Low Bar Squat: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
December 16, 2022

Squats are a functional workout that may be performed with multiple variations. It is a type of resistance training that is able to strengthen both the lower body and the core muscles. With the addition of a barbell placed on the back, the exercise becomes a barbell back squat where the benefits and primary muscles worked would depend on the position of the bar along the back.

Positioning the bar low on the upper back, or resting on the rear delts, creates the low bar squat variation of the barbell back squat. This variation targets the glutes, hamstrings, and back extensors more than the high bar squat does. However, the low bar squat requires a great deal of balance to perform and must be done with proper form in order to avoid serious injury.

While there are great benefits to be gained from the low bar squat, there are also multiple factors that may limit one from executing this exercise properly. These factors must be taken into account and optimized prior to incorporating the low bar squat into any workout regimen.

What is a Low Bar Squat?

A low bar squat is a variation of the barbell back squat and is done when the bar is positioned low on the upper back while performing a back squat. It is a compound exercise that works the lower body muscles and builds absolute strength.

low bar squat form

The low bar squat is most recommendable for individuals that have limited mobility of the ankles as the movement mechanics of the low bar squat do not require the knees to move in front of the ankle quite as far as that in other variations, thus decreasing the needed angle of ankle flexion. 

Does Bar Position Matter?

Different bar positioning on a bar squat entails different benefits for the individual. A high bar squat where the bar is placed on top of the trapezius relies heavily on the quadriceps and is best when aiming for strengthening this muscle. It is also a good exercise for lifters that have a good range of ankle mobility.

On the other hand, having the bar placed low on the upper back, specifically over the blade of the scapula or the rear delts, produces a different set of benefits due to a modification in form and movement. This type of squat is also better for those people who do not have a good range of ankle mobility. 

high bar squat form

When doing barbell back squats, proper bar placement must be observed. Particularly for a low bar squat, when placing the bar lower than where it should be positioned, the bar will have little to no contact with the back. This lack of contact may lead to the arms taking the brunt of the weight, which may then result in shoulder and elbow pain or suddenly having to dump the squat. 

The second possible bar positioning on a low bar squat is placing it too high. When doing a low bar squat, a forward lean of the torso is to be expected. Thus, if the bar is positioned too high, the bar may have too little contact with the back. In this case, the bar may end up rolling forward which may result in falls, or worse, having the neck injured due to the majority of the weight rolling forward on it.

How to Perform a Low Bar Squat: Bar Position and Execution

To perform the low bar squat, place a barbell on a rack at approximately below shoulder level. Stand in front of the barbell and grab the bar with a neutral grip at a wider than shoulder-width distance. 

Go underneath and through the barbell to have the bar positioned at the back and placed just under the posterior deltoids or just over the shoulder blades, and the hips should be slightly bent forward. To unrack the bar extend at the hips and assure that the hips are not staggered. 

Slowly take two steps back from the rack and position the distance of the feet from each other at a slightly outside shoulder-width distance. This will be the starting position for the squat. 

To perform, first, brace the core to maintain stability, then squat down with the hips moving backward until an almost 90-degree angle is formed by the legs and the thighs at the knee joint. Drive back up with the hips by extending it to complete a single rep. Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set.

Muscles Worked in Low Bar Squats

As a compound exercise, low bar squats engage multiple muscle groups at once. It also works the same muscle groups involved in a traditional squat. However, the degree of activation varies due to the difference in hip flexion angles and torso position in relation to the ground.

low bar squat muscles

The increase in hip flexion in low bar squats stimulates more muscular activation during the eccentric phase than in high-bar back squats. Low bar squats stimulate the gluteus maximus and hamstrings more than high bar squats. Additionally, during the eccentric section of the low bar squat, the quads were also more active.

Hip flexion, knee flexion, and dorsiflexion of the ankle all occur during the descending phase. The hip extensors eccentrically contract as the trunk bends toward the legs during a flexed hip position. The hamstrings and gluteal muscles are stretched in a controlled manner.

As the knee flexes, the knee extensors (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and vastus lateralis) contract eccentrically. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles work together against gravity to control dorsiflexion motion.

During the ascending phase of the squat, all these muscles contract concentrically to pull the hip and knee joints into extension and produce ankle plantarflexion. Throughout the action, the core muscles work to support and stabilize the trunk. Spinal extensors contract isometrically during the squat to keep the spine in neutral extension.

On both the down and up strokes, the same muscle groups are engaged. The distinction lies in the nature of the muscular contractions involved whether eccentric, concentric, or isometric.

Benefits of Low Bar Squats

Squats are known to enhance strength and improve performance in various athletic activities. Their primary use is to increase the power generated by the hip and knee extensors. While these may be achieved by bodyweight squats, the addition of free weights in the form of a barbell positioned on the posterior deltoids makes the exercise more effective.

Marked Activation of Posterior Chain Muscles

Low bar squats have been proven to activate the posterior chain muscles of the lower limbs. According to a study published in 2020, the concentric phase of the low bar squat showed greater muscle activity from the lumbar erector spinae, gluteus maximus, and biceps femoris. For the eccentric phase, the two former muscles were also the most activated.

The reason for the marked activation of these muscles is said to be due to the position of the bar along the back. Because the bar is placed low on the upper back, there is a more forward trunk, a higher anterior pelvic tilt, and a wider foot stance as compared to the high bar squat.

Increased Load Capacity

In a low bar squat, there is a greater degree of forward lean brought about by the bar’s placement. Because of this, there is a higher increase in the force applied to the hip joint in contrast to the knee joint. This creates a large internal moment arm for the gluteus maximus muscle.

An internal moment arm is defined as the distance between a joint and the muscle acting on it. When the internal moment arm is large, this means that the muscle is capable of producing more force. Hence, the great internal moment arm of the gluteus maximus produced by the low bar squat allows an individual to carry heavier loads.

Improved Balance and Core Stability

Because of the position of the bar, one must have a steady posture when performing the low bar squat. Continued practice of this exercise thus improves an individual’s balance. Additionally, since the squat requires core engagement, core stability is also improved by this exercise.

Improved Functionality and Athletic Ability

As a functional exercise, the low bar squat is able to improve movements involved in daily activities such as standing from a chair, climbing stairs, walking, and carrying heavy loads. Furthermore, it also contributes to the enhancement of athletic abilities, especially in sports that involve running and jumping.

Factors Affecting Back Squats

To do effective back squats, a sufficient range of motion is needed. The most prevalent factor holding people back from squatting more is a lack of range of motion.

Ankle Mobility

Having flexible ankles helps lifters squat with more control and stability. For instance, during the squat's descending phase, when the knee is flexed, good ankle dorsiflexion permits a person to keep their feet level on the ground. Joint stiffness in the ankle prevents normal dorsiflexion, which may lead to compensatory motion in the foot and knee.

Raising the heel is one of the most typical patterns used to account for ankle stiffness. The heels raise to make up for insufficient ankle dorsiflexion, which causes the center of gravity to move forward and the base of support to become narrower.

However, in low bar squats, there is less ankle dorsiflexion motion required as compared to high bar squats or even traditional squats. Due to the position of the trunk relative to the ground, the forward movement of the knees is limited to maintain the center of gravity, thus ankle dorsiflexion is also limited.

Knee Stability

The knee is a modified hinge joint that permits flexion and extension movement. Because the knee joint serves as a stabilizing mechanism, the ideal position for the knees during a squat is one in which they are aligned with the hips and feet. 

The knee's stabilizing ligaments and tendons are jeopardized if proper knee alignment is not maintained. It has been suggested that misalignment of the knee with the hips and feet is caused by weakness in the joints and muscles directly above and below the knee.

For instance, caving the knees inward during the squat, whether during the descent or ascent phase, puts the knee joint in an unstable and dangerous posture. This is called a knee valgus or a valgus collapse.

Hip Mobility

The hip joint is a ball-and-socket joint that moves in all three anatomical planes and its primary role is to transfer weight from the pelvis to the lower extremities, as in squatting. When a person's hip range of motion is limited, he or she may struggle to attain an acceptable squat depth.

To increase the hip range of motion, the body compensates by posteriorly rotating the pelvis during the descending phase, which leads to excessive lumbar lordosis. Lack of hip range of motion is also compensated through lumbar flexion at the bottom of the squat. These methods should be avoided since they place more strain on the lumbar spine.

Thoracolumbar Mobility and Stability

The thoracic spine should be in a neutral, extended posture throughout the entirety of a squat routine to ensure that the trunk maintains a steady position in relation to the ground. This is a good sign of control and stability in the trunk. Overwhelming compressive and shear forces are applied to the lumbar spine when the thoracic spine is not kept in a modest extension.

Head Position

The research on the effects of head position on squat kinematics describes a considerable increase in the trunk and hip flexion when the head position and gaze are oriented downward. Because excessive hip and trunk flexion causes excessive compressive and shear pressures on the spine, it is not advised in the squat.

The amount of flexion at the lumbar and thoracic spine can be reduced by maintaining a steady gaze in a forward direction, keeping the head in a neutral posture, and minimizing head movements.

Final Thoughts

The low bar variation of the barbell back squat has multiple excellent benefits, including practical gains such as an improvement in functionality and athletic ability. However, the exercise is only able to produce these benefits when the bar is optimally positioned along the back.

Proper positioning of the bar is of great importance when doing a low bar squat. Placing the bar either too high or too low along the back may lead to serious injury. Hence, proper placement and the various factors mentioned above should be taken into account before doing this exercise.

References

1. Kritz, Matthew MSc, CSCS1; Cronin, John PhD2; Hume, Patria PhD1. The Bodyweight Squat: A Movement Screen for the Squat Pattern. Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 1 - p 76-85 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318195eb2f 

2. Van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:43-53. Published 2018 Jun 13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0176

3. Murawa M, Fryzowicz A, Kabacinski J, et al. Muscle activation varies between high-bar and low-bar back squat. PeerJ. 2020;8:e9256. Published 2020 Jun 8. doi:10.7717/peerj.9256

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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