ATP Foundation Series – The Squat Part 1: High Bar vs Low Bar

The ATP Foundation series is an in-depth article series for all powerlifters interested in fixing their lifting technique for raw powerlifting. The information presented within can be easily utilized by beginners and intermediate lifters, and is co-written by ATP coaches Clinton Lee and Twain Teo.

In this series, they will be going in depth to the various powerlifts (squat, bench and deadlift) to break down the various components of each lift into easily applicable nuggets that you can use right away in your training. Powerlifting is all about efficiency, and every bit of technique that you can maximize will help you lift the most weight in the safest and most efficient manner.

If you are looking to make huge progress in your training, read on!


The bar position debate

One of the most common questions that powerlifting athletes tend to ask is whether or not a high bar or low bar position should be used in competition. Some athletes come to us having only ever squatted high bar style, whereas others have been schooled in the art of the low bar style squat since they started lifting.

Before we go any further, let us take a look at the key differences of the two techniques.

The high bar position

When executing a high bar squat, we position the bar on the traps.

Bar placement for the high bar squat.

With this bar placement, the lifter has to maintain a more upright torso angle when moving the weight up and down. This is so that the balance can be maintained over the lifter’s mid foot.

With a more upright torso angle, the knees will have to be pushed forward and outwards more to allow the lifter to hit depth. There will be less pushing back of the hips (hinging).

Knees are pushed forward more in the high bar squat.

In addition, the degree of mobility in the lifter’s ankles will also determine if the lifter can hit depth and still maintain their balance (bar over the mid foot). If the ankle mobility is limited, then the lifter will experience the weight drifting forward, and the heels will start to come off the floor, losing their balance. Usually in this case, the lifter will arch their lower back more in order to maintain balance and to try and hit depth. This actually makes it harder to ascend as the torso bracing is now compromised, and power from the legs cannot be maximally transferred into the bar.

The low bar position

With a low bar placement, the lifter is required to place the bar on the shelf just above the rear delts.

Low bar placement in the low bar squat.

The shelf is only there when the lifter retracts their shoulders as seen in the picture.

As the bar is placed lower on the back, the lifter needs to lean slightly forward/sit back more when executing the lift. As with all the powerlift movements, the goal is to maintain the balance over the mid foot throughout the movement.

For a low bar squat, the lifter will thus need to hinge at the hips more, and the resulting movement will look less upright. One of the benefits of this is that the ankle mobility demands are not as high for the lifter in this case.

The hips are pushed back more in a low bar squat.

Finding your best bar position

Now that we have understand the similarities and differences between the two squats variations, it is time for us to learn how you can find your best bar position to maximize your squat numbers.

What is comes down to are 2 very specific leverage components of the body: The length of your torso (hip to shoulder) and the length of your thigh (knee to hip crease). You will squat in a different manner, depending on which is longer. For ease of reference, we will call the ratio of your torso length to thigh length the ‘body ratio’.

In an ideal situation, we will always want out squats to be as upright as possible, so that we can depend on our legs and hips to execute the movement, and the core and back strength presents less of a limiting factor. Let us take a look at each of the particular variations and see which one applies to you. This will then determine which variation you should adopt in competition.

If the torso length is longer than the thigh length

If your body ratio is more than 1, then you have been blessed by the squat gods, and you are more likely to be a natural at squatting. You can use both the high bar and low bar positioning, and your torso will be fairly upright, which will allow a most efficient drive from your lower body muscles.

The torso length is longer than the thigh length – built for squatting!

The question will then be whether you should use a high or low bar position. What we have found with most of our clients is that using a low bar position is generally better. One of the biggest issues for those with longer torsos is that there is a tendency to hyperextend the torso in the squat. This is not beneficial as at maximum weights, you cannot efficiently get your glutes into the movement as well, and it will also limit your power almost exclusively to the quadriceps muscles. For powerlifting, we want to maximize the efficiency of the movement and ensure all muscles are contributing maximally to move the weight.

Using a low bar position will help as this ensures upper back tightness. In order to do a low bar position, you will need to retract the shoulder blades and keep your upper back held tight. Together with proper bracing, you will be able to keep the torso neutral and rigid, preventing hyperextension and allowing maximum transfer from your legs into the bar.

If the torso length is shorter than the thigh length

If your body ratio is less than 1, you will need to start with a lower bar position and see how you execute the movement.

Torso length is shorter than thigh length – not ideal, but work with what you got.

If you have to bend forward a lot to hit depth in the squat, this means that your torso angle will be closer to parallel with the floor. This is perhaps one of the worst ways to squat, as it essentially becomes a good morning variation. In this position, it’s not difficult to see that the amount of weight you could squat is limited by your back muscles.

Good morning! This ain’t a squat…

If your torso angle is lower than 45 degrees to the floor, you should start to consider using a high bar position as your main competition squat variation. This will allow you to stay a bit more upright when executing the weight. You will also not be as likely to hyperextend your torso due to its limited length.

If your torso angle is still higher than 45 degrees to the floor, you can still stick to low bar as your main competition movement. This is because with the low bar racking, you will be able to get a more even distribution of power from both the front and back leg muscles. Once again, remember that for powerlifting, we want to maximize the efficiency of the movement and ensure all muscles are contributing maximally to move the weight.

Not too sure about your body ratio?

If you are not too sure about your own body ratio, here is what you can do to identify your best bar position for the squat.

  1. Start with a low bar position and take a video of your squat from the side profile.
  2. Look at your torso angle in the bottom position
  3. Compare it to the photos below.
  4. If it looks closer to example 1, you are good with the low bar position. If it looks closer to example 2, you will probably want to try a higher bar position.

Side note: If you find that your torso angle changes as you move from the bottom position up, then there is likely some other issues that changing bar position alone will not help. Do not worry, we will be covering this in later parts of our Squat foundation series.

A quick note on the squat for raw powerlifting

With the low bar position, it is traditionally taught that you should use a wider stance. This likely originates from the original roots of powerlifting, where multiply gear is used. With a squat suit, your hips in the bottom position are thoroughly supported. The hip mobility demands are lower compared to wide stance squatting without a squat suit.

This is why, even with the low bar position, we don’t take the traditionally wide stance that you see in geared lifting. You will notice that even with a low bar position, the torso angle for the lifters will generally still be fairly upright (usually not any lower than 50 deg angle from the floor), and the quads will still be a key driver in the raw powerlifting squat.

As a result, the low bar position for raw powerlifting factors largely into how your leverages are and we often find that most clients adopt a somewhat mid to low bar position for competition. The next article in our foundation series for the squat will cover stance width, so we will go more in depth into this there.

Conclusion

There you go! The first step in any good squat is to ensure you have the most advantageous bar position for your body. If you are newer to powerlifting, try out the exercise above to determine what bar position you should start with. Stick to it for 3 to 4 sessions of squatting in order to allow yourself more time to evaluate the movement. You might need to make some slight adjustments from your initial starting point, but if you follow these rules, you will generally find your most comfortable bar position for your competition style squat!


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