elastic component. Sorry that’s all a mouthful of a question. I was just thinking that even though the moment arm of the hips is increasing it would still ultimately be an advantage because of the output capabilities of those posterior muscles along with the advantages of giving muscles some length. Thanks so much for the insight. I train athletes for a living and I’m an avid weightlifter myself so I’m always after more understanding. Your website is amazing.

    1. I still think that comes back to the question, though “if we assume that the typical low bar positioning is simply superior to the typical high bar positioning, why couldn’t people just adopt a more ‘hip dominant’ high bar squat and squat just as much high bar as low bar?” I think the most likely explanation is that the upper back becomes a limiter, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be. In that case, I think you can either just squat low bar right off the bat, or squat high bar, strengthen you back in the process, and wind up in a pretty similar place.

  4. Hi Greg,
    if i read this article correctly, than it is possible that thoracic spinal erector strength can be the limiting factor in the back squat. I also do front squats as a variation to strenghten my upper back as you recommend. If i do them heavy or to near failure i tend to lean forward and/or round my upper back. Is this indicative of an actual upper back weakness or are my quads maxed out, shifting the load to the posterior chain in the process, which would suggest a relative quad weakness?

    1. “if i read this article correctly, than it is possible that thoracic spinal erector strength can be the limiting factor in the back squat.”

      Yep!

      “Is this indicative of an actual upper back weakness or are my quads maxed out, shifting the load to the posterior chain in the process, which would suggest a relative quad weakness?”

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s indicative of an upper back weakness. That’s just kind of how heavy or near-failure front squats go

  5. So, if my squat is pathetically weak compared to my deadlift, and my quads are big, and I tend to round my upper back when deadlifting, AND have a history of slight thoracic kyphosis, is it safe to assume that weak thoracic erectors are the cause? How should I address the issue? Switch to front squats completely for a while? Implement some accessories for that region?

      1. Thanks for the response Greg. If I may ask, how would you approach it programming-wise to maximize the results? Ignore back squats completely for a few months and just focus on progressing the front squat? Keep a few sets of back squats around still consider it my “main” movement with fronts as an accessory? Something else?

  6. Hi Greg so I’m a little confused by main paragraph of the training implications intent portion where you say “However, that statement comes with the caveat that the more reliant you are on hip extensor torque, the more apt you are to be limited by back strength because it necessitates greater forward lean.”, since I thought earlier you had said that low bar likely lets you squat more weight by making the back less of a limiting factor, and so to me these statements seem a little contradictory. Also just wanted to say this is a fantastic article full of great information and thanks for taking the time to make it.

      1. Ok thanks for clarifying. So would you say that when low bar squatting if you have at least a decent deadlift (more than your squat) and front squat regularly that your upper back will never be a limiting factor if you want to maximize your strength you should focus on building up lower back strength through movements such as goodmornings and back extensions? Also, if you do manage to successfully bring up low back strength like this do you think that your quads could begin to be your limiting factor?

        1. “So would you say that when low bar squatting if you have at least a decent deadlift (more than your squat) and front squat regularly that your upper back will never be a limiting factor if you want to maximize your strength”

          Correct. Shouldn’t be a limiter.

          “you should focus on building up lower back strength through movements such as goodmornings and back extensions?”

          Those are both solid options.

          “Also, if you do manage to successfully bring up low back strength like this do you think that your quads could begin to be your limiting factor?”

          I don’t think anyone has a single limiting factor during squats. I think you just fail sequentially. Once your quads are maxed out, your squats start looking more hip-dominant and good-morning-y; then your hips are maxed out and your spine may start flexing (or you may just terminate the lift); then you ultimately fail the lift. If any one of those things were stronger, you would have made it, so it’s hard to say that any one muscle group was the ultimate limiter.

  7. Greg,

    I am currently coaching an individual who long term wants to compete in powerlifting (sees himself competing in two years), but currently is trying to build GPP. Would you recommend, for the beginning of his weight training, high bar, given the more musculature worked, or low bar, since that will be the more specialized movement for the sport in the long haul and deadlifting and other exercises would take care of other development? Either way, how soon should I bring in the low-bar movement for specialization, or high bar for variation?

    Thanks.

    1. Probably high bar. But you can introduce low bar pretty early on as well (within the first few months, once high bar mechanics are looking really solid and consistent)

  8. Another great article filled with good scientific info. and reference. However 3 out of the 4 muscles that make up the “quads” originate on the femur and insert via the patellar tendon. This means that the ‘primary’ function of the quads is to extend the lower leg (the tibia). So why isn’t ‘tibia travel’ even mentioned? In fact, one of the statements in the article, “For this reason, even if your low bar squat is more “hip-dominant” a major key is still quad strength. Stronger quads:”, to me is completely wrong. With a hip dominant squat, you initiate the movement at the hips—driving them back. If you looked at it from the side, you’d have the least amount of tibia travel of any squat variation. The tibia only minimally moves toward breaking parallel with resistance. The primary lever is the femur. What operates the femur? The hip flexors and glutes. The quads themselves are only absorbing 20% of the load (not correct math, just a rough guess). Could you address tibia travel and the impact that has on traditional back squats? My contention would be that traditional squats only minimally involve the quads and may not be worth the risk. However if you look at a sissy squat, for example, you can see that the tibia travels very far forward…almost getting completely perpendicular to resistance (gravity). This would be a far better quad-focused movement.

    1. I hear what you’re saying, and I see why you’d think that, but that’s not what ends up happening. You can’t discount the forces applied by the hamstrings. They’re actively resisting the quads, so if you sit back more and get more tension on the hamstrings, that will resist the quads. Sure, the external knee flexion moment is lower, but the internal knee flexion moment is higher; those two effects largely cancel out. I dug into that a bit more in this article: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/sitting-back-squat-much-ado-little/

  9. Hi,
    I’ve just read a lot of your articles about squatting (and watch your video on this subject) and I have 3 questions:
    1)
    “When you drop the bar a little lower on your back, you’re effectively decreasing how long the lever of your torso is for the movement”. (this sentence comes from the first article on the subject)

    Does it means that having the bar lower make it easier and the hips without making it harder on the quads (for the same load)?

    2)
    “So, at this point, you may rightly be thinking, “17% more required hip extension torque?! If that’s the case, then how the heck can people squat more low bar?”
    Because low bar squats are probably less likely to be limited by back strength than high bar squats”

    It seems that in your first article you said that low bar was easier on hip extension because of the “shorter” torso. Did I got something wrong or did you change your mind?

    As always (yes, I post a lot of question, I don’t know if you noticed it) thanks for the articles and the answer, you help my bench a lot with your articles, now I hope you will help my squat.

    1. When in doubt, go with what I’ve written the most recently. In this case, the squat guide. I think that the lower bar position tends to be offset by the increased forward lean with low bar, so that the lumbar and hip extension demands are pretty similar, regardless. However, low bar will be easier for thoracic extension; I think that’s ultimately the differentiating factor that allows people to lift more low bar.

  10. I have a quick question. I’m not that smart so I hardly understood most of what you said but from what I think I read, would a high-bar squat be better for bodybuilding?

          1. If I understand, front squat is better for building upper back, high bar back squat is better for building quads and low bar back squat is better for building quads and glutes / adductors?

          2. Yep! With the caveat that there aren’t any longitudinal studies verifying that – it’s just what makes the most sense to me (and it’s what matches my experience).

  11. Very interesting article. I am new to the high/low debate and have been high bar squatting for barely a year. I picked up a copy of Starting Strength and took a session with an SS coach. Instead of lifting 10% more in the low bar, I was only able to squat about 85% of my normal high bar squat — I blamed this deficit on my hip flexibility and squat depth.

    My question, before I become brainwashed by the Starting Strength masses, is why does Rippatoe push the low bar squat for novices if it is solely in the realm of power-lifters and competitors ? If I recall the main point of his thesis, it would be that we want to move the most weight in the most efficient linear fashion possible to maximize strength as quickly as possible. Is the key to this statement as it relates to your analysis “move the most weight…” because ultimately the low bar squat is shortening the ROM by a few inches.

    1. There are two cynical answers, and one slightly less cynical answer.

      Less cynical answer – he recognizes the need to individualization and nuance, but doesn’t think novice lifters are smart or capable enough to deal with it, so he dumbs things down significantly, and only presents the option he thinks is best, on average.

      Slightly more cynical answer – he’s not bright enough to recognize that “most weight” and “longest range of motion” are, to some degree, contradictory. A weightlifting-style high bar squat generally means you move less weight, but the ROM is longer. A SS-style low bar squat generally means you move more weight, but ROM is shorter. He’d counter that by saying that a high bar squat doesn’t actually increase “functional ROM” because the hamstrings “go slack” in the hole. But that just belies a lack of understanding of biomechanics (you can model the change in the length of the hamstrings with changes in hip and knee flexion, and the differences between a WL-style squat and a SS-style squat are trivial).

      Most cynical answer – there was never a “debate” before Rip got popular, and there’s really not a debate outside of the SS crowd, or people trying to reach folks who’ve been brainwashed by the SS crowd. People used to just try both, and stick with the variation that was the most comfortable and allowed them to lift the most weight. The cynic in me sees his dogmatism as a smart marketing move – it allows him to stake his claim on a particular issue, and he writes persuasively enough to convince a lot of people without any biomechanics training that he’s the prophet in the wilderness, and that only he and his followers have seen the light.

  12. I have always noticed that lifters performing the squat, automatically perform the
    high version, rather than the low, primarily, I believe, that the average amateur is
    not aware that there are two distinct versions. I have read many articles concerning the difference between the versions, to conclude that the high version, by placing the bar close to the neck, imperils the neck muscles, where it joins the spine, and for this reason, I advise my friends to resort to the lower method; primarily, because the bar is then located not too close to the neck and does not interfere with the spine, and, the lifter can lift more weight, because the weight is
    more evenly dispersed, so that the Quads do not have to feel more unnecessary stress coming out of the hole, which could eventually become dangerous for the
    lifter, over time, especially if the lifter is an amateur, for example.

    In addition, I can be contacted at:

    dennis.habern@web.de

    1. “the high version, by placing the bar close to the neck, imperils the neck muscles, where it joins the spine”

      Do you have any evidence for this?

      “so that the Quads do not have to feel more unnecessary stress coming out of the hole”

      Bar positioning doesn’t directly affect lower body kinematics.

  13. Hi Greg,
    coul you please let me know,
    on which studies did you base your theory on low bar and high bar placing largely the same muscular challenge on the quads and glutes?
    Thanks, can’t seem to find studies suggesting that

    1. You don’t really need a study to tell you that, imo (and if anything, a study probably wouldn’t have reliable results unless the researchers took great pains to ensure that nothing differed between the two conditions except bar position, and to ensure they recruited a sample of people who had equal training experience with both bar positions). However, it’s a generalization we can make from looking at the research out there on biomechanically similar free weight exercises. You see pretty similar EMG (a proxy for muscle activation) amplitudes for back squats and front squats (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19002072; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26252837), for conventional and sumo DLs (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11932579; check the full text on this one. The significant differences were still quite small), for “hip-dominant” and “knee-dominant” squats (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2016.1154978?journalCode=rjsp20), etc. Since high bar and low bar squats are so similar, I’d be very surprised if they were the exception to the rule.

      1. Hi Greg. Thanks for the reply. I understand your point and rationale. However, can I ask will the wider stance of the low bar not increase gluteal activation? And the greater hip extension moment, longer moment arm and increased hip extension torque will increase gluteal activation? While the quad activation will be the same the peak forces will be increase from the hip with the low bar.? Are the front squat and the high bar squat not much similar in terms of the hip than low bar? I’m basing this understanding off of , Swindon et al 2012, Glassbrook et al 2017. Thanks again Greg

        1. You’re asking about a lot of things other than bar position. You can do a more upright low bar squat with a close stance (for example, almost everything in both of these examples look like a WLer’s squat except for the bar position: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRRijTU86aU; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ_WA46mE44), or a more “hip-dominant” high bar squat with a wider stance (that’s actually how I squatted for years). The only things bar position necessarily change are a) where the bar is on the back and consequently b) hip flexion (slightly) at any given point in the lift.

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