The Theoretical Advantages of High vs. Low Bar Squats
The myth of dogmatically squatting high bar or low bar based on solely on your goals or training type needs to be debunked. Long term success for both performance and resilience to injury is found in the customization of movement patterns, NOT based on theoretical wants, but rather real life physical needs as dictated by anthropometrics (body type), skill levels, and past orthopedic injury or training history.
Here’s how to perfect your squat setup by maximizing internal tension through the shoulders, hips and core and identify your strongest and most stable positions that will determine the type of squat that you’ll have the greatest amount of success with. The days of force feeding based on theory are over, here’s how to find your perfect bar position and setup based on your individuality.
Assessing The Shoulder With The Dowel Test
In order to maximize performance under the bar while staying resilient in the process, the barbell back squat must be programmed and executed as a fully body movement. This requires to initiation of stiffness, tension and torque through the upper back and shoulder complex in addition to the core and lower body.
A lack of postural stability through the upper quadrants (shoulder, scapula, thoracic spine, cervical spine and rib cage) can lead to exacerbating positions at both the shoulders and lower back while also placing a glass ceiling on the performance of the lift in terms of load placed on the bar.
As lifters struggle with their upper back stability and bar setup, many gravitate towards “fixing” their bar position with polarizing setups in both the direction of the high and low bar positions. This is usually less than ideal, as the bar position needs to be dictated by the position in which the shoulders and upper back can produce maximal torque-tension output, not the other way around.
That’s why we use a quick and easy screen in the form of The Dowel External Rotation Test (as featured in the video above) to determine optimal bar placement which is dictated by maximal tension output at the upper back. Use this test as a starting point to individualize bar position based on anthropometrics, tensional skill levels, and previous history of pain and dysfunction.
Stabilizing The Spine & Pelvis With Pre-Tension
After determining optimal bar placement according to The Dowel External Rotation Test, the next step is to shift our attention to the hip complex and it’s synergistic function with the pelvis and lumbar spine. The goal here is to maximize the tension and torque output around the hips and pelvis integrated as a unit, and have internal tension dictate torso angulation and possibly even slight alterations in the bar placement.
Again based on theory, not individuality, the torso angle during the squat pattern along with the relative position of the hips and pelvis during all aspects of the squatting range of motion is usually pre-determined by the low or high bar position. Dogmatic low bar setups will of course result in a more chest down position into the descending range of the squat increasing with depth, while a true high bar position will have the torso remaining more upright throughout the movement pattern itself.
Unless you are a true competitor in the barbell sports of powerlifting or Olympic lifting which a theoretical bar setup and torso angle will create sport specific advantages on the platform, we must focus on individualization of the squat setup to yield optimal tension, stability and positions for longevity. Using the Pre-Tension Squat Setup (as featured in the video above) through the hips, pelvis and core, we can allow maximal tension and torque output at this region of the body dictate the optimal torso angle and piggy pack on top of the tension already created at the upper back and shoulder.
Remember, position and internal tension will dictate bar position and the “type” of squat variation in which you’ll have the greatest amount of success with for both longevity and resilient strength. For a vast majority of lifters, the torso angle will fall somewhere in the middle of the torso angle continuum.
Maximizing Full Body Tension & Bracing Under The Bar
By now you’ll quickly realize the emphasis which needs to be placed on pillar tension, torque and stability in order to optimize an authentic squat pattern. With the mindset of starting from the inside (internal tension) out (squat pattern), we can reverse engineer many common problems and pitfalls lifters fall into when mis-matching their squat variation to their current body type, skill level, and history. So the last portion of the pillar triad in which we need to address is the core.
A big misconception about core stiffness and strength is that one can just volitionally turn it on and off in isolation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Near perfect position and tension through the four layers of the abdominal tissues are dependent on the position and torque output of the shoulder and hip complexes above and below this region.
Simply put, if we can maximize torque and tension output at the shoulders and hips by co-contracting the biggest, strongest musculature around these ball and socket joints, it creates a positional advantage for the core to activate upon demand, the way it was designed to function. This is the reason why the core brace with initiation from the breath is the last portion of the pillar that we address before descending into the first rep under the squat bar.
Again, if your shoulder and hip setup are on point, inhaling through the nose and bracing down to “crunch” down the distance between the bottom portion of the sternal notch and the pubic bone will become very easy to initiate. While everyone’s brace will be slightly different, they all must involve maximizing tension through 360-degrees around the core and torso to create synergistic tension throughout the pillar. The core transfers force and tension, so the more muscular aspects of the core that we can get involved in the brace, the safer and more powerful your squat will become.
Initiating The Authentic Squat Pattern For Smooth Success
Mental and physical rehearsal of proper setup that is in alignment with your authentic and customized bar position and squat “type” is a motor skill, and must be practiced as such. For my athletes who have altered their bar positions according to maximizing tension output at the shoulders, hips and core, we often times use a block based practice approach with an empty bar to get the reps in and solidify the pattern.
For a block of 2-6 minutes before loaded ramp ups for the squat start, I have my athletes get under the bar keying in on the three main aspects of adding tension through the pillar:
Maximize upper back stiffness by co-contracting pecs and lats together while squeezing the bar as hard as they can with the hands while the bar is still in the rack.
Walk the bar out habitually, and once set in their ideal squat stance at the feet, initiate pre-tension through the glutes, lateral hamstrings and adductors to position the hips and pelvis.
Breathe in through the mouth initially while finishing the breathe with the nose and tension down the core with 360-degree tension and slightly closing down the distance between the sternum and pubic bone.
The key here is to habituate this setup so it’s eventually automated when the challenge of the load is increased. The goal here is to make light weights feel heavy by maximizing your internal tension and control under the bar to eventually translate this skill into making heavy weights feel light.
Go through these steps, optimize your tension, bar placements and setups for the squat pattern and reap the benefit of an authentic squat pattern that is customized to YOU, not just a dogmatic theory of bar placement which may be holding you back and leaving you run down and hurt in all the wrong places.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Programthat combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.