The standard barbell squat is a keystone of every decent training program, and has earned itself the nickname “king of lifts” due to its highly effective ability of building lower body size and strength.
However, not all barbell squats are quite the same, as such things like form, exercise mechanics, exerciser preferences or even the particular placement of the bar along the exerciser’s back can all alter the training stimulus and thus the results of the barbell squat entirely.
Both the low bar and high bar variation of the barbell squat are highly effective at what they do - though one must keep in mind that the particular effects and difficulty between the two can in fact be quite distinct, despite the relatively similar form.
Both the terms low bar and high bar refer to the positioning of the bar along the exerciser’s back, with the low bar squat placing the barbell lower along the back, keeping it in contact with the shoulder blades and drawing the elbows closer together behind the exerciser.
This is not the case in the high bar squat, which places the barbell atop the shoulders and trapezius shelf, wherein it will nearly make contact with the back of the neck and allow the exerciser to hold their elbows further apart.
While this is simply a general description, there are in fact quite a few differences in terms of form, muscle group activation and mechanics between the two squat variations - with each being just as suitable as the other in the correct circumstances.
As was previously mentioned, the proper form cues and kinetics involved in the low bar and high bar squat are somewhat distinct from one another, though the general principles behind the squat movement are still very much present in both variations.
For the most part, the differences in form are primarily due to the body compensating for the altered distribution of load that is caused by bar positioning - altering the foot placement, torso angle, hip positioning and even grip width of the exerciser.
The low bar squat’s bar positioning requires that the exerciser place their feet at a wider and more stable distance so as to not only reduce the risk of injury, but also to allow the hips enough space to be pushed back - thereby placing the spine at a more neutral angle and recruiting the posterior chain to a greater extent.
This will also have the intended effect of altering the angle of the torso in relation to the ground, bending it forward somewhat and puffing the chest out in a manner that widens the distance between the exerciser’s hands as they grip the bar.
In the case of the high bar squat, the altered distribution of load and angle of resistance in relation to the bar’s position atop the shoulders equates to the exerciser only placing their feet at approximately shoulder width, increasing the range of motion and changing which muscle groups are activated to a certain extent.
This, in turn, will place the knees at a more inner-facing angle, thereby drawing the hips beneath the torso instead of behind it, of which will also be in a more vertical position than it would be with the low bar squat.
With a more narrow distance between the feet, a vertical angle to the torso and hips nearly parallel to the chest - the exerciser may find that placing their hands closer together will provide more comfort and stability as well, though this particular hand placement is more a matter of preference than an actual form cue.
Due to the reduced range of motion, more favorable mechanics and greater posterior chain activation of the low bar squat - the exerciser will find that they are in fact capable of moving more weight than they would be able to with the high bar squat.
This presents several advantages and drawbacks, with a greater amount of resistance inducing greater contraction of certain muscle fibers, but also placing the exerciser at greater risk of injury if the level of resistance is too much.
In addition to this, greater amounts of weight being moved can accustom the exerciser to moving such an amount of weight, making the low bar squat more appropriate for strength based athletes or individuals wishing to test their maximal squat strength.
Conversely, this will also make the high bar squat a more appropriate exercise for individuals wishing to focus on time under tension and volume of repetitions rather than maximum resistance, as its longer range of motion and altered mechanics will allow for such training stimulus to occur.
Though both the low bar and high bar variations of the barbell squat are considerably safe when performed with proper form, it is the low bar squat that is considered to present significantly less risk of injury in regards to the joints and connective tissue of the exerciser.
This is due to the more advantageous position it places the spinal column, knees and hips in during the exercise, with a wider foot positioning resulting in more outward facing knees and a neutral spinal curve that eliminates many weak points at risk of damage from excessive resistance.
With that established, the high bar squat may also present its own form of relative safety in regards to the fact that it is considered a more “natural” movement than the low bar squat, following the biokinetics and motion patterns of the human body more closely than the wide and more complex form of its low bar counterpart.
As such, though the low bar squat is safer in concerns to joint pressure and shear force, certain exercisers may find that the high bar squat is more comfortable and in line with their own unique bodily proportions, possibly making the exercise safer in their particular case.
Both the low bar and high bar squat require some level of lower body flexibility and joint mobility, though the particulars of such requirements is distinct between the two exercises due to their different forms and ranges of motion.
In the case of the low bar squat, the exerciser will require far less knee mobility as the resistance is shifted more towards the hips and posterior chain, requiring more hip joint flexibility and lower back mobility, as well as some shoulder mobility as the exerciser’s chest is pushed outward due to the retruded position of the hips.
Whereas the high bar squat calls for a greater level of knee and ankle mobility as the range of motion involved during its performance is wider, and places the knees in a position wherein they will be forced to bear a large percentage of the resistance throughout each repetition.
The low bar squat is best known for being among one of the best posterior chain muscle training exercises possible, with such muscle groups like the hamstrings and glutes receiving excellent levels of stimulus during each repetition.
Such muscle group activation, however, is not present in the high bar squat, as its closer foot positioning and parallel hip position forces the quadriceps femoris to bear the majority of the exercise’s resistance, reducing the total training stimulus on the posterior chain and instead shifting it to the quads.
This is not to say that the low bar squat does not activate the quadriceps femoris - or the high bar squat the posterior chain - simply that the aforementioned muscle groups are focused upon more or less intensely in each variation.
Regardless of the squat bar positioning, however, the low bar and high bar squat will nonetheless activate the core muscles, erector spinae, calves and hip flexors in the capacity of stabilizer muscle groups, thereby sharing this particular set of muscles worked.
While it is technically possible, utilizing both the low bar and high bar squat in the same workout is redundant and unnecessary as both variations of the barbell squat train the same muscle groups for the most part, with the main difference being the extent to which said muscle groups are trained.
As such, utilizing both low bar and high bar squat variations in the same training session will require a reduction in volume for both exercises or a lower level of resistance so as to avoid overtraining the legs and causing a fatigue related breakdown in form.
For general training purposes, building muscular strength and improving the appearance of the legs; it is the low bar squat that is considered to be the better choice.
The high bar squat nonetheless serves its own purpose as an excellent exercise in certain niche training programs, as a sports-specific movement meant to improve athlete performance or as an alternative to the low bar squat for individuals that find the latter variation uncomfortable or unsafe.
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