By: Rebekah Cygan, SSC, PTA
Wait! Before you take the bar out of the rack…..
A quick internet search will offer plenty of dialogue on the differences between the high bar and the low bar squat. If you are coached by a Starting Strength Online Coach, more than likely you are squatting with the low bar position – with a few choice exceptions. If you are on a journey to get stronger, the low bar squat is the best choice for you, which is why we use it almost exclusively. I will not go into the detailed differences between the low bar and high bar squats, you can read more about that here:
The purpose of this piece is to renew your commitment to low bar squatting and investing in the hard work it takes to do it well. The low bar squat allows the lifter to lift the more weight than any other squat variation. It is kinder to the knees and loads the hips, which is a great idea since the hip musculature is the largest and most powerful muscle group in the body. Your hamstrings and quadriceps are not ignored either, thus making the low bar squat the King of Exercises for getting strong in the most efficient way possible.
Like anything in life that is worth doing, it requires commitment and hard work to become good at the Squat (capitalized as such because it is, well, the King). Do a search on the internet or ask your local gym rat or strength coach, and odds are they will tell you that leaning over is bad for you back. If anyone says this to you, assume they have never tried to learn this model, and move on. But there are some folks who abandon the Squat based on the fact that they did try to learn and the grip bothered their shoulders, elbows and wrists too much. At least folks in the later camp tried the method. Too many folks have abandoned doing the Squat because they couldn’t figure out how to get the bar positioned on their back in such a way as not to cause great discomfort in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
So before you ask your coach if you can high bar, or develop a deep hatred for the exercise because of increasing discomfort, I want you to take careful consideration of how you hold the bar.
It is a very common mistake to put the bar below the spine of the scapula as in this picture, think you are good to go and then stand up and begin squatting. If getting under the bar is a casual forethought between sets, consider this: you have to get your skeleton ready to hold the load before you stand the bar up out of the rack.
There are two common issues that keep people from being able to hold the bar in such a way that they will not cause harm to the upper extremities.
- Mobility – In this day and age, where many of our daily jobs and activities include working at a desk or computer, I have found that lack of anterior (or front) shoulder mobility is common place. The ubiquitous “desk” posture, with the shoulders rounded forward and neck flexed, is the complete opposite position required to properly hold the bar to squat. It is extremely common to see lifters having to peel themselves off the bar during warm up sets because it is quite a stretch for the shoulders.
- Thoracic Extension – If you are not holding your upper back in extension, the weight of the bar will be carried by your elbows and shoulders, and you will not adequately transmit the force during the movement, which will cause your squat to be more difficult and your back to feel like “this leaning over thing is going to hurt me.”
These seem like pretty big obstacles, right? Better give up on it all together! Well, no, of course not, and if nothing else I want you to read this article and feel a renewed sense of purpose to go about your training sessions with a determination to over come these two issues because the benefits are exponential.
If you find it difficult to get the bar low enough to be below the spine of the scapula, without your hands holding the uprights of the rack, I recommend that you stretch. This will involve you embracing the discomfort of the stretch for 3 sets of 1 minute before each squat session. Here is an excellent video by SSC Paul Horn to illustrate how to do this.
Do NOT give up on doing this consistently over time. If a lifter is committed to working at this stretch — almost always — she can achieve the low bar position and the discomfort will slowly go away. It takes time. In my personal experience, perhaps even up to two months. But think of the improved posture you gain from this activity! And think of the beautiful low bar position you will now have which will afford you the opportunity to “Squat” the right way for the rest of your life. It is such a worthwhile activity, and too many people wimp out with doing it!
Many folks fear bending over in the squat because they are not achieving good spinal extension. Your coach can help you specifically diagnose this if you feel you are afraid to achieve the amount of horizontal lean that is require for good hip drive in the Squat. But often times, the feeling of instability starts with the position of the bar on the low back and the lack of achievement of thoracic spinal extension.
Here are some of the most common issues that cause poor thoracic position under the bar:
- Unrack the bar with purpose – If you are not tight before the weight of the barbell is on your skeleton, you will not get as tight as you can get. Casually taking the bar out of the rack is a very common mistake. Here is a video where I explain, while SSC Caleb Krieg demonstrates, the best way to get tight BEFORE you move the bar out of the rack.
- Elbows – Another common error occurs when the lifter proceeds to roll the shoulders forward and jack the elbows up high, even after establishing a tight bar position out of the rack. This causes the bar to immediately roll up the back, which in turn changes the back angle during the squat. Another error is to let the elbows drop while the lifter is in the hole. Elbows should maintain their position throughout the squat. If they are moving up and down, the bar is moving on the back putting the elbows and shoulders under unnecessary load. This load can lead to tendonitis and pain, especially as the load continues to increase during training.
- Active Tightness – The bar on our back will make everything want to compress. If you are not actively keeping your chest “proud” or spread open and your upper back tight, your thoracic spine will flex during your squat. This is why assuming the position illustrated in the video is so important. You must “dominate the bar” as Sully says. You must actively create the tightness. You must establish your Tarzan chest and maintain this throughout the entire movement.
- Eye Gaze – Looking too far down or up can also cause improper head and back angle, which in turn causes the bar to move and the lifter to loose thoracic extension. Your eye gaze should be 4-8 feet in front of your feet. As CJ Gotcher explained in his #welookdown article, the gaze is an important factor in the execution of hip drive, but also in maintaining good back angle and tightness.
Bill Hannon also wrote a great article for Starting Strength that expounds on the cues that can help you to achieve this powerful position.
Consider the strength that is built by this type of active contraction against a heavy load. As someone who has worked in the field of physical therapy for a long time — where postural exercises are common — I can’t think of a better way to improve your posture and resilience against gravity. Achieving good low bar position is an exercise in patience, but one that is well worth it.