Olympic Squat vs Powerlifting Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons

differences between the olympic squat vs powerlifting squat

When it comes to squatting, there’s no greater debate than trying to figure out which back squat variation is better: olympic squats or powerlifting squats?

So, what are the differences between the olympic squat vs powerlifting squat? Olympic squats put the bar on top of the traps; they permit a more upright torso, target the quads more and have better carry-over to weightlifting. Powerlifting squats place the bar on top of the rear delts; they require more forward lean, emphasize the hip extensors, and help you lift more weight.

Stick around to find out the key differences that separate the olympic squat and powerlifting squat, in addition to the pros and cons of each. I’ll also outline how to perform each movement safely, highlight a few technique hacks, and elaborate on the common mistakes with each exercise.

Let’s get started!

What’s The Difference Between An Olympic Squat and Powerlifting Squat? 

While both of these exercises are variations of the back squat, there are some distinct differences where Olympic squats should be prioritized over powerlifting squats — and vice-versa. 

In my opinion, these exercises can be substituted for a non-competitive athlete who understands the differences between them. For Olympic weightlifters, CrossFit athletes, powerlifters and other strength sport competitors, one variation will most certainly be favourable over the other.

There are 7 differences between the olympic squat and powerlifting squat:

1.  Range of Motion

the olympic squat has a deeper range of motion compared with the powerlifting squat

The Olympic squat has a deeper range of motion compared with the powerlifting squat.

Olympic Squat

The olympic squat typically involves the lifter squatting as low as they possibly can — usually referred to as “ass to grass”. 

At this depth, the crease of the hip goes well below the top of the knee.

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat requires the lifter to squat down until “the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees” (IPF rulebook, 2019).

While the powerlifting squat is still considered deep, the range of motion is less than what you’d see in an Olympic squat.  This is because there is no additional benefit of going deeper than what the rules say you have to do. 

When judging the depth of a squat, it’s ideal to view the squat from the side because it gives the best view of these important landmarks.

Interested in learning more about the rules associated with a powerlifting squat?  Check out my article:  Powerlifting Squat Technique Rules

2.  Mobility Demands

because the Olympic squat has a deeper range of motion, greater mobility is required compared with the powerlifting squat

Because the Olympic squat has a deeper range of motion, greater mobility is required compared with the powerlifting squat.

Olympic Squat

The olympic squat requires more mobility to be performed correctly.

Since the ankles, knees, and hips go through more flexion (bending) in the olympic squat, a lifter must have greater flexibility in these areas.

This is one of the reasons why Olympic weightlifters wear heeled squat shoes when lifting as it helps with the mobility demands of the hips and ankles.  

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat usually requires less mobility overall to be performed.

Since the powerlifting squat doesn’t require the same degree of flexion in the ankle and knee joints, lifters who are less mobile can generally still show high technical proficiency in this exercise.

Want to make the switch from powerlifting to weightlifting? Check out my article where I discuss 9 steps to consider.

3.  Muscles Worked

olympic squat will target more of the quad muscles because of the deeper ranges of motion compared with the powerlifting squat

The Olympic squat will target more of the quad muscles because of the deeper ranges of motion compared with the powerlifting squat.

Olympic Squat

The olympic squat predominantly targets the quads, glutes, and adductor magnus (a portion of the hamstring.

However, because the movement involves greater ranges of motion, the knees have to bend and extend forward more, which creates a larger loading demand on the quad muscles.    

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat also focuses on the quads, glutes, and adductor magnus muscles. 

However, because the movement involves a slightly more forward torso lean compared with the Olympic squat, and the range of motion is not as deep, there is a larger loading demand on the glutes and low/mid-back. 

Check out my full guide on how each muscle group contributes to the squat in my article on Muscles Used In The Squat

4.  Movement Pattern

The Olympic squat has a more upright torso compared with the powerlifting squat. 

Olympic Squat

The Olympic squat will give the greatest return on investment when the lifter aims to sit between their thighs while trying to keep their torso as upright as possible

If an athlete tries to sit their hips back too far or allows too much forward lean, their balance point will shift too far forward of their midfoot — possibly making their heels rise off the ground.

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat will give the most benefit when the lifter tries to sit their hips back while leaning forward. 

If an athlete attempts to remain too upright, they might lose their balance during the lift and won’t be able to maximize the contribution of the glute muscles throughout the movement.  

5.  Weight Used

someone who masters the powerlifting squat will have a greater potential to lift more weight for a 1 rep max compared with the olympic squat

Someone who masters the powerlifting squat will have a greater potential to lift more weight for a 1 rep max compared with the Olympic squat. 

Olympic Squat

The olympic squat will necessitate slightly lower weights than the powerlifting squat.

This is mostly as a result of the greater range of motion and less advantageous biomechanics seen in the powerlifting squat (less contribution of the glute and trunk muscles)

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat will allow the use of heavier weights than those seen in the olympic squat.

This phenomenon is seen because there’s a shorter range of motion in the powerlifting squat and the more advantageous biomechanics allow the lifter to leverage their posterior chain to a higher degree.

6.  Bar Placement

olympic squat uses a high bar position while the powerlifting squat uses a low bar position

The Olympic squat uses a high bar position while the powerlifting squat uses a low bar position. 

Olympic Squat

In the olympic squat, the barbell is placed higher on the lifter’s back, usually on top of their upper traps.

Powerlifting Squat

In the powerlifting squat, the barbell is positioned lower on the lifter’s back, typically on top of their rear delts. 

Check out my article on Where Should You Put The Barbell On Your Back While Squatting?

7.  Sport Specificity

As the names suggest, the Olympic squat is used in Olympic weightlifting and the powerlifting squat is used in powerlifting.

Olympic Squat

The olympic squat is highly favourable for those doing the olympic lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. 

Since the lifter will catch their cleans and snatches in a deep squat position, the olympic squat is a better choice for weightlifting and CrossFit competitors.

Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat is definitely advantageous for those who want to maximize their performance in the sport of powerlifting.

Because the powerlifting squat has a reduced range of motion and more favorable joint angles than the Olympic squat, it’s probably a better choice for strength athletes like Strongman/Strongwoman competitors as well.

If you want to learn more about exercise differences, check out my article on the Box Squat vs Back Squat.


Olympic Squat

The olympic squat is a barbell squat variation that emphasizes the quads, glutes, adductor magnus, calves and trunk musculature — with a heightened focus on your knee extensors. This squat is also characterized by deep flexion in the knee joint, a high bar position for the barbell (it should rest on top of your traps), and a more upright torso angle.

How To Do An Olympic Squat

Here’s how to perform an olympic squat:

1. Find a power rack or squat rack

2. Adjust the hooks or uprights so that the bar will be about armpit-height

3. Place your hands on the bar using an overhand grip

4. Dip under the bar and place it on top of your traps (high bar position)

5. Bring your feet under your hips and stand up with the bar

6. Take two steps back to clear the hooks, and then adjust your stance width

7. When ready, take a large breath into your abdomen and brace your core

8. Push your knees forward and out, while sitting back slightly

9. As you squat down, think about trying to sit between your thighs

10. Once you reach a deep squat position (hip crease well below the top of your knee), push the floor away to ascend

Interested in learning how the squat compared with the sumo deadlift? Check out my other article on the Sumo Deadlift vs Back Squat.

Technique Tips For An Olympic Squat

Here are some olympic squat tips to help you with your technique: 

  • Use a pair of squat shoes. Due to the significant amount of deep knee flexion in the olympic squat, a pair of squat shoes will be a huge help. The raised heel and hard sole will assist in achieving a deep bottom position, while being able to transfer force into the floor efficiently.

  • Experiment with your stance. For the olympic squat, you’ll need to squat well below powerlifting depth. Depending on your ankle mobility, hip structure, and lower body anthropometry, you might have better success with a narrow or wide stance. Additionally, you may prefer your toes pointed forward, slightly out, or completely duck-footed. The best way is to experiment with all styles with the same weight on the bar for sets of 3-5 reps — you’ll easily find your optimal stance with this strategy.

You can learn more about Wide Stance Squats and Narrow Stance Squats in my other two articles.  

Common Mistakes When Doing An Olympic Squat

The most common faults in the olympic squat are:

  • Stance not wide enough. In order to sit between your thighs in the olympic squat, you’ll need enough room for your pelvis to go between your femurs (thigh bones). If your stance is too narrow, your pelvis won’t have enough space and you’ll end up squatting high. Ensure that you take a wide enough stance, so you can squat nice and deep.
  • Leaning forward too much. Keeping the barbell above the middle of your foot is essential with all squats. However, the olympic squat only allows a small amount of forward lean if you want to stay balanced. Too much forward lean will let the bar drift towards your toes, and cause you to “good morning” the bar up. Avoid this serious inefficiency by keeping fairly upright through the movement.

Muscles Used: Olympic Squat

The muscles used in the olympic squat are the: 

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Adductor Magnus (hamstring muscle)
  • Calves
  • Abdominals (obliques)
  • Back Muscles (erector spinae)

In the olympic squat, the lifter is simultaneously performing knee extension (straightening) and hip extension. 

When it comes to knee extension, this action is almost exclusively handled by the quadriceps with a little help from the calves. On the other hand, the glutes are the primary muscle group to complete hip extension — though the adductor magnus does assist as well.

The trunk musculature (obliques and erector spinae) also contract hard to maintain a rigid torso as the lifter descends and ascends.

An important distinction in the olympic squat is that the additional depth that is typically seen with this squat variation forces the adductor magnus to become fairly active during deep squats with lighter loads. 

In fact, the adductor magnus has been shown to produce an average of more than 50% of the net hip extension moment during a deep squat (Vigotsky & Bryanton, 2016).

Benefits of The Olympic Squat

Some of the benefits of the olympic squat are: 

  • It’s the most specific for olympic lifting. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit athlete, the olympic squat will be the best variation to become proficient at. Since it’s highly specific to your position in the clean and jerk and snatch, it’s almost certainly going to give you the best strength carryover.
  • It works your quads harder. A study by Bryanton and colleagues (2012) found that when your knees go beyond 105 degrees of flexion (bending), they get worked much harder. However, your quads are maximally worked once you lift 50% of your 1RM — there’s no extra recruitment of your quads as the bar gets heavier. If you want to maximally train your quads, squat deep (beyond 105 degrees) with at least 50% of your 1RM.

Cons of The Olympic Squat

Some of the cons of the olympic squat are: 

  • Your knees might ache. The additional forward knee travel seen in the olympic squat might cause you to have achy knees. This is especially true if you don’t give your body time to adapt to the novel movement pattern.
  • You might have to lower the weight. Instead of stopping at parallel, you’ll now have to move the bar across a longer range of motion in the olympic squat. The greater distance will probably force you to lighten the load slightly. 

Ready to start squatting deeper? Here are 9 Tips To Squat Deeper + Advice From Pro Powerlifters


Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat is a barbell squat variation that emphasizes the quads, glutes, adductor magnus, calves and trunk musculature — putting an extra focus on your hip extensors. This version of the back squat is also characterized by more flexion in the hip joint, a low bar position for the barbell (it should rest on top of your rear delts), and greater forward lean with your torso.

How To Do A Powerlifting Squat

Here’s how to perform a powerlifting squat:

1. Find a power rack or squat rack

2. Adjust the hooks or uprights so that the bar will be about armpit-height

3. Place your hands on the bar using an overhand grip

4. Dip under the bar and place it on top of your rear delts

5. Ensure the bar is supported by your back, not your wrists and forearms

6. Bring your feet under your hips and stand up with the bar

7. Take two steps back to clear the hooks, and then adjust your stance width

8. When ready, take a large breath into your abdomen and brace your core

9. Push your knees slightly forward and out, while sitting back and leaning forward

10. As you squat down, think about “sitting between your thighs”

11. Once you reach powerlifting depth (hip crease slightly below the top of your knee), drive the floor away to stand up

Technique Tips For a Powerlifting Squat

Here are some powerlifting squat tips to help you with your technique: 

  • Ditch the mirror. Squatting with a mirror in front of you is tempting, since you can literally see when you’re achieved the depth-requirement for the powerlifting squat. Unfortunately, the only thing in front of you during a competition will be the judges. Instead of relying on your reflection for visual feedback, set the rack facing away from the mirror. By squatting this way, you’ll develop more kinesthetic awareness (knowing your body’s position in space) and you’ll be better prepared for a powerlifting meet.

  • Widen your grip if needed. Getting the bar to rest on your rear delts (in the low bar position) can be challenging, especially with a narrow grip. Instead of turning the powerlifting squat into a flexibility exercise, simply widen your grip by a couple inches. You’ll likely feel less strain on your shoulders and your wrists will thank you, too.

Common Mistakes When Doing a Powerlifting Squat

The most common faults in the powerlifting squat are:

  • Ignoring wrist discomfort. Over-extended wrists in the low bar position is fine, provided that your rear delts are carrying almost the entire load of the bar. If your wrists bear too much of the weight, they might start to seriously ache — to the point where it impacts your bench press performance. Make sure your rear delts entirely bear the barbell’s weight, and consider investing in a pair of wrist wraps.
  • Letting your back round. Although powerlifting squats allow you to leverage your posterior chain, it’s less efficient to let your back round as you stand up. While it’s often difficult to avoid, you’ll want to fix your rounded back position when you squat. 

Not sure what wrist wraps to invest in? Here’s the 8 Best Wrist Wraps For Powerlifting in 2020 (Top Picks)

Muscles Used: Powerlifting Squat

The muscles used in the powerlifting squat are the: 

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Adductor Magnus (hamstring muscle)
  • Calves
  • Abdominals (obliques)
  • Erector Spinae (lower back muscles)

In the powerlifting squat, the athlete is required to do knee extension (straightening) and hip extension at the same time.

The primary muscle group that handles knee extension is the quadriceps, though the calves assist slightly. In order to perform hip extension, the glutes shoulder most of the work — having the adductor magnus help out in a minor role.

To avoid having the lifter’s trunk collapse under the weight of the barbell, the obliques and erector spinae contract to keep the torso rigid throughout the exercise.

An important distinction in the powerlifting squat is that the greater forward lean puts a greater emphasis on your hip extensors. While your quads are very much active during the powerlifting squat, your glutes and adductor magnus are recruited to a significant extent to help you squat heavier weights.

Benefits of The Powerlifting Squat

Some of the benefits of the powerlifting squat are: 

  • It’s the most specific for powerlifting. Assuming that you’ll be competing with the low bar squat in powerlifting, the powerlifting squat will be the best variation to train with. This is because it’s the exact variation that you’ll be performing in competition — in this case, specificity reigns supreme.
  • It works your glutes hard. A study by Bryanton and colleagues (2012) found that while the glutes are worked more at deeper ranges of motion, “Heavier barbell loads are warranted for strengthening the hip extensors and ankle plantar flexors.”

Related article: The 5 Best Squat Shoes For Low Bar Position

Cons of The Powerlifting Squat

Some of the cons of the powerlifting squat are: 

  • Your elbows might ache. For some lifters, the low bar position of the barbell on your back can sometimes cause your elbows to ache. This is likely because you’re carrying a significant portion of the barbell’s load through your arms, instead of it being supported almost entirely from your back muscles.
  • Your low back might feel more fatigued. The powerlifting squat usually has lifters lean forward more, placing more work on the hip extensor muscles. Along with the (slightly) heavier weights that you can lift with the powerlifting squat, you might experience more low back fatigue as a result.

Experiencing elbow pain while doing powerlifting squats? Make sure to check out my article on How To Fix Elbow Pain Low Bar Squatting (8 Solutions)

Other Squat Comparison Articles

Final Thoughts

If you’re unsure whether you should do olympic squats or powerlifting squats, I’ll help direct towards the right variation. Ultimately, the best choice for you is based on your training goals.

Use olympic squats if you compete in Olympic weightlifting or CrossFit. Additionally, use this variation if you want to maximize the development of your knee extensors (quads) but remember to go beyond 105 degrees of knee flexion.

Use powerlifting squats if you compete in powerlifting or another non-weightlifting strength sport (Strongman/Strongwoman, Highland Games). Further, you should select this style if you want your hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) to reach their fullest potential. Remember that your hip crease must go below the top of your knee for each rep.

If you’re only interested in building muscle and/or getting stronger but have no preference, try out both and pick the one that lets you train the hardest and the most consistently.


About The Author

Kent Nilson

Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.