When it comes to perfecting your compound lifts—that’s any lift utilizing more than one joint—there are so many form factors to master. With the squat, you’re naturally looking at the hips, knees, and ankles, but what you do with your upper body—especially how you hold the bar—has immediate effects on the lower body; after all, they’re kinda connected. And we’re not just talking back- vs. front-loaded. There are even two bar positions in the back squat worth considering: high-bar and low-bar. If you’ve never heard of such a thing — and even if you have — read on.
Why go high? Why go low?
As mentioned, high-bar and low-bar squats are both done with the bar positioned across the back. “The difference really lies in an athlete’s unique build,” says Sean Collins, C.S.C.S., owner and head powerlifting coach of Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn. “It's about what is optimal for that person to consistently keep the bar over the middle of the foot, which correlates strongly with keeping the weight over your center of gravity.”
To determine what works for you, Collins recommends a little test. Ask a trainer or a friend with a good eye to watch you do a basic unloaded squat. “If you’re able to drop your hips straight to your ankles and maintain a very upright position, the high-bar squat would be anatomically best,” he says. “If you shoot your hips back and let your chest tilt forward, then the low-bar back squat is typically better suited.” Another indicator is your leg length—longer legs usually means low bar, while shorter means high. One caveat, though: If you’re an aspiring powerlifter, you should work on your low-bar, which is most common in the sport, as a low position typically allows you to move more weight; for Olympic lifting, go high, as this position is better for transitioning to overhead presses.
How high is high? How low is low?
So with all those diverse benefits, the bar position must be vastly different, right?
Surprise: Not so much. “The difference in bar placement is really only about 1 to 2 inches, depending on how big your back is,” Collins says. “The high-bar squat will rest on your traps, which encourages a much more upright position, allowing your spine to stay stacked. The low-bar will rest on your shoulder blades, typically right above the scapula, with a slightly wider grip and elbows flared out a bit higher. This causes you to naturally tilt forward.”
To get the high-bar position, start without the barbell. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and up—this will raise the traps and create a “shelf” upon which your bar will rest, held in place by your hands with thumbs wrapped around. “Do not use a pad,” Collins cautions. “That will only reinforce placing the bar higher up on your neck or too low.”
A low bar, on the otherhand, is placed directly above the scapula on the shoulders. “Your elbows will have to flare upwards a bit more, and typically your grip will be wider, with all fingers (including the thumbs) over the bar.” says Collins. “In the low-bar back squat, there’s typically not a super-evident 'shelf,' so this will help create a more confident shelf position.”
How does bar position affect the lower body?
Let’s say you can do both positions with relative ease, or you want to mix it up to get better at the one that’s weaker (a great idea, Collins says). A low-bar squat uses the posterior chain a bit more (that’s the back of the body — hamstrings, glutes, lower back) than a high-bar position.
“Because the athlete tilts forward and reaches his hips back, he’s elongating his hamstrings, causing a stretch reflex that can help the athlete get out of the ‘hole’ (a.k.a. bottom of the squat),” Collins says.
On the flipside, a high-bar squat fires the quads a bit more, with less reliance on the hamstrings. But if you really like one over the other, not to worry. “Both are excellent for overall strength development,” he says.
How should you use squats to get stronger?
Always warm up your squat pattern with a few low-weight/high-rep sets, and “activate” your glutes with exercises like banded hip thrusts, glute bridges, and donkey kickbacks. If you’re new to a squat routine, Collins recommends a 3x5 plan, “working up to a weight with which you'll confidently have two to three reps left in reserve" for any given set.
If you opt for low-bar squats, then at first you’ll probably be able to move more weight than with high-bar squats—anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds, Collins says. “As soon as you establish a base for yourself, increase in weight 5–10 pounds per exposure, squatting two to three times a week,” he says. To avoid creating a muscular imbalance, though, you want to include complementary exercises done in a 3x10 scheme every third workout or so.
“Low-bar back squatters still need to maintain or slightly increase their quad strength, so doing high-bar or front squats on a middle day would be excellent,” he says. “For high-bar athletes, front squats can reinforce the upright position they'd need, and lunges or split squats get more posterior-chain work done.”
How do you know if your form is good?
Aside from hiring a coach to train you? (Hint, hint.) There are a few things you should focus on. First, brace your abs the entire time. Think of it like doing the first 10% of a crunch while filling your midsection with air like a balloon, Collins says, which builds tension to keep the core solid and prevents the lower back from swaying.
Second, your hips and knees should bend simultaneously, such that the bar (in either position) stays over the center of your feet at all times. It should move in the same consistent vertical plane both down and back up. “Filming yourself from the side and downloading a bar-path app like Coaches’ Eye will be able to help you determine where your weakness is in your form,” says Collins.
Finally, drive hard against the bar on your ascent back to standing. “High-bar athletes will typically push up vertically against the bar, while low-bar athletes will push back against the bar, as if someone is trying to push them down and they're actively resisting it,” Collins says.
Another tip that helps for good body positioning is to consider where your eyes are focused. “For low bar, you will be looking relatively down, like you're pretending that there's a tennis ball stuck between your chin and your neck, to maintain a neutral spine,” says Collins. “For high bar, you'll be looking straight forward, never forcing your chin up or down.”