Which Back Squat Is Best for You?

This is your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

There’s a good reason why the barbell back squat is known as one of the “big three” exercises (along with the bench press and deadlift): Few other moves can be depended on to build more muscle below the waist.

Not only does the heavy loaded back squat hammer your quads, but it also works your hams and glutes while engaging nearly every muscle in your core. But the degree to which you emphasize the muscles on the front of your legs versus those in the back depends on how high you set the bar—literally.

To perform a “high bar” squat, you squeeze your shoulder blades together and set the barbell on the “shelf” created by your traps. In a “low bar” squat, you rest the bar slightly lower, across your rear delts. The difference between the two positions is only an inch or two, but it nevertheless shifts the load enough to significantly affect the mechanics of the exercise and the muscles it emphasizes.

A high bar placement encourages a more upright body position and targets primarily the quads. It’s also less technically difficult, making it easier to perform correctly and, as a result, comes with a lower risk of back injury, especially for beginners. Resting the bar on your rear delts encourages more of a forward lean—elevating the risk of low back injury if the exercise isn’t performed correctly—which increases engagement in the hamstrings and glutes. That muscle recruitment, in turn, can allow you to move more weight, which is why the low bar squat is particularly popular among powerlifters.

Your move: If you’re still mastering the basics of the heavy loaded barbell squat, stick to the high bar version.

But once you’ve nailed proper form (feet shoulder-width apart, neutral spine, chest up, core engaged, hips back, top of the thighs parallel to floor), weave both variations into your workouts, performing the high bar variation more frequently (a 3:1 ratio works well for most people). In so doing, you’ll reap the muscle-sculpting benefits of each of the variations—and build a more balanced body overall.

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