To maximize the amount of weight you can lift in the squat, the barbell needs to be kept within a specific range of motion. This is called “bar path”. If you fall out of this optimal bar path, then the lift will be significantly harder, and you will risk falling under heavy weight or putting a lot of undue stress on your joints.
So what is the best bar path for squats? The best bar path for squats is when you keep the barbell in a straight line over the mid-foot from start to finish, which will maximize both your balance and strength. When you’re not worried about falling forward or backward in the squat, you can focus strictly on applying maximum force.
Knowing that you need to keep a straight bar path while squatting is one thing. Implementing it into your training is another. In this article, I’ll cover:
- Why it’s important to maintain a specific bar path while squatting
- A biomechanics 101 explanation for optimal squat bar path
- Tips for keeping the squat bar path in the optimal position
- What to do if the bar path isn’t following the correct position
Why Is It Important To Keep A Straight Bar Path?
Let me explain the two reasons why it’s important to keep a straight bar path.
1. You’ll work less
First, If the load deviates from a straight bar path, you’ll be working a lot harder than required to move the weight from start to finish.
This is because the barbell will be traveling forward and back in addition to straight up and down. If the goal is to stand up with the weight, then any horizontal movement of the barbell will be unnecessary effort needed to move the weight.
You might be able to ‘get away’ with some horizontal movement of the barbell under sub-maximal weight. However, under maximal weight, you will have less margin for error. Any inefficiencies in the bar path may be the reason you fail to stand up with the weight successfully.
So, not only do you risk failing because of a less-than-optimal bar path, but you’ll also have to work harder to keep yourself from falling as the barbell is swaying back and forth throughout the lift.
Check out our article on how to fix leaning forward in the squat.
2. You’ll decrease the loading demands on the low back
If the barbell doesn’t stay within in the optimal path, then there will be additional stresses placed on your low-back while squatting.
Now, this isn’t the case for everyone, but it will be more of an issue for lifters who have not learned how to do a proper ‘hip-hinge’ or generally have weak back extensor muscles.
If the barbell is traveling forward rather than straight down while squatting, you are likely in a position with a greater forward-leaning torse angle. In this position, where your back is more parallel to the ground than vertical, it’s important that your hips are neutral and your spine is flat.
If you’ve achieved this position, then you can squat relatively safely. However, it will require you to have greater levels of strength in your low and mid-back.
If you don’t, you’ll know immediately because your back will start to round. If this happens, you increase the stress on your back, which over time can lead to pain or injury if left unchecked.
Biomechanics 101: Why Is a Straight Bar Path For Squats Better?
In the squat, the goal is to keep the barbell in an up and down position over the midfoot.
Why is this position preferred? Because the entire system will be balanced. Let me explain what that means further.
The squat is a highly demanding postural task.
In order to prevent ourselves from falling, our muscles must not only generate enough joint torques to come up out of the bottom position, but they also need to be constantly regulating our body sway.
When we sway backward or forwards, our body needs to slow down throughout the movement in order to prevent ourselves from falling over. This is the opposite of what we want because a successful lift will rely on transitioning quickly through our sticking point.
Think of the squat as an inverted pendulum
As the weight moves off the vertical bar path, the barbell will want to swing like a pendulum either forward or backward to a greater extent. How much the pendulum swings will only be magnified by how fast the lifter is accelerating out of the bottom, and how much load is being used.
Now, of course, it’s very rare that we actually fall over in the squat. But the end result is that our muscles have to work a lot harder to overcome these additional forces acting on the barbell.
When the barbell travels forward or backward off the vertical axis, the weight on your foot will shift underneath it and it is up to your muscles to prevent that forward or backward pendulum to keep the barbell within your postural limits.
You can think of it like driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the break.
If you’re constantly going back and forth between giving it gas (accelerating out of the hole), and then putting on the break (slowing down to prevent yourself from falling forward or backward), then you’re probably going to burn through that tank pretty quick.
So you can imagine that you’re a lot more stable and efficient if you simply keep the barbell over the mid-foot to prevent any swaying.
Tips For Keeping The Squat Bar Path In An Optimal Position
Here are 3 tips for helping you maintain a vertical bar path while squatting:
1. Think about the squat cue “claw the ground with your feet”
The goal here is to find your balance before executing the movement. It’s very difficult to regain your balance once you’re already squatting, especially as the load gets heavier.
To initiate this cue, you want to draw your attention to your big toe, pinky toe, and the heel. Once you feel the load evenly distributed over these three points, claw the ground with your toes. This should feel like actively curling your toes into the floor.
You’ll want to use this cue before you squat down. Be consistent with it until it begins to feel more natural.
For more cues like this, check out our complete guide on Squat Cues.
2. Envision moving your body around the barbell as you lower yourself down
Think about the barbell being fixed on a vertical pole as you squat down. The best example I can give is squatting on a smith machine where the barbell is limited in moving forward and back.
If the barbell didn’t have any possibility to shift forward or back, you would be required to move your body around the barbell. In other words, you would have to bend your hips back and knees simultaneously to accommodate the barbell’s fixed position. There is no room for compensating.
- If you break from the knees first to start the squat (without breaking the hips), you’ll place all of the weight on the front of the foot and the barbell will sway forward.
- If you break from the hips first to start the squat (without breaking from the knees), you’ll place all of the weight on the back of the foot and the barbell will sway back.
Therefore, make sure you’re cracking at both your hips and knees at the same time to start the squat and “move your body around the barbell”.
3. Record your training from the side
Sometimes you don’t even know that you have any inefficiency in your bar path unless you have visual feedback.
This is why I always advocate for lifters to record their squats directly from the side angle to gauge how their lifts look under different rep ranges, loads, and fatigue states.
The goal of recording your lifts is to ensure you’re being consistent throughout your training. It can offer feedback on when you might be forgetting your squat cues, or whether there are some other underlying issues you may need to address (discussed in the next section).
There are several apps available that can help trace your bar path. One that I’ve used previously is a free app called Iron Path. All you do is open the app, open an existing video, set the marker, and have the app analyze your bar path.
What To Do If The Squat Bar Path Isn’t Following The Correct Position
If you’ve tried to implement some of the tips above, and you still find that you’re unable to be consistent with keeping the bar in a vertical path, then here are the next steps:
Your body may have unique leverages
The squat bar path will be dictated in part by how you’re built. In other words, the length of your torso in relation to the length of your legs.
Based on your proportions, you may have more or less forward torso lean, which can affect the bar path (not in all cases) depending on which muscle groups are being prioritized. So, it’s not practical to think that everyone is going to be able to keep a perfectly vertical bar path.
For example, if you’re generally someone who has long legs combined with a short torso, you’ll find it harder to maintain an upright posture. If you don’t have adequate muscle strength to support a more ‘bent over’ squat position, the bar path will likely not be perfectly straight up or down.
This is not to say it’s impossible for someone with these proportions to squat with a vertical bar path, it just may require additional work to do so, like building up your back extensor strength in the example described above.
Your body is compensating for a potentially weaker muscle group
If you’ve developed any significant muscular imbalances between your hip and knee extensors then you’ll find it much harder to maintain a vertical bar path, especially when you’re challenged under heavy load.
This is because the body will want to prioritize the stronger muscle groups over the weaker ones in order to achieve the goals of the squat (which is to stand up) versus maintaining postural balance.
For example, some lifters drive out of the bottom of the squat and their hips rise at a faster rate than the rest of their body. This is when the lifter shifts their body into a good-morning squat position.
The reason why this happens (most often) is that the lifter lacks strength in their quads and is prioritizing using their glutes, calves (yes the calves can help out!) and lower back to stand up.
In this scenario, the bar path will shift forward, which is a sign that the lifter needs to build strength in their quads to maintain the optimal bar path.
You lack the required mobility
If you find that the barbell fails to stay in a vertical trajectory as you get deeper into the squat, then you may have some ankle mobility issues.
To squat deeper, the knees will need to come forward, which means your ankles need to flex forward to achieve this position.
Here’s a quick test to determine if you have tight ankles:
- Stand with your toes about 4-inches from a wall
- Bend your ankle and knee to try and touch your knee to the wall
- Keep your feet flat on the floor and make sure your knee is traveling straight forward (not caving in)
If you can’t touch your knees to the wall without keeping your foot flat, then you’ll likely have issues with your bar path when squatting, as the barbell will need to travel forward to account for your lack of mobility.
Consider getting a technique assessment
If you continue to struggle with maintaining an optimal bar path, you should consider getting a technique assessment from a coach who can offer another perspective. Sometimes there are more complex issues that affect the bar path, which you won’t be able to problem-solve on your own.
Check out my technique assessment services if you’re interested in learning more.
The best bar path will be one where the lifter can keep the barbell over the midline of the foot throughout the entire range of motion. This will ensure that the lifter doesn’t need to worry about balance while squatting, and instead, simply focus on driving as fast as possible to stand up.
About The Author
Dr. Megan Jones (Bryanton) is a human performance scientist specializing in biomechanics as applied to strength and conditioning. Megan received her Ph.D. in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa (2016). In addition to being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), her research area explored how limiting muscle groups should be addressed in training. Megan formerly competed at the international level as a powerlifter and owns Kinetic Advantage Consulting.