The Case for the High Bar Squat
The high bar squat Is a staple squat form across most strength sports, notably weightlifting, CrossFit and athletic sports. It is typically the position beginners will take up when asked to perform a back squat because the bar placement seems natural. The high bar squat is also an effective main or accessory lift for powerlifters depending on the lifter’s preferences. Primarily used to build knee extension strength by developing the quadriceps and train hip position while maintaining a relatively upright torso, the high bar squat is a great exercise for most people to start on, given they have adequate ankle and hip mobility. The high bar squat can also be adapted to goal specification, this includes full depth squats to assist weightlifter in the bottom of a catch position or parallel squat to assist powerlifters with their respective competition lift.
The primary movers for the high bar squat are:
- Quadriceps femoris
- Spinal erectors
The components of the high bar squat are:
- Positioning Preparation
- Set Up
- Alternative Tips
- Quick Reference
- Exercise Variations
The follow technique is generalised across lifters, some lifters will require modified technique considering their training history, injuries, anthropology and preferences.
Before getting under the bar, the squat stance must be set, and proper breathing and bracing must be performed.
The stance is reflected by the positioning of the heels and direction of the toes, which help influence the direction of knee travel during the execution. The stance sets the connection between the floor and the weight, if the stance is not set correctly this will cause faults and compensations through the rest of the body.
Feet: The foot position for most lifters will be between hip and shoulder width, with the toes pointed out 15 to 30 degrees. The weight should be supported on the middle of the foot, the correct pressure point for this should be near the front of the heel. To engage this foot position, focus on driving 3 point of the foot into the ground like a tripod, consisting of the heel, the base of the 1st toe and base of the 5th toe. This can be achieved by placing pressure on the outsides of the feet while driving the big toe into the ground. This also ‘stacks’ the ankle correctly, by having an active ankle that is engaged and the pressure is being placed on the outsides of the feet prevents the ankle from collapsing inwards and risking injury and loss of power.
Knee: The knees must track over the toes, staying in line with the centre of the foot so that the ankles, knees and hips are stacked. Assess this position by squatting down to parallel while maintaining a neutral back position, from there assess and reposition the placement of the following.
- Feet are engaged and pointed slightly outward, ankle is active and not collapsing inwards.
- Knees are tracking the centre of the foot and slightly forward of the toes in the bottom position of the squat.
- Hips are open and there is no restriction in the hip joint that could limit depth.
Breathing and Bracing
The torso must be rigid in order to perform and effective squat and work up to heavier weights, this rigidity is created by performing the Valsalva manoeuvre which enhances intra-abdominal pressure (the stomach is braced firmly to protect the spine).
Valsalva: The Valsalva manoeuvre in weight lifting is performed by:
- Breathing deep into the stomach to fill up the diaphragm.
- Close the glottis in the throat so that air can’t escape, exhale against the closed glottis.
- As the pressure builds up in the diaphragm, actively brace the entire midsection so pressure is expanded to the front, sides and back of the midsection.
Torso Position: The torso must be neutral, any flexion or extension increases the risk of injury, decreases power output or leads to compensation at another joint. This is performed by drawing the ribcage down which places the thoracic spine in a neutral position.
This intra-abdominal pressure must be maintained for the entire repetition, before descending into the squat, you must inhale, brace the midsection and pull the front of the ribs down. Begin the repetition by descending into the squat then ascending to the standing position. Only once you have reached the standing position you may reset your breathing and bracing. The only exception to this is exhaling after you have past the most difficult portion of the ascent, however this should be used for lighter weight initially and trained for heavier loads progressively over time if the lifter prefers exhaling prior to reaching the top position, and the lifter must set their brace before performing the next repetition.
- Set the breathing and bracing.
- Pull the front of the ribs down.
The barbell for the high bar squat is placed on top of the traps and at the very base of the neck. The muscle of the traps will hold the bar in place and prevent the bar from rolling down the back, it will also set the bar low enough so the bar is resting on muscle and not the spinal vertebrae of the neck which will cause injury.
The hand placement will be determined by shoulder and thoracic mobility and flexibility, these factors will affect spacing, wrist position and thumb position.
Hand Spacing: The hand spacing will mostly determine the ‘shelf’ that is created for the bar to rest on, typically the closer the hands are, the more prominent the upper back muscles will be, providing a better shelf. The closer your hands are placed the more mobility and flexibility you require to get into that position, if mobility and flexibility is a problem then a wider hand spacing is required. However, just because you set a closer grip and the shelf is more prominent, doesn’t mean this is optimal for bar placement, this is because the bar must be pulled into the back to create a better connection between you and the bar, if your hand placement is too close then you may find it difficult to pull the bar down into your traps to secure the weight, more on this later.
Wrist Position: The wrist position is dependant on hand spacing and your shoulder mobility, if the hands are in a reasonable position and the shoulders are capable of enough external rotation (rotation your hand upwards and behind your head) this will allow the wrists to be straight. By maintaining a straight wrist this allows the hand and forearm to be stacked, preventing injury and allowing the bar to be effectively pulled into the body. This straightened wrist also cues the shoulder to be externally rotated, which reduces stress on the shoulder joint and prevents the torso from rounding forward.
Thumb Position: The thumb position is a small factor but could be detrimental if you don’t focus on its placement, there are 2 forms of thumb positions that may be used.
- Thumb around bar: The thumb is place under and around the bar and is placed on top of the pointer and middle figures, this requires the wrist to be straight and adequate shoulder external rotation. The ‘thumb around’ grip allows the bar to be crushed by the grip, creating more muscle irradiation (tension) and can be pulled into the body. The thumb around grip may not be possible for some lifters, that leaves you with option 2.
- Suicide grip: This allows the shoulders to be externally rotated without the thumb tensioning forearm muscles which may cause slight internal rotation. This still allows for a healthy shoulder position but detracts from the tension that can be created through the back and arms because the bar may not be efficiently pulled down.
Assuming the torso is braced, bar is on the traps and the hands are set, the shoulders must be pulled back and down, the scapula is retracted to prevent thoracic flexion and creates muscular tension through the upper back, scapula depressed prevents downwards movement of the bar if the traps become fatigued from shrugging against the bar.
Once the hand and wrist positions are set you must position the arms for the lift. Position the arms so they are parallel with the torso or elbows pointing slightly behind, pull the elbows down. The purpose of the arms is to secure the bar against your back to prevent movement, another purpose is to create tension within the torso, by pulling down with the elbows the lats contract, because the lats connects from the upper arm to the spine, this pull-down helps to stabilise the spine and enhances torso bracing, making the lift safer.
The un-racking of the bar is a very crucial component of the lift and far more complicated than some lifters realise, this is the first opportunity you get for your body to prepare and respond to the load that will be lifted. The un-rack is comprised of:
- Hand placement.
- Bar placement.
- Foot placement.
- Breathing, bracing and torso position.
- Position correction.
We have covered the first four positions in our preparation, the breathing and bracing is slightly modified when adding the bar and the last three are parts which some people either don’t think about or rush. We are going to address them here.
Bracing: The bracing includes using the Valsalva manoeuvre, creating intra-abdominal pressure and setting the shoulders. What is also required is creating tension through the bar, we apply this tension by pulling the bar downwards into the traps. By pulling on the bar, it effectively becomes secured to our upper back, preventing movement and loss of energy when trying to apply force to the barbell. The act of pull the bar down also contracts the lats, which makes the lift safer, this is because the lats connect the upper arm to the spine, and by contracting the lats the spine is braced and prevents spinal movement during the lift that could lead to injury.
Lift-Off: The lift-off is the act of un-racking the bar from the racks, this is performed by setting up the body in the correct positions regarding the arms, torso and legs, resembling a quarter squat position. Once the position is set, create tension through the body by apply force to the bar, the lift-off is not something performed in a very casual manner, it is to be performed with the intention of moving the weight to build confidence for the upcoming repetitions, as the weight gets heavier your un-rack may potentially get more aggressive to match.
Walk-Out: The walk-out is to be completed with as little use of energy as possible so that you have the energy to complete the set and it limits the risk of injury while moving. The 2 methods are:
- 2 Step Method:
- Take a step back with the dominant foot.
- Match that position with the non-dominant foot.
- Adjust as needed with the dominant foot.
- 3 Step Method:
- Take a small step back with the non-dominant foot.
- Take a step back with the dominant foot.
- Match that position with the non-dominant foot.
- Adjust as needed with the dominant food.
Position Correction: The final step before executing the lift is correcting any positions that may have been lost during the set up. This includes arm position, torso and shoulder position, breathing and bracing, and foot pressure.