Know Your Lifts: The High-Bar Back Squat

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 4, 2012 · 62 Comments

in Health & Sports, Visual Guides

Keep chest up. Look forward, head in line with torso. Bar positioned below the bone at the top of your shoulder blades and on your back muscles. Feet shoulder-width apart. Tighten the upper back and bring shoulder blades together. Narrow grip.  Bend until tights are past parallel to floor. Knees track inline with toes. Keep shoulders over hips. Push butt back. Push knees out. Keep weight on heels.  Drive up from hips. Squeeze glutes as you reach the top and lock out the weight. Toes should point straight ahead or slightly out.

“Know Your Lifts” is a new illustrated guide series where we’ll show how to perform basic weight lifting exercises. While wearing an oldtime strongman single-strap leotard, naturally.

Thanks to Barry Schroeder of CrossFit Sandstorm for consulting on this post.

Buy this guide as a poster!

Know Your Lifts Series: 
High-Bar Back Squat
Deadlift
Overhead Press

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

 

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

1 KK October 4, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Thanks anyway, but I think I will stick to Mark Rippetoe as an SME.

2 Tom October 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm

You people are just plain amazing.
Great job!

3 Aaron October 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Wish I had a single-strap leotard to lift in!

4 Andy October 4, 2012 at 9:37 pm

KK, this is a perfect high bar squat diagram. Rippletoe teaches low bar, so its two different methods.

5 Rob October 4, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Perfectly illustrated. Well done!

6 Jim Wood October 4, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Squat, Dead Lift, Military Press and Push Up. Mix it up and go home. Enough!

7 Brian October 4, 2012 at 9:54 pm

I am with KK, I prefer the low bar squat as Rippetoe. It did take me 3-4 months to get the shoulder flexibility necessary to pull it off. I don’t experience knee pain or back pain doing them that way and was able to increase the depth of my squats (and increase the weight too). It worked for me, but I’m sure that high bar probably works well for some as well.

8 Grant Schooley October 4, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Great guide, front squats next? :)

9 John October 4, 2012 at 10:45 pm

One problem – with the high bar back squat, you do NOT push your butt back on the way down – a common error. You instead sit BETWEEN your legs straight down between your hips as much as possible.

10 Drew Spriggs October 4, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Unless you are in a sport that requires significant quad strength, you should be squatting low bar – it works your glutes/hamstrings significantly more AND it puts a lot less strain on your back. If you have the flexibility, I recommend front squats too (when depends on what you’re training for, I do them on deadlift day).
Regardless, if you’re not below parallel you’re wasting your time!

11 Joe Pridemore Jr. October 4, 2012 at 11:22 pm

If you guys are interested in learning about barbell training I would highly recommend Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength 3rd Edition”. Kind of contradicts this post but he knows his shit.

12 Nick October 4, 2012 at 11:34 pm

The low bar squat is unnecessary and is only a fad globbed onto by unthinking groupies of Mark Rippetoe, who think everything he says says is truth. Even though there haven’t been any studies that show he’s right. It’s like a cult. High bar gets the job done and is all you need.

13 Sergey Zabarin October 5, 2012 at 12:57 am

Great diagram! I would love to see more for the fundamental lifts (dead lift, bench press, overhead press, clean). Or, better yet, perhaps you could create one of those old-school calisthenic exercise posters. I’d definitely buy one.

14 jaklumen October 5, 2012 at 3:08 am

I remember the high-bar back squat being one of the foundations of weight lifting classes in high school, and being taught that it worked several lower body muscles in one exercise. This is an excellent diagram for what I remember.

I enjoyed weightlifting all throughout school and I did a little dumbbell training on my own after I was done. But I did get better training and skill as a writer, and I really have to point out with all the comments here that this article is about a general exercise. It’s not written up as something specialized, which is what I’m gleaning doing a web search on Mark Rippetoe. There is plenty, plenty, plenty of material that is much more specific and detailed for a serious weight training program that people can go and research anytime.

15 Drew Spriggs October 5, 2012 at 5:19 am

Nick – if low bar is unnecessary, why does almost every powerlifter (you know, the guys who are squatting 300kg+) squat low bar?
There is plenty of evidence out there that shows why the majority of people should squat low bar – less stress on the knees (which is great for people like me with knee issues), ability to shift more weight, training a broader range of muscle groups (including the posterior chain, which high bar doesn’t particularly target), etc. I’m not saying high bar is useless, because that’s far from true.

16 Chris October 5, 2012 at 5:41 am

Came here expecting people insisting low bar, Starting Strength, and Mark Rippetoe are infallible.

O look first comment.

17 Brandon October 5, 2012 at 6:25 am

Brian: Funny enough about depth. With low bar you shouldn’t be going much past parallel. It will cause your back to round because of the foot placement with low bar. High bar squats you should be going ATG (ass to grass).

Nick: The low bar and high bar recruit different muscles. High bar is going to focus on your quads, while low bar is more of a posterior chain lift. Different strokes for different folks.

18 Matt October 5, 2012 at 6:33 am

Hitting parallel is a very good thing.

19 steve r October 5, 2012 at 6:45 am

Nicely done! squats are an excellent exercise and this one is no exception!

steve r. PT, CSCS

20 Matt October 5, 2012 at 7:24 am

From the pespective of this physical therapist and CrossFitter, this is a perfect illustration. Love it!

21 Bill October 5, 2012 at 7:54 am

The High bar squat is the leg move that 95% of athletes should be using because it works most of the body’s muscles and does not strain your back as much. It is more effective for overall fitness. The low back is a power lifting move that emphasizes the legs and lower back. If you want to lift more, the low back is the way to go however.

22 Victor October 5, 2012 at 8:13 am

I’m an immediate fan of this series. It would be beneficial to mention the muscle groups worked, possibly reiterating that those muscles should be focused on and utilized while performing the routine.

Its surprising how confusing these are for men who dont have any training background.

23 Joe October 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

Great idea and drawing. I cant wait to see the entire series. A quick trip to BlockPosters and i’ll have my garage gym properly decorated.

24 C October 5, 2012 at 10:01 am

Forget Rippetoe, et al. I wouldn’t listen to a word that anyone from a CrossFit gym says with respect to proper lifting form. CF gyms are replete with idiots slinging around barbells, jerking kettles unnecessarily and doing ridiculous swinging pull-ups.

25 Abrecan October 5, 2012 at 10:57 am

@Bill
THANK YOU. Nice to see a non-partisan comment that actually addressed the differences between high-bar and low-bar squats.

They are useful for different things, as the low-bar puts more emphasis on the lower body (sports applications), and the high-bar puts more emphasis on the back and core (marital arts, lifting, torque generation & knee health). A dedicated individual might even split their sets between the two styles for a balanced approach.

26 Jon October 5, 2012 at 11:07 am

I agree with Sergey, an weight-lifting reference poster would be excellent for guys like me who are just getting into weight-lifting.

One thing I would ask of this particular series it that you note what muscle groups each particular exercise targets. I find that knowing what muscle group I’m going after increase the effectiveness of my weight-training sessions.

27 John October 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Drew Spriggs – you have no idea what you’re talking about and need to detach your lips from the Rippletits.

Don’t feel bad, a lot of people have been brainwashed by his and CrossFit’s spewing of “low-bar = the best and only way to squat”. Show me a single peer-reviewed study that says that low-bar is better, in any way, to high-bar, and I will admit you are correct.

Also, I am a competitive weightlifter who can ATG squat (“high-bar”) 215 kg at a bodyweight of 83 kg, so…

28 orly October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm

John: A whole 215kg, huh?

I’ve squatted 661lbs (300kg) in competition. I squatted 720lbs in the gym last week. And I’m the WEAK guy on my team. I’m also a competitive lifter. And nationally ranked.

The comments to this post are, by and large, so full of ignorance it’s amazing.

Neither a certified CrossFit trainer NOR Mark Rippetoe are good sources for proper squat form. Go ask Rippetoe sometime how much he’s squatted recently. Go ask him to explain why looking at your feet during a walkout is a good idea (hint: it isn’t; it’s actually quite a bad idea and can lead to injury due to the rounded upper back and forward lean it’ll induce on your post-walkout setup). As for CrossFit…well, the less said about CrossFit lift form, the better. If you MUST cite someone involved with CrossFit regarding proper lift form, cite Louie Simmons. Cite Mark Bell. Cite someone who actually knows what the hell they’re talking about and actually knows how to squat, and has done so repeatedly for many years, and does so with a damned sight more weight than Rippetoe can even count to.

Neither high nor low bar are better in general. Each benefits certain lifters with certain leverages performing the lift in a certain way.

Powerlifters tend to squat more low-bar, since we also tend to have a much wider stance, and quite a few compete in single or multi-ply gear. It also happens to benefit our leverages, since powerlifters tend to be on the heaver side — 242lbs to superheavyweight (over 308 lbs).

There are two things that matter here: That you perform the lift correctly (where “correctly” is defined as “in a manner that will not injure you” and “to depth, i.e., with the top of the hip at the crease passing below the top of the knee”), and that you actually perform the lift on a regular basis, with sufficient weight to actually produce results, but not so heavy that your form breaks down.

As for the squat being a “leg exercise”, every last one of you who assert that are, to a person, idiots. The squat uses the quads, hamstrings, spinal erectors, traps, lats, rear delts, obliques, abs, glutes, and all the stabilizers in pretty much every joint in your body.

29 John October 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm

orly: Nice lift! At what bodyweight?

And yes, what all you said was very true – I pointed out how Drew Spriggs was wrong because there is no better method – in fact, you didn’t say anything that I didn’t already believe.

30 BYC October 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Wow. As a big proponent of squats/deadlifts i’m ashamed to say i’ve never heard about this debate between low-bar and high-bar squats. I think what I normally do is high-bar squats, and I figured that the deadlifts work your hamstrings a little more while my squats worked the quads more (balancing each other out).

orly- Yes squats are a compound exercise that works muscles all over your body, but the majority of the work is in your hips and legs. I don’t think calling someone an idiot because they said its a leg exercise makes any sense.

31 Eduardo October 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Greatly timed post. Just did these yesterday.

32 Kevin October 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Nice Diagram! All of the tips illustrate how muich technique is involved in this lift. For an animated gif of this and variations of the squat check out http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/Quadriceps/BBSquat.html

33 Ryan October 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm

My bum shoulder won’t get into low-bar position.
I use the smith machine and move my feet forward a bit. It allows me to keep the weight on my heels, get a full deep knee bend, and still work my gluteus and hamstrings without hurting my knees and rotator cuff.

Did “smith machine” sound like nails on a chalkboard?

34 Philipo October 6, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Athletes training for a specific sport where weight lifting is a supplement should be squatting both low bar and high bar. Arguing one or the other is stupid.

35 William October 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Both the low-bar and high-bar have become subjects of clique-like institutions. Almost as bad as the two-party system.

I’ve used both in a long training career. It should be noted that Rippetoe’s instruction is primarily for beginners who need to acquire general strength for a variety of activities. The low-bar squat, if done correctly (and I believe a lot of the low-bar hate derives from people simply performing it incorrectly), works a larger amount of tissue over a (somewhat) greater range of motion, and allows for heavier weight to be used. I have used it over long periods to great effect – again for general strength acquisition and weight gain that was non-specific to any particular sport.

That said, in my Olympic Weightlifting days I used the high-bar squat only. The upright position and greater use of the quadriceps are more applicable to the recovery portion of the clean-and-jerk and snatch. It is in this point that I disagree with Rippetoe, as he espouses the use of the low-bar for weightlifters. However, his arguments do have merit and are worth consideration.

In the end, I’ve always thought that unless you’re squatting high-bar or low-bar in the 500 pound range, you’re really not entitled to an opinion. When you get there, you also realize it doesn’t really matter all that much as the internet warriors would have you believe.

36 George October 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

orly – even if what most of what you said is true (the only part not true being that you squatted over 700 lb unless it was a 1/8 squat using wraps and two suits), it doesn’t make you any less of a jerk by saying it.

37 Bradley October 7, 2012 at 11:13 pm

I’m a former strongman competitor, and powerlifter. (Slipped w. an Atlas stone and damaged my knee.)

+1 for looking to Louie Simmons, Strossen, etc for good advice on form.

Crossfit, in large, is a “simplification” of aspects of olympic lifting, power lifting, and strongman – and no where near as effective as the original motions.

There is no benefit to a high-bar squat.

The overwhelming majority of men would be much better served by calisthenics than by “lifting”.

If you really wish to develop strength, then find a competitive strength athlete – strongman, lifter, or highland game competitor – and get them to teach you.

NO ONE else knows how to properly develop strength. I’ve been in lectures by PhDs about exercise techniques*, and they’ve had no grasp of the subject at all.

*If you want a PhD w. the proper grasp of technique, the Doctors Todd, at UT in Austin are an excellent resource.

38 @PamelaMKramer - A Renaissance Woman October 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Hello! It’s me one of your female readers. Just wondering why you guys don’t have a Pinterest account yet? It’s articles like these that I would “pin” to my Crossfit board. :)
I’m going to do it any way but if you had a share button it would be nice too. :)

39 Rory October 9, 2012 at 9:28 am

If you’re intentionally “sticking your butt back” you’re going to be arching your lower back – something you definitely don’t want to be doing.

40 Harlan October 10, 2012 at 7:10 am

HBBS is nescessary for olympic weightlifing. Look up Greg Everett and Catalyst Athletics for more info.

41 Ryan October 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Unsurprisingly, there are people throwing out opinions on what is best instead of facts. I more, or less, echo Bradley’s comment above. People join cults all the time. Critical thinking suits one best when making a decision regarding fitness/lifting. Not some d-bag telling you to bench while laying back on a GHD machine then do kipping pullups for time. In any case, that first pic in the illustration has the lifter wrapping his thumb around the bar. Unnecessary: your hands should only serve as a restraint to the bar on your shoulders. No sense in loading your forearms with 315 lbs. Surefire path to tendonitis.

42 Grant Schroeder October 11, 2012 at 11:24 am

I love when people come to The Art of Manliness and then behave like petulant children. There is nothing less “manly” than someone who gets their hackles up when anyone offers an opinion that doesn’t neatly line up with their own.

I’ve been aware of the high vs. low schism for some time, and have always thought it ridiculous. Seems clear that with good instruction and coaching, either exercise has its benefits. Some, however, act like their Grandfather died defending Corregidor so that one of these exercises could be taught to the world! Grow up.

Same thing goes for the Crossfit hate. I can’t understand why people are so threatened by it. Let them do what they do, and if you don’t like it, don’t take part.

43 Ryan B October 13, 2012 at 8:42 am

To say that no one except for a strongman understands how to develop strength is so ridiculous that, thankfully, I doubt I need to spend much time talking about it because even complete novices will see it for a silly statement.

Equally ridiculous is the statement that a majority of men would be better served by calisthenics than lifting. A better statement would be that “The overwhelming majority of people would be best served with a mix of calisthenics and resistance training,”

Strength is relative to your purpose. There are certainly types of training that serve one man better than another, and I’m not discounting that. There is no one true path to strength.

All of this being said, and more on topic- I’m a high-bar squatter, and I find the low-bar squat to be a great tool that’s been turned into a fad.

Other than the emphasis on a narrow grip in the above picture, I agree with everything else in that picture. I’m currently working with a guy who is affiliated with elitefts to work on my own form, and if anyone is looking for an even more in depth breakdown of form, a quick youtube search for elitefts squats will pull up a great series of videos.

44 Sam October 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Why is Ripptoe the only Olympic coach to recommend low-bar squats? How successful have his lifters been?

Why are ex-olympic lifters doing exceedingly well in raw powerlifting (note the raw part) squatting high bar to depth? Most +105kg olympic lifters can squat around 900lbs or more, raw.

Personally, after seeing a 170lb Cuban weightlifter squat 630lbs like it’s a bag of sugar, I know which way I want to be squatting.

45 rb October 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

This is not a proper highbar squat…the high position of the bar does not facilitate butt back and toes in, which forces most of the load on the lower back. Following these instructions will exponentially increase strain to lower back for any weight done.

When keeping the bar so high it is important to allow the knees to migrate slightly, so that the butt can be kept more under the bar, and the back more straight.
Just look at a video of any olympic squat on youtube vs a powerlifter style squat.

there is also a good article on desdo ban about the subject.

46 Jason October 17, 2012 at 9:03 am

Ahh yes the old high bar vs low bar argument/squabbling. Who cares.

Find which comes naturally to you that has the best carry over for what you do, put some weight on the bar and squat.

47 Jason October 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Ahh the old argument of low bar vs high bar and which is better.

Who cares. Find which comes naturally to you and has the most direct carry over to you, put some weight on the bar and squat. Anyone who has the time to argue over which is better needs to spend more time in the gym and less time on the internet.

48 Steve October 17, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Orly, you are bang on. A lot of people do not know how to do squats properly, nor do many so-called athletes understand the importance of them. The high-bar squat is what I am most familiar with, myself and I couple this exercise with a standing calf raise. It is an excellent exercise for hockey players, because it not only strengthens all the right muscles (as you stated above), it also mimics the skating stride to some extent, and it greatly increases balance while lowering the centre of gravity. Any hockey player who does not do this exercise, will never be the best that they can be on the ice.

49 KambizAmini November 3, 2012 at 6:52 am

Squat and deathlift are two so-called compound exercises. It means that if you whant to build muscle, get stronger, get bigger: Do Squat! Very instructional Illustration ! Many thanks!

50 Jake in N.D. November 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Two great websites that explain “Old School” pre-steroid weightlifting are superstrenghtraining.com and dinosaurtraining.com.

51 Benjamin November 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

The thumbs are inconsistent in these diagrams. On this lift, it’s not necessary to grip the bar with the thumb.

These are very effective teaching tools, but for a beginner, a trainer, or at least a lot more background is probably needed to avoid injury/wasting time.

The one-shoulder leotard is the best lifting outfit, however.

52 Dou Evenlift November 19, 2012 at 2:35 am

So much e-statting going on here. I’m 12 years old and have only lifted for 3 months and I squat 950lbs raw.

53 Paul White December 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Low bar vs High bar…who the hell cares? I personally have a MUCH easier time keeping form right (tight core, getting depth) with the high bar squat so that’s what I do. If low bar works for you, go for it! Dogmatic insistence on one or the other is stupid.

54 Andy December 7, 2012 at 6:04 pm

I’m so sick of this argument. This is The Art of Manliness, not The Art of Overthinking a Lift where we all come to repeat shit we’ve read on the internet written by other people who are also repeating what they’ve heard. If you felt the need to explain to the world the finer points of bar position and really think you’re contributing anything except repetitive static, you need to rethink your training and stop being a groupie. There are better posterior chain movements than the low bar. Rip is a solid dude but the level of sheeplike behavior from his flock has been old for a while now. High Bar is a purer squat, flat out. Supplement it with Good Mornings or RDLs. Low bar is cool too.

55 Andy December 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm

That said, if I had to pick ONE lower body lift, and nothing else, no RDL’s no Hypers, no assistance at all (which is essentially the case for newbs), the Low Bar is the obvious go-to because it does a little bit of everything for the hips, legs, lower back etc. It’s just that you don’t squat to strengthen the posterior chain, that’s not the point. You squat to load the fundamental body movement of squatting, which babies do and billions of people use as their go-to method of resting, eating, etc. It’s GOING to be a quad and glute dominant lift. The Low Bar obviously allows more weight but sacrifices depth in a less natural position, as seen in the fact that it is highly technical and needs to be learned properly. Nothing but respect for Rip and anyone going to the rack and adding weight to the bar.

56 John Doe December 18, 2012 at 4:40 am

You go lower than parallel, as far down as your flexibility allows. Low bar is for chumps.

57 Jonathan January 8, 2013 at 9:34 am

Several physical therapists have told me that lower than parallel will destroy your knees and doesn’t add functionality. It shifts all the weight to ligaments that can’t support it. I would use caution. An extra few inches isn’t going to make you any healthier.

58 Andy January 28, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Jonathan I hope you’re trolling. If not, here’s the truth. Physical therapists have the disadvantage of only seeing a population who has already been injured and probably had bad form. PT’s don’t necessarily know shit about lifting and in telling you not to squat below parallel are deferring to ‘common knowledge’ (old wive’s tale) so that they can play it safe. Squatting above parallel makes a huge difference in that at the CRUCIAL point where the weight is stopped and reversed, all of the pressure is on the tendons and ligaments of the knees. In a proper below-parallel squat, the stretch of the hip musculature takes the brunt of the movement-reversal forces, and the knee is spared this uniquely stressful action. Squatting ‘a few inches lower’ DEFINITELY makes a difference in that it makes it a proper hip-involved squat. Squatting happens at the hips. Squatting above parallel is very, very pussy.

59 Chris Ariel August 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm

You should do a bench press diagram!

60 Tim October 5, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Great diagrams, although I agree that low bar is better for you. There is a great training series on elitefts.net called ‘so you think you can squat’.

61 Brian October 20, 2013 at 11:51 pm

The problem with going below parallel is that most people let their knees go way forward, which causes increased shear force across the knee joint (think meniscus and ACL) and increased pressure of the patella (knee cap). With good form, this shouldn’t be a problem with either high or low bar.

I’m a physical therapist. I use both high bar and low bar, and I ALWAYS get below parallel.

Next important topic for discussion by opinionated people who hate the opposition: Star Wars or Star Trek? Discuss.

62 Jesse Lifts January 27, 2014 at 11:10 am

A+ diagram, it’s awesome. High bar squats are always a staple for me, even if I plan to compete low bar. Builds great leg strength that carries over to all bar positions, unlike low bar only.

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