How to Perfect the High-Bar Back Squat

The high-bar back squat is typically one of the first barbell exercises young athletes are taught today. By perfecting technique an athlete has the potential to lift bigger weights with less risk for injury.

It doesn’t matter how hard you push. It doesn’t matter how well the training plan is written. Any flaws in their technique will limit their maximum potential.

The Lift Off

The first part of successful barbell squats at the rack. The bar should be set around chest height. Setting the bar too high or too low can force a lifter to put themselves in a dangerous position in order to un-rack and re-rack the weighted barbell.

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The next step is to get the bar into the correct position on your back. Pull yourself under the bar and trap it tight against your tops of your shoulders and back of your neck. By pulling your shoulder blades together a ‘shelf’ will appear through the contraction of the upper back muscles. The bar should be positioned on top of this shelf.

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The type of grip taken on the bar will be a personal choice. Some will hook their thumb under the bar while others will keep it on top of the bar (monkey grip). Regardless of the way you decide to grip the bar, a neutral wrist alignment is ideal. The straightforward wrist allows the weight of the bar to be safely secured on the back without placing too much pressure on the elbows.

Wrist

It’s now time to un-rack the bar. Position yourself under the bar with your feet evenly spaced around shoulder width. Take a big breath while bracing your core. Extend your hips and knees at the same time (with even pressure between both legs) and stand up with the bar.

Often athletes try to un-rack the bar with their feet staggered. With lighter weight on the barbell it is easy to get away with this move. However, as soon as the weight increases to high levels, un-racking the barbell in this manner can be dangerous.

It is also common to see athletes try un-rack the bar without a braced core. Without bracing your core, it’s difficult to organize and create appropriate stability needed to complete the lift. Case in point, you don’t see many 900 lb squats where the athlete un-racks the weight in a casual manner. The tremendous weight of the bar would instantly crush the athlete.

The Descent

The descent of the barbell squat follows the same principles of the bodyweight squat with two small changes: foot placement and breathing mechanics. Now that an athlete is squatting with a barbell they may turn their toes out slightly. This allows the athlete to squat deeper while maintaining stability.

Barbell squatting also requires proper breathing mechanics. By harnessing the power of the breath an athlete will lock their lower back into a good stable position. This allows for more weight to be lifted without risk of injury to the spine.

After un-racking the bar properly, take three slow steps backwards and establish your squat stance. The width of this stance should be comfortable and allow for full range of motion. For this reason, every athlete will have a slight difference in stance width.

Next, the ‘tripod’ foot needs to be engaged. All three points of the foot need to be in equal contact with the ground. If done properly, the foot will move into a full arched position. This allows the foot to remain stable and support the rest of our body just like the base layer for a ‘house of cards.’

The next step is to create external rotation torque at the hips. By squeezing your glutes, torque is generated at the hip joint and the knees are brought into correct alignment with the toes. Next, take another big breath ‘into your stomach’ and brace your core like Mike Tyson is going to punch you.

IAP Brace

The last step is to engage the posterior chain (glutes & hamstrings). This happens with a proper hip hinge. Push your hips backwards slightly and bring your chest forward. Once the hips are engaged, start your squat. Don’t think about going to a certain depth. Just squat.

The Bottom Position

In order to produce efficient strength and power during the squat we must remain balanced. This requires our center of gravity to stay directly over the middle of our foot. During the bodyweight squat our center of gravity was located near the middle of our stomach. Depending on the physical make-up of an athlete (height, weight, leg length, etc) this location may change slightly.

Bodyweight Squat Transition

In order to stay balanced during the bodyweight squat the torso has to be inclined over the knees. During the barbell squat however, the bar now becomes our center of gravity. Due to the position of the weight during the high-bar back squat, a more upright torso position will be used.

Balance

This technique change will cause the knees to eventually move forward past the toes in order to reach full depth. This shift balances the load between the quads and glutes. It also requires an athlete to have adequate ankle mobility. For this reason, athletes with stiff ankles can often show perfect squat technique with no weight but will struggle during the high-bar variation.

The high-bar back squat is usually performed to a greater depth than the low-bar version (commonly used by powerlifters). In the competitive sport of weightlifting (i.e. snatch and clean & jerk) the weight is often caught in a very deep squat. The high-bar technique therefore translates well into the sport of weightlifting and crossfit.

That being said, not all athletes are training to compete in the sport of weightlifting. For this reason, the barbell squat does not always need to be taken ass-to-grass. Depth of a barbell squat will be specific to the demands of the sport an athlete participates in. Every athlete should be able to hit at least parallel depth. This means the crease of the hip will be parallel with the knee joint.

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The Ascent

The ascent of the squat is all about hip drive. From the bottom of the squat the hips should be driven up while the shins are pulled to a vertical position.

HipDrive

Elite weightlifters at times will use a forceful transition in their bottom position. This is a skilled maneuver that can allow an athlete to lift more weight. Technique is imperative if this powerful move is to be attempted. Alignment of the knees must be maintained. If performed correctly the rebound will feel like a spring releasing, propelling you upwards with tremendous power.

The torso must also be maintained in a stable position during this part of the lift. Often inexperienced athletes will let their back collapse and round forward. If an athlete tries to forcefully bounce out of the bottom position without proper control, they risk losing stability at the low back. When this happens harmful forces are instantly placed on the vulnerable structures of the back.

A forceful transition should always be learned under the direct supervision of an experienced coach. If performed incorrectly it can easily lead to technique breakdown and eventual injury.

High-Bar Sequence

  • Pin the barbell tightly against the ‘shelf’ of your upper back.
  • Establish a stable tripod foot.
  • Generate external rotation torque at the hips (Verbal cue: squeeze your glutes)
  • Create a rigid trunk by taking a big breath and holding it tight. (Verbal cue: big breath & core tight)
  • Hip hinge to engage the posterior-chain. (Verbal cue: hips back)
  • Remain balanced by keeping the bar over the mid-foot during the entire squat.
  • Use hip drive to stand up from the bottom position. (Verbal cue: drive the hips up and pull the shins back to vertical).

Until next time,

SquatBottom
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW

With

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Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS

 

Published by

Dr. Aaron Horschig

Doctor of Physical Therapy, CSCS, USAW coach and athlete.

22 thoughts on “How to Perfect the High-Bar Back Squat

    1. Its very similar. The goal is to engage the posterior chain (gluten and hamstrings). Often when people move poorly in the squat they will move their knees forward first. This instantly places a lot of stress on the knee joint and can eventually cause pain. Moving from the knee first also decreases the ability of the gluten to kick on appropriately which can limit your potential to lift heavy weight.

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      1. Everyone is going to move slightly differently based on their body size. The hinge should always keep the bar over the middle of the foot. If you hinge too much and the bar tracks forward over the toes it’s too much.

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      2. I suggest using a combination. You should be capable of perform all styles and techniques of the squat. Some people however will gravitate to the technique they enjoy the most. For example, powerlifters will often use the low-bar squat more often because it allows them to lift more weight – a good thing for their sport!

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  1. Great Article,
    very similar to how Kelly Starrett teaches the Squat (especially the load order sequencing) but you’re even going into more detail on the arch of the foot.

    I can’t squat ass to grass because I can only reach my knees directly over my toes while maintaining the arch I have in my foot when standing. If my knees travel past my toes my arch will be the flatter the farther I go.

    I used to have a flat foot (I think pes valgus) about 2 years ago, but I built strong foot muscles by gripping the floor actively while walking so I can now maintain a stable arch even when deadlifting.
    I create my arch by gripping the floor and I can even do this without creating any torque and with collapsed knees (only for testing, I normally create torque to support the arch and I don’t have valgus knees).

    If I stop gripping the floor my feet will collapse and when squatting below parallel my arch lowers a bit even If I grip the floor as hard as I can.

    So if you are still reading now, here’s my question:
    Do I have very stiff ankles (and calves) or is something seriously wrong?

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      1. Like gripping something with your hands but do it with your feet…
        Worst explanation ever 😦

        I’ll try again:
        I try to move the 3 points of the tripod closer together to build the two arches.

        When I first tried to build an arch with weak feet 2 years ago I realized that I can create that arch by creating torque, but I shifted all my weight to the outside of my foot.
        When “gripping” the floor I also push the third point of the tripod (the ball of the foot right behind my big toe) to the ground and shift my weight evenly to all points.

        So I create my arch by gripping the floor and I only support the arch by creating torque at the hips.
        Hope this was a bit more understandable 😀

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      2. Can’t reply to your new comment,

        I push slightly through the big toe but only to assist the arch, not as a part of the tripod.

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    1. Erik, good question! First let me thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you liked the article. Its very common to have your foot stability collapse when you have stiff ankles. However to find out if the ankle is truly the problem you need to test it specific to the needs of the squat. Check out this article: https://squatuniversity.com/2015/11/05/the-squat-fix-ankle-mobility-pt-1/

      In it we discuss a simple test to determine if you have stiffness in your ankle. Based on what you find (tightness in the back of the calf, or a pinch in the front of your ankle) if you have a restriction will determine how to treat it. We discuss a few simple ways in part 3 of that blog series. Hopefully that helps!

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  2. Thanks for answering,

    but what should I do with my arch in the test?

    If I do this while maintaining exactly the same arch like when standing I’ll get 3cm away from the wall with my right foot and 5cm with my left foot.
    If I keep “gripping” the floor but go as far as I can I’ll get 7cm (r) and 10cm (l), but my arch is only about half as high as my standing arch (exactly like in the squat. Looks like your arch in the image below the article).
    If I let my arch collapse completely I’ll get 14cm (r) and 18cm (l).

    Such a big difference between right and left doesn’t seem normal to me…

    PS: When maintaining the full arch I really don’t feel where a limitation is, I just feel something in the peroneus tendon, but I think it’s just because I try so hard to maintain the arch.

    When collapsing I feel a pull on the achilles tendon but shouldn’t I feel a stretch in the calf if it’s a tight calf?

    I already tried Kelly Starret’s Banded Heel Cord: Anterior Bias before squatting because I couldn’t feel where the limitation is and my skin slides perfectly, but I didn’t see any difference.
    I think I need to do some calf smash and floss but I didn’t really tried it.

    Why am I always writing such an essay?…

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    1. No worries on the amount of writing Erik! Your arch is going to collapse naturally a little whenever you perform the test. Its natural for the arch to flatten out as you go into dorsiflexion (knee over toe). The thing you want to watch out for is whether or not the heel pops off the ground and if the knee starts to track out of alignment with the toes. As long as the knee stays in alignment, don’t worry too much about trying to keep a high arch during the test. It sounds like most of your limitation is in the soft tissues (fascia/muscles). I would recommend stretching and foam rolling to help you resolve those issues.

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  3. Hi Dr Horschig,
    This was a great read in a website that is full of tons of very useful information. I tried to implement your hip drive up suggestion and found that this cue worked for me for the first time when combined with the shins pull back cue. I felt immediately more powerful out of the hole and more stable in my knees. However, I did find that I had a tendency to pitch forward into a slight good morning position while doing that.
    Any suggestions on avoiding this?
    Thank you in advance,
    TK

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    1. TK, thanks for the comment. I really appreacite your kind words and am glad you find the website useful! As far as the chest pitching forward, I would focus on keeping the chest rising at the same rate as the hips during the ascent. During the initial ascent, the hips drive upwards out of the hole. After this the chest must rise at the same rate as the hips, if not the chest will fall forward as the hips continue to push backwards which will cause you to become unbalanced. Hope that helps!

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  4. I just don’t think I can express how happy I am to have found your articles. It looks like I have a lot of reading to do before I ask any questions. In the meantime, I simply want to THANK YOU for spending the time and effort to teach.

    Like

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