There has been a debate raging in lifting circles for many years about the difference between low-bar and high-bar squats. And, honestly, from the perspective of actual lifters – rather than spergy nerds wanking in forums for teh lulz – it’s kind of a ridiculous debate.
For those of you who are novice lifters, you may well ask – what the heck is the difference?
Well, here is one good answer:
There are two main squatting techniques utilized by strength athletes, and they’re known as high-bar and low-bar. Both squat forms rely on different movement mechanics and transfer of forces.
In most cases you’ll see high-bar squats used by weightlifters, CrossFit® athletes, and recreational lifters. Low-bar squats are frequently used in powerlifting and strongman-style training, though there are exceptions both ways. The reasoning behind a strength athlete’s squat choice is typically dependent on their training and competition goals.
The fundamental differences between each squat are pretty easily identifiable, but newer lifters may struggle when choosing between the two. This article will discuss the differences of each squat, how to use them, and why you should pick a low-bar or high-bar style squat.
A lot of nerds out there completely lose their shit over the differences between the two. Speaking from the perspective of a powerlifter – not a very good one, mind you – I find the whole thing to be a bit silly.
The reality is, it’s not a big difference in terms of bar position – only 2-4 inches, or thereabouts, depending on where you place the bar.
But that placement makes a HUGE difference in terms of the actual movement.
High-bar squats require you to keep a much more upright alignment of your back and head. You stare straight ahead when doing high-bar squats, and when you put the bar on your traps, rather than under them, you will instantly feel the difference in bar position and it will affect the way you execute the squat.
If you are used to doing low-bar squats, the high-bar technique will feel all kinds of weird and uncomfortable.
I tried doing a high-bar squat yesterday with just 135lbs on my back. It felt REALLY weird. I committed the dreadful sin of…
Aw man, I can’t even…
What I did was so terrible, I can’t even confess to it…
OK, deep breaths, here we go. INhale, EXhale, that’s good, keep doing that, Didact, here’s a paper bag if you need it…
I did one quarter-squat before I had to re-rack the bar.
Phew!!! That feels better.
Nonetheless, know ye that I hath committed a great and terrible sin in the eyes of the Iron God. Yea, verily, mea culpa, Deus, mea maxima culpa…
This shall take a monumental sacrifice at the Altar of Iron, and soon, by way of a truly murderous leg day.
Lord, have mercy…
Anyway, back on topic –
My opinion on the subject is that you should learn how to squat in a way that meets your goals.
If you just want to get good at doing squats, then use high-bar squats. In my experience, high-bar lifters have far better form and achieve much better depth than low-bar squatters. That is because they make much better use of the hip-hinge.
However, the high-bar squat by its very nature forces much greater anterior shearing forces on the knees. So they are not what I would recommend for someone with knee issues (like, well, me).
The low-bar squat engages your posterior chain far more, so it is much more of a hip-based movement and requires far more power from your quads and glutes. It is easier on your knees but harder on your back and especially your hips.
So what happens when you have multiple issues, like I do?
I have big problems with my entire left side – pretty much every load-bearing joint on that side is damaged. Shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee – you name it, there is an issue. Especially with my left hip and left knee, both of which have significant damage from injuries that are years old.
(To be clear – those injuries were not caused by powerlifting. But they were certainly aggravated by it. I’ve never had surgery to fix those problems, but eventually it will likely become a necessity.)
And, of course, I still have major problems with my lower back, which is as likely caused by genetic issues – both my father and grandfather have, or had, weak lower backs – as it is by lifting. My lower back appears to have a bit of a curvature to it, which could be caused by scoliosis, though I don’t know for sure.
If you have these kinds of injuries or problems, let me state for the record and right up front: GET A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL’S ADVICE before you start lifting, especially before you start lifting daddy weight.
Once you have done that, though… which kind of squat should you do?
Again, as I said before, do what feels most natural and comfortable for you, depending on what your goals are.
If your goal is to be an athlete, or to do Olympic lifts, or to build all-around, overall strength and fitness – do high-bar squats.
The high-bar squat is the easiest to learn. It doesn’t require anything like the number of technical adjustments that the low-bar version does. And you can get good at squatting pretty quickly as a result. It will be easier on your hips and back because the shearing forces are directed differently.
But, it will put more force on your knees and will not develop your quads and lower back, to anything like the degree of the low-bar squat, anyway.
If your goal is to lift heavy shit and just be a powerlifter – which is to say, you want to spend the rest of your life throwing weights around in the gym like an enraged gorilla, roaring into the air and blowing blood vessels while embalming yourself in chalk and intimidating the hell out of everyone else around you – then do low-bar squats.
The low-bar squat is a more technical lift. It’s not a “natural” movement, not quite, because you have to make a lot of adjustments to your foot position and head movement and back and so on and so forth. It’s hard to do a low-bar squat. But it will also allow you to lift more weight, because you engage a lot more muscles.
Purely in my opinion and personal experience, from what I have seen, the guys who do high-bar squats are able to squat more weight with better form to greater depth. The guys who do low-bar squats can lift more weight overall – but not to real depth.
What I mean by this is that the high-bar squat lets you go straight down, ass-to-grass, because that is how everything works with that movement. It is a purely natural squat, of the kind that you were doing as a wee little bairn before you even knew the word for “squat”.
With low-bar squats, you cannot physically do this while keeping your back neutral. It’s simply not physiologically possible.
To get really deep into the hole while doing low bar squats, you have to let your lower back “dip” – which is where you get the infamous “butt-wink” from the low-bar squat. This is dangerous if you have back issues already – and can cause them to get worse over time.
This causes problems if you are trying to get deeper into the hole. And as a longtime squatter, I recommend that you always squat as deep as you possibly can, while keeping your back as neutral as possible.
So… bottom line: if you have hip, knee, and especially ankle mobility issues, and therefore cannot simply sit your butt down into a proper “Asian squat” – which, by the way, most Westerners these days cannot do – then do low-bar squats.
But, if you can easily and naturally do a proper Asian squat, and sit your butt down by your ankles without falling over bassackwards, and you don’t have a problem with putting the bar on top of your traps rather than on your rear deltoids, then do a high-bar squat.
Let me anticipate one possible objection to doing high-bar squats here.
Yes, doing them is painful on your traps. That is true.
One “solution” to this is to use that stupid “pussy pad” (perfectly safe link, don’t worry). However, as far as I am concerned, the “pussy pad” is gay and its use when squatting is a blatant and direct violation of the mighty Ten Commandments of the Iron God.
(I am willing to make exceptions to use of the “pussy pad” when doing barbell hip thrusts for warm-ups, for instance. But these exceptions are rare and should not in any way be taken to mean that the Commandment involved is not true.)
To this, I say: don’t be a bitch. Be a man and take the pain. Start with light weights – or, better still, a completely empty barbell, and add weight slowly over time. If you started out doing low-bar squats, then doing the high-bar version will require learning a largely new movement pattern anyway, so you might as well start from the beginning.
Your traps will get stronger over time and will be able to take the load more easily. This is what happens when you progressively overload your muscles, bones, and joints, as long as you do it safely and consistently.
In the end, the basic advice remains the same: SHUT UP AND SQUAT. I don’t care how you do it. I DO care that you do it carefully, in a controlled fashion, with good form, and with strict attention to your lumbar spine, knees, and hips.
If you want a true gym beast’s opinions on the subject, well, here you go: