No matter which style/technique of back squat some things are the same. The major 2 in common are: the back always needs to be in a position to be able to support the load and the bar path should be straight up and down.

For me anyone breaking parallel is performing a respectable back squat, if you are not reaching this depth then check your ego, reduce the weight and work on your form until you can. A squat is much more of a core exercise than most people think. As I said earlier the bar path should be straight up and down. To achieve this there are 2 styles of squats:
• High bar squats (these SHOULD be full squats aka ass to grass aka Olympic style. Breaking parallel is respectable, but not optimal).
• Low bar squats (aka powerlifting style).

The reason the low bar back squat technique is adopted is for maximum weight to be lifted in a specified ROM. Powerlifters need to break parallel. And to repeat myself once more (this can’t be emphasised enough!) the bar path is ideally straight up and down so all the force produced by muscle contractions moves the bar against gravity (yes some people move the bar slightly due to certain muscles being stronger in max lifts but that is not ideal). The easiest way to maximise the weight lifted (whilst still within the rules) is to reduce the Range of Movement (ROM). This is why Powerlifters use a wide stance, which reduces the knee bend needed thus reducing the ROM. The feet should be angled out slightly and the knees should follow the toes during the movement. This reduced ROM in the knee has to be compensated. This is achieved by sitting back into the squat and putting the weight ‘into the heels’, the lifter will also bend at the hip a lot more in relation to the knee. The back positioning is crucial as it is in any squat, the lifter has to be in a position to support the load. A flat back and a low bar position are used in order to keep the bar positioned over the midfoot. The hands are often wide and arms pulled back to prevent the bar from slipping. The shoulder blades should also be squeezed together and the head is in a neutral position looking slightly down and in front.

High bar back squats vary slightly too low bar. Again a respectable depth would be breaking parallel. However, a full squat should be the goal as it means maximum knee and hip ROM are performed. The stance is much narrower with the feet turned out slightly. Yet again, the bar path should always be vertical. The hands should be narrower with the elbows tucked underneath the bar. As with low bar technique the shoulder blades should be squeezed together (this should be done in the set up to create a shelf for the bar). The head should be neutral looking slightly up and in front. During the movement the back needs to hyperextend into a backwards arch (think lordosis position). To maintain this back position the focus should be on keeping the chest up, the bum sticking out and the knees should move forwards as well as out. They should at the very least track the toes but, if possible aim for wider. (I once read an article saying knees going wider than the feet can only be done by those that are very flexible and most people can’t do it. That may have some truth to it, but most people can get there or close to it if they work for it.)

Now which back squat variation should you perform?
Well, it all depends on your goals…..

If you just want a big squat and want to develop your posterior chain then a low bar back squat should be used. However, if the low bar technique is used then forms of lunges and step ups should also be included within the program especially for development of the vastus medialis (one of the quadriceps).

If you are into bodybuilding and just want to recruit your quadriceps more, then use a high bar technique. Bodybuilders often shorten the ROM and don’t lock out to increase the time under tension. This is debateable whether it is the best way, but often bodybuilders have poor flexibility and core strength, thus a lot of bodybuilders find they gain more (it’s all about the Gains!) from the shortened ROM and performing more supplemental exercises to compensate.

If athletic performance is the goal then I would always argue that high bar back squats are the most beneficial. I would also argue that depth should be a full squat if possible. However, technique and the safety of the squatter should always come first. If someone cannot reach full depth, then they should only go to the point at which their flexibility allows. Technique, technique and technique should be the focus until at least parallel can be performed and not the amount of weight on the bar. There are a number of simple exercises that will help develop core strength (actual core strength and not just the rectus abdominis), spinal and lower extremity flexibility but, that is for a different article.

If your goals are general fitness, then you need to work out what exactly your goals are to decide which variation. I would always advise high bar due to the mobility benefits without all the extra supplementary work and because it transfers across much better to other squat variations.

This is just a general guide for what your goals are. A lot of people write articles about squat technique and limb lengths and which squat style will work best for people with long femurs (upper thigh bone) or hip anatomy etc. Whilst these articles can be a great read and do make very valid points most do not paint the whole picture. Readers will often go away and think that they need to low bar squat because they believe they have long femurs (they probably have got slightly long femurs, but not to the extent where it would mean they cannot high bar squat) or they can’t full squat when high bar squatting due to their hip anatomy (this is sometimes true, but a lot of people won’t develop their flexibility and core strength enough to be able to make an informed decision). These types of articles are usually written by someone who favours low bar squatting and does not have a full grasp of high bar squatting technique.

The last part that I will talk about is on ‘butt wink’. For the benefit for those that don’t know what this is, it is whilst squatting the hips dip under and cause a slight flexion in the lower spine. If this happens when low bar squatting then you should stop squatting and work on your mobility. Whilst high bar squatting if ‘butt wink’ occurs in any squat that is parallel or above, then stop and go and work on your mobility. In full squats; if the ‘butt wink’ is excessive, then stop and work your mobility, if it is only a small amount then that is up for debate. I would always argue to reduce ‘butt wink’ as much as possible and where possible eradicate it altogether. Often this can be done by letting the knees go out further at the bottom of the squat.

I will finish with full disclosure of how I train. Personally I would strive for full ROM, so I use the high bar full squat technique. This is due to my training goals which are to benefit my performance in American Football. In the bottom phase of my squat my knees actually snap out wider than my toes and back in line with my toes as I drive back up.

Enjoy your SQUATS!!!

Nick Jacquet