|Image from Starting Strength, Rippetoe and Kilgore
I’ve been wanting to write about low-bar and high-bar squats for quite some time and now that I am programming for a large number of individuals, it seems like the time is right. I’ve gotten some questions from my members at CrossFit Solace and they’ve also forwarded me the writings and thoughts of others. Let me begin by saying this topic is not new; there have been many articles written on it, However, I have a few points that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere and perhaps more importantly, how I approach the issue is, I think, different.
The Difference in the Squats: There are 3 squats that come into play in this argument: the low-bar squat (pictured above right), the high-bar squat (pictured above middle), and the front squat (above left). The front squat is the squat position needed to rack a bar on your shoulders to complete a Clean in the sport of Weightlifting. Standing up from rock bottom in this vertical torso position emphasizes glute and quadriceps activation. The high-bar squat has the bar resting on the shoulders. The torso is still largely upright and standing up from rock bottom in this position is also largely glute and quadriceps driven. The low-bar squat as you can see above has the hip angle much more closed and the finish position is taught with hip crease just below parallel. The difference here is notable as more leg muscles are being worked with this version of the squat (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, abductors). I don’t really know of anyone that disputes this difference and anyone who has never low-bar squatted can verify for themselves, by seeing where they are sore the day after they first try it.
The Weightlifting Argument: First and foremost, the low-bar vs high-bar argument arose in the context of Weightlifting movements. So let’s stay within this context for a moment. This argument concerns which is “better,” the low-bar squat or the high-bar squat. The front squat is generally left out of the argument because it is a movement that is part of the sport of Weightlifting. You have to do this movement if you want to perform Cleans. So, training it is by definition useful. But for the other versions, you generally only see high-bar squats being used. People often ask why Weightlifting coaches don’t use the low-bar squat. Greg Everett was asked this question and he responded with, “That’s like asking why baseball players don’t use footballs.” In short, he’s saying that the low-bar squat does not have carry over to the functionality of Weightlifting. But this isn’t entirely true:
- The position of the bar and the back angle for a high-bar squat is not the same as a front squat. It is more similar to a front squat than a low-bar squat, yes, but it is not the same. There is a difference. So, in terms of form, saying the high-bar carries over and the low-bar does not, is a matter of drawing a line. You are of course welcome to do this, but the differences are not black and white.
- A low-bar squat does in fact have carry over to weightlifting in that is develops strength. Strength is a general adaptation. Just being stronger will make you better at Weightlifting. I have seen this time and time again with my clients and myself. For example, after just a month of low-bar squatting I PR’d my Clean and front squat. Perhaps you can say my PRs would have been better if I high-bar squatted instead, but you can’t say the low-bar had no carry over. It did. This point is an important one. It goes beyond just squatting. Years ago, after 2 months of only upper body strength training (with no technical work), I PR’d my Snatch.
- The low-bar squat does a better job of strengthening your lower back through isometric contraction than the high-bar does. This is a particularly important adaptation for Weightlifting as most lifters try their best to keep their shoulders over the bar during the first pull. This loads your hamstrings and requires a very strong lower back. Again, I am not saying you can’t train this other ways (heavy Clean pulls work well for this too). I’m just saying that for this adaptation, low-bar squats are more effective than high-bar.
- One thing I found when returning to performing Cleans after low-bar squatting, was that my legs felt stronger in the transition out of the bottom of the squat to above parallel – they didn’t cave in as much. Your hamstrings, abductors, and adductors are largely “turned off” in the bottom of the low-bar and front squat (or Clean) and they need to kick in at the transition. You can see this by watching a lot of lifters Clean heavy weights. In the video of Ilya below, you’ll see his knees cave in a bit (at about 0:02):
This is purely personal observation, but I had less knee cave-in at even heavier weights after low-bar squatting. I’m not saying low-bar squatting will prevent this knee movement in Weightlifting, but I suspect it is a very efficient way to strengthen/improve this transition position in the Clean, at least for less advanced athletes.
The Weightlifting Argument Wrap-Up: As you can see, I in no way tried to discredit the high-bar squat. It’s a great exercise and more similar to the front squat than the low-bar, but the Weightlifting argument really needs to be about strength. It can’t be about technique carry over, because if you are training Weightlifting you will always still be training the front squat and the Clean. You will have plenty of technique work for that upright vertical torso position. And along these lines, there are Weightlifting coaches, like Mike Burgener, who don’t use either the low-bar or high-bar squat – they just use front squats and Clean pulls. So, if you’re incorporating any squat that is not a front squat, you’re really doing so to build strength. Strength is paramount in Weightlifting, and low-bar squats build strength exceedingly well. Might high-bar squats do it better, possibly, but that’s a harder argument to make as so few Weightlifters have low-bar squats as a staple of their routine.
The CrossFit Argument: This section is why I really wanted to write this article. I think the major problem with the low-bar vs high-bar argument is that it has morphed from being just an argument about training Weightlifters to an argument for and against the lift regardless of the situation. More specifically, you are now seeing CrossFit coaches saying the low-bar squat is not appropriate because it does not carry over to the functionality of Weightlifting. But a CrossFit coach is not a Weightlifting coach. In response to this, writers have said, yes, but there are so many Weightlifting movements in CrossFit, that you should focus on the lifts that carry over best to these movements. By analogy, if you don’t train with emphasis for this carry over, you’re leaving a lot on the table. Well, I don’t see this as entirely accurate. My points in the Weightlifting argument above are relevant in response, but here are a few other key points:
- CrossFit having a lot of Weightlifting is relative. It certainly can. If you follow Outlaw CrossFit, then there will be a ton of Weightlifting. Outlaw has basically morphed into a Weightlifting program where its followers also do some CrossFit (see Outlaw Way). However, performing Weightlifting every day is not CrossFit as it was originally designed, nor is it how it is taught and programmed now by HQ. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Outlaw and I program a lot more Weightlifting than traditional CrossFit would suggest. But this is because the lifts are very technical and require lots of practice (and because they are fun). It is not because CrossFit is now largely Weightlifting.
- A CrossFit coach saying a low-bar squat has no carry over to Weightlifting is an even weaker argument. It fails on the general strength point I noted above in the previous section. The hardest thing for CrossFitters to develop, and what takes the longest to achieve, is strength. If they can get stronger, it will carry over to many of the CrossFit movements and their overall performance. Strength aside, the carry over argument fails because we don’t always use perfect carry over in CrossFit. If we wanted perfect carry over we would never let people learn handstand push-ups against a wall first as this doesn’t have good carry over to a proper, stacked freestanding handstand/handstand walk. Different motor patterns have to be trained for these, and they are. But that is what CrossFit is all about. It’s about being very good at many different things. It’s about being a master of many different movement patterns. Saying you won’t train the low-bar squat because the movement pattern is different than a Clean, is like saying you won’t train the Push Press because the movement pattern is different than the Split Jerk. But of course, most coaches in fact do train both.
- As a CrossFit Coach you are going to have a wide mix of clients with varying skill and strength levels. I have found that the “knees caving in” phenomenon at the bottom of the squat can be a result of very weak abductors and adductors. Cuing “knees out”, often isn’t enough. I’ve found that even in relatively strong squatters, this can be a problem and that cycling in some low-bar squatting solves the problem nicely.
- High-bar squatting actually leaves a fair bit on the table for a CrossFitter. In particular, hamstring strength. Ask a typical CrossFitter to perform a Glute Ham Raise with no bend in their hip. Odds are they won’t be able to do it. Low-bar squats help build your hamstring strength.
- As a CrossFit Coach you are going to have clients that will want to be competitive and compete in either the Open or higher levels. As soon as this comes into play, they are going to want to be as efficient as possible in performing movements such as the squat. A full depth squat as trained in the front squat or high-bar squat is no longer advantageous when the workout requires air squats or wall balls at high repetitions for time. The range of motion requirement is hip crease below parallel, not all the way down, and this will get the reps completed faster. When does this movement pattern get trained? Almost never, and it’s hard to hit just right if you’ve never trained it. But if you have experience low-bar squatting, you will know where to stop intuitively.
The CrossFit Argument Wrap-Up: The CrossFit argument against low-bar squatting is a very weak one. By definition CrossFitters should be above average in a wide array of skill sets and motor patterns. This is the essence of CrossFit. Why the argument even arises is because CrossFit Coaches are doubling as Weightlifting Coaches these days. I think this has been great for CrossFit and the sport of Weightlifting (I am a Weightlifting Coach as well as a CrossFit coach). But not every CrossFitter wants to be a Weightlifter. So, if low-bar squats are being programmed for CrossFit in addition to other key movements (e.g., Clean, front squat and possibly low-bar squats), you’re getting the best of all worlds. And this is why I rotate low-bar squats into my programming. In a Barbell Club class, which focuses solely on Weightlifting, the decision to use low-bar squats is more complicated for the reasons discussed above in the Weightlifting section. For our class, I do not program in low-bar squats (or any other pure strength developer) as we offer a separate strength class and the time is better spent training Weightlifting technique. But again, this decision depends on your class structure and demographic.
So, next time this argument arises, you have a different perspective on why low-bar squats might be incorporated in training. And most importantly, you will have an appreciation for how the argument against low-bar squats must be placed in a specific context. Who you are training, (age, experience, individual movement patterns/deficiencies) and the goal of the training (strength, technique, etc.) must be considered. There is no one-size fits all answer to training.