Barbell back squats are one of the most popular exercises in weightlifting. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or just want to be in better shape. The barbell squat is a fundamental movement that all gym-goers should consider including.
In fact, the back squat is one of the only exercises that trains the entire posterior chain. This includes multiple muscle groups in the upper and lower body. The position in which the barbell rests on the back decides what muscles are most active.
The glutes are one of the most underactive muscle groups in the body. These play a major role in squats and clients should understand this.
Knowing the difference between the barbell placements for the back squat is important. Let’s learn how these positions impact overall movement and results for clients.
There are two common bar placements when it comes to the back squat. These include the high bar squat and low bar squat.
High bar squat: positioning the barbell directly on the traps
Low bar squat: positioning the barbell on the rear deltoids
During the high bar squat, the bar sits higher up on the back. This means the torso of the client can remain more upright throughout the lift. The low bar squat requires the bar to sit much lower near the spine of the scapula. This creates more forward lean because the torso tilts forward.
Many gym-goers will say that the low bar squat feels easier. Since the low bar position puts clients in less of an upright position, the load is less compared to the high bar squat. In powerlifting, many athletes prefer the low bar technique because of this.
However, the high bar back squat is typically more popular overall. The high bar position allows better alignment throughout the body.
Set up the rack with the barbell at chest level height. Move under the barbell and position the bar on your traps. Grip the barbell as narrow as you can and lift it off the rack. Squeeze your back muscles and shoulder blades to create a shelf-like spot for the bar to rest on. Take one step at a time backward. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
To begin the movement, push your hips back and descend into the squat. Bend at the knees and allow them to move forward. Keep your chest up and back straight the entire time. Remember to brace your core.
Once you reach maximum depth, return to the starting position. To do so, drive through the ground, extend your hips, and squeeze your glutes. The bar path should be vertical with minimal forward lean.
If you have any back issues, then the high bar squat might be your best option. The high bar squat is responsible for developing greater amounts of strength and muscle mass in the quads. The bar placement should remain over the mid-foot the entire time.
If this is done correctly, the knees will travel far enough forward to activate the quads. This position includes knee flexion, which is what highly activates the quadriceps muscles.
Clients must have good ankle mobility to effectively execute the high bar squat and to maintain body alignment. If you work with clients who have poor shoulder mobility the high bar squat is also best. In general, it is a more comfortable position for most.
Most advanced lifters display about a 60-degree angle at the trunk when in the bottom position of a squat. Torso length is a huge determining factor for the angle of inclination. Therefore, high bar squats are usually more effective for clients who have a shorter torso. Expect high bar squats to develop mostly the quads and glutes because of the deep squat they allow.
Just like anything, high bar squats also have drawbacks. During the high bar squat, the body must maintain a more vertical position. This doesn’t allow athletes or clients to lift as heavy as they could with the low bar squat. This is because the hamstrings are less active due to the depth that you can achieve in a high bar squat.
Another concern is that clients will experience knee pain. If a client has previous history of knee pain, then the high bar position may not be the best option. The force moving forward on the knee joint could exacerbate any underlying knee issues, leading to more knee pain. Squats are not bad for your knees unless you have had a previous injury that could be affected.
Try corrective exercises for any client that experiences some form of knee pain.
Many factors make this type of squat a knee-dominant exercise. The bar is so far away from the hips in a high bar squat, which decreases the moment arm. But it increases between the bar and knees. This makes it a more knee-dominant movement.
The moment arm is the length between a joint and the force. The external load will actually feel heavier with the high bar position, forcing muscles to contract harder.
Set up the rack just like you would for the high bar squat. However, the barbell will not rest on the traps. Instead, position yourself under the barbell and place the bar on your rear delts.
As you unrack the barbell, position your feet wider than you would for the high bar squat. When doing the low bar squat your feet should be at least hip-width apart. Now you are ready to execute the squat.
Descend into the squat by shooting your hips back and bending at the knees. Your knees will not travel as far forward during the low bar squat. Even though there is a more severe forward lean, don’t stop bracing your core.
Don’t be afraid to lean over even more if needed. Once your thighs are parallel to the ground, return to the starting position. Perform hip extension to complete the movement. You must maintain a neutral spine. This includes keeping your head in line with your torso the entire time.
Clients who have a longer torso would benefit more from the low bar position. The low bar squat requires more forward lean to hold the barbell. This means the knees will not travel as far forward.
The biggest benefit of the low bar is that it sits 2-3 inches lower on the back. This decreases the length of the lever of your torso. When you decrease the length of a lever the same external load becomes easier to move or withstand. This is what makes the low bar squat feel easier.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that since you can lift more you will get more out of it. Muscles aren’t always aware of how exactly how much weight you are lifting. They are more concerned about how hard they have to work or contract.
Low bar squats are better for the posterior chain. They target the glutes, hamstring, lower and upper back more than the high bar squat does. The wider stance and forward lean force the hamstring muscles to work more than the quads. It is hip dominant versus knee dominant.
The low bar squat might sound more advantageous for athletes, but it is a difficult position for most to withstand. Unlike the high bar squat, it is very dependent on the hamstrings. If an athlete lacks hamstring flexibility and strength it could cause problems with the lift.
The low bar position also requires tons of shoulder mobility. Otherwise, the bar will not be able to sit in a safe and secure position. You will often hear athletes complain about elbow or wrist pain. This is because they compensate using these areas for the lack of shoulder flexibility.
Lastly, it is a hip-dominant movement. This refers to the moment arm between the hips and barbell. During a low bar squat, it is increased. Whereas the moment arm length between the knees and bar becomes less.
If you do not experience any knee pain and have no back injuries then you shouldn’t have issues squatting. Unless you have another injury that doesn’t allow you to. One of the biggest things to remember is that there’s always a risk for injury.
Focusing on form and technique first is critical to preventing serious injury. When it comes to choosing a barbell position, think of your client’s goals first.
If you have a client who just wants to lift as heavy as possible, then the low bar squat is the better option. Keep in mind their personal biomechanics and how efficiently they move through exercises will affect this.
Ask yourself, what are their strengths, weaknesses, and imbalances?
Conduct a personal training consultation prior to prescribing them a program. Understanding a client’s mobility and flexibility is crucial. Ankle mobility and hip mobility are major contributors to inefficient movement. Imbalances in the body, especially throughout the glutes can diminish exercise results.
It doesn’t matter if your clients are Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, or working out for general fitness. The high bar squat provides plenty of benefits for most of their goals. Powerlifters on the other hand can greatly benefit from low bar squats. Never forget to consider the client’s preference also.
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