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When to Use Low Bar Back Squats
The low-bar squat is typically utilized for two reasons: Moving more weight and increasing the load on the posterior chain. This squat style loads the posterior chain more by forcing the hips back to handle, absorb, and produce more force. This, in return, creates a forward lean of the chest and allows an athlete to lift heavier (upright torso can limit the body).
“Low-bar squats are used in powerlifting because it’s a way to express strength in the squat movement,” Quillman says. “The torso can be more horizontal while loads shift more into the posterior. This shift allows the glutes and hamstrings to become more involved and requires less range of motion than the high-bar squat. This makes this squat style easier to perform and typically allows the athlete to lift more.”
When the hips are forced back, the knees take less stress, which shortens the range of motion they go through (not as forward over toes). This shifts a lot of the weight’s stress into the hips, glutes, and hamstrings. The hamstrings will then pull back on the tibia (bone in the lower leg) and balance the force placed on the knee. For this reason, low-bar squats can be beneficial for athletes with knee issues.
Can you squat with a curl bar?
Every gym has an EZ-curl bar, and it’s not just for arm day. It’s actually a great tool for lower-body training. Due to the unique shape of the bar, two positions work well: the front rack or front squat position, and the Zercher.
How to Set Up Properly For The Barbell Back Squat
#1) Find your squat rack! It’ll look something like this, with an unattached barbell:
A. Squat Stand:
B. Power Cage/Squat Rack:
C. Half Rack (Least favorite*):
*I don’t like Half-racks without adjustable safety bars – if you want to squat deep the barbell might hit the immovable bars! Not cool. Aim for the A or B options if you have the choice!
Note: a squat rack is NOT the same thing as a Smith Machine, where the barbell is attached to the machine, and slides up and down two bars:
You do NOT want a Smith Machine.
You need a completely unattached barbell in order to do a barbell squat properly and safely. Don’t squat in a Smith Machine.
#2) Set the height of the bar to be about the same height as your collarbone.
Not sure how to set the height of the bar? I got you:
If your options are either too high or too low, it’s always best to set the pins slightly lower than you need them.
You don’t want to have to get up on your toes to rack/unrack the bar, especially as the weight gets heavier.
#3) Decide if you are going to do a high bar squat, or a low bar squat. Either is fine, but there IS a difference:
The “Low Bar Back Squat” is the most common form done by beginners, general lifters, and powerlifters.
It’s also the form taught in Starting Strength, one of the best books for beginners on the market.
So we’ll be focusing on that version for the rest of this section:
#4) Always squat with just the bar to start – as we discuss in “How much weight should I be lifting,” even if you’re planning on squatting 500 lbs, always start with just the bar!
How to Perform a Front Squat
If you’re up for a similar-but-different squat, try…
The barbell front squat!
A front squat moves the weight from behind you to in front of you, which requires different muscles and mobility in different places.
I personally alternate front squats and back squats on my leg days.
Make sure you read our full guide on how to do a proper front squat.
I know all of this can be overwhelming, so the important thing is that you START! I realize I sound like a broken record at this point, but I really want you to begin strength training today.
We created our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, just for that purpose. I’d love to send it to you, because I know it’ll help you overcome any fears and confusion and have you getting stronger TODAY
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Safety Squat Bar
A safety squat bar is a unique bar with distinct weight distribution and a handle feature. This handle juts forward from the bar’s center, providing handholds in a more neutral position on either side of the chest.
Due to the weight distribution, a safety squat bar keeps your spine more erect, which reduces impact on the lower back. It can also protect shoulders, elbows, and wrists from strain that comes with incorrect hand positioning.
The bar part of a safety squat bar typically weighs the same amount as a standard bar at 45 pounds. Plus, the additional weight of the handle/arms for a total weight of:
The Olympic Squat is a Squat with a high bar position. The bar rests higher on your back, at the bottom of your neck, on top of your trap muscles. This puts your torso more upright to keep the bar balanced over your mid-foot. Your knees come more forward as a result and your hips are less back. Olympic Weight Lifters Squat high bar because it mimics the catch during cleans. Bodybuilders usually also Squat high bar.
The Olympic Squat is easier on your shoulders because the bar rests higher. For some people this is the only way to Squat without shoulder, wrist or elbow pain. If the low bar Squat hurts despite using proper form, widening your grip and working on your shoulder flexibility, then Squat high bar. You need to Squat to gain strength and muscle. Squatting high bar is better than not Squatting and doing leg extensions instead.
But the low bar Squat is better to Squat as heavy as you can. You’ll Squat 10-20% more weight because you can engage your hips more and keep your chest up more easily. That’s why Powerlifters always Squat low bar. Olympic Lifters don’t Squat low bar because the Squat is not a contested lift for them. They Squat to improve their Snatch and Clean & Jerk. They don’t Squat to increase their Squat, unlike Powerlifters do.
If your main goal is to gain muscle, any heavy Back Squatting is fine. It’s true high bar Squats work your quads more while low bar works your hips more. But the difference is insignificant. Your quads and hips always work. And your legs will become muscular if you Squat heavy. Low bar may be better because you can go heavier, high bar because the range of motion is longer. But any Back Squatting beats not Back Squatting.
Some people prefer to Squat high bar because it keeps their torso more upright. They’re afraid of the forward lean during low bar Squats. But your torso will lean forward too during heavy high bar Squats. The bar is higher on your back which makes it harder to keep your chest up. The low bar Squat has more forward lean. But it’s easier to keep your chest up, upper-back tight and back angle constant than with high bar Squats.
I did high bar Squats when I started lifting. It was the natural way to hold the bar on my back. When I became interested in training for strength five years later, I switched to the low bar Squat powerlifters do. I’m not a powerlifter but I like to Squat heavy. I can Squat heavier low bar than high bar. That’s why I’ve spent the past ten years Squatting low bar. I rarely Squat high bar these days. I only Squat low bar.
Don’t alternate low bar with high bar Squats. You’ll get confused because technique is different. Low bar Squats is more forward lean, more hips back, less knee forward. High Squats is more upright torso, knees more forward, hips less back. The fastest way to master proper form is to choose one style and practice it each workout. That’s specificity. Once you can Squat 140kg/300lb, you can add variety if you want.
Ass-to-Grass or ATG Squats is Squatting all the way down until your butt touches your ankles. This works your muscles through a longer range of motion. Olympic Weight Lifters Squat ATG and sometimes pause at the bottom. This mimics the catch during heavy Squat cleans. Powerlifters don’t Squat Ass-to-Grass because the lower you go below parallel, the less weight you’ll Squat. They must Squat the heaviest possible to win.
Here’s a video of the Weight Lifter Dimitry Klokov Squatting Ass-to-Grass. He Squats all the way down and even pauses. The bar rests high on his back (high bar) which is the only way to Squat ATG. He wears knee wraps, most likely to absorb some of the weight (check how bent his knees are at the bottom). His torso is vertical at the bottom, but he leans forward on the way up to engage his stronger hips while keeping his chest up.
Most people don’t have the hip flexibility and structure to Squat Ass-to-Grass with proper form like Klokov does. Your lower back will most likely round at the bottom (some call this the “butt wink”). Rounding your spine when it’s loaded squeezes your lower back discs and can herniate them. Your knees can also take a beating with ATG Squats if you drop down fast and rebound off your knee joints instead of your muscles.
Don’t Squat ATG. You should use a full range of motion by Squatting down until your hip crease is below the top of your knees. But don’t go deeper. Break parallel and come back up. You’ll Squat heavier. If you want to stretch your hips, do deep Toddler Squats separately. If you insist on Squatting ATG, go high bar and wear weight lifting shoes. You’ll go deep more easily and your heels will stay down. But watch your back and knees.
Front Squats are Squats where the bar rests on your front shoulders. Your torso is more vertical to keep the bar balanced over your mid-foot. Your knees come more forward and your shins end more incline than on a Back Squat. But your hips move less back. Olympic Weight Lifters Front Squat because this movement is part of the Squat clean. Bodybuilders also often Front Squat to “target their quads” but using a cross-arm grip.
Here’s Dmitry Klokov doing Front Squats with 265kg/583lb. He uses a clean grip. His hands are open so his shoulders support the weight, not his hands. He Squats down until his hip crease is below the top of his knees. He wears knee and wrists wraps to absorb some of the weight (his elbows are quite low, yours would most likely hurt if you try this without wrist wraps). His torso stays upright to keep the bar on his shoulders.
Front Squats are harder on the knees, elbows and wrists than Back Squats. Your knees move more forward at the bottom to keep the bar balanced over your mid-foot. Your elbows are fully bent and your wrists stretched back. Front Squats are a bad idea if you’ve had knee pain or knee surgery in the past. Your wrists and elbows will hurt if they’re tight (unless you start stretching the hell out of them daily).
You can overcome tight wrists by Front Squatting with a crossed-arm grip. This is the grip bodybuilders typically use. But it makes it harder to keep your elbows up. If they drop, your chest collapses and back rounds. The bar then rolls off your shoulders and pulls you forward. You lean forward and lose the bar. Olympic Lifters use the clean grip because it’s easier to Front Squat heavy. You just need to stretch your wrists.
Front Squats feel harder than Back Squats because the bar is harder to hold. Your chest and elbows must stay up to keep it on your shoulders. But you’ll want to lean forward during heavy sets to engage your hips. Do it too much, and you’ll lose the bar. You can lean forward more easily without losing the bar on Back Squats (especially low bar). That’s why you can easily Back Squat 30% more than you can Front Squat.
Front Squats work your quads more than Back Squats. Your knees are more forward and bent at the bottom. But this is also why Front Squats are harder on your knees than Back Squats. Plus it’s not like Back Squats don’t work your quads. They do. Your legs bend and straighten on every rep when you Back Squat. This works your quad muscles without the more stressful forward knee position of Front Squats.
Your Back Squat won’t increase if you only Front Squat. I tried it years ago. I Front Squatted 3x/week for months. Ran Smolov for Front Squats even. My Front Squat increased but my Back Squat hardly did. It doesn’t matter if Front Squats feel harder. It’s not the same and not specific. if you want to get better at tennis, you must play tennis not badminton. If you want to get better at Back Squats, Back Squat. Don’t Front Squat only.
Some people Front Squat because they don’t have a Power Rack. They pull the bar from the floor on their front shoulders and then Front Squat it. This works but only for a while. Eventually the weight becomes too heavy to pull on your shoulders. The clean limits how hard you can work your muscles by Squatting. You can’t reach your potential. Even if you can clean everything, you’ll always Back Squat more with a Power Rack.
Front Squats are no substitute for Back Squats. Back Squats must be the backbone of your training (cfr StrongLifts 5×5). Focus on Back Squats until you can do 140kg/300lb. Don’t alternate with Front Squats, form is different and you’ll get confused. If you’re cleaning the bar to Squat, get a Power Rack so you can Back Squat heavy and reach your potential. Once you’re strong at Back Squats, you can add Front Squats for variety.
Box Squats are Squats where you sit on a box and Squat back up. The box helps you break parallel consistently and prevents Squatting too low. It also helps you sit back more to emphasize your hips without losing balance. Louie Simmons from Westside Barbell popularized Box Squats in the 1990s. Geared powerlifers Box Squat because it mimics Squatting in compression Squat suits which stretch at the bottom and help the way up.
But Box Squats don’t work for raw lifters like us because technique is different. Your shins are more vertical on Box Squats and the box is holding you at the bottom. With free Squats your shins come more forward and your hips must stay tight at the bottom. If you never free Squat but only Box Squat, you’ll lose balance and get crushed by the weight when you try to free Squat. You must free Squat to get better at free Squats.
I made this mistake. After that Front Squat experiment, I spent months Box Squatting only, Westside style. My Box Squat increased so I tested my Free Squat. I expected it to be higher than my Box Squat. But to my surprise I never got close to what I was Box Squatting. I couldn’t stay tight in the bottom, got crushed by the weight and it dropped on the pins. I was weaker on free Squats because I never did them. Lack of specific training.
The box is also a bad tool to break parallel consistently. It only works as long as you use it. Try to Squat without and you’re lost. Because the box makes you rely on contact with an external object to judge depth. It doesn’t teach you to focus on how your muscles feel when you break parallel, and then remember it. That only comes by doing free Squats consistently. Videotape yourself if you want feedback. But don’t use a box.
Box Squats are no substitute for Back Squats. They won’t make you better at Back Squats because technique is different. They won’t teach you to break parallel consistently because the box becomes a crutch. They might help to target your hips but most people don’t need to do this. They just need to increase their Squat. Because stronger Squats is stronger hips. And fast and most effective way to increase your Squat is to Squat.
Smith Squats are Squats inside the smith machine. The bar is attached on rails and the machine balances it for you. The bar can only move up and down although some gyms have newer 3D Smith Machines that allow some horizontal bar movement. The bar of the smith machine has hooks to rack and unrack the weight by rotating your hands. Bodybuilding legend Jack Lalanne invented the Smith Machine in the 1950s.
Smith Squats are no substitute for Squatting free weights. Smith Squats are less effective for gaining strength and muscle because the machine balances the weight. That’s why people can Smith Squat more than with free weights. Worse, Smith Squats are dangerous for your spine and joints. You don’t decide where the bar goes, the machine does. it can force your body into unnatural movements that cause injuries.
I started Squatting on the Smith Machine when I joined the gym because that’s what everyone did. I did them every week for a year and tried to go heavier each time. One day the Smith Machine was taken and my training partner and I didn’t want to wait. So we decided to do free Squats in the Squat Rack that was gathering dust. To our surprise, we couldn’t Squat what we did in the Smith. I never did Smith Squats again after that.
Maybe you want to do Smith Squats because you’re intimidated by free weights. Smith Squats first, real Squats later. But this is like using training wheels to learn how to ride a bike. And it’s equally ineffective because you learn to depend on a machine. The only way to learn how to balance the weight is by balancing it yourself. The only way to get comfortable Squatting free weights is by Squatting free weights. This is the shortcut.
The Leg Press is a machine where you push weight away with your feet. Some Leg Press machines are 45° incline, others are horizontal. But they’re never substitutes for Squats. The weight moves, you don’t. You don’t balance the weight, the machine does. Go too deep and your lower back will round at the bottom and squeeze your spinal discs. Unless you have no arms to hold the bar on your back, stick with free weight Squats.
Dumbbell Squats are Squats with dumbbells. Hold them on your front shoulders and Squat. Benefit: you don’t need a Power Rack. Drawback: you can’t go heavy. Holding 50kg on each shoulder is harder than a 100kg bar on your back. And you must get those dumbbells on your shoulders first. Progression is also harder because most dumbbells go up by 2kg/5lb. This forces you to add 4kg/10lb each workout vs 2.5kg/5lb with barbells.
You could hold the dumbbells by your side. But this turns Dumbbell Squats into Dumbbell Deadlifts. Because dumbbells hit the floor before you can break parallel. Your hips can’t go below your knees. You can’t work your legs and body through a full range of motion unlike when you Squat with a bar on you back. You’re doing half Squats instead. And your grip will fail before your legs do unless you use straps.
Dumbbell Squats are better than doing nothing. If you never did any physical activity in your life and are out of shape, they’ll give your body some work to do. But dumbbells eventually become easy and they make it hard to Squat heavy. That’s why they’re no substitute for Squatting barbells If you Squat dumbbells anyway, don’t expect to gain strength and muscle and progress like someone who Squat heavy barbells.
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