4 Reasons To Do Safety Bar Squats (Plus, How To Program It)

The Safety Squat Bar is a widely used piece of equipment, especially within powerlifting.

While there is a vast difference in opinions on training throughout the industry, you’ll see coaches and athletes from all different backgrounds utilizing the Safety Bar Squat. And that is for good reason. 

Safety Bar Squats can be an excellent tool to use within your training because:

  • It allows for shoulder mobility to be a non-factor in the squat
  • It naturally creates better pelvic orientation and bracing mechanics in most lifters
  • It can be used to address weaknesses in the squat, such as the chest fall pattern
  • It allows lifters to have a high training effect while using lower absolute loads

To understand why a Safety Squat Bar can be of benefit for the above 4 reasons though, we must also understand the elements behind its design that differentiates it. 

Check out my comparison of the Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat.

What Are The Design Elements Of A Safety Squat Bar?

This is what a safety squat bar looks like

When I first purchased a Safety Squat Bar 9 years ago, I was working as a Personal Trainer at a large commercial gym.

I had countless members wanting to use this specialty bar, but for the wrong reasons.

I think the meaning of the word “safety” within the name is very often mistaken, and most people just figured it must mean it is a safer option to squat. As well, the Safety Squat Bar has a pad so their traps wouldn’t hurt.

I personally got one just because I saw professional bodybuilders Ronnie Coleman and Branch Warren using one and wanted to be like them.

My first time ever using it I loaded it up with just as much weight as I would low bar squat and got crushed, and actually suffered a minor external oblique tear.

I learned my lesson fast that the Safety Squat Bar has a very intelligent and intentional design, so the use of this bar is specific as well.

The typical Safety Squat bar has 4 distinct design elements that differentiate it from a normal barbell.

The safety squat bar is one of my hack squat alternatives.

First, it has a pad that covers the middle of the bar and the handles that cross over your traps.

Commercial gym goers mistake that padding for a “squat pad”, but it serves two primary purposes.

First, it creates a higher center of gravity for the bar which further extends the bar’s moment arm from the hips.

This creates a greater demand on the upper back musculature in particular, and even more so than a high bar squat. You can read about the difference between a high bar vs low bar squat HERE.

Second, if you have ever had the unfortunate opportunity to use a Safety Squat Bar without padding, it is extremely uncomfortable.

And not where the bar rests as many would think, but more so with the handles that extend over the traps. Those handles will dig HARD into your traps. 

Second, the bar has handles that extend out in front of your body to hold onto.

This takes out the variable of shoulder mobility, which is usually a limiting factor in lifts like the Front Squat.

But what some may not realize is the importance of there being handles at all.

The handles help you control the barbell’s position.

It is very common to see someone using a Safety Squat Bar and the handles pull down into their body and cave their upper back down. Instead, we should be actively holding those handles in a static position and fighting against that tendency to compensate at the upper back.

Also, by squeezing those handles we are creating an irradiation effect from the hands to the upper back. If you ever try to use this bar without holding the handles, you’ll notice an immediate decrease in upper back tightness.

That irradiation effect from the handles is vital in creating tension and stability in the upper back. 

Third, the Safety Squat Bar has a cambered curve to displace the weight forward.

The bar might be resting on our upper back, but the weight is displaced almost in a position that mimics a front squat.

For this reason, many people state the Safety Squat Bar is an intermediate between high bar squatting and front squatting.

While this makes sense, I also am not in complete agreement with that statement.

The big difference with a Safety Squat Bar is that there is not only a vertical gravitational pull, but also a slight horizontal pull that is absent in all other barbell squat variations.

As such, the Safety Bar Squat more closely mimics the bar placement of a high bar squat, but the horizontal pull and weight displacement of a Goblet Squat.

For this reason, I many times will use a Goblet squat to teach the squat pattern that should translate to a Safety Bar Squat, and the feeling of using the weight to counterbalance. 

Side note: If you get elbow pain while low bar squatting, using the safety bar squat can help you squat pain-free.

Fourth, the weight angles down from the handles.

There are some versions of the Safety Squat Bar that have the angles even, but traditionally the weight should angle down from the handle.

This is to limit forward weight bias so that the weight is optimally placed and is not too far out in front.

If you have ever accidentally used a Safety Squat Bar upside down, you likely immediately felt the difference in how much harder it was.

So like I said, there is a very intelligent and intentional design to this bar, and any deviation from the specific camber and angle immediately changes the benefits and movement. 

Let’s dive into those benefits now!

Benefit #1: Shoulder Mobility Is A Non-Factor When Using The Safety Bar Squat

Safety bar squats helps with poor shoulder mobility
Shoulder mobility can sometimes impede your ability to get into a proper squat position

Now that there is an understanding of the design elements that make the Safety Squat Bar unique, let’s dive into the first and probably primary benefit of this bar.

The main reason for the rise in popularity of Safety Bar Squats was for removing the variable of shoulder mobility.

In a perfect world, we could all squat as much as we liked and make amazing progress doing so.

But most know it’s not a perfect world, and the toll that frequent low bar squatting can take on the shoulders, biceps, and forearms can accumulate fast.

So the Safety Squat Bar allows lifters to still accumulate higher squat volumes and frequency without the same wear and tear. Since the handles are in front of us, there is no specific demand for internal or external rotation of the shoulder. 

If your shoulders are causing you problems during the squat, read this guide on How To Fix Shoulder Pain While Squatting.

It can also allow lifters who may have an upper-body injury the opportunity to still squat.

It is a very common practice for powerlifters post pec-tear to start using a Safety Squat Bar initially until their pec has recovered enough to then allow low bar squatting again.

Or if maybe you are taking a training block to prioritize bench press and want to limit fatigue accumulation of the shoulders from low bar squat. You can implement Safety Bar Squats to accomplish that task while still handling plenty of squat workload.

I have found a specific use for Safety Bar Squats in programming it as the variation used on the squat day that directly precedes a lifter’s primary bench day. It helps to limit fatigue carry over and helps create more consistently productive primary bench days. 

The safety bar squat was mentioned in my article on the best leg press substitutes.

Benefit #2: The Safety Squat Bar Promotes Improved Bracing And Pelvic Orientation 

saftey bar squats pelvic position neutral

A very common issue among low bar squatters is with lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt (this is where the low back creates an arch).

Due to the high demands on shoulder mobility, the low bar squat promotes upper back extension which then typically leaks its way down to the low back and pelvis if a lifter is not bracing correctly (Learn how to Brace Properly In The Squat).

With Safety Bar Squats though, the slight horizontal pull that is created from the forward weight bias tends to naturally correct this issue.

Much like a Goblet Squat, the Safety Squat Bar pulls us into thoracic flexion if we do not actively fight against it. And what tends to happen on both Goblet Squats and Safety Bar Squats is we find neutrality of the upper/lower back and pelvis due to this. 

Does this translate to improved bracing on the low bar squat though?

I would say not all the time, but it can give a better context as to what those neutral positions feel like.

More so what I see happen is since we are able to squat in more efficient positions with a Safety Squat Bar, it can allow for a higher tolerable workload for the hips and adductors that we normally wouldn’t be able to achieve if we were just low bar squatting.

What I mean by this is if tension and workload are distributed more optimally between the primary movers of the squat, we then tend to be able to handle more workload before accumulating wear and tear and possibly injuries. We cover this principle in our article on Powerlifting Injuries.

This principle goes for any squat variation and is one of the primary reasons we aim towards the improvement of our technique.

If an implement like the Safety Squat Bar can help in naturally improving our technique, it bears credence that it would be a good tool in possibly keeping us feeling better with workloads we may not be able to handle otherwise. 

And lastly, since Safety Bar Squats promote better bracing and pelvic orientation, it can be a great option for those experiencing hip flexor pain.

One of the first tests I give my athletes if they are experiencing hip flexor pain is have them perform a Goblet Squat.

9 times out of 10 they will experience zero discomfort on a Goblet squat, as the improved pelvic alignment now allows more room for the femur to move within the hip socket at the bottom range of motion.

The same goes for a Safety Bar Squat, and I find countless times that we see hip flexor pain eliminated when using this bar instead of low bar squatting.

Does this mean we stop low bar squatting and just use Safety Bar Squats though?

No, but it does allow an option to continue to push squat volume and intensity while allowing inflammation to reduce and technique to improve on the low bar squat at lighter loads. 

Safety bar squats can make the quads sorer than other squatting variations. Check out my article on Quads Sore After Squats: Is This Good Or Bad?

Benefit #3: Using The Safety Squat Bar To Address Weaknesses

safety bar squats upper back position

Due to the placement of the Safety Squat Bar, it places an increased demand on the upper back.

Many squat accessories are programmed to address specific weaknesses and give immediate feedback if the lifter has some movement fault.

With Safety Bar Squats, if a lifter biases into a “chest fall pattern”, the forward weight bias and horizontal pull is going to punish them immediately. In other words, if the lifters feel like they’re falling forward in the squat, it will be almost impossible to recover from in the Safety Bar Squat.

So naturally, when using the Safety Squat Bar, lifters tend to do a better job of fighting against that tendency. And then when transferring back to the regular squat, they carry over that increased awareness and at times we find improvement in reducing or eliminating their “chest fall pattern”. 

At a minimum, due to the increased moment arm of this movement, it is going to place increased demands on the upper back. This is the same thing that happens when you use a cambered squat bar.

Many old-school powerlifters would swear by Safety Bar Squats improving on their deadlifts and will use that as a primary accessory to their deadlift work.

I find that to be a less common practice nowadays, but I see the logic behind it.

I have a couple of athletes who compete in Strongman, and we use the Safety Squat Bar as their primary squat implement, as it tends to translate well to events like Stones and Husafel Carries where weight is front-loaded.

Specifically, on the conventional deadlift, there is great demand placed on the upper back and is why you see most people rounding their upper backs at near maximal weights.

So with Safety Bar Squats, if we know it places greater demands on the upper back, we can presume that it has some carry over to our deadlift strength as well.  

Related article: 9 Highly Effective Belt Squat Alternatives

Benefit #4: The Safety Squat Bar Can Produce A High Training Effect With Less Weight

safety bar squatting

I am a big promoter of using self limiting variations.

A self-limiting variation is an exercise that ‘feels hard’, even if the weight isn’t as much as you’d normally use.

I find that it allows powerlifters to handle higher relative intensities year round while not inducing as much wear and tear.

Variations like pause squats, tempo squats, Larsen bench press, close grip bench press, pause deadlift, and deficit deadlifts.

All of these exercises have benefits in their ability to self limit the absolute load while still recruiting high threshold motor units as we lift closer to failure.

When I program Safety Bar Squats, I find that most lifters can use about 87.5-90% of their low bar squat 1RM. And if the athlete is a high bar squatter, that percentage may creep closer to 95%.

Another thing to note: typically short femur lifters with a more upright squat are going to be better with a Safety Squat Bar, and longer femur lifters will be a bit worse. 

Just like with many of the points I’ve discussed prior, if we can find ways to reduce the wear and tear on our bodies we are going to benefit in the long run.

Powerlifting is a sport where strength is taken to the extreme. Finding ways to limit the stress placed upon our bodies during times away from competition can help to lead to more productive training long term.

Related Article: How To Fix High Bar Squats Hurting Your Neck (6 Tips)

How to Program Safety Bar Squats

Hopefully you are convinced by now that Safety Bar Squats would be of benefit for you, so let’s now look at some general programming principles for how to apply these within your training.

As I mentioned, I typically find that lifter’s can perform somewhere between 87.5-90% of their low bar squat 1RM when using the Safety Squat Bar.

Fortunately this is now backed by research, as a study in 2019 found that on average competitive powerlifters squatted 11% less using the Safety Squat Bar.

The other option would be to program Safety Bar Squats based on RPE until you get a better grasp on your particular strength levels. I find both ways effective, but if I have a lifter who tends to be an outlier from the 87.5-90% range, I’ll shift towards RPE based sets to allow them to individualize the loading.

As for when and how to program them, there really isn’t any right or wrong.

I have programmed them as the primary squat day movement or as the secondary/tertiary day variation.

I have some lifters who do Safety Bar Squats year-round, as they can only tolerate one heavy low bar squatting day a week.

I have also programmed them with a pause or tempo to not only provide the benefits of the Safety Squat Bar mentioned above, but also that of a pause or tempo.

The when and how is really going to be lifter dependent and based on their response to training with Safety Bar Squats.

The more I see the presence of the “4 reasons to do Safety Bar Squats”, the higher the likelihood I will probably program them more frequently for that athlete. Whereas if I have a lifter who can tolerate regular squatting with very little issue, I will most likely program Safety Bar Squats less. 

A Safety Squat Bar is also a great tool for accessory movements as well.

I find that I prefer using the Safety Squat Bar on movements like reverse lunges or good mornings in comparison to a barbell.

Final Thoughts

The Safety Squat Bar is a popular training tool due to its versatility for a wide variety of lifters and its many useful applications.

Outside of a barbell, it would be the first specialty bar I’d personally recommend for any powerlifter to get.

I had a lifter who had such bad shoulder irritation from low bar squatting that we ended up doing only Safety Bar Squats for 6 months at one point.

When we came back to low bar squatting, within 1 month he hit a new PR.

I am not saying Safety Bar Squats will get everyone PRs, but if that is your best option to find productive training year-round, most likely that will be a better option than spinning your wheels fighting away injuries from ultra-specificity.

The Safety Squat Bar is a great problem-solving tool when many of the typical wear and tear issues arise from regular squatting while still providing much of the same benefit in driving squat strength.

About The Author

Steve Denovi

Steve Denovi has 10+ years of experience working with clientele from all walks of life and currently specializes in working with powerlifters and their pursuit of strength.  He has his MBA in Marketing but found himself after college following his passion within the fitness industry.  Steve now coaches athletes all across the USA and takes a special interest in helping to mentor new coaches and providing content to help educate the strength community. 

References

Hecker, K., Carlson, L, Lawrence, M. 2019. Effects of the Safety Squat Bar on Trunk and Lower-Body Mechanics During a Back Squat. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 33(1), 45-51.