There is a lot of conflicting information on squatting out there about which form to pick. The short answer should be whichever suits you best — but how do you arrive at said conclusion?
In this article, we discuss one of the fundamental categories of movement, squatting. Although there are a great many varieties of squat, weighted or otherwise, we’ll be focusing on one of the most popular varieties, the barbell back squat, and in particular the difference between the high-bar and low-bar variations. This won’t be an exhaustive discussion or tutorial on squat technique, but will highlight the main differences between the two types and try to give you an idea of which you should choose to suit your purposes, as well as some idea of how to get started with squatting.
Paul Anderson performing a heavy low-bar squat
Underlying the near-infinite variety of exercises are just seven fundamental patterns of movement. These fundamental movements unite us as humans, past, present and future, because we all share the same kind of body, with the same potentials.
If you look at Ancient Greek depictions of exercise, for instance, you will see the fundamental movements. If you read a Roman account of how wrestlers trained, you will find them too. If you look further afield, to Indian or Chinese depictions and accounts of exercise – again, you will find the same fundamental movements.
Knowing and understanding what these fundamental movements are will provide you, in an instant, with a better grasp of the means and the purpose of training: to get better, or more skilful, at performing certain kinds of movement.
By practising and developing your skill at performing them, you will become a better athlete and a more functional human being all round. There’s absolutely no reason why any of these fundamental movement patterns should be left ‘to the professionals’, as it were. We can all benefit from getting better at them, whatever our goals.
Squatting, the subject of this article, is one of these seven fundamental movement patterns. The others are hinging, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting and carrying, which is also often referred to as ‘gait’, meaning ‘manner of walking’. If you want to learn more about all seven, we suggest downloading one of our three FREE ebooks, The Seven Pillars of Strength.
The Bulgarian split squat
Although there are a wide variety of different ways to squat – bodyweight squats like the Hindu squat or one-legged pistol squat, goblet squats with a kettlebell, Bulgarian split squats with a dumbbell in each hand – here we’ll focus on one of the most common, and most essential, forms of squatting: the barbell back squat.
Why Squat with a Barbell?
You can expect to work more or less the entire
lower body, core and lower back when you perform a back squat
Barbell squatting, has a fearsome reputation – largely deserved. It’s a taxing compound exercise – an exercise that recruits multiple muscles at once – and requires not just muscular strength but also significant skill to perform, as well as the correct mindset (in a separate article, we’ve dealt with the psychology of squatting heavy weights, especially fear). It’s not simply a case of putting a heavy weight on your back then bending your legs and straightening them again. Far from it.
Squatting deserves to be treated with seriousness, because at one and the same time it offers the potential for tremendous benefits to your health and physique, but also serious pain and even injury if it is performed sloppily, without due care and attention to proper form and proper progression.
There are at least two different ways of barbell squatting, each of which requires a different technique to perform. The names refer to the placement of the bar on the squatter’s back. High-bar is often referred to as ‘Olympic-style’ squatting, because it has always been favoured by Olympic weightlifters for its carry-over into the three lifts they perform competitively. The low-bar squat is actually less of a squatting movement and more of a hinging movement (driven from the hips), which is one of the reasons why it is preferred by powerlifters and those looking to develop a strong deadlift as well.
The truth is, whichever method of squatting you choose, you can expect to reap serious benefits if you stick with it. For one thing, you’ll be on you way to building a strong, balanced physique, unlike the gymbro who skips leg day – a stereotype which really does have a firm basis in reality.
As impressive as his upper body may be, Hugh Jackman clearly isn’t putting in anywhere near as much effort when it comes to his legs
Indeed, skipping leg day will generally prove counterproductive, even if all you’re looking to do is build a big pair of guns to wheel out on a sunny day. The great Vince Gironda, an early bodybuilding pioneer, claimed that you could increase the size of your arms simply by doing extra leg work as well, and recent research has vindicated this claim.
A study by Bent Rønnestad, a Norwegian researcher, and others shows that compound leg exercises produce the most stimulation of the nervous system, boost the metabolism the most and cause the greatest natural increases in growth hormone and testosterone of any kind of exercise. As a result, in a controlled experiment, subjects who performed a compound leg exercise before working their arms saw greater growth of their biceps than subjects who simply worked their arms and did not perform a leg exercise first.
In a sense, these findings shouldn’t be a surprise, because it has long been the accepted wisdom, as a result of decades of experience, that compound lifts are the best for stimulating all-round muscle growth. This is why so many beginner programmes are built around them, instead of isolation exercises (exercises that primarily work just one muscle or muscle group).
A beginner who undertakes a new regime that is structured around the bench press, deadlift and barbell squat (and perhaps the military, or overhead, press) will almost certainly make better gains – more muscle, more strength – than if they focused on exercises like chest flyes, shrugs and leg press. Guaranteed.
A Potted History of the Barbell Squat
Although squatting is a fundamental movement that has, in all certainty, been performed since time immemorial, squatting with a barbell across the back is actually a fairly recent innovation. Indian wrestlers have been squatting with stone weights around their neck – known as ‘gar nal’ – for some time, probably centuries, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the barbell squat was born.
An Indian wrestler with a gar nal around his neck
Barbells had, of course, existed for some time – you’ve probably seen a picture of a Victorian strongman like Eugene Sandow wielding one – but in the absence of squat racks, the process of actually getting a heavily laden bar onto your back was a difficult thing indeed. Sandow, for instance, used to perform his squats with a dumbbell in each hand instead.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the German lifter Henry Steinborn that heavy barbell squatting really became a thing. Before Steinborn, lifters would have to clean the weight they wanted to squat and then press it over and behind their head to get it into place. Obviously, this limited the amount of weight they could squat to the amount they could clean and press over their head.
Steinborn developed a technical manoeuvre now known as the ‘Steinborn Squat’, in which the barbell was tipped onto his back from the floor. He was able to do this with 500lbs, for reps.
Martins Licis performs a 560lb Steinborn squat
After the invention of the squat rack, which allows a weight to be loaded at the correct height and easily placed on the back, squatting began to become more popular. Through the 1940s and 1950s, it remained largely the preserve of Olympic lifters, like Paul Anderson (pictured above), and strongmen, but the new sports of bodybuilding and powerlifting helped barbell squatting become a mainstream exercise.
Where some bodybuilders of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Vince Gironda, had chosen not to perform barbell squats, believing that they resulted in too much leg development or unwanted development of the hips and glutes, by the 1970s squatting had well and truly become an essential part of the bodybuilder’s repertoire. The freaky leg development of Tom Platz would have been impossible without the barbell squat.
Tom Platz, still the owner of arguably the most freaky legs in bodybuilding history
Fast forward to 2021. Step into any gym around the world (assuming it’s open…) and without a doubt you’ll see at least somebody doing a barbell squat, whether a bodybuilder, a female Instagram influencer looking to show off her newest stretchy pants to the best advantage or even, in rare cases, a gymbro looking to get bigger guns.
Most are likely to be high-bar squatting too, but some, especially if they’re looking to move as much weight as possible or to target their posterior chain, will be low-bar squatting.
Let’s look at the difference between the two types in detail.
Positioning of High Bar vs Low Bar Squat
High-bar and low-bar squatting
It all starts with the bar at a different position on the squatter’s back
The basic difference between high-bar and low-bar squatting, as reflected in the two names, concerns the position of the bar on the squatter’s back. With the high-bar squat, the bar sits across the top of the squatter’s trapezius muscles, whereas in the low-bar squat the bar is lower down the upper back, resting across the squatter’s real deltoids.
This basic difference affects the way the squat is performed. With the high-bar squat, because the bar is higher up your body, it has greater leverage over your torso. The high-bar squat, especially with heavy weights, therefore requires significant core and back stability and strength. With the low-bar, that leverage is reduced, meaning that you are usually able to lift more weight.
This diagram illustrates the difference in leverage, and also shows
how much more upright the high-bar squat is, and how far the knees do or don’t push out at the bottom of the squat
You’re also likely to be able to lift more weight with the low-bar squat because it recruits the muscles of the posterior chain – the glutes and hamstrings – more than the high-bar squat, which depends on the quadriceps to a much greater degree. The hip flexors are involved in both movements too.
With the high-bar squat, the torso remains upright, the knees push forward and the hips essentially sit straight down. By contrast, with the low-bar squat, you have to lean forward at the same time as pushing your hips backwards.
A video tutorial on the high-bar and low-bar squat
Because of the differences between them, each squat makes different demands on mobility. The high-bar squat requires greater mobility in the knee and ankle. A good guide to whether or not you have the requisite mobility is if you can perform an air squat to the right depth while maintaining an upright chest and neutral – i.e. not curved – spine. If you can’t, you will need to work on your mobility in order to perform a high-bar squat.
The low-bar squat, by contrast, while being easier on those with low ankle mobility, requires greater hip mobility and also greater mobility in the shoulders in order to hold the bar in the correct position.
Which Should I Choose?
It should be clear from all that I’ve just said that each type of squat has different characteristics and therefore is likely to suit different people. If you lack ankle or knee flexibility, or both, you may have no choice but to low-bar squat. Likewise, if you have low hip or shoulder flexibility, or both, you may want to stick to high-bar squatting.
If your goal is to shift the most weight possible –e.g. if you want to become a powerlifter – then it’s probably a good idea to focus on training the low-bar squat, not only because you are likely to be stronger with it, but also because it will carry-over better into movements like the deadlift.
The high-bar squat will have greater carry-over into movements like the front squat and the Olympic lifts. This will be of value if you are performing these other lifts regularly too, say if you are a Crossfitter, or, of course, if you wish to focus on developing the quadriceps rather than the glutes and hamstrings.
Even so, there’s no reason to choose one movement completely to the exclusion of the other. For example, even if you’re focused on low-bar squatting, high-bar squatting, because of the significant demands on the core and back, can be a good way to increase the strength and stability of your torso, which will have benefits for almost all other movements you perform, in and out of the gym.
If you already have a weightlifting regime and you’re not squatting, we suggest you adding squatting to your regime at least once a week. If you already have a ‘leg day’, you can squat then.
For beginners who are new to weightlifting, we would suggest a full-body programme built around compound lifts (bench press, deadlift, squat, overhead press) as a means of not only making the greatest gains in the least amount of time, but also becoming as proficient as possible with the fundamental movements we have talked about. We offer a full 12-month programme, the Golden Era 5×5, which is built around these compound movements and aims to balance to strength with aesthetics in a way that many similar programmes do not.