This article argues that the low bar squat is superior for leg growth compared to the high bar squat, backed by scientific evidence. It explores the concept of mechanical tension and muscle activation as key drivers of muscle hypertrophy, and how the low bar squat maximizes these factors by placing the muscle in a position where it can produce maximum force.
SUMMARY OF LOW BAR SQUAT TECHNIQUE
- The low bar squat technique results in total greater muscle activation (i.e., quads, glutes, hamstrings, lower back) than the high bar squat.
- The low bar squat produces more muscle activation during the eccentric portion.
- The low-bar placement may be more effective for muscle hypertrophy because it allows for greater mechanical tension by allowing a lifter to move more weight.
During strength training to build leg muscle size, many consider the squat as the “King of Leg Exercises.” However, the way you position the bar on your shoulder blades can determine which muscle fibers get stimulated.
There are two main types of squats: the high bar squat and the low bar squat. Both have their unique advantages and disadvantages. Choosing between a high vs. low bar squat depends on your specific goals. The debate between high bar squats and low bar squats for better increases in leg growth has been ongoing for years.
Some fitness enthusiasts recommend the high bar squat, and others favor the low bar squat. However, there is evidence to suggest that the low-bar squat may be the better choice when it comes to overall muscle hypertrophy.
LOW BAR SQUAT TECHNIQUE BIOMECHANICS
When performing the high bar squat, the bar starting position rests on the upper traps, and the lifter has a more upright torso, allowing for a greater range of motion. The high bar squat allows you to perform a deep squat. Bodybuilders commonly use it because it emphasizes more quad activation and helps build the quadriceps muscle.
Due to the greater range of motion, performing the high bar squat becomes more difficult. (Glassbrook et al., 2017) As you will read below, some researchers have challenged the notion that the high bar squat is a quad-dominant exercise.
When performing the low bar squat, the bar rests on the rear deltoids, and the lifter has a more forward lean. The low bar squat is more hip dominant and emphasizes the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings and is generally considered easier due to a shorter range of motion. (Glassbrook et al., 2017)
The low bar squat allows a lifter to use a heavier weight. As written previously on Evidence Based Muscle, despite muscle activation, the squat is a poor exercise to increase hamstring growth. You need accessory exercises such as hamstring curls, stiff-legged deadlifts, etc.
When performing a low bar squat, people commonly have their feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Two studies have shown that a wider stance squat parallel to the floor (i.e., feet flat and wider than shoulder-width apart) results in greater muscle activation of the glutes than a close stance position (i.e., feet shoulder-width apart) (McCaw & Melrose, 1999; Paoli et al., 2009)
CAN THE SAFETY BAR SQUAT BE USED INSTEAD OF HIGH BAR SQUATS?
The safety bar squat is a bar that has handles attached to the bar allowing the lifter to grip the bar in front of them instead of holding the bar on their back. Lifters with shoulder mobility issues using traditional squats will find the safety bar squat more comfortable during their training program.
One study compared the squat biomechanics of the safety bar, high bar, and low-bar squats. The study was interested in looking at the “sticking point” of the squat. The study found no significant differences in muscle activation of the gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis, and biceps femoris between the three squat variations during the sticking region.
The low-bar squat resulted in a greater amount of weight to be used than the high-bar squat and the safety bar squat. The safety bar squat resulted in the greatest glut activation, which may be an alternative to low bar squats. (Kristiansen et al., 2021)
WHY I THINK LOW BAR SQUAT TECHNIQUE IS BETTER FOR LEG SIZE THAN HIGH BAR SQUATS
This is strictly my opinion, but if you look at total muscle activation, the low bar squat results in greater muscle activation. Although the high-bar squat has traditionally been labeled as a quad-dominant exercise, this may not be exactly true.
A 2020 study examined muscle activation in trained powerlifters performing the high bar and low-bar squats. They found that the low bar squat did produce more muscle activation during the eccentric portion or lowering of the weight. All muscle activation was higher with the low bar squat than with the high bar squat.
Greater eccentric contractions have been found to result in greater increases in muscle strength and muscle growth. However, as the study suggested, there were “negligible” differences in quadriceps activation between the high and low bar squats.
However, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, plenty of studies have shown that the high bar squat results in greater quadriceps activation. The differences in studies could be related to foot stance and squat depth. (Kojic et al., 2021)
Both high and low bar squats can be used in a hypertrophy training program, but the superiority of the low bar squat for muscle hypertrophy can only be based on speculation. Several factors, including mechanical tension, metabolic stress, etc., influence muscle hypertrophy.
The low-bar placement may be more effective for muscle hypertrophy because it allows for greater mechanical tension by allowing a lifter to move more weight. Muscle tension is a key driver of muscle growth.
THE LOW BAR SQUAT TECHNIQUE IS BETTER FOR LEG GROWTH: HERE IS THE SCIENCE WHY
Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., a leading expert in muscle hypertrophy, states, “When you place the muscle in a position where it can produce the greatest force, it often maximizes mechanical tension at the muscle’s midpoint. The low bar squat produces greater maximum force, leading to greater mechanical tension thus, greater muscle growth.
It also results in greater muscle activation of the erector spinae muscles (i.e., lower back), resulting in greater axial loading of the spine, which can build in the lower back and hip extensor muscles.
The low bar squat also results in lower compressive forces on the lumbar spine than the high bar squat.(Hartmann et al., 2012) Additionally, the increased forward lean during the low-bar squat results in greater hypertrophy of the glutes.
Opponents of low-bar squatting will state that high-bar squats result in greater quadriceps muscle activation. Just because a muscle has higher activation does not always mean greater muscle growth. As mentioned earlier, the low bar squat still activates the quadriceps muscles, albeit slightly less than the high bar squat.
Low-bar and high-bar squats are effective exercises for increasing leg size and strength. The choice between bar positions in the squat should depend on the individual’s training goals.
The low bar squat emphasizes a more forward lean and effectively emphasizes the glutes, making it suitable for powerlifting competitions, football players, or athletes whose main goal is strength. The high bar squat emphasizes the quads and is more difficult to perform due to the upright position. Incorporating both squats into a leg workout routine can help maximize hypertrophy and strength gains.
Glassbrook, D. J., Helms, E. R., Brown, S. R., & Storey, A. G. (2017). A Review of the Biomechanical Differences Between the High-Bar and Low-Bar Back-Squat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(9), 2618-2634. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002007
Hartmann, H., Wirth, K., Klusemann, M., Dalic, J., Matuschek, C., & Schmidtbleicher, D. (2012). Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. J Strength Cond Res, 26(12), 3243-3261. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824ede62
Kojic, F., Ðurić, S., Ranisavljev, I., Stojiljkovic, S., & Ilic, V. (2021). Quadriceps femoris cross-sectional area and specific leg strength: relationship between different muscles and squat variations. PeerJ, 9, e12435. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.12435
Kristiansen, E., Larsen, S., Haugen, M. E., Helms, E., & van den Tillaar, R. (2021). A Biomechanical Comparison of the Safety-Bar, High-Bar and Low-Bar Squat around the Sticking Region among Recreationally Resistance-Trained Men and Women. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(16), 8351. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18168351
McCaw, S. T., & Melrose, D. R. (1999). Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 31(3), 428-436. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-199903000-00012
Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., & Petrone, N. (2009). The Effect of Stance Width on the Electromyographical Activity of Eight Superficial Thigh Muscles During Back Squat With Different Bar Loads. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 246-250. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181876811