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Master the squat: High-bar vs low-bar barbell squat

Both the high-bar and low-bar techniques are excellent for building back and leg strength. Which one should you go for?

The barbell squat is an excellent compound movement to build strength,
The barbell squat is an excellent compound movement to build strength, (Istockphoto)

The benefits of adding squats to your workout routine are well known: powerful legs, healthier knee joints, a stronger lower back, fat loss, muscle gain and flexibility. But once you’ve mastered the bodyweight squat, the body will quickly adapt to the difficulty and your gains will plateau. Squats are an exercise (very much like the push-up) that you need to get creative with. And that also means adding additional weights to your squats.

Adding weights will stop your legs from adapting to the constant tension that comes with just using your bodyweight. The use of dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells (or all three) will promote progressive overload over time, which in turn will lead to more strength and building muscle. Remember, the bigger your muscles, the more calories you burn. The spillover effect of the squat, which is a compound exercise, is that it forces large muscle groups to work together. So even if you’re doing cardio to burn fat, it still makes sense to add some weights to your squats to maintain and increase lower body strength and muscle.

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Natural progression in squat training would mean moving from bodyweight to dumbbells, and eventually a barbell. Feel free to add kettlebells to your routine and mix everything up on different leg days. But it is the barbell squat that is the ultimate compound movement. It’s the one that will give you the most benefits of the squat.

Trainers will mostly suggest trying the back squat first, where the bar is placed behind your head. But there are two kinds of back squats: high-bar and low-bar, depending on the positioning of the bar. Typically, most people are taught the high-bar squat in which the bar is resting on your traphezius muscle, or traps. This promotes a more upright position and fires up the quadriceps muscles (quads) when you are on the way up from the squat position. But shift the bar two inches below, across the shoulder blades with a wider grip and your elbows more flared than usual, and it becomes a low-bar squat stance. The body mechanics of this position make you tilt slightly forward, which means you will extend your hips more while going down in a squat, adding greater activation to your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes.

The low-bar squat is great for effectively activating your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes.
The low-bar squat is great for effectively activating your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes. (Istockphoto)

I tried the low-bar squat for the first time last week, and was told that I would find it easier to lift more weight using this technique. It turned out to be true. I could attempt four reps of my high-bar squat 1RM (one rep-max) and was pleasantly surprised. But it does make sense. A study from last year, called Muscle Activation Varies Between High-Bar And Low-Bar Back Squat, found that more muscle groups are activated during low-bar squats. “The differences are crucial for the posterior muscle chain during the eccentric phase of the squat cycle,” it stated. This is why most lifters use the low-bar technique when they’re trying to reach their 1RM. The angle of flexion is lower in a low-bar squat as well, meaning the knees don’t have to push too far from the ankles.

But one must be extra careful with form when performing a low-bar squat. You should feel the bar forcing down on your back during this squat. The bar shouldn’t be slipping, or pushing you down into a position where you’re bent forward more than you should be, with too much of the weight on your shoulders. If you find yourself losing form while performing this move, return to working out with lighter weights till you’re ready. As always, for real fitness, you will need to leave your pride at the door.

“If you’re able to drop your hips straight to your ankles and maintain a very upright position, the high-bar squat would be anatomically best. If you shoot your hips back and let your chest tilt forward, then the low-bar back squat is typically better suited. Another indicator is your leg length—longer legs usually means low bar, while shorter means high,” writes strength and conditioning coach Sean Collins in an Men's Journal article titled, High-Bar Squats Vs. Low-Bar Squats: What’s The Difference?

Also Read: Why you need to train with a kettlebell

The low-bar squat certainly has its advantages, but this does not mean that you should give up on high-bar or conventional back squats. The high-bar squat helps increase power and will affect your overall lifting ability. A good high-bar squat’s benefits can be felt during a bench press as well. The high-bar squat should also be your go-to exercise if you are aiming to develop the front part of your legs. It is a form that is easier to balance, is kinder on your lower back, and the optimal move for Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches, all of which are incorporated in CrossFit training.

The squat is one of the best exercises, easy to learn, and even easier to experiment with once you’ve mastered your form. It’s always a good idea to mix up these lifts because whether it’s high-bar or low-bar, the squat will make you stronger and faster.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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