Today, I am going to talk about the debate about squat variants. When it comes to the best squat exercise, some people say low bar is best and other say high bar. But what’s the difference and, more importantly, is one of these better than the other?
Which squat variant is best?
We have already discussed on the show the benefits of strength training to aging bodies (literally all of our bodies). No other training intervention can mitigate the effects of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) or osteopenia (loss of bone mineral density). Now, in terms of absolute strength movements, the squat is probably the most complete, in that it has an eccentric loading phase (lowering), as well as a concentric (raising) phase. This is unlike the deadlift, which is really only a concentric lift at its heaviest end of the spectrum. Bench pressing also has an unavoidable eccentric phase, but because in squatting we’re moving a lot more load, it’s going to be a lot more advantageous to overall strength development.
There are multiple variations of the squat including the high bar squat, low bar squat, front squat, and overhead squat. Some other more unfamiliar types include the kang squat, shrimp squat, and the box squat, which are used more for fixing muscle weakness or motor pattern problems.
To determine the best squat exercises for us and how we should be performing the squat variant we select, we have to peel back the layers and get to the “first principle.”
In considering the first principles of the squat, let’s start with the fact that the barbell is being acted upon by the force of gravity. In all situations, the barbell is being pulled towards the center of the earth, perpendicular to the ground. If gravity is pushing the barbell down in a straight line, anything that we do which is not a straight line is a waste of force. A vertical bar path is a must.
Next, it’s important to see the combined center of mass of the lifter plus the barbell over the middle of the foot. Note this will change as the load on the barbell changes. But midfoot is where we are most balanced and able to create the most force.
The next consideration is weight. If strength is defined as the application of force against an external resistance, then to get stronger we have to exert our maximum force. Submaximal force or minimal force against an object is not going to make a client as strong as exerting a larger amount of force. So, what squat a client performs has to be considered in light of the amount of weight they can move. In the overhead and front squat, we simply cannot move as much weight as we can in the back squat, both the high bar and the low bar.
Another consideration in getting stronger is using the most muscles. The squat accomplishes this in that it uses the quads, hamstrings, abductors, and glutes. Something like a seated leg extension mainly uses just the quads. Also, there’s the fact that while squatting you’re being compressed by the load. The torso itself is under compression and is having to provide some resistance. This is Wolff’s Law acting on the bones; as discussed in a previous episode, bone remodels itself and becomes denser when exposed to external loading stress.
Everyone should be performing squats, but how do we know if they are being performed correctly? And if they’re not, how do we address that? Check out another great episode of the Get-Fit Guy podcast as Coach Kevin Don explains, here:
Taking all of this into account, when it comes to choosing the exact type of squat, for strength, choose squats that use the most muscle mass and have some compression of the body. This would lead us to the back squat, of which the two main variants and low bar and high bar. These are as they say on the tin. In one, the bar is lower on the back, just above the shoulder blades and in the other, it rests on the upper trapezius muscles.
But which of these two is better, a low bar or a high bar squat? In the diagram in the accompanying show notesopens IMAGE file , you’ll note the high bar squat on the left, and the low bar squat on the right. The vertical line is vertical force (compression), in this case the squat bar. The next force we have is moment force which is the distance from the point of rotation to the line of vertical force—in this diagram, the knee. This is called the moment arm, indicated with the arrow. In the high bar squat, the moment arm is predominantly in front of the line of vertical force, along the quadricep. In the low bar squat, the moment arm is behind the line of vertical force.
All this said, studies show that when it comes to strength building, quadricep and hamstring activity in both types of squat is remarkably similar, so whether one is superior to the other depends on the anthropometry of your client and their goal. For clients who struggle with hinging due to sedentary jobs, the low bar squat is perfect as it will reinforce and strengthen the hinge pattern, and give them a stronger posterior chain, and therefore greater hip extension. Hip extension, incidentally, is the center of athletic power and expression. For those looking to excel in the sport of weightlifting, the high bar squat, meanwhile, is more appropriate as weightlifters wish to overload that position and get stronger with an upright torso pattern. But if you are looking for general health, that shouldn’t be a consideration at all.
BACK SQUAT: FAULTS AND FIXES
One of the most common faults with the back squat is the knee slide or a knee-initiated squat, which is locking in the posterior chain engagement. Potentially injurious, the best way to correct this fault is to use a tactile cue set up next to a box. Have your calves in contact with the box and maintain this contact as you squat. If the calves leave the box, you’ve performed a “knee slide” and are heading away from a hinge pattern.
The second error is a bracing one where we see a lack of a neutral spine caused by the client looking up and forward. Many things could cause this—a shift of bodyweight forward due to knee sliding is the most common, with the squatter then throwing their head back to get some load behind the bar path as a counterweight. Another cause of this is looking at oneself in the mirror.
The next error is a lack of hip abduction. This can be identified by looking at the feet which are likely to not be firmly planted in the ground. It will look like the arches are collapsing and the outside edges of the feet are lifting, usually at the heel. To get around this, squeeze the glutes as hard as you can. This will have the effect of pushing weight distribution to the outer edges of the feet. Plant the big toes into the ground and grip the floor like a monkey.
When new to a low bar squat, people can often be afraid the bar will roll off their back, and can compensate by keeping their elbows up too high to hold the bar up. This can internally rotate the shoulder and cause injury to the rotator cuff, and the back will go into flexion, causing the bar path to sneak forward and disrupting balance over the midfoot. This will result in breaking the neutral spine to bring the head back as a counterweight as described above. Fix this error by squeezing the shoulder blades together, as well as simply reassuring yourself that at the bottom of the squat, it’s impossible for the bar to roll anywhere, and during the ascent, if it does, you simply bail the bar behind you and step forwards yourself. This is why you either use bumper plates or make sure the safety bars are in place on the rack or use a spotter.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.