Is The Low Bar Squat Really A Squat?

The low bar squat has gained quite the popularity over the last 4-5 years thanks to the Internet, Mark Rippetoe and the large amount of people competing in the sport of powerlifting. However, is the low bar squat all that good and why are so many people falling in love with it?

1. What is a low bar squat?

The low bar squat is a barbell back squat which requires the lifter to place the bar a couple of inches lower than the regular high bar squat. The bar rests on the middle of the traps and on top of the contracted posterior deltoids.


The low bar squat is mostly used in powerlifting because it allows the lifter to move more weight (about 20%) which is the goal of the whole event.

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

Putting the bar on your back has several effects which end up helping the lifter squat heavier weights:

– less stress on the lower back;

When the bar is positioned lower, there is less stress on the lower back because the lever is shorter. Imagine that you have a long stick that is somehow stuck in the ground. When you put something heavy on top it will probably bend or break. The higher the weight, the easier it becomes for the stick to break. The closer the weight is to the base, the more weight can be supported and the less stress there is on the body of the stick. The same applies to the low bar squat – the weight is closer to the lower back which means that there is less stress.

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.

– the ability to use your biggest and strongest muscles – the glutes;

The strongest muscles in the human body are the glutes.  When you do the low bar squats you have to bend over more in order to balance the weight. Due to gravity when you squat the weight is always distributed over the middle of the foot. If you draw a straight line, from the bar to the ground, it will always pass through the middle of the foot. Why? That’s the only way to balance the bar and avoid falling forward or backwards. When you have the bar low on your back you need to bend over more, so that the straight line from the bar to the ground passes through the middle of your foot.

The low bar squat relies mostly on the glutes and the hamstrings. If you look at powerlifters, you will see that they all have big glutes and usually weaker quads compared to weightlifters. That’s because of the two different squats they do.

In the video above you see Konstantin Konstantinovs squat some really heavy weight. Notice that his quads are rather small for a man of his size. It’s because this version of the squat relies on hips more than quads.

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 just not as much as the low bar.

– less range of motion;

In order to squat A2G (ass to grass) style and use the low bar position ridiculous flexibility is required. Most people will bend their back and sprain it. That’s why the movement usually ends at parallel or a little bit below. For those of you who are unaware parallel is reached when the crease of your hips is in line with your knees. The image above reveals the different depth position much more clearly.

squat-depth-below-parallel

image via: westcoastsc.com;

Since the range of motion is shorter the lifter can move more weight. There is no doubt that if people were required to perform full A2G squats in powerlifting competitions, the records would go down to the 800s (the heavy weight class).

3. 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, who was a marine with interest in football, strength training and bodybuilding, used to devote a lot of time to moving heavy barbells. However, Bruce Randall avoided squats because of a serious leg injury. For this reason Randall only tested his squat once in a while to see where his strength is at. At one point he was able to squat 603 lbs at a personal bodyweight of 355 pounds.

What was the secret to Bruce Randall’s squat strength? After all, he did not squat that much.

The legend says that Bruce Randall used another exercise to build his squat – the barbell good morning. 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}

So, why was Randall able to get so much out of the good morning?

It’s 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. It’s more of a hybrid between a squat and a good morning, so in reality it’s neither.

Not really a good morning

A proper barbell good morning is done with a minimal knee bend and it’s an exercise that puts insane stress on the lower back. That’s why in order to do heavy weights in a strict fashion you need to be very experienced and strong. Truth be told, a proper good morning is much more complicated and harder to do compared to a squat, even though it may look simple.

The low bar squat is not really a good morning because the lifter bends at the knees more which reduces the stress on the lower back during the descend and allows for some leg work.

Not really a squat

Observe a child squat – it will never ever perform anything remotely resembling a low bar squat. That’s because the low bar squat is a man made game which the child is taught later on.

A proper squat is done in an upright position and the quadriceps are largely involved. That’s a true squat. It’s mostly done by weightlifters in order to build leg strength for the clean & jerk. You will rarely see a weightlifter do low bar squats, if ever.

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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