• Barbell Squats: High vs. Low Bar Position
    Barbell placement during barbell back squats affects the joint angles involved and thereby influences how force is applied to the low back, legs, and hip musculature. This article discusses the benefits of limitations of each barbell placement (i.e., high bar and low bar) and provides tips on choosing which to use based on the training goal and individual ability
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  • Woman performing high-bar barbell squatsThe barbell squat is a staple strength and muscle-building exercise used in the Performance University approach to training. Simply put, where the bar is placed when performing barbell squats affects the joint angles involved in the barbell back squat, therefore influencing how force is applied to the lower back, legs, and hip musculature. Additionally, choosing the right bar position depends on the ability and goals when individualizing your training programs.
     
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    What is a High Bar Position vs. Low Bar Position
    Before we get into the specific training situations where you would choose a certain type of bar position, first you should understand the effects. High bar position is what you see many bodybuilders use when squatting. This positions the barbell across the top of the upper-trapezius muscles and is more conducive to a more upright torso position. 
     
    On the other hand, low bar position is what you see many powerlifters use when squatting. This positions the barbell across your shoulder blades and middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles, and is more conducive to a more forward torso position.

    Choosing the Bar Position
    Here is the breakdown of training situations where a low bar position would be recommended over a high bar and instances where high bar placement would be better than a low bar placement. When to use a low bar squat position:
    • When trying to emphasize the hips, hamstrings, and low back, since the torso stays more forward (1) 
    • With females, since girls tend to already be more quadriceps dominant; focus should be on their lower body in order to train towards balancing their quadriceps strength with extra hip and hamstring work (2) 
    • If someone lacks ankle mobility, since a low bar position accommodates a more hip-oriented (i.e., like a box squat) squatting action 
    • For those with great shoulder mobility 
    When to use a high bar squat position:
    • When trying to emphasize quadriceps size and strength, since the body position can remain more upright 
    • When working using lower loads and higher repetitions for more time under tension because the range of motion the knees and hips go through is great (if you have the ability to squat deep)  
    No Need to Argue which Bar Placement is Best
    Both bar positions offer unique benefits because they emphasize different joint actions, which place loads onto the body differently. So, when working with someone with no limitations, alternating the bar placement with each consecutive squat workout can create variety in training and change the force vectors involved within the same movement pattern. This is an easy way to vary a workout without changing the workout.

    Alternatives for Athletes with Shoulder Injury
    If there is limited shoulder external rotation or thoracic-spine extension (e.g., due to a past shoulder issue) that makes it uncomfortable for someone to perform either high or low bar squats, then simply using a front squat or a trap bar instead of a barbell would be a appropriate alternative.
     
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    About the Author:

    Nick Tumminello

    Nick Tumminello is the owner of Performance University, which provides hybrid fitness training for athletes and educational programs for fitness professionals worldwide. Tumminello has worked with a variety of clients from National Football League (NFL) athletes to professional bodybuilders and figure models to exercise enthusiasts. He has served as the conditioning coach for the Ground Control Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Fight Team. Tumminello has also produced 15 DVDs and is a regular contributor to several major fitness magazines.

    REFERENCES →

    1. Farrokhi, S, Pollard, CD, Souza, RB, Chen, YJ, Reischl, S, and Powers, CM. Trunk position influences the kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activity of the lead lower extremity during the forward lunge exercise. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 38(7): 403-409, 2008.
    2. Youdas, JW, Hollman, JH, Hitchcock, JR, Hoyme, GJ, and Johnsen, JJ. Comparison of hamstring and quadriceps femoris electromyographic activity between men and women during a single-limb squat on both a stable and labile surface. J Strength Cond Res 21(1): 105-111, 2007.

     

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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      Hi Nick - Great article! Below are a few additional thoughts on high vs low bar

      The Low Bar Position is typically used with a power lifting style squat (hip break, see below). In the low bar position the bar rests across the posterior deltoids. If amore» lifter tried to do an Olympic style squat (knee break, vertical torso – see below) with the bar in the low bar position, the bar would tend to rest on the hands and not the torso. Thus, the low bar position is not recommended for an Olympic Style Squat.
      The reason behind the low bar position is to decrease the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip and the low back. When the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip joint and low back decreases, the torque generated by the bar decreases and the bar can be lifted with less force or by the same token – a greater load could be lifted. Thus, the purpose of the low bar essentially is to make a lift easier rather than placing maximal tension on certain muscle groups. Thus, the low bar position does not seem to be the most obvious choice for the fitness client bodybuilder who is looking to place maximal tension on the involved muscles.
      With the powerlifting style squat, the change in position of the bar from the traps to the deltoids results in a relatively large change in the lever arm from the bar relative to the hip joint and low back measured in the bottom position of the squat. With an Olympic style squat, the change in position of the bar from the traps to the shoulders would result in a relatively small change, almost none, in the lever arm relative to the hip joint and low back, again if measured in the bottom position of the squat. Thus, even if a low bar position worked well for the Olympic style squat, which it does not, the benefit of the low bar position with this style of squat would be low.
      While the Olympic Style Squat must be executed with the bar in a high bar position, the powerlifting style squat could be executed with either a high bar or a low bar p«less

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