High-Bar vs. Low-Bar Squat [side-by-side comparison] - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » High-Bar vs. Low-Bar Squat: Which One Is Right for You?

High-Bar vs. Low-Bar Squat: Which One Is Right for You?

August 1, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. Squats build mass and increase physical strength, making them the king of all exercises.
  2. The barbell back squat engages every major muscle in the lower body and engages the core.
  3. With the high bar squat, the barbell is placed high on the traps & behind the neck.
  4. With the low bar squat, the barbell sits lower on the traps, & your form should have a wider stance.
  5. Both squats build mass & strength. The choice between the two depends on preference & training goals.

Touted as the king of all exercises, squats build mass and increase physical strength. This movement hits nearly every muscle in your body, leading to serious gains. 

But did you know that there is more than one way to squat? We’re not talking about squat variations like the sumo squat or the Bulgarian split squat, but about the different bar positions. 

There are few arguments in the bodybuilding world more common than the high-bar vs. low-bar squat. While both versions build strength and power, choosing one over another depends on your anatomy, biomechanics, and training goals. 

First, make sure you understand why the bar position matters. This small detail can make all the difference in your workout routine

At the end of the day, the question is: which movement will maximize your squat performance? Let’s cut to the chase and discuss the differences between the two! 

The Barbell Back Squat at a Glance

The barbell back squat is one of the few exercises that live up to the hype. It engages every major muscle in your lower body as well as your back and core. 

This fundamental move not only builds mass and strength but also makes daily activities easier. When done right, it strengthens the muscles needed for lifting, jumping, running, and other explosive athletic movements. 

Squats build mass & the strength needed for other athletic movements.

The squat does a lot more than just build massive quads. It helps develop core strength, which in turn, may help prevent lower back pain and injuries. In the long run, it increases bone density and improves range of motion. A workout routine that includes squats will lead to better sports performance on the court or in the gym. 

Testosterone Increases

Perhaps one of the remarkable benefits of squatting is that it elicits a greater hormonal response than most exercises out there. 

Basically, it boosts testosterone and growth hormone levels, which translates to faster gains in muscle size and strength. This spike in anabolic hormones, especially testosterone, is enough to make you hungry for more reps, more sets, and heavier loads. 

barbell Squat
Squats boost testosterone & growth hormone levels.

A recent study assessed the effects of squatting with constant intensity and variable volume on hormone levels. Athletes who performed either six or 12 sets of squats experienced an increase in growth hormone (GH) production. 

The highest increase in GH, cortisol and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) was recorded in those who did six sets. As researchers point out, these hormonal changes support muscle growth and repair. 

Build Mass and Strength with This Golden Era Favorite 

In the Golden Era of bodybuilding, squats were of utmost importance. Tom Platz, for example, once squatted 525 pounds for 23 reps. This movement became a crucial part of his training session. His squatting clinics are now popular worldwide. 

Tom platz
Squats became an essential part of Tom Platz’s routine.

Old-time lifters relied on legitimate, proven strength training methods to build the amazing physiques they were famous for. Think high-bar squats, low-bar squats, front squats, dips, dumbbell and barbell bench presses, rows, and deadlifts. 

Today’s athletes, on the other hand, spend hours doing plyos, stability training, mobility work, elaborate “dynamic activation” drills, or postural exercises. Yet, they can’t compete in terms of size and strength with Golden Era stars like Platz, Frank Zane, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Tom Platz
The barbell back squat is a timeless & proven, multi-joint movement.

You can’t go wrong with proven, multi-joint movements like the barbell back squat. Your favorite bodybuilding stars trained using fundamental exercises. That’s what gets the job done.

High-Bar vs. Low-Bar Squat: Key Differences 

high vs low bar squat
The difference between high bar & low bar squats is the bar placement.

Now let’s return to the high-bar vs. low-bar squat debate. Most folks will argue for days about the differences between the two. That’s funny, actually, considering that we’re talking about 2-4 inches higher or lower. 

Those 2-4 inches, though, matter a lot as they result in significant changes to the joint angles of the hip, knee, and ankle as well as the trunk lever arm. 

low bar squat
The low bar squat allows the hips to have a greater range of motion.

With the low-bar version, most people can lift up to 10% more. This squat variation allows your hips to travel through a greater range of motion and provides the most systemic stress.

The high-bar squat, on the other hand, allows your quads to travel through a greater range of motion. Additionally, it requires a more upright torso, lesser hip flexion, and increased knee flexion compared to the low-bar version. 

Comparing Low vs. High Bar Squats

At the most basic level, high-bar squats elicit greater quadriceps muscle activity, while low-bar squats are hip dominant. The latter also allows you to lift heavier weights. 

The barbell position also influences your stance, arm placement, and chest angle. 

low bar squat
The low bar squat allows you to lift heavier weights.

When you do a low-bar squat, you must lean a bit further forward and step out with each leg at a wider angle. The high-bar squat requires a more closed angle of the legs and a more upright torso position, which allows your knees to travel further through the range of motion. 

This low-bar squat variation, is preferred by powerlifters because it enables them to lift heavier loads. Additionally, it places a greater demand on the spinal erectors and glutes compared to the high-bar squat. 

As a practical example, if you can do a high-bar squat with 300 pounds for six reps, you’ll be able to do low-bar squats with 350-400 pounds for six reps within weeks. 

Both variations have their pros and drawbacks. Let’s take a closer look at each type of squat so you can make the right choice. 

Analyzing the High-Bar Squat

High-bar squats, or Olympic squats, are a favorite choice for most gym-goers.

In this variation, you place the barbell high on the traps and behind the neck, just below the C-7 vertebrae.

The overall load will be lower compared to the low-bar squat because it’s more difficult to stay upright as you perform the movement.  

Most gym-goers find this version easier to learn. In general, athletes and weightlifters prefer it over the low-bar version. Powerlifters, on the other hand, typically use the low-bar squat as their goal is to lift the greater load possible. 

There are exceptions, though. Ed Coan, for example, preferred high-bar Olympic close stance squats in the offseason to build stronger quads. 

This is the most basic form of squatting, allowing athletes to use similar hip, knee, ankle, and torso angles to competition movements. 

high bar squat
With the high bar squat, the barbell is placed just below the C-7 vertebrae.

When done right, it helps build lower body strength and promotes quad development. Compared to low-bar squatting, it places less stress on the lower back and allows you to maintain a more upright torso position throughout the full range of motion. 

Athletic Development

In terms of athletic development, this variation has several advantages — especially for Olympic lifters. 

First of all, it allows you to better mimic the clean and snatch receiving positions. Low-bar squats, by contrast, require a more forward bend. 

With the high-bar variation, you’re squatting throughout the full range of motion while maintaining an upright posture. This allows you to build maximal strength, size, and flexibility in the legs, leading to massive gains. 

High-bar squatting is also more effective for quad and glute development. Even though this movement doesn’t allow you to lift as heavy as with the low-bar version, you can up the intensity and complete more reps. 

Tom Platz, for instance, had a high-rep back squat routine that included sets of 50 reps or more. His massive quads are living proof that this approach works. 

1. How to Perform the High-Bar Squat 

This squat variation is performed with the bar on your traps. Since you need to keep your torso upright, you’re forced to drive your knees further forward, which will increases quad involvement. Good lifting form is paramount. 

high bar squat
Form is vital with the high bar squat.

High-Bar Squat Technique

Ready to give it a try? Follow these steps to perform the high-bar squat like a pro:

  • Place the barbell on the rack at chest level
  • Position yourself under the bar and place it just above the bottom of your traps
  • Grab the barbell with a narrow grip; keep your feet slightly wider than shoulder width
  • Look forward, keeping your head in line with your torso
  • Make sure your toes are pointing straight ahead or slightly out
  • Squeeze your upper back muscles and unrack the bar
  • Bring your chest forward and push your hips backward
  • Begin to squat while keeping your core and back tight
  • Bend your knees until your thighs are past parallel to the floor
  • Hold for a second or two and then slowly return to the starting position
  • Squeeze your glutes as you reach the top in order to reinforce hip extension

As we’ve mentioned earlier, your knees must move further forward compared to the low-bar squat. This makes the high-bar variation ideal for lifters with good ankle mobility. It’s also a good choice for those with a short torso. 

Although the high-bar squat limits the amount of weight you can lift, it allows for greater squat depth, which increases the training load on the hip extensors and quads. The low-bar variation, on the other hand, reduces the load on your quads. 

high bar squat
The high bar squats limits the amount of weight lifted but boosts lower body mobility.

Furthermore, high-bar squatting results in greater lower body mobility, leading to improved overall fitness. In fact, this lifting technique is commonly used by CrossFitters and functional fitness athletes

All in all, the high-bar squat is best in the following situations:

  • When you have back problems
  • You’re trying to build strong, massive quads
  • When your ability to externally rotate the shoulder is limited
  • You have good ankle mobility
  • When you have a short torso

2. Potential Drawbacks of the High-Bar Squat

knee injury
Due to the anterior force of the high bar squat, knee injury is a possibility.

Like everything else, high-bar squats have their drawbacks. The biggest disadvantage is that you won’t be able to lift as heavy as you’d do with the low-bar variation. However, you can increase workout volume to stimulate hypertrophy. 

Another downside is that you may experience knee pain when you do high-bar squats, especially if you’re prone to knee problems. That’s because this movement may provide too much anterior force. 

If you prefer this version and decide to enter a powerlifting competition in the future, you don’t need to give up on it. Simply work on your low-bar squat form six to eight weeks leading up to the event. Ideally, incorporate both squat variations into your training regimen.

What You Should Know about the Low-Bar Squat 

This squat variation is typically performed with a more forward bend, which allows for greater balance and stability. The low bar placement makes it easier to increase the load and alters the center of gravity of the exercise. Therefore, your lifting technique will be slightly different than with the high-bar squat. 

Low-bar squats target your posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles, more effectively. This can help improve your posture and has a great crossover for most sports. 

1. Key Points to Consider

When you perform this movement, the barbell sits lower on your traps. At the same time, you need to use a wider stance, which forces your hamstrings and lower back muscles to work harder to bring your body up. 

low bar squat
With the low bar squat, the bar should sit lower on your traps.

Another thing to consider when it comes to the high-bar vs. low-bar squat is that the latter is more hip dominant. Additionally, your hamstrings will be pulling back on the tibia, which helps balance the force around the knees. 

The low-bar squat elicits greater muscle activity of the lumbar erector spinae due to the increased forward lean. As a result, your lower back can better handle the load. 

Furthermore, this position puts greater emphasis on the hips rather than the knee joints while reducing stress on the ankle and lumbar region. 

low bar squat
A wide stance and reduced knee strength is the right form for the low bar squat.

A particularity of this squatting style is the wide stance and reduced knee bent. The high-bar squat, by contrast, requires a moderate stance. 

Journal of Strength & Conditioning Study

According to a review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017, low-bar squats are more suitable for those trying to lift the greatest load possible. The high-bar version is a better choice for lifters who want to strengthen the knee joint and improve their snatch and clean form — and other movements that require a more upright torso position. 

To keep things simple, low-bar squats shorten your range of motion and put more emphasis on the posterior chain. This variation provides greater balance and enables you to lift heavier weights compared to the high-bar position. Plus, there’s less stress on the stress. 

Perform this movement if:

  • You have good shoulder mobility
  • You’re trying to gain strength and lift heavier loads
  • You have knee issues and/or limited ankle mobility
  • You want to emphasize the lower back and hips in your training regimen

2. How to Perform the Low-Bar Squat

low bar squat
With the low bar squat, the load is shifted to the posterior chain.

As its name suggests, this squat variation requires lifters to place the bar lower on the back, shifting the load to the posterior chain. Just like the high-bar squat, it activates and engages major muscle groups, including:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Quads (to a lesser extent)
  • Anterior delts and traps
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Spinal erectors 

Your core muscles come into play as well. Both squat variations help develop core strength and improve your balance. 

Proper Technique

Here’s how to do a low-bar squat the right way:

  • Position the bar at chest level
  • Grasp it with a pronated grip
  • Place it right against the back of your shoulders
  • Keep your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Brace your core, un-rack the barbell, and adjust your stance width
  • Push your hips backward while squeezing your glutes
  • Lean over more if necessary
  • Lower your body in a slow, controlled manner
  • If possible, try to squat until your hip joints are parallel with the knee joints
  • Maintain a neutral spine and keep your knees out at the bottom
  • Use your hips to push your body up

With a low-bar position, the barbell shouldn’t move even if your back is almost entirely parallel to the floor. Leaning over is crucial when you perform this movement. 

low bar squat
Leaning over is part of the right form with the low bar squat.

Generally, it’s recommended to drive the knees wide. This approach, though, doesn’t work for everyone and may cause balance problems. 

Due to the increased forward lean, you won’t be able to achieve a full range of motion.

At the least, make sure your upper thighs are apparel to the ground. Maintain a knee angle of 80 to 90 degrees. 

This squat variation is safe for most lifters, except those who:

  • Suffer from extreme elbow tendonitis
  • Have shoulder or hip issues
  • You have poor balance and/or limited shoulder mobility
  • Have a short torso

3. Are There Any Drawbacks?

shoulder injury
The increased pressure on posterior chain may result in shoulder injury.

Just because this squat variation allows you to lift heavier weights doesn’t mean it will make you stronger or more athletic than the high-bar squat. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t use more muscles than the latter either. The difference is that it places greater emphasis on your posterior chain. 

A common problem with the low-bar squat is that it can be difficult to execute. Additionally, many lifters lack the shoulder mobility needed to put the barbell in the right position, which may lead to wrist, shoulder, or elbow pain and injuries. 

elbow injury
Lacking shoulder mobility with this exercise may also lead to elbow pain.

If your shoulders and knees are in good condition, you don’t have to worry about these aspects. However, you still need to watch your form and maintain proper posture. Whether you prefer high-bar squats or low-bar squats, there’s always the risk of injuring your spine. 

High-Bar vs. Low-Bar Squat: How to Choose

Each of these squat variations serves a different purpose. The high-bar squat is ideal for athletes and Olympic weightlifters, while low-bar squatting works best for powerlifters. The former focuses on the quads, while the latter builds power and strength in the posterior chain. 

low bar squat
Choosing between the high bar & low bar squats depends on your goals.

There’s no winner in the high-bar vs. low-bar squat debate. If your goal is to build mass and strength, both squat variations will do the trick. The low-bar position, though, is more suitable for those planning to compete in powerlifting. If you’re a bodybuilder or weightlifter, emphasize high-bar squats in your routine.

The squat is the kind of exercises, but it’s not your only option. Check out our favorite leg workouts for other cool movements and training ideas that are proven to work!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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