Is The Low Bar Squat Really A Squat?

The popularity of the low bar squat reached epic proportions over the last 4-5 years thanks to the Internet, Mark Rippetoe and the high number of muscle worshipers competing in the sport of powerlifting. However, is the love for the low bar justified or simply a mixture of wishful thinking, brainwashing, and delusions of psyches hungry for thicker muscle fibers? Let’s look at the data.

What is a low bar squat?

The low bar squat is a barbell back squat with the bar positioned lower than usual. The bar rests on the middle of the traps and on top of the contracted posterior deltoids.

Powerlifters squat low bar exclusively because this variation allows you to lift up to 20% more weight.


Why does the low bar squat allow you to lift more weight?

Putting the bar low on your back results in several mechanical changes that permit the transportation of more weight.

– less stress on the lower back

The low bar position puts less stress on the lower back because the lever is shorter.

Note: Not everybody experiences less lower back stress during low bar squats. The lever may be shorter, but the lifter has to bend over more in order to compensate and balance the barbell.

 more hips

During heavy squats of any kind, the bar is always over the middle of the foot. This becomes apparent if you draw a straight line from the bar to the ground. The line will always pass through the middle of the foot. Why? That’s the only way to remain balanced when there’s a heavy barbell on top of you.

When you have the bar low on your back, you need to bend over more in order for the bar to be over the middle of your foot. As a result of this forward lean, the hips work extra hard. The low bar squat relies mostly on the glutes and the hamstrings. If you look at powerlifters, you will see that many have big glutes and usually weaker quads compared to weightlifters. This is a pretty good illustration of the mechanical differences between the two styles of squatting.

In the video above, you see Konstantin Konstantinovs squat a heavy weight. Notice that his quads are rather small for a man of his size. The explanation is fairly simple – this squat style relies more on the hips than the quadriceps.

In the next video, you can see a weightlifter squat high bar style. Notice the insane leg development and the upright position.

Note: The high bar squat still uses the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) actively but not as much as the low bar. Conversely, the low bar hits the quadriceps too but not to the level of an upright high bar squat.

– less range of motion

An A2G (ass to grass) low bar squat requires ridiculous hip and hamstring flexibility without which most people would bend their backs at the bottom and expose the area to injuries. That’s why the movement usually ends at parallel or a little bit below.

Parallel is reached when the crease of your hips is in line with your knees. The image below illustrates a squat below parallel.

squat-depth-below-parallel

image via: westcoastsc.com

Since the range of motion is shorter, the lifter can move more weight. If people were required to perform full A2G squats in powerlifting competitions, the records would go down to the 800s (the heavyweight class).

So, is the low bar squat a real squat?

bruce-randall-doing-heavy-ass-good-mornings

Bruce Randall doing heavy good mornings with a bent buffalo bar. image via http://muscleandbrawn.com/

Before answering this question, let me tell you a story. Back in the day, 1959 Mr. Universe Bruce Randall (a marine with interest in football, strength training, and bodybuilding) used to devote a lot of time to the transportation of heavy barbells. However, Bruce Randall avoided squats because of a serious leg injury. Nonetheless, Randall tested his squat once in a while to see where his strength was at.

Eventually, he hit a 603lbs squat weighing 355lbs himself.

What was the secret to Bruce Randall’s squat strength?

The legend says that Bruce Randall acquired his squat strength by performing heavy barbell good mornings. Here’s what he has to say on the subject:

I did do one exercise during this time which may have had some influence on my squat. This was the good morning exercise. When I reached over 400 lbs. on this exercise I found that I could not do the exercise in the strict sense because I had to band at the knees in order to compensate for the weight at the back of the neck.

I made 685 in this manner with my back parallel to the floor and once almost made 750 but was forced to dump it because of a shift in the weight. {for more on Bruce Randall click here}

Why did the good morning lead to those results?

Simple. The low bar squat is nothing more than a cheated barbell good morning. It’s not a true squat even though it looks like one to the untrained eye. It’s more of a hybrid between a squat and a good morning, so in reality, it’s neither. That’s why the good morning has a decent carryover to the low bar.

Not really a good morning

A proper barbell good morning is done with a minimal knee bend and puts an insane stress on the lower back. Lifting heavy weights with this exercise requires a lot of experience and strength. Truth be told, a proper good morning is much more complicated than a regular squat.

Ultimately, the low bar squat is not really a good morning because the lifter bends at the knees. This reduces the stress on the lower back during the descent and allows for some leg work.

Not really a squat

The low bar squat is a man made game. It is a modified squat designed to move more weight. It is neither natural nor intuitive to squat this way.

2 comments

  1. Joseph

    There is no mention of anthropometry and hip structure in this article. You are doing the opposite of Rippetoe and making a declarative article based on cherry picked data. The fact is everyone has different hip mechanics and anthropometry, so making blanket statements on how someone should squat is silly. You have to take it person to person… and guess what. some people aren’t meant to squat with tons of weight. Some people’s squat will look “good morningish” and some people with <50% of body height from the greater trochanter, up will probably be high bar, but you'd still have to asses their hip mechanics. Hip mobility and genetics will determine knee tracking, and knee tracking will determine foot angle, this will determine back angle, and the back angle will determine if the liter is more comfortable with the bar a bit higher or lower…
    The asian lifter also clearly has a very long torso compared to his legs. Why don't you publish your name?

  2. Stefano

    I agree with many of the things you say in the first part of the article. It is true that the low-bar squat does not have much to contribute to quads development (but it activates the posterior chain much more; and it has less to contribute than the high-bar squat to knee injuries). It is also true that its geometry is closer to the good morning (and also to pulls such as the DL and the Olympic lifts). But it does not follow from this – or from that fact that children do not low-bar squat instinctively – that the low-bar squat is not a real squat. To conclude this is just a non-sequitur.

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