[Zachary Chokr is a senior at North Carolina State University majoring in Psychology, minoring in Sports Science, and a Certified Personal Trainer under the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab.]
The squat has biomechanical and neuromuscular similarities to a wide range of athletic movements. Thus, it is one of the most frequently used exercises in the field of strength and conditioning; and is a core exercise designed to enhance athletic performance. In addition, it is an indispensable component of competitive weightlifting and powerlifting that is regarded as a cardinal test of lower-body strength (Schoenfeld, 2010, p. 3497). For some reason, the first question ‘gym bros’ always seem to address is how much someone can bench press, but is that really defiant of your strength? There is no greater love-hate relationship than that of leg day; waking up in the morning with your legs so sore that you are forced to waddle helplessly like a penguin. But hey, on the bright side it shows you’re working hard and I commend you for that. I promise, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. On the more technical side, once you are familiar with the back squat, there are variations that can be performed to adjust the angles and torques placed on the joints that affect the force applied to the low back, legs, and hip musculature by shifting the location of the bar on the back which can provide specific advantages to your personal goals. By changing the location of where the bar sits on your back, you are also changing the bar’s center of gravity and where the load is placed through the body which consequently alters the muscles recruited for action. There has been much debate as to which variation is better: the high bar vs. low bar position. Well, the answer to this varies from person to person; and although I cannot answer this question specifically for you, what I am going to do is compare and contrast the differences between the two and their advantages.
It is estimated that over 200 muscles are activated during performance of the squat (Schoenfeld, 2010, p. 3497). When you’re performing either variation of the back squat, there is a relatively linear bar path as the result of muscles producing torque at joints. In order to stand up from the bottom of a squat, you have to 1) extend your knees and 2) extend your hips. “This means that your quads have to contract hard enough to produce the required knee extension torque; and your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors magni have to contract hard enough to produce the required hip extension torque” (Nuckols, 2016). So with the high bar squat, the bar is positioned on top on the traps while the load is still placed over the lifter’s mid-foot causing their torso to be rather upright. William Imbo of BoxLife Magazine (2014) analyzes the angles and muscular recruitment of the high bar squat producing a more open hip angle, forcing a more acute knee angle and forward knee travel. This forces your quads to extend your knees and glutes to extend the hips out of the hole. The form of the high bar squat is typically a narrow/shoulder width foot placement, hips directly under you, tall chest, and tighter hand spacing. If you are an Olympic weightlifter, high bar squatting transfers better for training lifts such as snatches and clean and jerks that require an upright torso and picking the bar up in front of you. In terms of athletic development, the high bar squat provides various advantages that can translate to numerous sport athletes. There is a positive correlation with strength and speed. John Grace explores this relationship demonstrating increased maximal strength exercises such as the squat to increase performance in short sprints, vertical jump, and change of direction (Grace, 2016).
In the low bar squat, the bar is a few inches further down one’s back, essentially resting on their rear deltoids causing them to lean forward more while also keeping the load over their mid-foot. Compared to the high bar squat, Jake Boly of barbend.com (2017) describes the form as having wider foot placement, hips pushed back, forward lean of the torso, and wider hands on the bar. The wide foot placement allows the lifter’s hips to open up. Pushing your hips back creates a more acute hip angle that places tension and activation of the hamstrings and glutes at the bottom of the squat. Your quads are still brought in to extend the knees, but have more help from the hamstrings. The forward lean is required to keep the weight over the mid-foot and recruits the rest of your posterior chain, i.e. spinal erectors. This position also decreases the range of motion by decreasing forward knee travel that can cause knee pain. And the wider hand placement allows the bar to comfortably rest lower on the rear deltoids. Having more total muscular recruitment through the posterior chain is why people can typically squat more weight with low bar than high bar. Greg Nuckols, colleague and writer of strengththeory.com (2016) creates this illustration: “extend an arm out in front of you and imagine someone hung a 25-pound plate from a rope, and hung the rope around your wrist. How long do you think you could hold your arm straight out in front of you before the weight started pulling it down? Now imagine someone hung the same weight around your upper arm just above your elbow. How much easier would it be to keep your arm extended straight in front of you? When you drop the bar lower on your back, you effectively decrease how long the lever of your torso is for the movement. The same applies by decreasing how far your knees travel forward. This means that your muscles don’t have to produce as much force to produce the required torque in order to overcome the resistance” (weight on the bar).
Figure A illustrates the differences in angles and moment arms of the low bar squat (left) and high bar (right). Moment arms are the length from the point of force application and the axis of rotation. In this case you can see how the low bar position creates a longer moment arm between the hips and the bar, and a shorter moment arm between the knee and the bar over the mid-foot to maintain balance. The longer moment arm created at the hips is what recruits greater motor recruitment of the hamstrings and rest of the posterior chain to ascend from the bottom of the squat. The shorter moment created at the knees is what decreases knee travel and takes stress off of the knees. In other words, with the low bar position, there is a greater forward inclination of the trunk most typical of powerlifters that has been shown to produce greater torque of the hip extensors (hamstrings and glutes) and less knee extensor torque (quadriceps) compared to the high bar position more common in weightlifters. “This translates to reduced patellofemoral compression and ACL strain in the low bar squat” (Schoenfeld, 2010, p. 3503). It should be noted that unless you are suffering an existing injury, either position is suitable for most lifters.
What you can take away from this:
Choosing which position is better depends on your individual goals. Typically, lifters can squat a little bit more using the low bar position (Nuckols, 2016). This is more advantageous in the sport of powerlifting, and may be worth a shot if you have been stuck at the same weight and want to see if you can hit a new personal record in the gym. The high bar squat transfers to help more in overall athletic development, such as Olympic lifts such as snatches and clean and jerks. It can also aid more in quad development. According to Schoenfeld (2010) if you have issues with knee pain and have not been able to squat, low bar may allow you to squat without this pain. All in all, the squat is a very dynamic lift that can provide many benefits regardless of bar position.
Boly, J. (2017, January 17). High-Bar Versus Low-Bar Squats: Their Differences and When to Use Them. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from https://barbend.com/high-bar-versus-low-bar-squats/
Grace, J. (2016, January 22). Is Max Strength As Important As We Think? Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://elitetrack.com/is-max-strength-as-important-as-we-think/
High Bar vs. Low Bar Squats for Powerlifting. (2014, August 04). Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://www.powerliftingtowin.com/high-bar-vs-low-bar-squats/
Imbo, W. (2014, May 24). High Bar vs Low Bar Back Squats. What’s the Difference? Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://boxlifemagazine.com/high-bar-vs-low-bar-back-squats-whats-the-difference/
Nuckols, G. (2016, December 17). High Bar vs. Low Bar Squatting • Strengtheory. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://strengtheory.com/its-time-to-end-this-nonsense-high-bar-vs-low-bar-squatting/
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and their Application to Exercise Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(12), 3497-3506. Retrieved from http://proxying.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php?url=http://search.proquest.com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/docview/818559640?accountid=12725