After a half-century of debate, sports scientists and coaches agree: properly performed, squats are not bad for the knees, they will not make you slow, and they will not cause arthritis. Now the attention has been turned to another passionate debate, “Which is better, high bar or low bar squats?” Remember to show your work!
First, consider that the difference between a high bar and a low bar squat is only a matter of a few inches in bar placement. Also, with the low-bar squat, the hands are usually placed several inches wider on the bar and the elbows are flared out. Having the bar lower also requires you to lean forward slightly to better secure the bar.
Riding the bar lower down the back makes for more favorable leverage, enabling most individuals to lift more weight. But using more weight in a low-bar squat doesn’t necessarily mean the muscles are working harder than in a high-bar squat. What it means is that you have put yourself in a more favorable position to “display” force. As such, you would need to use more weight in a low bar squat to achieve the same level of muscle tension than a high bar squat. So from a muscle-building perspective, both types of squats are equally effective.
One question that needs to be answered before deciding which style of squatting to use is, “What are your goals?” The goal of a powerlifter is to not necessarily to become as strong as possible, but to lift as much weight as possible in competition.
The powerlifters who lift the most weight in competitions are not only strong, but have found ways to change the leverage of the exercise (such as by riding the bar lower on the back), using special gear such as elastic knee wraps and special lifting suits, and using the best equipment for each lift (such as stiffer bars on the squat that provide more stability and thick center knurling that better secures the bar on the back). Also, consider that some powerlifting federations do not require the lifter to squat as low as other federations, and the difference in these rules affects how much weight can be lifted.
The bottom line is that if you are a powerlifter, you should squat in the manner that enables you to use the most weight. However, consider that squatting only to parallel (whether it be a high bar or low bar) may be detrimental to athletic performance.
According to sports scientist Bud Charngia, tendons are viscoelastic, designed to not only dissipate force but also to store and release energy. “The Achilles tendon stretches and recoils like the spring it is when the athlete reverses direction from the bottom of the squat. Consequently, the elastic properties of the Achilles tendon are enhanced and the recoil of elastic energy is coordinated with the rest of the muscles of the lower extremities; as nature intended.” Charniga contends that not performing full squats can reduce tendon elasticity, making the athletes more susceptible to Achilles tendon ruptures. He makes a good argument.
Several research papers have found that Achilles tendon ruptures among professional football players is a serious issue and appears to be increasing. During the first week of the 2011 NFL season, for example, 13 players suffered Achilles tendon ruptures, a time when you would expect these athletes to be in peak condition. In contrast, Charniga says that weightlifters, who not only perform full squats but bounce out of the bottom of the clean and squat, seldom suffer Achilles tendon ruptures. If competing at a high level of sports is your goal, perhaps only performing powerlifting squats in training, whether high bar or low bar, are not a good idea?
For some, flexibility issues make the low-bar squat more comfortable to perform. Also, because the knees travel further forward in a high-bar squat, those with ankle flexibility issues may find the low-bar squat a better choice. For an Olympic weightlifter, a high-bar squat is a better choice as they need to be able to maintain an upright position when the catch weights from the clean and the snatch.
Considerable research has been done on the stress low bar and high bar squats place on the knees and lower back. One research study found that the low-bar squat placed 53% more torque on the hip and lower back, but that the low-bar squat placed less torque on the knees. This leads many coaches to conclude that the low-bar squat will place more stress on the lower back and hamstrings, and the high-bar squat will place more stress on the knees.
There are slight differences in the training effects of high bar and low bar squat, and you should take these differences into consideration when determining which type of squat is best for you.