So Many Squats, So Little Time – Which is the Best Squat Variation?
When I began this blog last December, my first article was on the squat, and how to use it as a diagnostic tool for deficiencies in mobility and stability. That post branched out into four other blog posts that discussed each deficiency that can be diagnosed by the squat.
The squat has some great benefits and aspects as a compound exercise – I discussed this in my last post while comparing the squat and the deadlift. First, this lift involves A LOT of muscle groups to perform it. Everything from the waist and below is involved. The full range-of-motion in the ankles, knees, and hips ensures each muscle in the legs are used; the need for stiffness in the torso challenges the core muscles. Second, the act of working hip-and-knee extension trains leg drive, which is responsible for powerful sprinting, tackling, jumping, etc. this is a must for athletes. Third, being a lift that starts with eccentric contraction, the squat uses the body’s stretch-reflex to bounce back up from the bottom position, meaning that the lift is less draining to the central nervous system. Less draining means less recovery needed. Fourth, because the squat isn’t incredibly draining AND because it involves heavy eccentrics, this lift is great for bodybuilding and muscle-gaining. Less draining = more training, Heavy eccentrics = more muscle “breaking down”. Combine this with lots of calories, and you’ve got massive leg muscles.
Now, with an awesome exercise like this, one must carefully consider his or her needs before using this lift in their program. Why? Because there are so many damn variations for the squat. One variation might be perfect for one person, while unnecessary for another person. Is there a perfect or best squat variation?
Anyway, let’s take a look at them.
Variation #1 – Low-Bar Back Squat
First, there is the low-bar back squat. This is a squat, in which you place the barbell on your shoulder blades – right around the middle of them.
What’s great about this variation is that it challenges the glutes, hamstrings, and quads more “evenly” than other squats, because the knees don’t go as far past the toes. The farther the knees are pats the toes, the more the quads are challenged. So, in the low-bar back squat, the quads don’t dominate the movement. This allows for more weight to be used with this variation, because one muscle group isn’t stuck doing all of the work. More weight = more power and muscle building. This also means that it is less stressful for the ACL, because quadriceps-dominant movements are harder on that part of the knee. The more you push your knees past the toes, the harder it is on your ACL.
The hips are more flexed in the low-bar variation, leading the torso to be more “tipped over” the legs. Because of this, the lumbar muscles are more challenged. Think of it likes this – if you’re holding a light dumbbell, which would strain your shoulder muscles the most: holding it at your side, raising your arm to 45 degrees, or raising it straight in front of you? Holding it at your side would be the easiest, and holding it straight out in front of your would be the most stressful. One is a resting position, and the other is a mechanically-disadvantaged position that requires effort to maintain. So, in other words, the more you bend in your hips and tip your torso over, the more your back muscles strain to keep your spine neutral. The low-bar back squat could make for a very, very strong back.
In terms of mobility, the low-bar back squat requires the most shoulder mobility and the least ankle mobility. Because the bar is far down on the lifter’s back, it takes a lot of range-of-motion for the lifter to reach behind and hold the barbell against his or her back. Nothing a little stretching can’t fix, though. For the ankles, one doesn’t need as much mobility because the knees are the least past the toes when compared to the other squat variations. The more you push your knees forward, the more your ankle bends. Typically, people use weightlifting shoes with raised heels that increase one’s ankle ROM. With decent ankle mobility, one can practically squat barefoot using this variation.
Variation #2 – High-Bar Back Squat
Second, there is the high-bar back squat, which requires the barbell to sit higher up on the back (closer to the neck) than with the low-bar back squat.
This variation causes the knees to be pushed a little farther past the toes, placing more of the load onto the quads. While the knees aren’t dramatically farther out when compared to the low-bar back squat, it is still enough of a difference for the musculature of the legs. This is why the high-bar back squat is more popular with bodybuilders – you get bigger, more eye-popping quads because their so engaged in this variation of the squat. This is at the expense of the ACL, as more force being placed on the quads means more strain placed on the ACL. Proper conditioning, progression, and recovery should prevent injuries, though.
Because the knees are pushed out farther and the bar is higher up, the torso is slightly more upright when compared to the low-bar variation. For those with lower-back issues, one may consider the high-bar back squat. The reason is, the more tipped over your torso is, the more your back muscles have to strain to maintain a straight spine (to prevent injury). The situation in which a force is trying to bend your sine one way, but your muscles are contracting to keep it straight, is known as shear. This itself is stressful on the back, and also increases the possibility that you will fatigue. If you fatigue, your muscles can give out and your will subsequently round during the squat, possibly leading to a severe acute injury. It is because of all of this that the more-upright posture of the high-bar back squat is less challenging yet safer for your back.
Because the bar is placed higher on the back, the arms don’t need to reach as far back to reach it and hold it there. This means less shoulder mobility is needed for this variation. At the same time, more ankle mobility is needed because the knees are pushed out farther. When you bends your knees and push them forward, you are also bending in your ankles. So, for people who want to use the high-bar back squat, it might be a good time to invest in a pair of high-quality weightlifting shoes that have a raised heel. They give your ankles more range-of-motion, allowing you to push your knees farther out past the toes. The flat sole of these shoes also provide a stable base during weightlifting.
Variation #3 – Front Squat
Third, there is the front squat, which requires the barbell to sit on the collarbone and shoulders.
With the barbell so high and in front of the torso, the knees are pushed out past the toes even farther than on a high-bar back squat. This position closely resembles the bottom-position of the clean and jerk, which is one of the two Olympic lifts. The lifter pulls the weight off of the floor with speed, shrugs at the top, and then simultaneously drops into the bottom position while flipping the arms so that the barbell lands on the lifter’s shoulders. This requires a lot of strength and power, especially in the quadriceps, so front squatting is a must for these athletes. Are you an Olympic lifter or desire huge quads? Then you better front squat.
With the knees far in front of the toes and the barbell sitting high on top of the shoulders, the torso needs to be upright to stay balanced – more upright than with the high-bar back squat. This means the lumbar spine is least stressed with this squat variation. The only stress that the spine encounters is compressive stress from the weight/gravity – there is little shear. Bad backs love front squats. However, because the barbell is sitting on the lifter’s shoulder’s, there must be absolutely no rounding or else the barbel will roll off and fall to the ground. This requires the lifter’s upper back be tight and stabilized. The thoracic spine, instead of the lumbar spine, is heavily challenged with the front squat. The upper back becomes very developed because of this added stress.
Bringing the bar up on to the shoulders requires little shoulder mobility. Anyone can raise there arms to 90 degrees without issue. This position does require a good deal of wrist mobility, though. The hands have to be in very deep extension for the fingers to still hold on to the barbell while it sits on the shoulders. This involves a lot of range-of-motion for the wrists. Also, because the knees are pushed so damn far past the toes, the front squat requires the most ankle mobility. You can stretch all you want, but you’ll still end up needing a pair of those weightlifting shoes with the raised heel. Very few people, if any, have that much ankle flexibility to reach the bottom of a front squat without weightlifting shoes. If anyone can, that’s because they have freaky laxity in their ankle tendons and ligaments.
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So, there you have – three variations of the barbell squat.
There is No “Best” Squat Variation
If you’re a beginner wanting to evenly develop and strengthen the leg muscles, have got ACL problems, have got bad ankle mobility, and/or want strong lumbar erectors, go with the low-bar back squat.
If you’re an advanced lifter with strong glutes and hamstrings and desire larger quadriceps, have crappy shoulder mobility, have a weak lower-back, and/or have healthy knees, go with the high-bar back squat.
If you’re an Olympic-lifting hopeful, want a muscular upper-back, have a very bad lower-back, have amazing ankle mobility and good weightlifting shoes, do not care about ACL damage, and/or want ginormous quads, go with the front squat.