Article written by Fletcher Pierce for LiftBigEatBig.com
I want to preface this article by saying that it is coming from the perspective of an Olympic style weightlifter. That being said, when followers of LBEB started asking about how high-bar squats compare to low-bar squats, there is a much smaller window of comparison than you might think. Olympic weightlifters lift heavy most days, so we have to make every lift count. Every assistance lift performed by an Olympic lifter is designed to support one goal, lifting a crap ton of weight above your head. We don’t do lifts that are not dynamic, and a majority of our lifts replicate the positions and movements found in both the clean and jerk and the snatch, which is the main reason we high-bar squat. However, the low-bar squat is also a valid alternative to many other strength athletes, so here is a quick breakdown of both.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of both lifts, and talk about how either one will (or will not) benefit your training. First of all, the concept of the low-bar back squat is to move as much weight as possible, with some federations only squatting into the “parallel” position and then stand back up. Because the focus is on the amount of weight, lifters have developed a series of techniques to complete the lift with the shortest and most efficient way. If the bar starts lower on your back you can lean forward more with the bar remaining within your center of gravity. This requires a great deal of core and lower back strength, but the movement essentially becomes shorter. When you push your butt back you can get into a deeper position more easily and can maintain trunk stability.
Powerlifters also tend to wear a flat footed shoe to help them get their knees and butt back. Of course these are completely legitimate tools to helping you be successful on a heavy low-bar back squat, but the application beyond powerlifting can be limited for some. It should also be noted that without breaking parallel, a majority of the stress of the squat is maintained in the knees instead of shifting to the quads and hamstrings. For those wondering, this doesn’t mean the quads and hamstrings are not being used. It means the knees are strained until the moment they break parallel, so without breaking parallel the tension is maintained throughout the lift. All of that considered, if you want to be able to brag to someone about how much you back squat, then the low-bar back squat is for you. This doesn’t mean it isn’t a difficult lift in its own right, it means it is designed for max effort and efficiency without having to be directly applied to another movement.
Now let’s move on to the high-bar back squat. The high-bar back squat is a perfect tool for any Olympic lifter, Crossfitter, or Strongman competitor. Because the bar is situated higher on your neck, your body can easily maintain a more upright position. A specially designed shoe with an elevated heel also allows the lifter to keep their knees forward (and out!) and stay in a more upright position. This gives you stability when moving through a greater range of motion than that of a low-bar back squat. This upright position is also designed to replicate the proper bottom position of the snatch and clean and jerk. When an athlete is properly high-bar back squatting, their bottom position should be nearly identical to that of an Olympic lift, with the obvious exception of the bar’s position. Another reason the high-bar back squat is beneficial for every athlete is because it breaks parallel. As I said earlier, breaking parallel releases tension in the knee joint and tends to lead to less knee injuries (I’ve been lifting for ten years and haven’t seen a single Olympic lifter in my gym hurt their knee).
The high-bar back squat isn’t just beneficial for Olympic lifters though. Strongman competitors also undoubtedly benefit from training with the broader range of motion and the explosiveness that the high-bar back squat can provide.
For the Crossfitter out there who reads this article and is not sure which to choose I will try to shed some light on the matter. A Crossfitter will most likely see significantly less improvement from a low-bar back squat as opposed to the high-bar. If you are a Crossfitter it is important to keep the goals of a Crossfitter in mind . Range of motion, flexibility, and explosiveness are all desired and can be limited by continually training the low-bar back squat. It is an essential lift for powerlifters, but may not be the best fit for you. If you are a Crossfitter, you should understand that Olympic lifting is one of the major foundations of your sport and that you need to be utilizing the lifts used to benefit Olympic lifting athletes. With a high-bar back squat there is less back strain due to the more upright position, which will make performing high repetitions much safer and you could prevent a knee injury during a max attempt, an injury that could essentially kill your chances of becoming a successful Crossfitter. The explosiveness of an Olympic lifter is not only developed during the two main lifts, it is also greatly impacted by our high-bar squatting. If you are looking to develop your strength, speed, and core stability for box jumps, long jumps, sprinting, or any other dynamic event you come across, then high-bar back squats are for you.
Depending on your goals, you will have to make the decision as to which squat style will help you improve. For enhanced flexibility, range of movement, acceleration, strength, and performance in the snatch and clean and jerk, you must go with the high-bar back squat. In order to develop the raw physical strength and technique to be successful in powerlifting you will want to train the low-bar squat. Take the positives and negatives of both lift, and determine which will be the most beneficial for your training regimen.