Everyone from beginner fitness enthusiasts to weightlifters to athletes can benefit from squats. They’re a functional and effective lower body exercise.
There are many different variations of squats. They can be done with or without weight. You can use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or a machine to increase the load and intensity, or simply use your own body weight.  

Back squats are done with a bar across your back while lowering yourself into a squat toward the ground. There are two different ways to hold the bar: high on the upper back or lower on the midback.

Knowing the difference between a high bar position and a low bar position is important. It can affect which muscles are worked. Here’s how to decide which version is better for your goals.

What’s a high bar squat?

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A high bar squat is a back squat where the bar is placed high on the trapezius muscle across the top of the shoulders. The feet are shoulder-width apart with toes pointed slightly outward.

To stay balanced during the squat movement, the bar must stay over the midfoot. When you place the bar high on the back, it demands a more upright torso position and forward movement of the knees to descend properly into a squat position.

What’s a low bar squat?

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A low bar squat is a squat in which the bar is placed low on the upper back in the back squat position. It should be resting on the posterior deltoid, not the top of the shoulders. The feet are also shoulder-width apart and turned slightly out for this move.

In this squat position, to stay balanced and keep a straight bar path over the midfoot, you must immediately bend slightly at the hips. This causes a more forward lean with the torso during the movement to prevent falling backward.

Benefits of a high bar squat

This style of squat relies heavily on quadricep strength. It’s an appropriate exercise to do if you’re looking to gain strength and muscle mass in your quadriceps, the muscles on the front of the thighs. It’s best for those who have good ankle mobility because the knees must move further past the ankles to get down into a squat position.

It also places less stress on the lower back and is easier to stay balanced than in a low bar squat. The bar is naturally over the midfoot from the start.

Benefits of a low bar squat

This squat style focuses the effort more on the posterior chain of muscles including the glutes, hamstrings, and back extensors.

This position puts less stress on the quadriceps and more emphasis on the posterior chain muscles. Therefore, it’s ideal for those looking to build their glutes and better activate the hamstrings. More muscles are being recruited with this version. Some people find they can lift heavier weight with a low bar squat, maximizing their strength gains. Also, a low bar squat may be good for those with limited ankle mobility because the knees don’t have to move in front of the ankles quite as far, decreasing the angle of flexion.

Which one is better?

Both styles of squats are great, for different goals. If you’re looking to build power and increase strength in other exercises, like power cleans and snatches, then a high bar squat may be best.

If you’re looking to build the muscles of your posterior chain, increase your one rep max, and challenge your balance and core strength, then a low bar squat may be for you.

One disadvantage of a low bar squat is that many people don’t have the shoulder mobility and balance to maintain proper position throughout the exercise. Poor body mechanics combined with a heavy load brings with it a high risk of injury.

Bottom line? Whichever squat you can do with good form is the best one for you.

Next steps

Strength coaches, health professionals, physical therapists, and fitness trainers often use squats. It’s a primary functional movement and has many benefits in the gym, in sports, and in everyday activities. High bar and low bar squats help increase strength in the lower body, core, and back. They also improve balance, coordination, and range of motion. High bar squats are great for people of all fitness levels, while low bar squats are more technical. They’re best suited for experienced lifters who want to progress their fitness program.

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