Any athlete on a legitimate strength and conditioning program WILL, at some point, be squatting. It is the primary compound movement for developing strength and power in the lower body, developing overall strength and capacity, and imprinting proper neuromuscular patterns for keeping athletes fit and healthy on the field. However, when it comes to execution, there seems to be some argumentative discussions between two dominant schools of thought. There is the High-Bar Squat, often favored by Olympic-style weightlifters, and there is the Low-Bar Squat, often favored by powerlifters. BOTH are effective at developing strength and power. And while using one over the other will not have a dramatically negative effect on your performance, there are differences between the two lifts that should be considered—along with your experience level, physical ability, mobility restrictions, and the needs of your sport.
"High-Bar" refers to the barbell's position behind the neck and across the shoulders. The bar rests higher on the trapezius muscles than in the powerlifting style of squatting, which means the high-bar squat trains the body for similar hip and spine positions as seen in the snatch and clean (hence its pseudonym: "Olympic Squat"). High-bar squatting places an importance on hip mobility, hamstring flexibility, and enough ankle mobility to allow the athlete to sit low enough to hit the deep squat position. Many athletes are quickly humbled when first attempting to squat with this difficult style. Often, less weight is lifted in a high-bar squat when compared to its counterpart, mainly because it is more difficult to stay upright throughout the full range of motion.
But while the overall load in a high-bar squat is typically less than in the low-bar variation, the speed and application of force is much faster in this style, and high-bar squats require quick movement through deep ranges of hip and ankle flexibility. Practicing squats with an upright torso also loads the spine more completely than in a low-bar squat, developing strong structural muscles to maintain an athletic torso position in relation to the hips. As an added benefit, athletes who squat in a high-bar position will also see strength gains in their Olympic weightlifting variations.
"Low-Bar" squatting is the style seen predominantly in powerlifting. The bar rests lower on the trapezius muscles than in the high-bar position. The athlete will also use a wider stance than in high-bar squats, which allows for greater reliance on the low back and hamstrings to bring the body upright against resistance. In powerlifting, squatting is one of three lifts judged in competition (in addition to the bench press and deadlift), so the athlete's aim is to move the most amount of weight possible. A low-bar squat is considered legitimate in competition when the hips descend to a point at least even with the knee—unlike high-bar, which requires the athlete to always train the deep squat position. The lower bar position stresses the posterior chain to produce more force, thus allowing more weight to be lifted than in high-bar, but with an anterior tilt of the spine and shallower hip depth. Low-bar squatting tends to have little transference into the Olympic lifts and is very dissimilar to what is being trained when athletes perform front squats.
So Which is Better For Athletes?
When it comes to squatting for athletes outside competitive strength sports, I prefer Olympic-style high-bar squats. Low-bar squatting is neither bad nor ineffective, but the mobility demands of high-bar squatting and the practice of maintaining a more vertical torso have a better transfer to performance across a broad range of sports. Athletes often have strength imbalances between the anterior and posterior chain, which high-bar squats can help train and remedy. And while high-bar squatting doesn't recruit the posterior chain as effectively as low-bar, posterior chain-focused training can always be supplemented with a more direct stimulus, as seen in movements like Romanian deadlifts (RDLs), good-mornings, and stability ball hip extension and leg curls.
But the most important takeaway for athletes is that the squat is an important tool for sport performance, regardless of your bar position. Athletes and coaches should work together to determine individual weaknesses, and train progressively to make adjustments. As long as strength gains are made and athletes stay healthy, the squatting style is simply a talking point.
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