The Squat is king of the weight room.
It’s a time-tested way to enhance almost every aspect of athletic performance. If you’re capable of squatting, there’s no reason it shouldn’t play a role in your routine. But how you position the barbell for the Squat can have a big impact on the exercise. Changing bar position changes the biomechanics of the exercise, altering its effects.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a guide to help you better understand how five bar variations change this classic exercise. This knowledge can help you get a safer, smarter and more efficient workout.
High Bar Back Squat
The Barbell Back Squat is a beast of an exercise. Athletes with powerful lower halves can move tremendous loads during the Barbell Back Squat, and it’s a surefire way to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and quads.
There are two common bar positions utilized during the Barbell Back Squat—high bar and low bar.
The High Bar Back Squat (HBBS) is the most prevalent. In this variation, the barbell rests across your upper traps. A good cue to position the bar correctly is to think of it sitting on the back collar of your shirt.
This position allows you to maintain a relatively upright torso throughout the full range of motion. The HBBS typically places more emphasis on your quads than the Low Bar Back Squat (LBBS). It also typically forces the lifter’s knees farther forward than the LBBS, since that helps to keep the load over the middle of the feet. Unsurprisingly, the HBBS places more emphasis on the muscles around the knee than the LBBS while placing less emphasis on the muscles around the hip. Poor technique on the HBBS can put a lot of stress on your lower back, and it can be a difficult move for tall athletes to master.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that “the HBBS is more suited to replicate movements that exhibit a more upright torso position, such as the Snatch and Clean, or to place more emphasis on the associated musculature of the knee joint.”
Low Bar Back Squat
The Low Bar Back Squat has the bar sit 2 to 3 inches lower than the high bar position. This typically places the bar between your rear delts and upper traps, which act as a “shelf” of sorts for the bar to sit upon.
Since the bar is farther behind your center of gravity than it is with the HBBS, your torso must lean farther forward (to about a 45-degree angle or so) during the movement. This requires excellent hip hinge technique, meaning you can bend at your waist through a full range of motion without moving through your lumbar spine.
While the LBBS targets the glutes more heavily than the HBBS, it doesn’t hit the quads quite as hard. Most lifters will be able to lift more weight on the LBBS than the HBBS. Tall athletes with long femurs will often find the LBBS to be more comfortable than the HBBS. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that “practitioners seeking to place emphasis on the stronger hip musculature should consider the LBBS. Also, when the goal is to lift the greatest load possible, the LBBS may be preferable.”
The Front Squat sees the barbell placed on the front side of the body as opposed to the back side. The barbell should sit across the front of your shoulders, close to your neck. A good way to tell if the bar is positioned correctly is to do a straight-arm test. Place the barbell across your shoulders and straighten your arms forward so they’re parallel to the ground. The barbell is in the proper position if it stays in place.
There are a number of different grips that can be used for the Front Squat, but none of them should significantly alter the bar position. The Front Squat bar position allows for an upright torso throughout the movement, which puts less stress on your lumbar spine than does the Back Squats. The nature of the Front Squat makes the quads and the glutes the primary movers of the exercise, while Back Squats better target the hamstrings.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that “Front Squats may be advantageous compared with Back Squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.”
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the Zercher Squat before, but it’s a fantastic exercise. It makes use of a unique bar position by placing the barbell inside the crook of your bent elbows. This article gives a great breakdown of how to set-up for the position.
First things first, you won’t be able to lift as much on the Zercher Squat as you do on the Back Squat. It’s just the nature of the exercise. However, the Zercher Squat reduces compression and stress on your spine by moving the load off your back and onto your arms. You may find that you can achieve greater depth on the Zercher Squat than other Squat variations, since the bar position is conducive to a very upright posture. This can be especially useful for taller athletes who have trouble achieving the desired depth on a Squat. The Zercher Squat recruits more of the musculature of the upper back (traps, rhomboids, rear delts) than the aforementioned Squats. The bar position also places a unique challenge on the core as compared to other Squat exercises.
However, the Zercher Squat is not without its drawbacks. For one, it’s quite a bit more uncomfortable than the other Squat bar positions. We’re simply not used to carrying loads in the crook of our elbows. Using a t-shirt, pad or neoprene sleeves on your elbows can help make the exercise more comfortable. Upper-body strength can also be a limiting factor with regard to how heavy of a load you can use on the Zercher Squat.
The Landmine Squat takes the barbell off your torso and puts it out in front of your body. The Landmine Squat sees you holding one end of a barbell (the loaded end, if you’re using additional weight) just in front of your sternum. This makes it somewhat similar to a Goblet Squat.
RELATED: 17 Highly Effective Landmine Exercises
When you lower into the Landmine Squat, the bar will essentially “push” you back a bit if you’re positioned correctly. This is due entirely to the positioning of the barbell, so it’s a novel effect that isn’t replicated with Back or Front Squats. This will ensure that you keep an upright torso throughout the movement while also preventing significant amounts of forward knee travel. This makes the Landmine Squat an excellent variation for teaching proper Squat mechanics. The Landmine Squat places less stress on your back than Back Squats, and the hand position used in the Landmine Squat may be more comfortable for a lifter with a history of shoulder injuries than the hand position used in the Back Squat.
While you likely won’t be able to Landmine Squat as much as you can Back Squat, you should be able to Landmine Squat significantly more than you can Goblet Squat. This is a great variation for beginners or anyone who could benefit from reinforcing efficient Squat movement mechanics.
Photo Credit: Ozimician/iStock