November 12th 2013

Using the Low Bar Back Squat

Eva T. S&C - Eva T. Squatting

Every client that trains with me, starts with the low bar back squat. The reason for this is that all my clients are either beginners, have been following their own programming and/or have never had personal coaching. Most of them have sedentary jobs and start going to the gym to get in better shape – the same goes for going to a CrossFit box, most people just want to look better naked.We have been told that we are all athletes and should train as such, but is this really the case? High level athletes exhibit decades of active lifestyles, starting at a young age. This is in stark contrast to a mid 30 year old, sedentary person who now decides to lift weights. The approach a coach needs to take with such a client is the same taken for the high level athlete when he first started. Learn how to move correctly.

But I digress, let me get back to what you actually came here to read – why I start every client out with the low bar back squat as taught by Mark Rippetoe. The answer is really simple: correct load progression. Efficient movement patterns are all about how and when to engage which muscle and to what extent, i.e. inter-muscular coordination. This is not a muscular challenge, it is a neurological one and, as a coach, I need to make sure that my client’s “firing pattern” is correct and consistent. My approach is to use exercises that leave very little leeway for the client’s interpretation, enforces correct sequencing and is safe.

When you tell a beginner to squat down, most will push their knees forward, come onto the balls of their feet and then squat down. This is their learned behavior: load the quads, then the calves. If you get such a person to high bar back squat (because they want to do Olympic weightlifting or win the CrossFit Games), this is the sequence they will slip into (especially when getting tired), putting their knees at risk as the hamstrings are not keeping the joint stable.

The easiest way to rectify this is by using a simple exercise that forces them to correctly load their system. The low bar back squat is the perfect tool to do this. I won’t try to explain how to low bar back squat – for this I advise you to get Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength. * I will however mention that decreasing the length of the lever that acts on the lower back (and therefore decreasing rotational torque) will always be beneficial. Of course, once my clients are loading their skeletal systems correctly (this might take a few months), we can employ other exercises. They will be ready, having already acquired new movement patterns.

As coaches we need to keep the bigger picture in mind with the answer to these two important questions. Why are we using a specific exercise? Will this exercise actually help the client – not only in the short term, but also in the context of the next 10 to 20 years? The art of coaching comes less from the number of exercises employed than from your ability to present something as simply as possible and still help the client reach their goal.

One more thing from my observations. Because most of my clientele come from sedentary jobs, they have internally rotated shoulders (rounded upper back). After experience with the low bar back squat, their shoulder position improves, allowing for setting the back safely for the lift and implementing good shoulder range of motion for safe barbell training.

Do you agree with me? I would like to hear your thoughts. If you are not sure, take the time and go through a cycle of Starting Strength – if you do, please write a comment to tell us how it went.

* After reading comments and reviewing the subject, I stand corrected. The moment arm is indeed longer as the forward lean increases – however this will actually keep the posterior chain more engaged during the squat. Thank you Thomas and K.S. for pointing it out.


Roland Jungwirth Written by Roland Jungwirth
Roland is a strength and conditioning coach that works out of Cape Town, South Africa. He also runs the web-design and -development company Top-Node IT.




*25 each R + L of single arm pressing snatch balance . No weight.
*Please Warm up appropriately.

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11 Responses to “Using the Low Bar Back Squat”

  1. Chris Garay says:

    Interesting points, especially about the low-bar back squat improving shoulder position. I prefer to use a front-loaded (kettlebell or dumbbell in “goblet” position) squat with less-experienced clients and athletes because it teaches them how to squat to full depth with flat feet, something the low-bar back squat does not do. There’s a time and place for everything though!

    • roland says:

      Good point, although I have not had any problems getting people to full depth with the low bar back squat. The problem I have seen using kettlebells is that people’s upper backs are normally not strong enough to elicit a reasonable stimulus for the squat, i.e. the upper back is the limiting factor of the squat.

  2. Ted Rupp says:

    Roland, I like the concept. However, I recently had both rotator cuffs repaired and I find that the external rotation for a low bar squat is much more difficult to obtain. This lack of mobility will, in time, be corrected but I suspect with the typical new client, there is a real problem in reaching the required external rotation for a low bar squat. Your thoughts?

    • roland says:

      When I start with clients, I’ll warn them that the position is uncomfortable, especially when getting out of the position. If they just cannot get the bar lower, they might have to move the hands further apart or have to adapt with a higher bar, moving it down as they get used to it.
      In your case this might have to be adapted even more but I would introduce external rotation and non-loaded shoulder movement as early as possible to minimize adhesions.

  3. Thomas Campitelli says:

    The low bar back squat does not necessarily make the moment arm between the hip and the bar (the point of rotation and the point of force application) smaller. It may be the same, or even longer, than a high bar back squat depending upon a trainee’s anthropometry. A smaller moment arm is not necessarily better, either. That moment arm may provide a powerful strengthening stimulus. I think the low bar back squat is the way to go, but the length of moment arm created across the torso is not really the most convincing point.

    • roland says:

      Hi Thomas, thank you for your contribution. I am not not sure what anthropometry a person needs to exhibit for the distance from the hips to the traps to be shorter than the distance from the hips to just under the scapular’s spine.
      Increasing the moment arm will put more torque on the lower back, therefore limiting the amount of weight that you can squat. If you are trying to improve your lower backs strength, then use a good morning.
      What – in your opinion – is the most convincing point of the low bar back squat?

  4. K.S. says:

    The lenght of a segment does not dictate the lenght of the moment arm. For example a 100 foot pole that is exactly over the base of support would have no moment arm. The lower bar placement dictates a more horizontal back to keep the weight over the center of the foot. This creates a longer moment arm as the horizontal distance between the bar and the hips is increased.

  5. jake ring says:

    I’ve discovered that doing low bar allows me to retain mobility, specifically scapular retraction and external rotation, without a lot of supplemental mobility work. If I don’t do it, even if I do a fair amount of mobility work, I lose the ability to do a low bar squat without shoulder pain. So once a week I am now programming low bar box squats, even though most of my work in the gym is olympic lifting. Not only does it help maintain shoulder mobility, the box helps drill the proper loading sequence, which is something I need to keep working on because of a right knee issue I have. I have to work pretty hard to stabilize my right side, and the weekly box squatting allows me to focus on the simple things so I can be primed for the fairly complex lifting later in the week.

  6. Josh Nickell says:

    Absolutely love the low bar back squat. Hadn’t tried it until Eva pointed me towards it. It was uncomfortable at first, but things are loosening up. It’s definitely worth it. The mechanics felt right immediately. Where I used to have to really work to stay in position, things naturally fall into position!

  7. Jason says:

    I have to say that I was somewhat skeptical that moving the bar such a small distance could make any kind of difference. Watched a few Rippetoe videos on the proper form and grip, then gave it a try in the gym. Couldn’t believe how different it feels. My shoulders aren’t as flexible as they need to be and that made the grip a bit uncomfortable. But overall I was impressed. Still need to work on some ankle mobility issues for ideal form, but this helped immensely. Thanks.

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