Squats are a fundamental exercise for your lower body and core, and you can vary the stimulus on your muscles by the depth you go, the placement of your feet, the resistance you use, and the type of squat you do. Squatting is a functional movement that works multiple muscle groups at once, making it an ideal exercise to include in any fitness routine. Along with building muscle and helping with fat loss, squats strengthen your lower body and can improve your balance, stability, and coordination.
There are many types of squats you can perform. You can do bodyweight squats, hold dumbbells while you squat, use resistance bands, or use a barbell. You can also do front squats, back squats, and other variations such as a sumo squat. If you use a barbell to squat, you can do a front squat or a back squat. And with a back squat, you can do a high-bar back squat or a low-bar back squat. This article focuses on the back squat and the differences between the low-bar and high-bar back squat and whether one has an advantage over the other.
What is a High-Bar Back Squat and How Does It Differ from a Low-Bar Squat?
A high-bar back squat is a type of barbell squat where the bar sits on top of your traps. It’s also known as an Olympic squat or an upright squat due to the vertical position it places your torso in. The key difference between the low-bar and high-bar squats is where you place the barbell when you squat. With a low-bar squat, you place the bar further down over the spine of your scapula. Both forms of squats offer substantial benefits but there are pros and cons to each.
The High-Bar Back Squat
This is the type of barbell squat most people do. This back squat variation requires a more upright torso position when you lower your body, so it emphasizes your quads over the muscles in your posterior chain, the hamstrings, and glutes. The high-bar squat is an Olympic weightlifting movement.
The high-bar squat also places less strain on the lower back, as your torso is more upright, so it may be a better option if you have lower back pain. However high bar placement requires more ankle mobility, so you should have sufficient ankle mobility if you tackle this variation. Since your center of gravity is higher with a high-bar back squat than with a low bar, it’s more challenging to stay balanced than with a low-bar squat.
If you’re a squat beginner, then your best option is to start with the high-bar back squat. Most weight trainers prefer this variation as it helps improve quad strength and overall mobility. It’s also easier to learn than other types of squats and feels more intuitive.
The Low-Bar Back Squat
While the high-bar squat is an Olympic weightlifting move, powerlifters do the low-bar back squat. The high-bar squat is quad dominant, but the low-bar squat shifts the emphasis to your glutes and hamstrings. This is because the bar of a low-bar squat sits lower on your back. This shifts the center of gravity and causes you to bend forward more. The lower position of the barbell also forces you to bend at the hips rather than just push them back, which places more tension on your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) during each rep.
Therefore, a low-bar back squat offers some advantages if you’re trying to build glute and hamstring strength and size since this position allows you to hit your posterior chain more than a high-bar squat. The low-bar squat allows for a greater range of motion compared to other squats variations, since you have more leverage. You’ll also be able to use a heavier barbell if you do a low-bar back squat than a high-bar back squat. Another advantage of a low-bar back squat is it requires less ankle mobility than a high-bar back squat. Since so many people have poor ankle mobility, this variation is a good alternative.
When you do low-bar back squats, you’ll typically want to use a weight that’s 10–20% heavier than what you’d use for high-bar back squats. However, the low-bar back squat is more challenging to learn than other variations like the front squat and high-bar back squat. Placing the barbell lower feels less natural and requires more practice and coordination to perform it correctly. So, consider starting with a high-bar back squat. Having the barbell in a higher position feels more intuitive.
Which Should You Do?
Both variations will help you build strength and lower body muscle, but low-bar squats have a few advantages. One study found that low-bar back squats activate the hamstrings and glutes more than a high-bar back squat, but a study also found the quads fired more with the eccentric portion of the low-bar back squat than the high bar variation. However, the differences in quad activation were not significant. The low-bar squat also has the advantage of not requiring as much ankle mobility and making it easier to stay balanced.
An advantage of the high-bar back squat is it trains your body at similar pelvis, knee, and ankle angles as competitive athletic movements. So, high-bar back squats may be a better choice if you play sports.
Which back squat variation is better? It depends on your goals. If you want to target your posterior chain, including your glutes and hamstring or you have poor ankle mobility, low-bar back squats are your best choice. If you want to use this movement as training for Olympic lifting (a sport where the high bar back squat is the starting position) or sports, the high-bar back squat may better help you reach your goals. You could also do both types of back squats and vary the stimulus you place on your muscles. You can even extend that thinking to doing other types of squats, like front squats, Sumo squats, or split squats. They’re all effective for building lower body strength and will keep your strength training routine interesting.
- Murawa M, Fryzowicz A, Kabacinski J, Jurga J, Gorwa J, Galli M, Zago M. Muscle activation varies between high-bar and low-bar back squat. PeerJ. 2020 Jun 8;8:e9256. doi: 10.7717/peerj.9256. PMID: 32551198; PMCID: PMC7289144.
- “High Bar vs. Low Bar Squat: What’s More Effective?.” 17 May. 2016, https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/high-bar-vs-low-bar-squat.
- Glassbrook DJ, Brown SR, Helms ER, Duncan S, Storey AG. The High-Bar and Low-Bar Back-Squats: A Biomechanical Analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S1-S18. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001836. PMID: 28195975.”High Bar vs. Low Bar Squatting – Stronger by Science.” 26 Aug. 2014, https://www.strongerbyscience.com/its-time-to-end-this-nonsense-high-bar-vs-low-bar-squatting/.