The world of fitness is filled with opposing thoughts on nearly every single minutia ever- from using wrist straps or not, proper techniques, equipment, and form. It is no different with squats, in which a real argument exists on whether it is more advisable to go high bar or low bar.
“Why can’t you just do everything and be done with it?” you might ask. After all, you already have the weights. Why should it matter where you place the bar? What are the repercussions of favoring one position over the other?
For that matter, what is the difference between high-bar squats and low-bar squats?
Squats are great exercises that work the lower body and can be very versatile in that they can be done with or without the additional weights. Dumbbells, barbells, and even machines can give you the option to load up the weight or you can simply use your own body weight.
You can also position the weights in front of you or do back squats and place the weights behind you as you slowly lower and raise yourself from the ground to complete one rep. Back squats can be done either high-bar or low-bar, which is where much of the argument stems from.
Let us first discuss what makes a high-bar squat high-bar and what makes a low-bar squat low-bar.
A high-bar squat is done with the bar of your barbell placed high on top of your trapezius muscles, across the top of your shoulders with your legs positioned shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outward as you lower and raise yourself from the ground to do squats.
A low-bar squat on the other hand, positions the bar a bit lower on the back compared to the high-bar position, with the bar positioned at the level of the deltoid muscles instead of on top of the trapezius muscles as you do your squats.
The difference between the two is merely inches but you will notice that you must maintain a more upright position during the high-bar squat with more forward leg movement as compared to the low-bar squat. Placing the bar lower on your back also will make you lean a bit more forward at the hips to help you in keeping your balance and toppling backward.
In high-bar squats, you will develop more strength and mass in your quadriceps muscles, which are the muscles in front of your thighs, as it depends heavily on the strength of your quadriceps to move against the weight and perform your squats.
On the other hand, the low-bar squats are perfect for the posterior chain of muscles, which includes the gluteus muscles, the hamstrings, and back extensors. It recruits more muscles in its performance and if you are looking to target this group of muscles then you might want to look into a low-bar squat.
In maintaining your balance and performing the squats properly at the same time, the bar must be on the same line as the midfoot and this is where it makes it easier for those doing high-bar squats.
The position of the bar during high-bar squats already falls naturally in line with the midfoot from the beginning of the position, which makes it easier to stay in balance than the low-bar squat. In the low-bar squat, you must flex a little at the hip joint to keep your bar on the straight path towards the midfoot, which is why you must lean forward a bit to keep yourself from toppling back with the additional weight.
Also, in doing low-bar squats, one must have the adequate shoulder mobility and balance to adequately perform the reps and maintain the proper position throughout. The combination of improper posture and the additional weight is a perfect recipe for a disaster that could cause possible injuries.
Some people will naturally find either high-bar or low-bar squats easier to do than others due to differences in anatomy.
Those with longer legs might be more comfortable with doing a low-bar squat and those with shorter legs should do high-bar squats. Those with limited ankle mobility might also benefit more from low-bar squats as the knees don’t have to move as far forward beyond the ankles in comparison to the high-bar squat, in which your knees act as the fulcrum working against the weight placed high on your back. Some important gears for this workout are knee wraps, ankle weights, etc.
Now it seems that both high-bar and low-bar squats are equally matched. They work different sets of muscles more despite only inches in the difference in the positioning of the bar. However, these inches spell the difference in using either the quadriceps as your main muscle and your hips as the main fulcrum by which you push against the weight (high-bar) or the posterior chain of muscles and your knees as the fulcrum (low-bar).
Knowing that both kinds of back squats will work different kinds of muscles, it is your choice ultimately which one you should go for during training. Besides, it is advisable for you to differentiate back squats from front squats. If you want to strengthen your quadriceps, then you should go for the high-bar squats. If you are looking towards working your glutes, your hamstrings, and even your core, then the low-bar squats are your new ally, as reps with the bar slung lower on your shoulders will help you more with the posterior chain of muscles.
Also, if you are planning to go into Olympic weightlifting with its snatches and clean and jerks, you would want to build on high-bar squatting as this is the most common form for that type of competition.
As with every step in your fitness journey, it is always important to consider your own anatomy and capabilities before you undertake a new exercise as it could spell the difference between success and injury. Always keep your safety first and foremost in your mind.
If you have longer legs and less ankle mobility might prefer to do low-bar squats. Those with knee injuries should also see a physician first before engaging in rigorous exercises such as high-bar squats, on which the knee acts as the main fulcrum used to go against the weight of the barbell.
Still not decided on whether you should go high-bar or low-bar? Well, there is a test to determine which one is the right fit for you!
To do this, perform a simple bodyweight squat without the added weights. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed at a slight outwards angle. Lower yourself down to a squat and observe your position. If you do not have a mirror, you can ask someone to watch you such as a gym buddy or your fitness instructor.
If your hips move backward, your chest tends to collapse towards the floor, and your knees move forwards past your toes, the low-bar squat will be great for you. However, if you can maintain an upright position, then the high-bar squat is for you.
In the end, it is not that there is one form that rules over the other. Even the minor shift in the position of the bar has proven that it can work different muscles. All it takes is proper body mechanics and you can shift the training from your quads to your posterior chain of muscles.
It all depends on what you want to train and how your body is built to accommodate the additional weight you will be pushing against. You and your fitness goals will ultimately determine whether you should practice low-bar or high-bar squats or even both.
Did you find this article helpful in your fitness journey? Has it helped you to decide between doing either high-bar squats or low-bar squats? Do you have other experiences with doing back squats? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to share this article with your family and friends!
I am Mike R.Bowen, founder of Fitness On The Weekend dot Com and my aim is to help busy people find time for fitness. We will give you actionable advice on how you can keep fit and healthy even on those busy days!
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