When doing barbell back squats there are two variations depending on the place of the back where you place the bar – low bar and high bar.
The low bar squat requires the lifter to place the bar lower one the back – somewhere in the middle of the trapezoids muscles and on top of the posterior deltoids. This placement requires you to bend over further during squats and engages the glutes more. You will be able to squat heavier weights because of more favorable leverages and the ability to recruit more of your posterior chain muscles. For that same reason 90% of the competitive powerlifters out there use this bar placement. After all their goal is to squat the most possible weight.
The another option is the classic high bar Olympic squat. This version requires you to place the bar on your traps. Since the bar position is higher on the back your torso is much more upright during the squat for balance issues. The benefits of the high bar position is that it places less stress on your hips and it feels more natural. You will find out that supporting super heavy weights by using the high bar position is much more easier and comfortable.
We recommend that as a beginner you stick to high bar squats. They work your quadriceps a lot more than low bar squats while still providing plenty of stimulation for your posterior chain muscles. The high bar has also a very good carry over to the low bar squat. If you are a good high bar squatter you will also be very strong at the the low bar version. The opposite is also true but only to a certain point. It’s not uncommon for experienced low bar squatters to lose 100 lbs on their squat when they switch to deep high bar Olympic style squats.
For that reasons there are ego problems that arise.
When you position the bar on your back you must flex your upper back muscles really hard in order to form a platform for the bar to sit on. It’s recommended that your grab the bar with the narrowest possible grip your flexibility and mobility allows you to use. If your grip during squats is too narrow, you will experience shoulder, elbow and wrist pain. If your grip is too width, you will lose back tightness which is crucial for stabilizing the bar on your back. Experiment and find the right width corresponding to your flexibility levels. Depending on how inflexible you are, you may need to perform some shoulder stretches in order to get more comfortable.
When grabbing the bar make sure you are holding it evenly. Use the different rings on the bar to achieve that. If you are not holding the bar evenly, you will be thrown out of balance. When you are squatting even just 200 lbs being thrown out of balance could be a problem and you are risking spinal injury. That’s why you should take as much time as you need to get ready for squatting. Ignore everybody in the weight room and try to concentrate.
In order to increase the stability of the bar on your back – place some chalk on the bar and on your back. This will make the bar feel much more secure on your back and it won’t slight down at all. Make sure to place more chalk on the smooth part of the bar between the rings. This will increase friction tremendously.
When doing high bar squats many people experience neck pain. That’s because they place the bar too high and it rests on the “naked” vertebrae instead of the traps. Fix that!
Some neck discomfort is unavoidable especially in the beginning when you don’t have as much back mass to act as cushion and you are not used to the movement.
Since shoulder pain during squats is a vast topic, we have prepared a dedicated article to the problem: