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January 23, 2013

User: James Smith
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Low Bar vs. High Bar Back Squat for the purposes of CrossFit

Let me first state that for a long time I was a low bar back squatter.  Before I knew the difference between the two I was probably doing sort of a hybrid version but I’m not entirely sure.   Once I knew the difference I began to gravitate toward low bar.  Why?  Because I could do more weight and only had to break parallel for it to “count”.  It seemed pretty logical to me.

I would still find myself watching the weightlifting videos and couldn’t help but notice that when the lifters squatted they were using a high bar style Olympic squat.  It was pretty.  I wanted that.  So I decided to switch.  This was June 2011.  Way back in my YouTube channel you can find a video titled “switching to high bar squat”.  It certainly didn’t look like the lifters I was watching, but it was a start.

This is beautiful.

Less than a week later I was in a CrossFit competition and the first event was establish a 3RM back squat within a given time limit.  I did what I knew.  I squatted low bar, hit 390 and took second in the event.  I also placed first overall in the competition.  Positive reinforcement.  Low bar did me well, and the switch was very short lived.

It was during some time off with a back injury that I re-evaluated my training and after putting together a great template, I stumbled upon The Outlaw Way.  It was basically everything I had put together and then some, plus I didn’t have to program for myself anymore.  I noticed immediately that both low bar AND high bar were programmed, usually in separate cycles.  While I did what I could, my back injury had kept me from any lifting, squatting, or pulling for 3 months.  I used very conservative numbers for my 1RM’s to base the squat cycles off of.

Very quickly I noticed that my depth was feeling more comfortable because I was now squatting to a true bottom position.  I was starting to feel “the bounce”.  This translated to my front squat right away.  I was already quite strong in the low bar (PR 410), but I could tell me legs were getting stronger with the high-bar squat.  I could also feel that keeping an upright vertical torso was making my core/midline/whatever the eff you want to call it much more stable.  Within my first month back to training I set PR’s on my snatch at 230, and finally stood up a 300lb clean- a lift that I had racked probably 50 times, the first being 10 months prior.  To put it more blunt… shit was coming together.  Another month went by and now I had snatched 245 and cleaned 315.  Then a low-bar cycle showed up and with my stronger legs and midsection was able to squat 475.  That was the last time I attempted a low-bar max, and I really haven’t done much low-bar squatting since.  In fact none since August 2012.  Why?

Enter rant.

Low bar was why I failed all those racked cleans; low bar was why I wasn’t comfortable squatting to full depth;  low bar was why my front squat was not proportional to my back squat;  low bar was why I wasn’t comfortable in the hole on a snatch;  low bar was why I could power snatch more than full snatch for the longest time;  low bar was why my shoulders internally rotated on an overhead squat;  and finally it was why I had to video and ask if I was squatting to proper depth.  It all happened to me,  and it’s probably happened to a lot of you reading this.

What I have come to realize over years of training is that squatting is not just about pushing huge numbers.  It’s just as much about getting strong is specific positions.  Low bar will help your deadlift, no doubt.  If you are a power lifter there isn’t much debate that low bar is your best friend.   Beyond that, low bar will get you strong in a position that will actually take away from many other movements (as described above).  Developing a good high bar squat will improve:

-Front Squat
-Overhead Squat
-Clean
-Snatch
-Jerk
-Push Press
-Thruster
-Wall Ball
-Probably even gymnastic movements indirectly

There are so many movements in CrossFit that are direct weightlifting movements or accessories that in my opinion it makes no sense to do something that will take away from those, and conversely it makes all the sense in the world to do something that will improve them.

I’ve heard arguments for low bar that revolve around not having adequate core strength or mobility to do a proper high bar squat.  As I stated before, I believe that the high bar squat is superior in the development of core strength because of the need for an upright, vertical torso.  The argument of mobility is poor because simply putting a bar up on your traps and squatting to your maximum depth will lead to improvements in squat mobility.  Advising an athlete to squat low bar in this case will teach them to always be looking for that just-below-parallel squat that doesn’t really help in the development of anything.  Plus, you’ll have to answer the question “how was my depth?” about 100,000 times over the next year.  Arguing the low bar squat for CrossFit with little understanding of the high bar squat or weightlifting is ignorance, and yet it’s happening.  As coaches, we should be looking for what works best for our athletes.  I am a fairly pragmatic individual, and if someone can make a case for something that works better than what we are currently doing I am humble and honest enough to recognize that and build it into our program.

To recap, get strong in a position that is useful for what you do.  If you are a powerlifter, do low bar.  If you are a weightlifter- no question…high bar.  I am a big believer in doing what works for you, but as a CrossFitter, if you have not developed the high bar squat, you’re leaving a lot on the table.

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