What are the pros and cons of high-bar vs low-bar squats?
To set this off, we’ll primarily be discussing the impacts in the context of physique and strength athletes. Let’s first analyze these two movements a bit. The high bar squat is called as such simply because the bar sits on the upper part of the traps, so the bar is higher. While the low bar squat, the bar is lower on the traps and is going to be supported mostly by the rear delts. There are some significant form differences between these squat styles. You’ll notice that no matter what the person does when they squat, to do it properly, the bar must stay over their base of support. The base of support is typically around midfoot.
Thus, there is going to be greater trunk lean in the low bar squat simply to get the bar over the center of gravity. On the other hand, you’re going to have a more upright back position in the high bar squat. These are both correct squats. Neither one is wrong. The visual difference just stems from the position you must achieve to keep the load over your base of support.
A few things:
That natural shelf the top of the traps provide is not there when you do low bar squats. So you have to actively retract your scapulae create a shelf with your upper back musculature and stay tight. Without doing so, the bar will slide off the back or feel like it’s going to. This is why in competitions you’ll see low bar squatters chalk the hell out of their rear delts and lower trap area.
In the high bar squat, you’ll often find your knees being driven out further forward and feel like you’re sitting more “between your legs” and the bar path will feel more straight up and down. In contrast, a low bar squat is going to feel like you’re sitting back and then firing the hips forward after you hit depth. There is more horizontal displacement of the body versus just up and down that you will see in the high bar squat.
In most cases, the low bar squat will allow you to lift heavier loads compared to high bar. It has been postulated that this is due to a shorter lever arm in the low bar squat. Meaning, the bar is further down your back, and thus closer to the hips, which in theory should make the lift easier. Think about holding a dumbbell straight out to your side, like at the top of a lateral raise. Then, think about doing a lateral raise with a bent elbow at 90 degrees. You can do a lot heavier weight a bent arm than with a totally straight arm because the lever arm is shorter.
However, it’s not just that simple. As I stated before, the back angle must change to keep the bar over the base of support. There is more forward lean in a low bar squat and more horizontal displacement of the hips. That means that even though the bar is moving further down the lever (the lever being your torso), at the same time the lever is becoming more horizontal than vertical, effectively lengthening. Thus, the lever arm length is similar in both squats, six of one, half dozen of the other.
So why does the low bar squat typically (but not always) allow heavier loads to be lifted? Because, we aren’t just a series of levers and fulcrums. That “lever” is actually our spine and for it to stay extended we have to put forth muscular effort to resist the downward force of the bar trying to make our back round over. Our spinal erectors get thicker and stronger as you move from the top of the spine near the neck, to the lumbar, so it may be that a low bar position makes it easier for a more rigid spine to be kept and no longer does thoracic spinal extension strength become the bottleneck for a successful squat. My colleague Greg Nuckols pointed out that some of the most impressive high bar squatters are also amazing deadlifters, implying they have impressive upper back strength (our own Bryce Lewis is a great example). So anecdotally, this theory seems to have some support.
Additionally, the low bar squat because it creates more horizontal hip displacement, should put more emphasis on the hip extensors: the glutes and to a lesser degree the hamstrings. While in the high bar squat, with there being greater flexion at the knee, the quads are more dominant relative to the low bar squat. This is another aspect to why the low bar squat might allow heavier loads to be lifted. The posterior chain is quite strong and it may be that a low bar squat that is more hip extension versus knee extension dominant would be stronger.
Now with all that said, let’s consider the logical train of thought that comes next: “you can lift heavier low bar, so it is better”. Sure, you might be moving less weight in the high bar squat…but is that a bad thing? Well, only if you are competing in the squat! Sure, most powerlifters use the low bar position, but for a bodybuilder, this might not make much a difference. It doesn’t matter how strong a bodybuilder is, it only matters that you are providing progressive tension overload over time. So, while getting stronger might be a good thing for a bodybuilder, the fact that the absolute load is greater with a low bar squat is irrelevant. What a bodybuilder might consider though, is whether they need to bring up their quads or their posterior chain more, and they could select the bar position that would help them improve their proportionality the most.
There are other considerations between bar positions as well, for example your mobility might come into play. If you have very poor ankle mobility, you might struggle with a deep high bar squat which requires more forward motion of the knees. Likewise, if you don’t have great hip mobility or struggle with a hip impingement (such as FAI), a low bar squat with its more bent over position might cause hip pain or an early butt wink. Another pro of the high bar squat is it’s a more natural movement and bar position. The high bar position may have more application to things like general sport performance and activities of daily living. The first time you try to do a low bar squat, the bar placement is going to feel painful and in a weird position, which is quite distracting. It also takes some shoulder, wrist and elbow flexibility to keep a tight position on a low bar squat, especially with heavy loads. It is not uncommon people end up with elbow, shoulder or wrist pain and it’s a good idea to wear heavy wrist wraps to help keep the joint straight, to use only as narrow of a grip on the bar as is pain free, and to not let the elbows lift too high as you create your “shelf”.
So with all that said, which one should you do?
Here is where we should look at the big picture. Most of you will not only be doing squats, but deadlifts, as well. If your goal is just to get bigger and stronger, without any specific competition goals or specific muscle weaknesses, stick to a regular deadlift and a high bar squat. That way you get a good blend of development across both muscle groups. From a development standpoint, with the deadlift alone you will be hitting your posterior chain pretty darn well, so no need to focus on low bar squats. If you’re a strength athlete, then it may be worth considering the low bar squat. That said, the quads do still contribute to your squat strength, so for your long-term strength potential you probably want to do some high bar squats, or maybe safety bar, front, or hack squats as an accessory movement. Think about balance in the context of the whole program and what your goals are. Individual differences are always going to be the most important factor.
• Greater tension on quads
• More transfer to activities of daily life or sport
• More natural bar placement
• Less tension on hamstrings/glutes
• Less weight lifted for 90% of people
• Requires greater ankle flexibility
• Greater tension on hamstrings/glues
• More weight lifted for 90% of people
• Less ankle flexibility needed
• Less tension on quads
• May be harder to hit depth
• Less natural bar placement
• More dissimilar to jumping, Olympic lifts, “functional” and sport activities