High Bar vs Low Bar Squat

Bar position, body mechanics, muscle building, and strength gain.

When I learned how to squat at the age of 14, I was taught to set the bar high on my back. And this is how I continued to squat week in and week out for the next 20 plus years.

While I can’t complain about my results, I’ve been dealing with hip pain for the last couple of years. So I decided to try the low bar squat.

From the very first set, I was shocked at how much less joint pain I experienced. And my strength immediately jumped up by about 10% over what I was doing on high bar squats.

When I studied the body mechanics of each squat variation, it makes perfect sense. And, in hindsight, I should have made the switch a long, long time ago!

So I’m going to show you the differences between a high bar squat vs low bar squat. And teach you how to do low bar squats to get better results.

Low Bar Squat

What Is A Low Bar Squat?

A low bar squat is a version of barbell back squats where you place the bar lower on your shoulders. At first, this bar position feels unstable. Almost like the bar is going to roll off your back.

However, the bar is actually quite secure when you position it properly. Now let’s take a closer look at how the low bar squat differs from the high bar squat.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat: What’s The Difference?

In order to compare high bar vs low bar squats, I’m going to examine how the bar is positioned on your back. As well as the resulting body mechanics and how that impacts the muscles being used.

Bar Position

The obvious difference is right there in the name. With high bar squats, the bar is up on top of your traps behind your neck. Whereas low bar squats have the bar on top of your rear delts behind your traps.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Bar Position

Figure 1. High bar vs low bar squat bar position and hand position.

Hand Position

As you can see in the figure above, your hands also take a slightly different position with the high bar vs low bar squat. With the bar up high, your hands wrap around the bar and your arms drop underneath it.

In contrast, your arms are farther behind your body in the low bar squat in order to create the rear delt shelf. And your hands press against the back of the bar to hold it in position.

Body Mechanics

You may think bar position only affects comfort and hand placement. But moving the bar just a couple of inches has a major impact on how your body moves during the exercise.

With the bar high on your shoulders, your center of gravity is farther forward. This means your back arches, staying more upright. And your knees bend more than your hips.

By moving the bar down your back, your center of gravity also moves back. This creates more hinging at the hips and you bend your back farther forward.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Mechanics

Figure 2. Low bar squat diagram showing the body mechanics compared to a high bar squat. The shaded blue triangles are the same size in both pictures, showing the difference in knee and hip flexion. Also, the yellow dashed line shows the knee position relative to the toes.

Muscles Worked

Both high bar and low bar squats work the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. But the difference in body mechanics results in some muscle groups being emphasized more than others.

For example, you have more quad activation with high bar squats due to the greater knee flexion and knee over toe body position. Whereas the increased hip flexion of the low bar squat recruits more glutes and hamstrings1.

In addition, the leaned forward body position of the low bar squat puts more load on the lower back muscles.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Muscles Worked

Figure 3. Both types of squats are great for overall lower body development. But high bar works more quads while low bar works more of the posterior chain.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squat: Which Is Better?

Now that you know the differences between the high bar and low bar squat, let’s look at the pros and cons of each squat variation.

High Bar Squat

Pros

  • Builds bigger quads
  • Less stress on the lower back

Cons

  • Not the best for overall power
  • Puts more stress on the knees
  • Requires more mobility

Low Bar Squat

Pros

  • Increases power (greater 1RM)
  • Builds bigger booty and hamstrings
  • Don’t need to be as flexible

Cons

  • More stress on the lower back
  • Awkward to balance the bar at first

At the end of the day, both high bar and low bar squats have their benefits and limitations. So which variation is best for you depends on your goals and preference.

In my weightlifting career, high bar squats have helped me build some pretty big quads. So they will always have a place in my workout routine.

But since making the switch, I can see how low bar squats may work best for the majority of people and situations. From here on out, I’ll be showing you how to low bar squat.

How To Low Bar Squat

Before you start the exercise, it’s important to get the bar properly positioned on your shoulders. Doing this incorrectly will make you feel uncomfortable under the weight.

Low Bar Squat Bar Position

First, place the lower part of your palms on the bar just outside your shoulder width. Keep your hands on the bar as you step under it and place it on the top of your shoulders.

Next, squeeze your shoulder blades and push your elbows back to create a shelf between your lats and rear delts. Slide the bar down the back of your shoulders until it sits on this shelf.

With the bar in position, you’re ready to stand up, lift the bar off the rack, and step back. Keep in mind, you won’t be able to stand up perfectly straight with the low bar position, which will feel awkward at first.

Low Bar Squat Form

To start, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or wider and your toes angled out slightly. From here, push your hips back and bend at the knees to lower the weight.

When you reach the point where your thighs are just about parallel with the floor, extend your legs and drive your hips forward to push the weight back up. Take a breath in at the top and proceed with another rep.

While performing the low bar squat movement, keep your eyes forward or angled down slightly. Also, try to keep the weight balanced over the center of your foot, not leaned forward on your toes.

Low Bar Squat Video

Low Bar Squat Issues & Corrections

As you learn the low bar squat technique, you may notice some aches and pains associated with holding the bar in this position. The most common complaints are wrist, shoulder, and low back pain.

Low Bar Squat Wrist Pain

It’s possible to feel a slight twinge in your wrist while doing low bar squats. The reason is that your hands play a more active role in pressing the bar against your traps to keep in on the rear delt shelf.

If you find that your wrists hurt after a set, it’s most likely due to your hand being too far under the bar and getting bent backward. To correct this, make sure your palms are on the back of the bar instead of underneath it.

Another remedy is to wear wrist wraps as you would use for a heavy bench press. The elastic bands help take some of the stress off your wrists. If that doesn’t work, you can place your hands wider on the bar.

Low Bar Squat Wide Grip

Figure 4. Using a wider grip on the bar puts less stress on your wrists and requires less flexibility through the shoulders. But it can be harder to create the rear delt shelf if you don’t have muscular shoulders and traps.

Low Bar Squat Shoulder Pain

If you’re feeling tightness through the front of your shoulders when doing low bar squats, it could be that you’re straining to reach your hands behind you. In this case, you will benefit from using the wider grip as shown above.

However, if you’re feeling a sharp pain on the back of your shoulder, it’s probably the bar sitting on a bone or nerve. To solve this, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades back while lifting your elbows up so the bar rests on a pad of muscle.

Low Bar Squat Lower Back Pain

When I tried the low bar position for the first time, I noticed significant lower back soreness the next day. It felt like I had done heavy deadlifts or rack pulls.

But this is simply because the spinal erectors take more of the load. As your body gets used to the low bar squat, these muscles adapt and get stronger. So it’s nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, if you experience sharp back pain you should consult with a chiropractor to make sure your spine is not injured. Although this type of injury is not commonplace if you practice good form.

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21 Reasons To Do Heavy Barbell Squats

Whether you choose to use the low bar or high bar position, barbell squats should be a staple of your workout routine. But there are days where heavy squats are the last thing you want to do.

So I’ve put together a list of 21 benefits of squats for men and women. After reading this list, you’ll be motivated to get under that squat bar and move some heavy weight!

Benefits Of Low Bar Squats For Men & Women
Benefits Of Squats

With this information, you’ll be well on your way to building a better lower body. And if you found this article useful, I hope you’ll check out some of my other informative content below!

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