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The squat bar path should go up and down in a vertical line unlike the bench bar path, and there’s a little known secret that allows for real-time feedback on the lift — simply take a video recording from the side or use a velocity-based training (VBT) device to track the bar path.9
While this allows for nearly instantaneous feedback, the trick to maximizing muscle is to monitor the bar path while making small adjustments to improve form — then comparing the bar path before and after to adjust course if necessary.
Now that the trick is out of the bag, learning the biomechanics behind the squat bar path and why it’s so important will show us the best ways to fix a wonky bar path, whether it’s low bar, high bar, or even smith machine squats.
Importance of the Bar Path in the Squat
The importance of the bar path in the squat is very much underestimated by many. Having a correct bar path will not only ensure that the squat is done efficiently and correctly but will make the squat much easier to perform, reduce the risk of injury and place less stress on the stacked vertebrates of the back.
Mitigates the Risk of Injury & Puts Less Stress on the Back
Squatting with the correct bar path will reduce the risk of injury to the lower back because when the bar travels towards the front or back of the torso, rather than in a straight line, this will lead to unnecessary stress on the back.
This will be especially true for individuals who may have weak lower back muscles or have not mastered the hip hinge—the movement where the hip is the fulcrum of rotation between the thighs and the lumbar segment.
Squatting with the correct bar path is the optimal and natural way for the body to accomplish the movement and will increase squat performance. This implies that correct muscle groups will be recruited efficiently, resulting in less work to achieve the same lift that would be done with an improper bar path.
Since the bar must move up and down and not on any other plane, the body doesn’t need to compensate for this additional movement, making it easier to return to the starting point.
High Bar & Low Bar Squats: How the Barbell Squat Path Should Look
The back squat can be completed using either a high or low bar, and the barbell squat path should be vertical between both the starting and ending positions. Both high and low bar back squats should have the barbell travel in a straight vertical line that traverses from mid-foot to the end of the barbell although the techniques to achieve this differs slightly.2
The path of the barbell should not deviate from this vertical line either from the front or the rear. When the path diverges from this line, then there would be a change in the balance which will cause the balance to shift. This will result in curving inward or outward and then resuming back to the original starting position.
How To Figure Out if You Have an Optimal or Vertical Bar Path (The Squat Bar Path Secret)
Now that the basis of the bar path is understood, how does one determine if they need to fix their bar path?
The simplest way is to simply video record the lift from the site and see if the bar is moving up and down as intended. This may take a few takes and it’s important to make the lift challenging to see if there are any deviations when failure is being approached. Of course, there are also apps like Adobe Premiere where lifters could trace their bar path for a clear line to receive feedback in order to address any issues. Some apps are available on the market, such as iron path, which will analyze the bar path of the lifter.
The other approach is to use a VBT, an acronym for velocity-based training that measures the barbell’s velocity during its lift—the velocity of going up or the speed of repetition, etc. The VBT device can gather data throughout training sessions—recording the velocities of a lifter and determining optimal one max reps in addition to bar paths. Data can also be used to establish a reference point from the barbell to the floor and know what velocity correlates with a vertical path.
Analyzing the Biomechanics of High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Paths
The high bar vs low bar squat will have some varying biomechanics in how they are performed to achieve a vertical squat path due to the placement of the bar. The high bar and low bar squat target the quads and the posterior chain—muscles located along the back of the body, i.e., calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes erector spine (muscles on the spine), and the latissimus dorsi (largest back muscle).
The different bar placements will result in biomechanical differences that make themselves apparent through angles of the joint, the recruitment of target muscles, and the forces at the base of exercise, i.e., the feet.3
During a high bar back squat, the barbell is placed, as the name suggests, in an elevated position on the upper part of the trapezius muscles just below the C7 of the cervical spine resulting in a low squat. As a result of the placement of the bar, this type of squat will result in increased knee flexion or angle and decreased hip flexor angle resulting in a more upright torso as well as a deeper squat.
As a consequence, this squat will place more demand on the quads and glutes. The high bar position results in less stress on the back muscles. The longer lever arm created due to the high bar increases the range of motion, translating to more muscle recruitment, making it an excellent option for strength and hypertrophy.
When an athlete engages in a low bar squat, the barbell is placed below the back, closer to the shoulder blades on the lower trapezius over the posterior delts. This position is about 1-3 inches lower than the high bar squat. The bar placement will now result in increased hip flexion, leading to a forward lean as there is a shorter lever requiring the torso to be more forward to align the bar with the feet. The low bar squat will thus result in pronounced engagement of the erector muscles, hamstrings, and glutes.
Due to the lower placement and shorter lever, the lifter of the low bar squat can haul more weight due to the different biomechanics—up to 5-10% more weight.4 This is due to the forward lean, which will, in turn, lead to a maximum subsequent displacement of the hips, allowing more force to be driven through the hips than the knees. This makes it an excellent choice for powerlifting.
The squat bar secret to maximizing muscle will be to achieve a vertical squat bar path in either the high or low bar squats, one must consider the lever arms and in general, be more upright on the high bar and lean forward more on the low bar.
Differences in Bar Path & Form on Smith Machine Squats vs Barbell Squats
While both bar paths are vertical, a smith machine bar path is fixed due to its design with the bar attached to a rail system; it travels up and down this path and cannot move forward or behind.
This eliminates the need for a spotter but in turn, a form must be adjusted to avoid injury.
- Form—the smith machine will affect the lifter’s form by having a fixed bar path. As a result, the lifter will have to modify their technique to align with that of the smith machine so as to put less stress on the joints and mitigate the risk of injury.
- Compromises the lift—the barbell is attached to the smith machine—that it is under the control of the machine and not the lifter. This makes lifting easier as the machine does the work that would be done by the stabilizing muscles leading to an ineffective workout. Many would consider using this machine solely as cheating—and while it’s not, it’s surely easier.
The best way to use a smith machine and thus reduce the risk of injury would be to place the feet 3-6 inches forward from where they would be during a barbell squat. The weight should be shifted back onto the heels and leaning back with the foot position forward mitigating any risks.
There are two types of smith machines: angled and straight smith machines. The bar path of the angled machines has a 7-12 degrees inclination which attempts to mimic the path of a natural barbell squat. The body should face away from angled bar machines, but the direction does not matter with straight smith machines.
Common Issues That Affect the Squat Bar Path
There are several common faults that a lifter does that lead to a bar path that is not vertical and thus an inefficient squat. A back squat executed with defects will hinder efficiency and induce the risk of injury.
Common faults include incorrect bar placement, going up on the toes, the core not engaged, incorrect stance, arching the back, and non-engagement of the glutes. If the squat bar path secret was used and a deviation in the path was seen, use these easy tricks to correct faults that are common to many lifters.
Timing of the Descent Between the Knees and Hips
During the initial descent (the downwards motion) of the squat, the lifter must break or bend both the knees and hips simultaneously.5Failure to do this would cause the bar to deviate from a vertical path. If someone descends first from the knees before the hips, the weight will be placed at the front of the foot resulting in the barbell moving forward.
Descending at the hips before the knees will have the opposite effect, placing the load on the back of the foot leading to the bar oscillating back.
Going Up on the Toes
The heels of the foot must be firmly grounded on the floor to ensure a proper base and foundation to push the weight. When the heels leave the ground, an incorrect center of gravity will lead to the bar moving forward. The center of gravity should be at the center of the foot with a tripodal foot – which essentially means gripping the floor with the pinky toe, big toe, and heel for firm planting.
Caved or Far Forward Knees
Lifters that cave their knees instead of pushing them outwards will lead to the center of gravity being improper and cause the torso to move forward, deviating from the correct vertical path. When the knees go past the toes, which increases the range of motion, the torso will also move forward, departing from a squat bar path not straight.
The Core Is Not Engaged
It is always critical to engage the cores during a squat. If the core is not engaged, there will be insufficient support to the spine which will result in the pelvis not being positioned in an optimal manner. This will result in the bar moving forward away from the optimal vertical line.
The squat will require a correct stance (foot placement) which varies with individuals due to divergent anatomies. If the stance is too narrow or the feet pointing straight forward, the lifter will fall back, resulting in an incorrect bar path. In general, the lifter should use this trick and place the feet shoulder apart and point outwards at about a 30-degree angle. The glutes should be driven straight up and not forward—the hips and not the legs should perform the squat.
The lifter must control the descent speed and not go down too fast because this increases the chance of excessive forward lean or falling forward, causing the bar to deviate from the vertical bar path. Plus, a slow descent will also help build tension.
Overarching or Flexing the Back
When the back is not neutral and over-arched during the descent of the squat, the hips will be inhibited so it’s important to keep a neutral spine position – not with the hips tucked in too much or the butt poked out.
Flexing the spine places the body at a disadvantage forcing the lifter to compensate by rounding the lower back and rotating the pelvis to tilt upwards. The knees will cave in, and the torso will fall forward, leaving a break in the vertical line.
Back Being Too Upright
When the back is too upright, as in the case of many amateurs attempting to keep their back flat, the weight load will transfer mostly to the heels as opposed to the midfoot resulting in the torso shifting back. As a consequence, the path of the bar will cease to be vertical.
Hips Rising Faster Than the Torso
As a result of weak quads, when the lifter is rising from the squat, the body will need to compensate by engaging the glutes, calves, and lower back to meet the demands placed on it—to stand up. The result is a good morning squat which causes the bar path to move forward away from the optimal vertical line.
Not Engaging the Glutes
The glutes are one of the main muscle groups in a back squat, and they perform the function of extending the hips. If the hips do not extend in tandem with the knees leading to the aforementioned good morning squat, this will result in a squat bar path not straight.
Incorrect Bar Placement During Squat Bar Path
The position of the bar will determine how the torso will be angled during the squat. The low bar squat, as mentioned before, allows the lifter to haul more weight; however, when the bar is placed further lower, bringing it closer to the hips, the torso will be inclined to lean forward, which will cause a squat bar path not vertical. Placing the bar too high will also lead to a deviant bar path.
How to Squat With a Vertical Bar Path & Keep a Straight Bar Path
Some training techniques can aid the lifter in achieving a vertical bar path, including the previously mentioned self-recording of the lifter, the use of a VBT device but this is just the first half of fixing the squat bar path.
Additional methods include self-training using the squat rack, concentrating on the bottom half of the movement, etc. The most important thing is that the bar remains over the midfoot during the squat; lifters should not obsess with a perfect bar path.
Correcting Technique Using the Squat Rack
The lifter should use this easy trick and stand outside a squat rack with a barbell with no weights. The lifter should then squat next to the rack as close as possible but not quite touching it; thus, it becomes a guide for the lifter to practice squatting in a vertical path. The bar should not be allowed to touch the bar, which will essentially make it a smith machine—the lifter should balance the bar and not use the rack for this. This should ideally be done just before squatting during warm-up.
Concentrating on the Bottom Half of the Squat
The back squat, in this case, is not completed through the full range of motion that is up and down; instead, the lifter would focus on the bottom half of the movement. Most lifters would have the correct path until the bottom position is reached. Coming out of this position is where many individuals will end up getting shifted forward.
Individuals should use this easy trick and focus on this section of the squat to allow the lifter to maintain coordination of the movement ensuring the bar remains back. These exercises should be done after the squat to supplement the main squat and should be done with relatively lightweight as they are strenuous movements to execute. They should be done in 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
Many times, the reason why lifters have difficulties maintaining a vertical path is due to weaknesses in certain muscle groups. Weak quads are one of the primary culprits that lead to an incorrect bar path. The lifter should lower the load if necessary, set their ego aside when doing squats, and build up quad strength. Lunges, box jumps, and leg extensions should be included as well. Straight leg raises have been shown to significantly strengthen quads and should be included.6
Squatting With Resistance Bands
Resistance bands can be placed around the hips above the knees and adjust the weight accordingly. This should help train to activate the glutes more, especially for those lifters that do not engage them and over-rely on the muscles of the legs.
Lifters should ensure that the bar is placed correctly and can do this by experimenting with different variations with no weight on the barbell until they can achieve the squat bar path that is ideal.
Descent Speed and Coordination of Knees and Hips
The lifters should be sure to control their descent speed and ensure that they break both knees and hips simultaneously during the descent to provide an optimal bar path.
Lifters should ensure that they are bracing and engaging the core during the squat. This is a fundamental technique in ensuring that the lifter has a stable platform to push the weight up and prevent them from falling backward by maintaining a firm torso.
Use this easy trick and have the ankle and the footwork as stacked joints—when the ankle is stacked over the foot, it tracks over it, and the knees go into a natural outward position. Stacking the ankle over the foot will mean everything will align down from the foot all the way up the hips and onto the bar making for a powerful, efficient, and vertical bar path.
Stance and Knees
A lifter can practice what stance suits their body the best by experimenting with either no weight or lightweight. Different foot placements will work for different individuals; they will then adapt to what works for them. Individuals will also need to push out their knees during the squat and not allow them to collapse.
Now that you have the tricks, tools and resources to ensure the squat bar path is vertical, it’s time to get under the bar, get more efficient in the lift, and maximize muscle.
How Do I Fix the Bar Path Swinging on One Side During Back Squats
There are several ways of fixing this deficiency of a bar path swinging and it lies around symmetry. The lifter would need to ensure the hand grips are evenly placed, the bar should be symmetrically placed, and the feet should be placed evenly.
Muscle imbalances can often be a perpetrator that causes this and should be addressed by targeting the weaker side. The training regimen should include shoulder and hip exercises that focus on mobility. Pin squats can help address this issue as well.
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