No one is born knowing how to squat with a loaded barbell draped across their back. Everyone starts somewhere, and the high-bar squat (where the bar sits on the upper traps) is the most comfortable variation for most people to learn.
However, once these squatters start looking around their local powerlifting or strength gym, they’ll probably notice squats that don’t look like theirs.
“That person hath placed the bar so far down on their back; how is it not rolling off?”
“I was always taught to stay upright. Why is that person leaning forward?”
These common questions refer to the low-bar squat, a back squat position that’s popular among powerlifters in particular.
What is a low bar squat?
A low-bar squat is when the lifter settles the barbell across the middle of the traps instead of on top of the traps. Although it’s not the most beginner-friendly variation — sliding the bar down puts your shoulders and torso in a challenging position — low-bar squats have a place in a more practiced lifter’s training. Even if they have no desire to squeeze into a singlet and compete in powerlifting.
When you start low-bar squatting, it can feel like you’re taking a few steps backward. But if your goal is to continue building lower body strength and muscle, low bar squats are a fantastic tool, at least sometimes.
The set-up for low bar squatting puts you in a more favorable position to lift heavier weight than a high-bar (aka “traditional”) squat and allows you to train your body to create force differently. It provides a comparable variation to your other squat training that keeps you from stagnating, builds strength in your trunk in a specific directed way, and helps reduce imbalances in the body. Let’s get into it.
Benefits of the Low-Bar Squat
There’s nothing magical about the low bar squat. The truth is that the mechanics of a low-bar squat compared to a high-bar squat are nearly the same, or at least they should be. The best way for knees and hips to bend and extend under a barbell doesn’t change all that much just because you change where you lay the bar across your back.
The benefits of low-bar squatting come from an improvement in leverage and a slight change in the demand placed on the squatting muscles. Lowering the bar position moves the load closer to your body’s fulcrum for the squat movement — your hips. Move a load closer to the fulcrum and your muscles don’t need to create as much force to overcome the load. By moving the bar a couple of inches down your back, you have a more mechanically efficient position where now you can lift heavier weights.
The forward lean of your torso, caused by the lower bar position, also creates a different demand on muscle groups at different moments in the squat. And this can prevent some from repetitive stress injuries that could rear their ugly heads if you only do standard barbell squats for years. Let’s get into the details of these benefits.
More Work With Heavier Weights
Low-bar lovers will always tell you, often before you ask, that you can squat heavier with this bar position. That’s true if trained. Positioning the bar lower on your back requires you to lean your torso forward a bit to keep the bar from rolling off. This lean forward creates a posture so you’re simultaneously driving with your back, hips, and legs to drive the weight out of the hole
The biggest driving factor for long-term progress in strength and muscle growth is volume. Volume isn’t just how many reps you do; it’s expressed in both the total number of reps and total weight lifted. If you can squat three sets of five reps with 230 pounds in a high-bar squat but can do three sets of five reps with 250 pounds in a low-bar position, you will have done more volume with the low-bar variation.
With more volume comes greater lower-body strength and muscle development that can be used for any squat variation or athletic movement.
Directed Trunk Strength Training
Leg and hip strength aren’t the only things that the squat improves. Anytime you put something heavy on your shoulders, you’re training trunk stability and strength.
The trunk is everything from the base of your neck down that doesn’t include your arms and legs. This includes the entire front, back, and sides of the body. It even includes the lower back, which is often left out of the conversation.
Low-bar squats stress the trunk in a very distinct way — by training the spinal erectors (along with other deep spinal stabilizing muscles) to maintain a static contraction that stops your torso from collapsing forward. You may know this sensation as “bracing”.
The forward lean of your torso, caused by the low placement of the bar, requires the spinal erectors to engage with the other trunk muscles to keep the spine rigid and unmoving. Many movements don’t train this coordinated contraction. A little adjustment to bar placement for the barbell squat and you got it covered.
Protect Against Overuse
The longer you train the same movement pattern, the more prone you are to becoming disproportionately strong in that pattern. Over time, this disproportionate strength may cause lingering injuries and make it difficult to move effectively in other planes of motion. It’s important to vary your movement patterns, even slightly.
If you’re really focused on adding more weight to your squat though, you won’t want to drastically change what exercises you do. Too much variety in exercises can interfere with your progress. However, slight variations like the low-bar squat can change things just enough to keep chronic use injuries away while you continue to train your squat.
The mechanics and angles of your hips and knees should be very much the same for both squat variations. You will start with your hips set or pushed slightly back at the beginning of the squat from the angle of the torso to maintain the bar so far down on the back. As you descend into the low-bar squat, the hips remain a little farther back than if you were performing a high-bar squat, and so the angle of flexion in the hip can be a little greater.
The low-bar squat creates more glute, hamstring, and lower-back engagement in the lowering (or eccentric) portion of the squat. (1) Although, if performed correctly, the angle and with it the contribution of these muscles won’t be that much greater. Even a slight change in how muscle groups are stressed can help keep away chronic injuries.
(Author’s note: I personally switched exclusively to low bar squats for a time when I was addressing some muscular and coordination deficits that caused knee pain and stiffness. The slight change in hip angle and muscle contribution allowed me to keep squatting without pain and added injury while I did the other work to mend the problem.)
How to Low Bar Squat
The low bar squat can be a great tool in keeping your body balanced, healthy, and strong. You can train with heavier weights giving yourself a greater stimulus to overcome and grow stronger from. But that’s only if you learn to do it correctly. Otherwise, the movement will always feel strange and you won’t feel comfortable lifting heavier weights. Also, you’ll potentially develop poor squat patterns and develop persistent injuries.
There are a few things to get right from the start.
- Find the position on your back. Try putting the bar across your rear delts just below the base of your upper portion traps. Adjust as necessary and give yourself some time in finding this because it may take longer than you think. We’re talking weeks, not days.
- Find your grip. You’ll most likely want to grab the bar wider than you would for a high bar position because of the shoulder mobility required to get your hands around the bar with it so low on your back. Start wider than you think you need to and then begin to inch your hands as close as you can without causing pain or excessive discomfort. Make sure you can maintain this position once you start loading the bar up because that can change for some.
- Grip the bar, but mind the wrists. Keep your wrists as straight as possible, widening your grip as needed. The elbows and wrists can experience more strain with low-bar squat if the hand positioning is off. Once you’ve practiced and feel more confident, you can even try a thumbless grip to keep the wrists as neutral as possible and avoid any chance of harm to the wrists. Also, wearing wrist wraps can help add stability to this sensitive area.
- Drive your shoulders down and think about bending the bar around your back as you stand to unrack the weight and walk it out of the power rack or squat rack. This locks the bar in place, keeps the thoracic spine rigid, and engages the lats.
- Brace in this forward-leaning position and unlock and bend your knees and hips simultaneously to descend into the squat. The hips start slightly behind the bar and will move farther back than they would during a high-bar squat. Make sure to bend the knees and hips at the same time as you keep mid-foot pressure so that they both bend to the appropriate degree rather than mistakenly sitting too far back in the squat and not bending the knees enough. If you don’t, it will be difficult to balance, reach depth, and engage the quads.
- Push back against the bar as you extend your hips and knees to come out of the hole. Take advantage of your forward-leaning position and use your back to assist your hips and legs in driving the bar back and up.
Low bar squat variations
If you’re going to train the low-bar squat regularly, you’ll want to eventually introduce some variation. But variations should be chosen based on what will keep your progress from stalling. Varying your lifts just for the hell of it can limit progress rather than support it if there’s no specific reason for doing it. You need to figure out what particular problems you may have and what modification can specifically help.
Paused low bar squat
Maintaining a low-bar squat position can be taxing, specifically on the trunk muscles. Your legs may be able to support whatever weight you’re lifting, but your upper back and core may not be having it.
Try paused reps to increase your time under tension and prepare your body for more weight and longer sets (aka more volume over time).
Doing more reps won’t always help. Instead, you need to find a way to make those trunk muscles stronger without putting yourself under more weight or doing so many reps that you become fatigued to the point where your position is so poor you’re at risk for injury. specifically, you need more focused time in that position, and that’s what pause reps provide.
You can keep the volume low by doing just one to three reps each set, but pausing for four to eight seconds at the bottom of each squat. Pausing for that long will limit the amount of weight you can use, reducing the risk, while still taxing your body enough to make it stronger. All that time keeping tense under the weight teaches you to sense when and how your trunk may be losing rigidity.
1 and ¼ squat
The forward-leaning position in the low bar squat can’t be taken full advantage of if you don’t learn to push back against the bar with your back while simultaneously driving with your legs and hips when coming out of the bottom. It takes a lot of practice to find this feeling and the 1 and ¼ squat gives you two chances each rep.
You set up and lower into the squat the same as normal. Then you drive up but only stand a quarter of the way up before immediately reversing back down into the hole and finally standing up completely from there. That’s all one rep. This variation gives you twice the practice of keeping tension and driving against the bar at the lower portion of the squat.
Low-bar squats can seem strange and difficult to learn. If you’re serious about adding more weight to your squat, though, they can be a great change in your training. They’ll help you build more general strength because of the mechanical advantage you have which will make more work with heavier weights possible. The low bar squat may be just the change you need to drive more gains in strength.