Back Squat- High bar and low bar
In my opinion the king of all exercises – the back squat – should be a staple of any serious athlete’s strength training programme. It uses such a large amount of musculature that it is unrivaled in its capacity to develop strength or as a tool to develop conditioning (try some sets of 20 back squats if you don’t believe me).
There are two types of back squat that can be used. This article is not an argument for one or the other, I believe that both are very important and it all depends what the athlete’s aims are when it comes to deciding which to use.
The high bar back squat (HBBS) and the low bar back squat (LBBS) are very similar, but there is a slight change in position of the bar. This has a big affect on the musculature used and how we move for each exercise.
High Bar Back Squat
Also known as the Olympic squat, it is used by Olympic lifters due to its similarity in mechanics to the front squat and therefore the clean, snatch and overhead squat. Here is a basic breakdown of the HBBS:
The athlete approaches the bar, which should be in a rack at just about collarbone height. Hands are placed just outside shoulder-width apart and the shoulders are externally rotated so that the elbow pits face the sky. Abs and glutes are squeezed to stabilise the midline. The athlete then steps under the bar so that it rests on the top of the traps ** IMPORTANT** Abs and glutes are squeezed again.
Next, the athlete steps out of the rack one pace backwards. Keeping the midline stable and screwing feet into the floor they sit back with their hamstrings and descend until the hip crease passes below the crease of the knee. Throughout knees track over toes, a lumbar curve is maintained and the chest is kept up.
From here, again the feet are screwed into the floor. The athlete stands back up driving evenly through the foot, keeping the torso upright and the knees over the toes. They then stand back up until the knees and hips are fully extended.
Due to the bar placement on top of the shoulders the HBBS forces the athlete to keep an upright torso, much as you would in the clean, front squat, overhead squat and snatch. This is because the bar is closer to the athlete’s centre of gravity. This results in the glutes and quadriceps being the prime movers of the movement. The hamstrings for the most part are contracted but are not being used as the primary mover.
Due to the similarities between the HBBS and the Olympic lifts it is ideal for Olympic lifters, as it teaches the proper receiving position and closely mimics these lifts whilst allowing more weight to be used.
For CrossFitters, the obvious benefits are that there is massive carryover from the HBBS into many lifts used all the time in CrossFit. The snatch, clean, front squat, thruster, wall ball, and overhead squat all require the body to move in the same way with an upright torso and with external weight carried close to the centre of mass. As such my suggestion would be that HBBS would be a wise choice for the majority of CrossFitters, especially people looking to compete.
Be aware, however, that solely using the HBBS can lead to some issues if you do not have proper posterior chain work in your programme. This is because the HBBS uses very little hamstring and doing just this could lead to over development of the quadriceps and poor hamstring development. As such I would suggest that you balance your programme by making sure you use the deadlift and its variants to develop the posterior chain.
Low Bar Back Squat
The LBBS is often favored by power-lifters and strongmen due to its involvement of the posterior chain, and the fact that over time and with the perfection of technique more weight can be moved using this exercise.
During a LBBS, the athlete approaches the bar, which should be in a rack at just about collarbone height. Hands are placed outside shoulder-width apart and the shoulders are externally rotated so that the elbow pits face the sky. Abs and glutes are squeezed to stabilise the midline. Note this is exactly the same as HBBS set-up except the hands are slightly wider.
The athlete steps under the bar and squeezes their shoulder blades together to create a shelf on the back at the top of the posterior deltoids. The bar is placed here. They then step back from the rack with their feet just outside shoulder-width apart, squeezing the glutes and abs. From here, the athlete sits back as if looking for a high stool. The torso will naturally lean further forward due to where the bar is sat on the back.
Lower down until the hip crease is at or below crease of the knee, keeping the knees over the toes, while aiming to keep the shins as vertical as possible. Keep tension in the hamstrings throughout. From the bottom position, drive up quickly using hip drive to extend yourself up out of the hole. Drive your knees out and stand up until hips and knees are at full extension.
Due to the bar being slightly lower on the back, the athlete will naturally lean forwards. The LBBS involves the hamstrings as the prime movers with some involvement of the quadriceps. It also uses what is known as a stretch reflex in the bottom position, where the athlete ‘bounces’ out of the very bottom of the squat so that there is no pause at the bottom. This helps them drive back up leading with the hips.
The LBBS also allows you to use more weight than the HBBS, which is why it is very popular with power-lifters and strongmen. It also leads to a more rounded development of the lower body. It is said to use ‘more’ muscles but in truth it actually just develops the posterior chain properly. This is extremely important…having big, strong hamstrings is cool!
Both exercises are very important but there seems to have developed two different camps (on the Internet in particular) in which you either do HBBS or LBBS. There is no real reason for this and in my opinion you can and should be doing them both.
For CrossFitters I still would advocate using the HBBS the majority of the time but this does not mean you can’t do blocks of training using the LBBS. I guarantee that it will help your deadlift and the pull in the Olympic lifts. Sticking with HBBS endlessly can lead to potentially over-developed quadriceps. This risk is lessened if you are hitting up deadlifts and their variants regularly though.
Hopefully this relatively simple overview has helped you understand a bit more about the LBBS and HBBS. There is loads more information out there on the Internet if you want to learn more, this article should give you a good grounding in the basics though. Enjoy your squats people, get amongst it.
Written by Coach Tom
If you want to know more about the bodyweight squat jump over to this post