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When back squatting, there are two potential locations to position the barbell: atop the traps at the base of the neck (high-bar), or a bit further down, more on the meat of the shoulders (low-bar). It turns out that these few inches really matter. A new study from researchers in New Zealand found that in the low-bar back squat (LBBS), there’s greater muscle activity of the erector spinae, adductors, and gluteal muscles, while in the high-bar back squat (HBBS), the quadriceps are more dominant.
“Squatters doing high-bar back squats usually take a narrower stance with the feet and hands," says New York City-based tier 3+ trainer and precision running coach Rachel Mariotti. “This translates into more range of motion in the ankles and knees and less of a hip hinge.” However, when the bar is moved just a few inches lower, it shifts the center of mass just enough that the athlete will take a wider stance, bending forward at the hips a bit more deeply. “This means there's a smaller hip angle, and the hamstrings and glutes are activated to press back up to stand,” notes Mariotti.
Apart from the muscle-activation differences, the bar placement may simply be a preference based on your body proportions. Athletes with longer legs can find the more upright torso position of the high-bar squat to be more challenging to execute with proper form, adds Mariotti.
“People who are looking to strengthen their posterior chain may be better off with a low-bar back squat,” says Mariotti. “Those looking to train quads more may be better set with the high-bar squat.” But no matter which you pick, she recommends sticking with it for a minimum of four weeks.