The big difference being the placement of the barbell three common are the high bar back squat, a low bar back squat, and a front squat.
There are many different types of barbell squats: the three most common are the high bar back squat (sometimes called an “Olympic squat” or “Oly Squat”), a low bar back squat, and a front squat.
Squats are Amazing
All of these use a barbell – the big difference being the placement of the barbell.
The placement of the barbell changes up a few things about the mechanics and geometry of the squat, and because of this the muscle recruitment is different. The low bar is a posterior chain dominant squat, while the high bar and front squat are a quad dominant squat.
No matter what type of squat you do, the basic setup will be the same – find a squat rack, power cage, or a squat stand and set the height of the bar to be about the same height as your collarbone. If your options are either too high or too low, it’s always best to go too low – you don’t want to have to get up on your toes to rack/unrack the bar, especially as the weight gets heavier.
Always start with just the bar – even if you’re planning on squatting 500 lbs. Always warm up with a few sets with just the bar.
Low Bar Back Squat
This is the most common form done by beginners, general lifters, and powerlifters. It’s the form taught in Starting Strength, one of the best book for beginners on the market.
Start by stepping up to the bar, facing it. Step under the bar, and put your hands around it. For this type of squat, we are going to want a thumbless grip, so that our wrists are properly aligned with our forearms.
The width of your grip will be dependent on flexibility, but generally a narrower (closer to your shoulders) grip will help create a meaty shelf for you to place the bar on out of the muscles in your upper back (the bar will end up sitting on your rear deltoids). If you lack the flexibility for the narrower grip, start out wider, then slowly bring it in as you get more flexible.
See the difference here between a “wrapped grip” (Left) and “thumbless grip” (right):
Squats are a compound movement
Now, once the bar is on your back, stand up, brace your core (tighten your glutes and flex your stomach), and step back (if you did this right, you should always have to step back, not forward).
From here, set up just like you did for your bodyweight squat – feet slightly wider than hip width apart, toes slightly pointing outward, butt back, squat down slowly, drop so the tops of your legs are parallel or lower, and stand back up.
Due to the fact that this is a posterior chain dominant squat, you will most likely be able to do more weight with this version than the other two.
The High Bar Back Squat
With this version of the squat, we are going to start out the same way, only instead of using a thumbless grip, we are going to put our thumbs around the bar.The same thing goes with the grip – the narrower the grip, the better of a “shelf” will be formed on your back to hold the bar.
However, a super narrow grip is hard to achieve, especially when starting out, due to lack of flexibility. Instead of placing the bar on your back on your rear deltoids, you’re going to be placing the bar about two inches higher up, on your traps. The bar will then be across your shoulders.
Now, it’s very important to note that even though the bar is across the top of your shoulders, it is not on your spine. If it’s on your spine, it is TOO high, and can cause serious damage.
Put the bar on your back, step back, stabilize and tighten your core, and squat down.
Due to the placement of the bar on your back, this version of the squat will require you to keep your torso more upright, so if you really struggled with this on your bodyweight squat, you will probably struggle keeping your chest up here.
That does not mean NOT to try – it just means to make sure to keep the weight low until you get it right – you don’t want your chest to collapse forward and have the bar roll on to your neck.
The last version of the squat that we are going to go over today is the front squat. Due to the placement on the front of the shoulders instead of on the back, the front squat is more quad dominant, but also requires you to be able to keep your torso much more upright than with the back squat (both versions).
Instead of stepping under the bar, place the bar on the front of your shoulders. Now, grab the bar with your hands. This is the most difficult part with the front squat – it requires a lot of wrist mobility and flexibility.
Most people can not front squat with a full grip around the bar, and instead will let the bar roll onto their fingertips (a three finger grip is okay here). If you can’t even get your fingers around the bar, there are a few variations you can start with genie front squatsor strap front squats.
Keep your hands holding on to the bar if you can (it’s okay to let the bar roll onto your fingertips), and keep your elbows up so that your upper arms are as parallel to the floor as possible. Like before, drop below parallel, and come on back up.
Keeping your elbows as high as possible the entire time is extremely important in the front squat – as soon as you let them drop, the weight will likely pull you forward out of correct positioning, and you will either drop the weight or potentially get injured.
Note: Due to the fact that all of our bodies are different, none of our “perfect” squats will look exactly the same – someone with a longer femur, for example, will squat slightly different than someone with a shorter femur. Also, the majority of the population has some sort of mobility issue (including myself!) that they are working on fixing – so if your squat looks different than the person next to you, that does not mean you’re doing it wrong!