Dec 18th, 2010
Jenn of CrossFit East Bay performing heavy low bar back squats
We’ve looked at some of the common elements shared by all barbell squats and examined both the front squat and the high bar back squat. We’ll wrap up the series by taking a look at the version that is nearest and dearest to my heart, the low bar back squat.
The low bar squat has been popularized by Mark Rippetoe in his book Starting Strength and represents an interesting mixture of form cues that set it apart from either the high bar back squat or the front squat. As Rippetoe is fond of noting, the low bar squat allows for heavy weights to be handled using the greatest amount of muscle mass over the longest range of motion and produces excellent strength gains. Let’s examine the form hallmarks and then how they apply to the claims above:
- The bar is carried lower on the shoulders, just below the spine of the scapula. This can be a challenging position for those with shoulder mobility problems.
- Thumbs are on the same side of the bar as the fingers, instead of using an opposed grip.
- The torso is more steeply inclined than either the high bar or front squat.
- The squat descent stops when the crease of the hips descends below the top of the knee. The hamstrings get a good stretch in this position.
- The knees come to a point slightly in front of the toes during the first half of the movement and then come no farther forward.
- The knees are driven outward to allow for full depth and to include the adductors in the movement.
- Hips are the driving force behind the movement.
Carrying the bar lower on the back necessitates an increase in torso angle if the bar is to remain over the middle of the foot. This requires more work from the abdominals and spinal erectors to maintain lumbar extension throughout the movement. While descending in a less upright posture, the hamstrings undergo an eccentric contraction and lengthen under the load imposed by the barbell. At a position below parallel, the hamstrings reach a more or less fully stretched position and that stretch is used to power the weight back up. In a low bar squat, a trainee uses the stretched hamstrings like a rubber band to impart upward momentum to the weight. This is the most unique aspect of the lift, often called "the bounce." The hips are aggressively driven up from the bottom of the squat using this bounce. After properly performing low bar squats, it is not uncommon for the hamstrings and adductors to be quite sore.
The knees are also of great importance in the low bar squat. Since hamstring tension is important to the movement, allowing the knees to drift forward towards the bottom is problematic. This slackens the hamstrings, affecting the bounce and can cause hip pain in some trainees. Further, keeping the knees driven out through the squat stretches the adductors, allows for full depth, and helps with the bounce at the bottom. Note that the hamstrings and adductors, elements of the posterior chain, are heavily involved with this style of the squat – moreso than either of the other two variants. The low bar back squat can be considered a posterior chain driven movement, although the quadriceps are utilized as well. For this reason, Rippetoe contends that the low bar back squat utilizes more muscle mass than the quadriceps-dominant squatting styles.
Rippetoe also suggests that the low bar squat uses this extra musculature through the longest range of motion for these muscle groups. If lumbar extension and hamstring tension are to be maintained, the trainee will generally be unable to descend far below parallel without relaxing something. Relaxation under a heavy weight is a good way to get injured and should be avoided. The low bar squat meets the criteria of going below parallel, but stops short of the longer range of motion of the front or high bar back squat. This is to avoid providing less work to the elements of the posterior chain and to maintain safe positioning.
There is a great deal more that can be said about the low bar squat, but I am already pushing 700 words. I will conclude with the assertion that the low bar squat is an excellent choice for a great many trainees for the reasons outlined above. It uses the most muscle mass over the longest range of motion possible for all those muscle groups and therefore provides an excellent strength stimulus.