A Guide to Squatting: High Bar, Low Bar, Foot Placement and more

When people learn how to squat a lot of things get overlooked. They’re are often given partial information, don’t understand the details of what they’re being told, or told generic advice and end up squatting in a way that doesn’t suit them.

 
The problem is the consequences of bad squat technique or major flexibility restrictions can sometimes take a long time to develop. It can take a year, or even two, before back and knee pain become a big issue, but by that time the “bad technique” has been used so many times it’s become ingrained – that’s just how you squat.


From this point you have two options:


-          Tell everyone squats are bad for your knees/hips/back and avoid them
-          Find out where you went wrong and start retraining your squat technique


In my experience, most decide that squats are bad and/or tell people to avoid the technique/squat style/foot position/etc. they used, even though it might be perfectly suited to others.


To help counteract the vast amount of bias and subjective information out there, I want to give you as many of the pieces of the puzzle as possible so you’re able to find the technique that works best for you.

81026707_595778717657697_8394496644975951872_n.jpg 112.53 KB

In no particular order, when learning to squat you want to consider these things:


·        Technique
·        Flexibility
·        Imbalances
·        Foot placement
·        Programming
 

(We’re going to focus primarily on the back squat here, rather than front squat)



Technique


There are two different styles of the barbell back squat: low bar and high bar. Knowing the correct amount of torso lean and knee positioning is extremely important for each, if you accidentally combine the two techniques this is a recipe for patellar tendonitis, pain, extreme tightness, even back or knee injury. It’s often more dangerous if you’re “strong” - the body will adapt and allow you to progressively add weight over time regardless of your technique, but just because the weight on the bar is going up doesn’t necessarily mean you have a good squat.

 youtubeid=v1I-lGet7Mk

High bar squats have the bar sitting on top of your traps, usually with a fairly narrow grip (as much as your mobility allows).

tom-morrison-squats-high-bar-hands.jpg 32.08 KB


This squat requires you to keep your torso as upright as possible in order to keep the barbell in line with your mid foot - your knees MUST travel forwards as you go to full depth to ensure your hips are loaded correctly.

tom-morrison-squats-high-bar.jpg 50.37 KB


Generally speaking you can’t lift as much weight using a high bar squat as you can with a low bar, but you get the benefits of going through a greater range of motion with your knees, hips and ankles allowing you to maintain fantastic flexibility and strength. Some powerlifting coaches even recommend lifters use high bar squats in their off season just to gain strength in their full ranges, and to give their body a rest from the heavy demands of their low bar squats.



Low bar squats on the other hand (as you might assume) has the bar lower down your back – think resting it on the back of your shoulders, rather than the traps.

tom-morrison-squats-low-bar-hands.jpg 30.47 KB


Typically, you’ll use a wider grip, and you’ll need to much more forward lean in your torso to keep the weight over your mid foot. As you lean you MUST send your hips back and not let your knees travel forward or you can put a lot of unnecessary pressure on the knees.

tom-morrison-squats-low-bar.jpg 50.21 KB

This squat is designed for absolute strength and shifting the most amount of weight. You only squat down until your hip crease dips slightly below your knee if you view from the side; that is the Powerlifting competition standard so any lower would be unnecessary. The reduced depth and range of motion increases your chance of being able to stand up and complete the squat as the distance the bar is travelling is significantly less than the high bar squat.


Where does the problem come in? The Hybrid No-No!
 
It often happens that the two techniques get mixed up: someone squats using the low bar squat depth, with the high bar position and the forward knee travel.


When you do this, all the weight goes to the knees and lower back; the amount of stress on depends on how severe the lean and forward knee travel. The biggest problem is that you can squat like this - people are still going up and down, assuming that they are squatting how you’re meant to squat – you will be able to progressively add weight, with the symptoms and injuries taking time to develop. But if you train on your own or don’t have a coach, how are you to know it’s wrong?

 
My advice: video yourself.


Video your squats from the side and get really good at video analysis. Find athletes of a similar build to you and see if your squat positions are the same as theirs.

If you have any uncertainty, pay for advice from an established Coach - not just a lifter that you know or friend. It may seem expensive, but even just one or two sessions with a coach you could save a years’ worth of physiotherapy bills later down the line… or surgery in five years’ time - surely that makes it worth at least checking?
 

Flexibility


Flexibility is more of an issue with the high bar squat, as the low bar doesn’t require much range of motion, but it’s still useful to be aware of the restrictions:


  • Limited ankle flexibility could mean your knees won’t be able to travel forward in your high bar squat, which will put tremendous strain on your lower back.

  • Limited hip mobility can cause your knees to excessively cave in as you squat, your lumbar spine to compensate order for you to achieve depth (butt wink), or both to happen.

  • Limited upper back mobility can result in your chest being forced to drop more than it should as you’ll struggle to hold the barbell on your back. This will put the lower back under a lot of strain and usually make your shoulders or neck hate you when you do bigger sets.

If you are whole heartedly intent on simply pushing towards your maximum possible weight then choosing the low bar squat and not actively working on your flexibility may be more suited to you, and that’s fine. Powerlifting is a lifestyle choice, one in which increase mobility can actually hinder your strength, just remember that this approach will have ramifications on your overall physical health -   so don’t expect to be feeling too awesome in 10 years’ time.

 
If however you're a weightlifter, CrossFitter, or part of the general population who wants to be strong, fit, move well, feel good, run, jump and do other things that require decent body movement then these restrictions MUST be worked on otherwise you’re an injury waiting to happen.


For some unknown reason, it seems to be a life sentence that your flexibility is just bad… and that will always be. Anyone’s flexibility is changeable! Some people take longer than others to make a noticeable change - but it will happen! Your current level of flexibility is just where it is because of past habits, change your habits and you’ll change your flexibility, just like your diet causes you to lose or gain weight.

tom-morrison-squat-stretch.jpg 48.03 KB
 

My advice: use a simple flexibility/mobility routine and stick with it

You can do a Google search and find umpteen drills for each of the restrictions I mentioned above, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there so I highly recommend picking one system (because there’s many conflicting ideas, and more than one way to skin a cat) and sticking to it. If you’re time conscious and want to cover your whole body mobility in one  place then definitely check out The Simplistic Mobility Method.

 

Imbalances


As squats are a bilateral movement, they require your body to have a certain level of symmetry. The slightest twist or turn of your hips or spine can be exaggerated when you start to put your squat under enough pressure.


Stacked joints are happy joints and take it from me: if you look wonky when you’re squatting, you need to figure it out ASAP and not just ignore it. There’s nothing worse than feeling something go “pop” and then later realising it was completely avoidable. I had no idea how twisted I was until I had to go through the pain of the consequences.


Imbalances can either be seen all the time, even when you’re stood still or walking normally, and you’ll be able to see clearly what needs stretched/worked on, or they can be only become apparent when you are moving under load, for instance as you squat you lean into one hip more than the other, you twist on the way down/ up, or one knee caves in more than the other.

tom-morrison-squat-wonky.jpg 73.63 KB
 
You’ll never achieve perfect symmetry, and some imbalance is fine - you just need to be aware of any differences and keep on top of them to make sure they don’t get worse or cause pain. Most people are a little dominant to one side of their body and it’s generally from years of using that side a bit more than the other. For example, being right handed can make you feel like your right arm is stronger, but realistically you don’t get that much strength adaptation from writing or stirring a cup of tea, there’s just a much stronger neural link to that arm – you’re well practiced and confident in what it can do, making your body more likely to default to that side when it struggles.

 
Same with the legs, it is common for footballers to have better balance in the leg that stays on the ground rather than the one that they kick with. Say they are right footed (as in kick the ball generally with their right foot) their body will have more confidence in the stability of their left leg, resulting in a lean towards their left hip, or a strong push from their left leg as they squat.

 
My advice: do some unilateral training

Test your single leg balance regularly and try experimenting with your left and right sides, with single leg deadlifts or single arm presses. If something feels a lot easier on one side compared to the other, practice the side you struggle with a little more often - this is the premise of both The Simplistic Mobility Method and End Range Training.

 

Foot placement


There is a lot of controversy with this one. Some people will swear the feet should be completely straight forward, others will say that pointing the toes to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is ideal, others somewhere in between. Then you’ve got those who squat with their feet close together, others are verging on a sumo stance! But who’s right?!

 
The reality is there’s no single foot placement that suits everyone. It depends on factors such as your foot, ankle, & hip mobility, the shape of your hips, the length of your femurs and more – it’s highly unlikely that your training buddy, coach, or random YouTube guy has the exact same combination of anatomy and mobility as you.

 
Low bar squats often lend themselves to a wider stance and more forward facing feet, where as a high bar usually favours a narrower stance with toes more pointed outwards, but this is more of a guideline, and it’s up to you to find out where is the best foot position for you.

tom-morrison-squat-foot-placement.jpg 49.92 KB
 
Generally I’d stay the starting point is (without a barbell/weight) experiment with what foot width and toe angle until you feel you can get the lowest with no uncomfortable pressure in your knees, your heels stay down, your lower back can stay nice and flat, and your chest is as upright as possible. 

 
Your stance may change over time a little, especially if you’re actively working on your squat flexibility, but don’t try and chase a position that causes you pain, discomfort or weakness. For example, some claim that squatting with your feet forwards helps you generate more toque and strength in your hips, but the reality for those not able to achieve this position is the knees end up being twisted instead. Not a good way to squat.

 
A turn out of the feet is absolutely fine provided the knees track over the toes and do not collapse inwards. Though I’d like to add this is advice for a general population, specialising in a sport such as competitive weightlifting will give you more wiggle room for valgus knees.
My advice: find what’s comfortable for you

Work on your ankle flexibility and keep it decent, but if you’re squatting happily without pain and feel that your positions are ok and your stance is symmetrical they want then I wouldn’t obsess about it.


Just always remember that your squat is your squat, trying to replicate someone else’s may not be good for you. If you’re really unsure about how to check your squat then, again, paying for a session with a good coach would be a really good idea. Make sure your squat feels comfortable to you before partaking in ANY strength program. We also go through squat technique in our online educational series Barbell Basics


 

Programming


How you build your squat numbers up is incredibly important. Many people train too close to their maximum… because heavier means stronger... right?!

 
Well, 9/10 people won’t listen to this (myself included!) but that 1 person who does has a ton of potential: Milk the weights!

 
Build up volume with lighter weights and good technique to prepare your muscles, joints and ligaments for heavier stresses in future. I’d recommend minimum a year in this stage before considering a 1 rep max. This will prevent you from accidentally cutting your depth short or your squat turning into an ugly Good Morning when it comes to your one rep max attempts.

alora-griffiths.jpg 77.33 KB
 
No matter what stage you’re at, always remember your own training background - too many people try to do programs that are written for/by people in their twenties who’ve been lifting since they were 5 years old. If you’re 30+ and haven’t really done much outside of school sports, you don’t have a solid foundation to be loading up 80%+ of your perceived max back squat for sets and reps… especially if your 1RM back squat was something you grinded out 3 years ago and never have since...

 

My advice: Be humble & get a personalised program

Do the work that the kids are forced to, build a foundation and you will get much better results in the long run. I know it's not possible for everyone, but having a coach that knows you and your own personal capabilities and limitations is really the best way to make progress. Failing that, buying a personalised program or getting online coaching also give you benefits.

Fumbling around with programs and learning off your own mistakes is fine, you will still make progress, but if you really REALLY want to be great and improve in the most efficient way possible, find someone to coach you and do exactly as they say - no matter how much your ego wants to do more.



 
How did you learn to squat? Did you make any mistakes you wish you had avoided? Or have any advice for those just starting out? Leave a comment on our Facebook and let us know what you think!

If you feel you need help with the flexibility or imbalances side of your squat definitely check out The Simplistic Mobility Method!

READY TO GET STARTED?

View Products
Tom morrison looking inquisitive.
Success icon
Close

This website is best experienced in portrait mode, please rotate your device to continue.