High Bar vs Low Bar Squat: Powerlifting Program Secret

Last Update: 21 August 2021

High bar and low bar squats are very similar, however there are a few significant differences that can be exploited to optimize your powerlifting program. In this article, we discuss the differences and the secret to programming with squat variations.

The Importance of Squatting

As one of the big three powerlifting exercises, squatting plays an important role in every powerlifting program. But its importance extends far beyond powerlifting competitions. 

Squats can generate a high degree of volume and power by engaging the quads, glutes, and lower back, among other secondary muscle groups [1]. This makes it a terrific exercise for most athletes, especially for powerlifting, bodybuilding, sports, and fitness enthusiasts alike.

Benefits of Squatting

There is a common belief that the deadlift is the most demanding exercise. However, a 2019 research study found that the back squat generated comparable neuromuscular and endocrine responses to deadlifts [2].

This research further supports the argument that squatting should be a core component of any training program – powerlifting or otherwise. For bodybuilders and amateur weightlifters, the squat is one of the best ways to increase strength, power, size, and optimize your physique.

Likewise, the physical performance enhancements elicited through squatting can be very attractive to athletes of a variety of sports. Increased strength and power has been correlated with improved jumping and sprinting, as well as decreased body fat and increased muscle mass [3, 4].

Injury Risk: Should You Be Concerned?

A common concern with lifting heavy loads, particularly in the form of a squat, is injury due to excessive loading on the back and knees. However, these concerns are largely misguided. 

Research indicates that deep and heavy squats do not increase the risk of injury [5]. Further, improved squatting performance has actually been an indicator of improved injury prevention [6]. 

Of course, it must be understood that injury prevention with squatting is the same as any other exercise or activity: proper technique is required to mitigate risks. Squatting done incorrectly can lead to injury, but the same can be said for running, jumping, and even walking.

Squatting in Powerlifting

For powerlifters, squatting has additional importance. Not only is it a great training exercise, but squatting performance heavily influences competition outcomes. 

The Impact of Squats in Competitions

With so much potential for strength and power, the squat often accounts for around 40% of an athlete’s powerlifting score.

When margins are small and competition is fierce, every increase in performance can become the difference between winning and losing. Adding just 5-10% to any lift could drastically change the outcome of a competition. 

This is especially true when you consider the volume of weight lifted. For the sake of simplicity, consider a 500lb squat. If a lifter can increase their maximum lift by 5-10%, they could be adding 25-50lbs to their overall score!

Squatting Variations

One of the benefits of squatting is that there are endless variations to meet your specific training objectives and improve your overall fitness and health. From olympic powerlifting back squats, to dumbbell or bodyweight squat variations, squats are a staple in any training program.

Biomechanical Differences Between Front and Back Squat

For weightlifters – powerlifters, bodybuilders, and sport-specific athletes alike – back squats and front squats are the two most common types. Beyond obvious differences in technique, front squats will place a larger demand on the lower back during the lift than a back squat.

This is counterintuitive because the front squat is often believed to be easier on the back muscles, particularly the thoracic spine erectors [7]. However, by placing the bar against the front of the torso, the center of gravity of the weight (located at the barbell) has been moved further away from the hips.

It is important to understand that no matter the type of squat, the weight’s center of gravity will be directly above the center of the foot, which is the anchor with the ground. This vertical alignment is necessary for stability throughout the lift. See figure 2.

Changing the Length of the Lever Arm

Relative to the hips, the center of gravity of the weight is actually further away in a front squat. This creates a larger lever arm which contributes to an increased torque. As a result, the back experiences greater stress in a front squat.

Within back squats, there are two different types as well, the high bar squat and low bar squat, which are also sometimes referred to as a HB Squat or LB Squat.

By shortening the lever length, the induced torque can be decreased, leading to increased efficiency and lifting potential. Check out this CrossFit article and Figure 2 for more on the influence of the lever arm on squatting [9].

Shorter levers arms in low bar squat allow for more weight

Figure 2. Comparison of lever length in high bar and low bar squats [9].

Of course, it is not always that simple. Torque is dependent on the moment arm (green and orange line that goes through the thigh in the articles first image. therefore the length of the lever is not the sole contributor. It is also important to note that hip and spine alignment will vary in each lift in order to ensure that the bar remains directly above the center of the foot (maintaining the center of gravity).

Further, as each lift occurs, the relative positioning and forces vary. A simple 2D illustration is insufficient when explaining the complex forces at play, so this is not a collectively exhaustive explanation of the biomechanical difference between high bar and low bar squats.

Bar Position and Back Engagement

In support of the notion that front squats invoke a larger force on the thoracic erectors, a 2011 study used an electromyographical comparison of erector spinae (ES) muscles during front and back squats [10]. The researchers found that front squats resulted in “significantly greater ES activity” [10].

Although a common belief is that the front squat should be easier for the back given the upright position and apparent moment arm, the relative position of the bar to the spine and the lever lift contribute to greater back engagement.

Intuitively, this should resonate with a lot of lifters. More often than not, lifters will reach failure in a front squat faster due to the inability to support the load through their back. The quads are typically not the point of failure in front squats. In back squats, however, the quads are usually give out first. 

Building on this principle and referring back to Figure 1, implementing a low bar back squat further decreases the lever arm, and thus, further reduces the load on the back. For this reason, most people can lift more weight using a low bar back squat. Anecdotally, many people can lift 5-10% more with a low bar back squat than a high bar back squat.

High Bar Squat

Before directly comparing the high bar and low bar squats and discussing their roles in an optimized powerlifting program, let’s quickly review the key features of each of these lifts.

High Bar: What is it?

The high bar squat is the standard back squat. Most commonly used by many powerlifters, weightlifters, athletes, and lifters in general, it is incredibly effective at improving performance (strength, power, speed, and physique) and injury resilience [11].

The value of the squat may be largely due to the nature of the exercise. Many characteristics of the movement pattern of the squat are replicated in numerous essential, everyday activities, such as going up and down stairs, sitting and standing up, lifting objects, running, jumping, and more [11]. 

Deficiencies in squatting technique and performance are likely to be apparent in everyday life, with greater difficulty performing many regular tasks and movements. This is particularly true for the high bar back squat, which follows a relatively standardized biomechanical technique that is most transferable to everyday movement patterns.

High Bar Squat Form

Since this is not a comprehensive overview of squatting technique, the description of how to high bar squat will be rudimentary. 

To set a high bar squat, the lifter must position the barbell across the shoulders on the trapezius, positioned just under the C7 of the cervical spine [12]. See Figure 3 for a visual on the high bar squat bar position [13].

Graphic image showing where the bar goes in a high bar squat.

Figure 3. Bar placement across shoulders and just below C7 of cervical spine. Image adapted from 1Up Nutrition [13].

In addition to having the barbell in a secure position, lifters are prescribed to have their feet flat on the floor, knees and hips starting in a neutral position, and their back in a natural, upright position [11]. 

The movement begins with a descent, facilitated by the flexing of the hips, knees, and ankles. The squat continues until the lifer reaches the bottom of the lift. In powerlifting, this requires that the quadriceps are lowered just below the point of being parallel with the ground.

The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) rules that for a squat to be deemed legal, “the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees” [14].

However, many weightlifters and athletes will consider that appropriate depth has been obtained once the quadriceps are parallel with the ground. In some other instances, people may specifically train partial depth variations. 

The ascent, the return to a full standing position, is facilitated by the extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. In particular, the glutes and quadriceps are utilized extensively to perform this lift. Further, the erector spinae muscles are highly engaged in isometric muscle action for stability and to support posture [11]. 

Beyond these primary muscles, there are numerous other secondary muscles engaged to perform this highly complex movement. 

For a visual demonstration with a brief explanation on proper squatting technique, check out this quick video by BarBend on YouTube [15].

Benefits of High Bar Back Squat

As addressed previously, the high bar back squat is an excellent exercise for generating a neuromuscular and endocrine response, promoting improvements in strength, power, and physique. 

In addition, the engagement of and activation of different muscles in this complex movement can improve athletic performance while preventing injuries [3-6]. 

When specifically looking at squat variations, the high bar back squat is effective for training due to the long lever arm that is created (relative to the low bar back squat). This increases the total range of motion of the lift, promoting increased muscle engagement, and therefore being a favorable exercise for strength and hypertrophy training.

Low Bar Squat

There are very few differences when considering high bar squat vs low bar squat. If you’re asking how to low bar squat, the answer is quite simple. In fact, the squat bar placement on the back is the only significant change in the technique of the exercise. 

Low Bar: What is it?

So how high is a bar during the low bar squat? 

Although it may vary for each athlete, the low bar squat placement of the barbell is simply 1-3 inches lower down the back from the high bar squat. This low squat bar placement is on the lower trapezius, over the posterior deltoid, and over the spine of the scapula [16, 17].

Figure 4 shows what the low bar squat bar position looks like on the back [13].

A graphic image showing where to place the bar during a low bar squat

Figure 4. Barbell placement in low bar back squat over lower trapezius, 1-3 inches lower than high bar back squat. Image adapted from 1Up Nutrition [13].

Low Bar Squat Form

As for the actual lifting technique and movement, everything else is very similar. The descent is still performed by flexing the ankle, knee and hips joints until a depth at or below parallel is achieved. In the ascent, the same muscles are engaged to return to a normal, stabilized position.

The biggest differentiator in technique with low bar vs high bar squatting is that the low bar has a greater forward lean. Due to the weight being placed lower on the back, there is a shorter lever which requires a more forward torso position to keep the barbell in alignment with the feet  (keeping the center of mass directly over the point of contact with the ground) [17]. 

By decreasing the lever length and increasing the forward lean, the biomechanics of the movement and muscle engagement will inevitably vary slightly from the high bar back squat.

However, in terms of technique for the lifter, the differences are minor. The objective will still be to maintain a straight back, drive through the heels, and return to a standing position.

Benefits of the Low Bar Back Squat

As described, the low bar back squat is very similar in execution and function to the high bar back squat. With a lower placement and shorter lever, the low bar back squat allows the lifter to lift more weight due to different biomechanics.

One explanation is that the increased forward lean with this technique maximizes the posterior displacement of the hips, driving more force through the hips than the knees (relative to the high bar squat) [17].

If you are a powerlifter, learning how to incorporate the low bar back squat can be critical to optimizing your lifting performance in competitions. After all, powerlifting competitions do not assess how strong you are, they assess how much weight you can lift.

By optimizing technique to create a more efficient movement, a low bar squat may enable you to add 5-10% to your total squat, significantly improving your powerlifting performance.

High Bar vs Low Bar Squats

We have touched on the benefits and unique characteristics of each variation. To review, high bar squats are the standard form, feature a longer ROM, and are ideal for maximum strength, power, and hypertrophy. Low bar squats drop the bar 1-3 inches down the back and allow you to lift 5-10% more weight due to the shorter lever length from your hips to the bar.

Training Purposes

Let’s compare the benefits of highbar vs low bar squat.

Depending on what you are training for, your optimal squat technique may vary. For powerlifters, the low bar back squat has the obvious benefit of increasing total weight lifted. Therefore, training low bar and mastering technique should be a priority, especially before a competition.

However, for bodybuilders, the increase in total weight lifted doesn’t serve any benefit. Therefore, it would be optimal to train using the high bar squat to maximize the range of motion and training for hypertrophy, strength, and power.

Of course, this does not mean that powerlifters should not practice the high bar squat or that bodybuilders should not practice the low bar squat. Rather, this simply means that different variations are more effective at achieving specific goals.

However, an argument can be made that both variations should be incorporated into a training program. This may be especially true for Olympic powerlifters and athletes of different sports.

By altering the mechanics of the lifts, muscles are naturally engaged a little bit differently, which will be discussed in the next section. Therefore, for a comprehensive training program that maximizes adaptive resistance via neuromuscular and endocrine responses by using a combination of the two variations may be ideal.

Those who regularly perform power cleans, snatches, and jerks, may benefit from using the high bar back squat. This is because of the greater knee flexion, squat depth, and upright posture.

Developing strength and comfort in this position may assist with performing other exercises that require a similar squat technique, as seen when catching a power clean, for example.

Muscular Engagement in Squat Variations

Research has been conducted on the activity of different lower extremity muscles in squat variations via electromyography.

Quadriceps

Although varying results have been observed, the general conclusion is that quadricep activity is very similar for high bar back squat and low bar back squat at comparable loads [17].

A common trend with low bar back squats is to have a wider stance than the standard high bar back squat to accommodate the greater forward lean. In a study comparing muscle activity with different stances, the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, biceps femoris, adductor longus, and gluteus maximus were all studied [18].

In this study, the researchers observed no change in the quadricep engagement with a wider stance, however the adductors and gluteus maximus had higher levels of activity.

A second study on quadricep activation came to similar conclusions, noting that stance variation did not result in a significant impact on quadricep activation [19]. This study did not assess the muscle activity in the gluteus maximus.

These studies show that a wider stance may increase activation in glutes and adductors, but likely does not influence quadricep activation. This is further evidenced by a study that found glute activity increases in high bar back squats with a wider stance (compared to narrow high bar back squats) [20, 21].

A quick note – although a narrow squat is common for high bar squat, many highly accomplished lifters regularly perform high bar squats with a wide stance. Here is an example of an incredible 705lb high bar squat with a wide stance (Pete Rubish height 6’0) [22, 23].

There was another study conducted comparing high bar low bar squats and found that quadricep activity was similar, although a noticeably different load on the knee joints was observed with a deeper squat [24].

This deeper squat can be observed in the high bar back squat, but the additional depth does not necessarily correlate with increased quadricep activity. This same study also found that there was no further increase in muscle activity when the squat extended past parallel [24]. Therefore, squatting beyond parallel may not impact quadricep activity specifically.

Overall, although more research that specifically studies the differences in muscle activation of high vs low back squats is desired, it appears as though the muscle activation is very similar for identical loads.

Glutes and Hamstrings

Research shows that the gluteus maximus is significantly activated during the concentric phase while squatting. Amazingly, comparing glute activation in both high and low bar squats is at least three times larger than the eccentric phase [16].

This study also found that glute activation is significantly greater in the low back squat than the high bar back squat. The researchers conclude that this increase in glute activation is a result of the increased forward lean, increasing the total stress on the posterior chain.

Other research on the differences between these variations seems to confirm this theory. The belief is that the low bar back squat increases the posterior displacement of the hips, and therefore creates more engagement in the larger hip muscles including the gluteus maximus [17].

If using a wider stance to perform the low bar back squat, this may also be contributing to an increase in glute activation in comparison to a traditional, highbar squat.

As for the hamstrings, there has not been a significant difference in hamstring activation observed. One theory for the insufficiency of hamstring activity is that the hamstring muscle is shortened significantly during the squat, preventing excessive strain or activation [16].

Lumbar Erector Spinae

The final component of the posterior chain that is necessary to explore is the lumbar erector spinae (LES), or the thoracic spine erectors. With a greater forward lean, research has found that there is an increase in EMG activity in the LES muscles during the low bar back squat [16].

However, there is also evidence to suggest that the shorter lever arm with the low bar back squat may reduce the load on the lower back. Just as front squats engage the LES muscles more than back squats due to the increased lever arm, it could be anticipated that a high bar back squat would engage the LES muscles more than a lowbar squat [10].

Since muscle activation can be dependent on various factors including the strengths and weaknesses of the specific athlete, this is not fully conclusive.

Until more research is conducted, general conclusions about muscle activation with low bar squat vs high bar squats are that muscle groups are engaged very similarly.

Force Generation

Another consideration of importance to powerlifters is total force generated. Some research has been conducted on variations in force generation between high and low bar squatting, however, it is fairly inconclusive [17].

In one instance, research found that there were no significant differences in ground reaction force profiles between the high bar and lowbar squats across all loads [25].

Meanwhile another study found that a high bar back squat produced larger peak force, peak power, total work, peak velocity, and vertical displacement on identical loads compared to the low bar back squat [26]. While this makes the case for the high bar back squat, there is an important caveat.

This study was conducted using percentages of the high bar back squat 1RM. Therefore, both high bar and low bar lifted the exact same weight for each percentage. However, knowing that most lifters can lift an additional 5-10% with low bar, this result may be misleading.

At 90% of a high bar 1RM, that weight may have been 80-85% of a low bar 1RM. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the force generated should be higher with the high bar squat.

To conclude, differences in power generation appear to be inconclusive. This is significant because it means that low bar squatting can lift a greater load with the same amount of force. So if you are deciding between high bar or low bar squat for force and power generation, there may not be a superior technique.

Powerlifting Program: The Secret to Squatting

This brings us to the key question: How to incorporate low bar back squats into your powerlifting program?

By this point, it should be obvious that low bar back squats should be trained and incorporated into competition prep. In the weeks or months leading up to a competition, a lifter may choose to solely perform low bar squats for the purpose of setting PRs on meet day.

However, the benefits of incorporating low bar back squats into a powerlifting program can serve a much greater purpose than solely preparing for competition day. And this is the real secret, because very few people strategically consider the differences in low bar vs high bar squats to optimize their training.

Combining Low Bar and High Bar in Programming

Conclusions from the research are that a low bar squat can be performed with 5-10% more weight than a high bar squat. Additionally, there appears to be a reduced load on the knee joint as it is dispersed to the hip joint.

As a result, there may be a greater engagement of the posterior chain including the glutes and spinal erectors. But interestingly, the engagement of the quadriceps and total force generated from the movement is actually very similar.

This leaves us with an exercise that generates similar muscle activity, slightly varies how muscles are engaged, generates similar power under identical loads, but is capable of lifting more weight.

Knowing these factors, a well-structured powerlifting program will take advantage of the differences between these two squat variations and incorporate both of them into a program.

Programming Specifics

An optimized program takes different factors into consideration. We will cover a few.

Strength and Power Gains

One of the most important aspects of training is to consistently develop strength and power. Naturally, a good powerlifting program will incorporate some form of progressive overload or periodization to optimize adaptive resistance [28].

When looking to build strength and power, the traditional high bar squat is an excellent option because it allows for a full range of motion and has long been used to optimize strength and power by powerlifters and bodybuilders alike.

In a basic program, this is probably sufficient. However, to maximize gains, adaptive resistance must be maximized. To do this, variations in technique, movements, weight, tempo, frequency, among others, need to be implemented.

Switching between high bar and low bar is an excellent way to alter the function and execution of your squats. Not only may this alter the weight you lift, it will also stimulate your muscles differently.

This is an excellent way to drive a greater neuromuscular and endocrine response that is necessary to maximize your performance gains.

Competition Prep

A second consideration is competition prep. When meet day comes, it is imperative that you are prepared to lift as much weight as possible.

Again, it doesn’t matter how much force you generate or how strong your muscles are. What matters is how much weight you are able to lift.

For competitive powerlifters, training and mastering the technique of the low bar back squat is essential to perform to your highest potential on meet day. Therefore, training low bar back squat must be a priority in the weeks and months prior.

In fact, it is not uncommon to designate a period prior to the competition to solely perform low bar back squats. This can ensure comfort, technique, and maximum performance.

Load Management

Perhaps the greatest secret within programming squats is the ability to use the low bar back squat for load management. While training consistently and under high intensity, excessive Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue may wreak havoc on performance and gains [28]. 

This is particularly true when incorporating progressive overload and constantly putting your body under extreme stress.

For this reason, many powerlifting programs incorporate a “deload” every 3-5 weeks to ensure that the body is capable of fully recovering. Other programs such as Brandon Lilly’s Cube Method (hyperlink to article about the Cube Method) have greatly reduced high intensity lifts to just one time per week as a way to manage loads and recovery.

It is also for this reason that many programs incorporate the principles of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to dictate training volume [29, 30]. By constantly assessing the lifter’s capacity to take on more strain, rest and volume can more effectively be managed.

And this is where squat variations can be so effective. To keep fatigue low, the low bar squat can be strategically programmed.

Consider that the 1RM of a high bar squat is about 80% of the 1RM of a low bar squat. Therefore, performing the same weight with a low-bar squat can reduce the total load performed according to a percentage or RPE scale.

Rather than reducing frequency or volume of workouts to allow for sufficient rest, high bar squats may be swapped out for low bar squats, allowing for training volume to be maintained with lower levels of fatigue.  

Autoregulation

To build on the idea of RPE, it is important to fully explain how autoregulation can be implemented into an optimal powerlifting program. Essentially, using RPE autoregulation while programming uses a powerlifter’s subjectivity to determine training intensity rather than prescribing a specific training volume via loads, sets, and reps.

RPE can help to prevent overtraining or undertraining by ensuring that the athlete lifts with the appropriate volume to facilitate growth. The objective is to find the perfect balance between loading and recovery.

The key advantage is that it works on a set-to-set basis; offering a high level of specificity and accuracy when prescribing training volume [31]. These minor adjustments can ensure that training loads align with the capacity of the lifter.

If they do not have the capacity to perform a planned workout volume, RPE can help to identify when they need to stop.

But rather than using RPE to reduce total reps, transitioning from high bar back squat to low bar back squat may be another way to avoid overtraining.

If a lifter is unable to perform the desired amount of reps while high bar squatting, they can switch to low bar squatting to perform the same total volume of lifting without maxing out their capacity. Alternatively, if more rest is desired, a lifter can program more frequent low bar back squats at the same weights to help reduce the training burden.

Velocity-Based Training

Another strategy that can be used in conjugation with programming low bar back squats and autoregulation is the use of barbell training devices.

Velocity is an excellent indicator of the intensity of a lift and has been directly correlated to the capacity of the CNS to take on strain [32]. As the body becomes fatigued and power generation is reduced, the barbell will move with a slower velocity.

For a comprehensive overview on science behind velocity-based training, check out this article full of research and an overview of the best barbell training devices on the market.

In short, you can use devices to measure velocity of your lifts to offer highly-specific guidance on how much weight to lift to align with your desired goals.

Incorporating the usage of these training devices may be useful when adapting your programming. For example, if you scheduled high bar squats but your velocity is lower than desired for your planned training volume, this indicates that your CNS may not be primed to take on that load.

One option may be to reduce the load, but if you are seeking to maintain training volume, you could switch to low bar squatting because you will better manage the weight and be able to increase your peak velocity.

Likewise, if you are low bar squatting with a prescribed weight and exceeding your desired velocity, you may choose to switch to high bar squat to further strain your body with the more demanding technique.

Clearly, there are numerous possibilities to customize your programming to ensure optimal training volume using autoregulation, programming highbar vs low bar squats, and incorporating barbell training devices.

The Secret to Squatting Efficiently 

Many people know about low bar squatting and most powerlifters will train it for the sake of optimizing competition performance. But few people understand the arguments or criteria to decide when and why to squat high bar vs low bar.

By understanding how they differ and how they can be used, you will be able to create an optimized program to keep you pushing for gains without overtraining. Every pound counts when you are a powerlifter; attention to detail in your program cannot be overlooked.

It is recommended to assess your current training program, take time to understand the low vs high bar squat factors and differences addressed in this article, identify how high bar low bar squats can be programmed to optimize training loads and rest, and continue to watch your lifts soar!

References

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