Heads up: this isn’t an article about your typical “low bar versus high bar” debate. I’ll touch on the different aspects of each movement, just so we’re all on the same page. But mainly, I’m going to focus on nuances in programming the two lifts that (A) often go overlooked and (B) can make a huge impact on your overall strength and development.
This is something that, I believe, is applicable regardless of your goals and regardless of your individual structure – although how, exactly, you will apply it obviously depends very much on those things.
Low Bar vs. High Bar: The Wrong Question
I started training back in the early 2000s, and even then, I can remember reading about contentious discussions about the merits of low bar squats compared to high bar ones. If you only remember one thing from this article, I hope it’s this: There are differences between low bar and high bar squats, but one isn’t better than the other.
If you’re not using both in your training, then you’re selling yourself short. The right question to ask isn’t “which is better?” The right question is “how can I effectively use both in my training?”
To answer that question, however, it’s important to understand the fundamental differences between the two movements. If you’re unfamiliar with those differences, here’s a crash course:
- Bar position. This, of course, is the obvious one. In a high bar squat, the bar is placed on the traps, below the bony knot at the base of your neck (C7). In a low bar squat, the bar is placed on top of the rear delts.
- Change in leverages. Carrying the bar higher on your back shifts your center of gravity forward, and requires that you keep your torso more upright to stay balanced. Conversely, carrying the bar lower on your back requires that you lean forward more to stay balanced.
- Change in muscles emphasized. Staying upright, in turn, requires you to use more quad and less lower back to move the bar. Leaning forward requires using more posterior chain (lower back, hamstrings, and glutes).
- Change in amount of weight used. For most people, the posterior chain will be somewhat stronger than the quads, and allow more weight to be used in the low-bar squat. That’s a huge oversimplification, as the actual differences between each movement will depend on a wide variety of individual structural considerations, but in general, it’s still true.
Again, most discussions comparing the two lifts won’t go beyond this level of analysis. In fact, I’m just going to quote this article as a nice summary of the generic low-bar-versus-high-bar debate:
“Choose the squat style that most closely corresponds with your training goals. If you’re primarily a weightlifter, then the high-bar squat will be a better choice. For athletes in sport, they might also find the high-bar a more suitable choice in regards to transfer of gym to in-game performance.
Powerlifting and strongman style training rely on the body moving supramaximal loads, which makes the low-bar a more suitable option. The body can load weight better in the hips with a torso that’s more horizontal. Also, for those with knee problems, the low-bar squat may be a more viable choice.”
Why You Need to Use Both
To understand why you need to use both movements in your training, regardless of your goals, you first need to understand one of the key components of strength and development: balance. It should be obvious that, if your goals are physique-related, balance (usually referred to as symmetry) is important; balance is an inherent part of aesthetics. But balance is just as key to success in all strength sports.
If you ever watch an elite powerlifter, strongman, Olympic weightlifter, or CrossFit athlete, you can’t help but notice the smoothness of their movement. Part of that smoothness comes from practice. But just as much – perhaps more – comes from an elite athlete’s ability to evenly distribute a load across all of the muscle groups involved in a movement.
Note that I said “evenly distribute,” not “equally distribute.” That’s an important distinction. Even distribution means that each muscle group is contributing an appropriate amount given the nature of the movement. For example, your lats are not going to be doing as much as your quads to help you squat, but your lats still need to be working throughout each and every rep.
Once you understand the need for balance, it should be obvious why you need to incorporate both high bar and low bar squats into your training. If you only use one style, you’re quickly going to create imbalances between your quads and your posterior chain.
How to Use Both in Your Training
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Using several variations of the squat, bench press, and deadlift is, in general, one of the best things you can do in your training (again, regardless of your goals). Using them effectively can be difficult, because when performed properly, they’re demanding exercises that can be difficult to recover from, unlike isolation exercises or movements that limit you to the use of lighter weights.
When it comes to the high and low bar squats, here are the key things to remember:
1. Performance standards.
Proper movement pattern should be your number-one when using variations in your training. I can’t tell you how often I see people loading up “Romanian” deadlifts only to perform some bastardized semi-stiff-legged version of a regular deadlift. This is great for the ego, but won’t really benefit you otherwise.
When it comes to the high and low-bar squat, you generally want to focus on your torso angle. If you’re using a high bar position but still end up leaning forward and using a lot of lower back, then you’ve loaded the bar too heavily and you’re not going to enjoy any of the real benefits of high bar. Similarly, if you turn the low bar squat into a good morning, you’re probably not going to see the results you want. The takeaway: always choose a set, rep, and load scheme that allows you to perform the variations properly.
Obviously, if you’re close to a competition, you should be performing mostly (if not entirely) movements that will be in the competition. By the timing you’re in the peaking phase of your training, the strength work has been done, so variations aren’t really relevant.
In the off season, you have room to experiment, to find the variations that translate most efficiently to your competition lifts. That leaves the majority of your prep (assuming you follow some sort of periodized plan) to use variations alongside competition lifts and get the best of both worlds.
3. Individual needs.
I think a lot of people overlook the importance of individual variation when they’re programming, and that’s an enormous mistake. In fact, the individual should be the first thing considered! If you’re a naturally quad-dominant powerlifter, you probably don’t need to do a whole lot of high bar squats to improve your low bar (although you very well may be better off using the high bar position in competition).
If you have a structure that requires an extreme amount of forward lean with a low bar, then you probably don’t want to do a whole lot of low bar training.
Look, you’re not going to train something you don’t enjoy. At the same time, there’s a good chance that you don’t enjoy something because you don’t train it enough to actually get good at it. Again, balance is the answer: do enough work to address your weaknesses, but if you hate low bar squats, don’t try to make them the cornerstone of your programming, regardless of what anyone else tells you.
Raising the Bar
Ultimately, everyone goes to the gym to become a better version of him or herself. Hopefully, this article gave you some ideas on how you can change your programming to be more effective and efficient, but the real challenge is putting those ideas into action. So, let me know (either in the comments of via email) how you have used high and low bar squats in our own training, and maybe you can help others raise the bar, too.
Feature image from Ben Pollack YouTube channel.