This article is coming from guest writer Patrick Kern BS NSCA-CSCS ACSM-CPT PES USAW. Patrick is a certified personal trainer from San Jose, CA and brings experience from the commercial gym setting and training as a weightlifter. To learn about Patrick and soak up his knowledge check out his Facebook page for Kern Strength and Fitness.
I recently got to work with one of my co-workers on his squat technique. His background is more in powerlifting than anything else, so naturally he has adopted the low bar squat. My background is in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting, and I have experience squatting with both methods. Since I am training as a weightlifter, the high-bar squat has more carryover for me than the low bar, for reasons I will explain later. So I asked him simply the 3 questions anyone should ask when doing an exercise:
1) How does the exercise feel when you do it?
His response was that it definitely feels more like a strain on the hips than anything else.
2) What is your injury history like doing this exercise?
He has had several occasions where he has hurt his hips or his low back while squatting.
3) Have you tried a different version of this exercise before?
High bar squats have not been part of his routine for a long time.
This can apply to a lot of exercises in general, but for the sake of the Back Squat, we will simply address the high bar against the low bar. With the high bar squat, there is more motor recruitment than the low bar squat, and generally is more applicable to other sports because it teaches a quick reflex underneath the bar, which then creates a beautiful blend of strength and speed, producing power.
The trade off, however, is that with the low bar squat, you can leverage more weight during the movement. Remember, in powerlifting, the concept is simply to break parallel and return to the standing position when the judge says to do so. Powerlifting is not just a competition of strength, but also a competition of leverage. Some powerlifting coaches can tweak the technique of a squatter so that they will only have to move the bar less than 10 inches in either direction, with some being as low as 6 inches of descent. If you can consistently reduce the distance the bar has to travel, the more weight you are going to leverage and lift.
The other trade off is that the low bar squat does not carry over as well for range of motion purposes or for speed and power development, since the slow descent is very exaggerated. Your body responds to how you train it, including whether you train it fast or slow. It is much more practical, easier, and safer to use a fast descent and ascent in the high bar, narrow(er) stance squat than compared to an exaggerated wide-stance, low bar squat, which mandates a slower and more controlled pace of the movement.
So which one works best? Long and short of it: it really depends on what you are training for. If you are training to compete in powerlifting, you will most likely need to train the low bar squat. If you are training the squat for any other sport, you will want to do the high bar squat.