In past weeks we have discussed how to perfect the high-bar back squat and the front squat. It is now time to talk about the low-bar back squat. Athletes competing in the sport of powerlifting typically use this variation as it allows them to lift more weight.
The Lift Off
Taking the barbell out of the rack correctly is the first step to any successful squat. Just like the high-bar back squat and front squat, the bar should be set at around chest height. A general rule of thumb is to set the bar lower compared to higher. The worst situation is when you have to tip toe up just to get the bar on and off.
Next, we need to position the barbell correctly on the back. Pull yourself under the bar and trap it tight against the back of your shoulders. By pulling your shoulder blades together a ‘shelf’ will appear through the contraction of the mid-back muscles. The barbell should be positioned on this shelf. This will end up being 2-3 inches lower than where the bar is held during the high-bar back squat. If you have never done the low-bar back squat, this may feel uncomfortable and unusual.
The width of the grip you use on the barbell should be based on comfort. Most powerlifters are seen using a wide grip on the bar (around the notches). However, this isn’t an absolute everyone must follow. Taking a standard grip on the barbell (just outside shoulder width) can be used with a low-bar squat. That being said, you must have sufficient upper body mobility to do so. Taking too narrow of a grip when you are lacking flexibility in the chest/shoulders can lead to increased stress on the elbow joint.
It’s now time to un-rack the bar. Position yourself under the bar with your feet evenly spaced (around shoulder width apart). Take a big breath while bracing your core. Never attempt to casually lift the bar out of the rack. If you want to lift heavy weight you must create massive stability prior to even moving the bar. This starts by taking a big breath and bracing your core muscles.
Once you are ready, lift the bar off the rack by driving upwards with your hips. Take a few short steps backwards out of the rack. Always step back out of the rack. Stepping forward means you must re-rack the weight after your set by going backwards. This can be very dangerous (especially if you are fatigued and lifting heavy weight) as you will not be able to clearly see the rack hooks to safely set the bar down.
Once the weight on your back comes to a rest, its time to establish a solid foundation for your squat. A neutral arch position allows the foot to remain stable and support the rest of our body just like the base layer for a ‘house of cards.’ Always ensure you’re in complete control of your body and the weight has stopped moving. Now you are ready to squat.
The stance you take during any squat should allow you to remain balanced and reach full depth. Athletes who compete in powerlifting will often use a wider stance when using the low-bar technique. The degree of toe-out angle will vary based on an individual’s anatomy and mobility. A general recommendation is to point the toes out slightly (between 10-20 degrees).
The next step is to squeeze your glutes and drive your knees in line with your feet. By doing this, external rotation torque is generated at the hip joint. This primes the lower body to move with perfect technique.
Some coaches will use the cue to ‘drive the knees wide’. This cue works great for a number of athletes, especially those whose knees collapse inwards during the squat. For others, it can lead the athlete to become unbalanced. Therefore, it must be used on an individual basis. Driving the knees too far to the outside can cause the foot to turn on its side. This is like a tripod trying to remain in balance on only two of the three points. Whatever cue you use, make sure the entire foot stays in contact with the ground and the knee tracks in-line with the toes.
Take another big breath ‘into your stomach’ and brace your core like your going to receive a punch to the stomach. This bracing mechanism increases your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and stabilizes your lower back (2,3). When our core is properly engaged and rigid, we can then squat massive weight while keeping our spine safe.
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. Always descend in a controlled manner. Don’t think about stopping at a certain depth. Just squat.
The Bottom Position
In order to squat tremendous weight efficiently, you must remain balanced. In order to do this, the bar must track over the middle of our foot during the entire squat. The weighted barbell acts as our body’s center of gravity. Stability will be lost if the bar moves forward toward the toes or backward toward the heel.
While no two squats will look exactly the same, you still have to line the bar over the middle of the foot. To keep the bar (which is now positioned lower on the back) centered over the mid-foot, the chest is going to be inclined over the knees more so than the other squat techniques. Depending on the physical make-up of an athlete (height, weight, leg length, etc) the amount of trunk inclination is going to vary. Some athletes will have a more upright torso while others will be very inclined.
In the book Starting Strength Mark Rippetoe explains that most balance problems in the low-bar squat are usually due to a back angle that is too vertical (1). If you feel off balance with your squat, make sure you are sitting your hips back enough and allowing your chest to lean forward.
The bottom position of this squat will not require the knees to move forward too much. The low-bar squat inherently places more load on the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) when compared to the front squat and high-bar squat.
You don’t need to have amazing ankle mobility to perfect the low-bar squat. This is why powerlifters will often wear a flat sole shoe like the classic Chuck Taylors compared to a weightlifting shoe with a raised heel.
The ascent of the squat is all about hip drive. From the bottom of the squat the hips should be driven straight up. In order to keep the bar from tracking towards the toes, make sure to also drive the chest up at the same time. Failure to do so will cause the hips to rise excessively and the torso to remain forward. Doing so will often cause the bar to track toward the toes. This position places harmful forces on the low-back and can easily lead to injury.
Elite powerlifters at times will at times use a forceful transition in their bottom position. This is NOT a bounce. It is a skilled maneuver that can allow an athlete to lift more weight by using the body’s own reflexes (stretch shortening cycle). Technique is imperative if this powerful move is to be attempted. Alignment of the knees must be maintained and the chest should never collapse. If performed correctly the rebound will feel like a spring releasing, propelling you upwards with tremendous power.
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. Never rush or try to bounce out of the bottom of a squat. This is a quick way to injure yourself.
- Pin the barbell tightly against the ‘shelf’ of your mid back, just below your shoulder muscles (posterior deltoids).
- 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 and chest up).
Until next time,
- Rippetoe, M. (2011). Starting Strength. Basic barell Training. 3rd The Aasgaard Company. Wichita Falls, Texas.
- Grenier SG & McGill SM. Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2007; 88:54-62
- Cholewicki J, Juluru K, McGill SM. Intra-abdominal pressure mechanism for stabilizing the lumbar spine. Journal of Biomechanics. 1999; 32:13-17.Cholewicki J, Juluru K, McGill SM. Intra-abdominal pressure mechanism for stabilizing the lumbar spine. Journal of Biomechanics. 1999; 32:13-17.