One of the biggest debates in the world of strength is where someone should place the bar on their back when squatting.
So where should you put the bar when squatting? The optimal position is going to be where the bar sits directly in line with the mid part of the foot when you’re at the bottom of the squat. Depending on how much forward lean you have with your torso, the bar position might be higher or lower on your back.
This is also referred to ‘high bar’ and ‘low bar’ squatting.
Let’s investigate these concepts further, and understand some basic biomechanics so you can be sure you’re placing the bar in the correct position. At the end of this article, I give you a quick framework that lets you decide where you should put the bar when squatting.
Keeping The Bar Over The Mid-Part Of The Foot
Keeping the bar over the mid-part of the foot is an important biomechanical principle to understand.
When you stand with the bar on your back, draw a straight line down to your feet. Make note of where the bar sits in relation to your feet.
Now squat, and perform the same analysis. If you draw a straight line down to your feet does the bar still line up with the mid part of the foot? This is the position that you want to achieve at the bottom of the squat.
Why? Because the load will be evenly distributed over your base of support. You will have the most stability and control in this position.
If you’re at the bottom of the squat, and the bar is in front of the foot, then you might feel like you’re falling forward. Conversely, if the bar is behind the foot, then you might feel like you’re falling backward.
When you’re in the bottom of a squat you want to have the greatest level of stability and control, which is aided by having the bar over the mid-line of the foot. When the bar comes out of this groove, you’ll be wasting energy by fighting forces to keep you balanced.
Bar Placement for High Bar and Low Bar Squats
In order to achieve the position described above, you can play around with where the bar sits on your back.
For some people, this might be a ‘higher’ position. For others, this might be a ‘lower’ position. As you can tell, there’s no hard and fast rule that determines whether a squat is high or low bar — it’s more like a ‘range’.
Position for “High Bar Squats”
A high bar squat will sit on the upper trap muscles, somewhere above the rear deltoid. You’ll want to avoid resting the bar on your neck bones though.
Position for “Low Bar Squats”
A low bar squat will sit somewhere between the middle and top of the rear delt.
Mechanics of High Bar and Low Bar Squats
Because the ultimate goal is to keep the bar over the midline of the foot, whether you place the bar higher or lower on your back will change the angles of your torso and knees slightly.
High bar squats = focused on quad strength
The high bar position will require you to be more upright in your squats.
In order to achieve an upright position, you’ll need to have superior ankle mobility and be comfortable with greater forward knee bend at the bottom of the squat
(this is also called ‘ forward knee translation’ 🤓).
When you have a greater forward knee bend, it will shift the load demands from your glutes and hips to your quads. What this means is that a high bar squat position will require you to use a lot more quad strength to stand up with the weight out of the bottom.
Low bar squats = focused on glutes/erectors
The low bar position will require you to hinge slightly more forward at the hips. This will change the angle of the torso — you’ll be less upright and more bent over.
How much torso lean is normal you might ask?
There’s a range and it depends on your individual mechanics (torse length, femur length, mobility). But as long as your back is neutral (not rounding), you’re looking for the bar to be over the mid-point of the foot. So long as you’re trying to optimize that position, you’ll notice a wide variance between person-to-person with how much they lean forward.
When you’re hinging at the hips more, you’ll have less forward knee bend at the bottom of the squat. Your shins will be more vertical in the bottom range. As a result, the loading demands shift from your quads to your posterior chain, making the movement target the glutes and erector spinae.
Is High Bar or Low Bar Stronger?
The reason why you see many powerlifters use low bar squatting is that it’s a stronger position to increase your 1 rep max.
This is, of course, a massive generalization. There are several examples of athletes squatting high bar and out-squatting their low bar counterparts. However, for most people the low bar squat position will be stronger.
It’s also important to recognize that it’s not everyone’s goal to increase their 1 rep max on the squat. So I’m not saying that low bar squatting is better. I’m saying that it has more potential, for most people, to lift more weight on a 1 rep max squat.
Why is this the case?
Eventually, you will reach a load where the quads are essentially “maxed out”, and you’ll need to shift some of the loading demands on the posterior chain musculature, which isn’t operating at “full capacity”.
One of the sports that advocate for a high bar position while squatting is Olympic weightlifting.
The reason why these athletes squat exclusively in a high bar position is that they’re purposely trying to load the quads as much as possible. When you look at their sport requirements, as they catch a clean or snatch overhead, there is an incredible amount of forward knee translation in the hole. As such, when they practice squatting in training, they’re picking the variation that train the quads to work the hardest. Essentially, the high bar squat will transfer more to their sport.
So yes, the low bar squat has more potential for increasing maximal load in that specific movement. But not everyone is a powerlifter, and not everyone has the goal to lift as much as possible.
Deciding on What Will Work Best For You
Here’s a general framework to understand where you should put the bar when squatting:
- What position are you able to keep the bar over the midline of the foot in the bottom position?
- What position feels the most natural? If you have any experience with barbell training, you’ll know when movements feel ‘forced’ and ‘awkward’. Don’t ignore this feedback.
- What are your goals? Are you training for powerlifting with the goal of increasing 1 rep max strength? If so, you should practice low bar squatting. If not, either high bar or low bar squatting will be totally fine.
There’s one common issue that people run into when low bar squatting.
Since it requires slightly more mobility through the wrists and shoulders compared with high bar squatting, it can cause pain in these areas if the person squatting doesn’t have the appropriate mobility. Essentially, the person would be forcing a biomechanical range that they’re not naturally able to achieve.
If you’re experiencing pain whatsoever in these areas when squatting, you’ll definitely want to opt for a higher bar squat position.
If you’re not a competitive powerlifter, I would put the bar higher up on the back. Over time, if you wanted to experiment with a lower bar position to increase max strength, you could schedule a block of training where you tried it out. Just remember, if you’re high bar squatting, you’re more upright. If you’re low bar squatting, you’re leaning more forward. Regardless of your bar position, the goal remains the same: keep the bar over the midline of the foot.
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