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The Serious Guide to the Low Bar Squat

Written by Keith Hansen

February 22, 2018

low bar squat

Here it is.

This is our specialty.

No one teaches it like we do. 

Everything you need to squat a house and develop tree trunk thighs. 

This article covers technique, programs, equipment, variations, and links to posts more in-depth on each subject. 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

BENEFITS & Uses
EQUIPMENT
TECHNIQUE
General STrength PROGRAMS
Squat Focused Programs
VARIATIONS
ACCESSORY WORK
Why Low Bar SQuats Hurt Your _____
ADDITIONAL READINGS ON LOW BAR SQUATS
USEFUL LINKS

BENEFITS & USES

A Brief History

Low Bar Squat

Humans have been squatting since before there were humans.

The next question is, "How long have we been low bar squatting?" and the answer is, "I don't know."

Maybe you can help me with that.

But does it matter when it originated? Nope. 

What matters is why you should be doing it.

Max STrength

The low bar squat is the version of the squat that allows you to move the most weight.

Without getting into biomechanics, joint torques, and physics, typically more weight moved=more strength gained.

Hypertrophy

The low bar squat shifts the bar closer to your hips for greater hip load. This means more hamstring & glute development, but it doesn't stop there. Every muscle of the thigh is engaged fully when properly executing a low bar squat.

No other single exercise will lead to greater overall leg hypertrophy (muscle growth) than the low bar squat. Period.

A big reason the low bar squat allows you to move more weight is because of its enormous amount of muscle recruitment, and recruited muscles grow.

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EQUIPMENT

Bars

Gym Equipment

You need five things for low bar squats:

-A barbell
-A rack
-Plates
-Barbell clips
-Safety pins/arms

Those are the bare minimum requirements for safe low bar squats. The clips will ensure the plates do not become unbalanced, and the safeties will prevent you from being pinned under a missed squat.

Set your safeties at the beginning of every squat session. This is not a suggestion. It is a requirement for safety.

I've written an article on setting up your home gym for strength training if you need more information.

Personal Equipment

Shoes are the first thing you should address. Ensure you are wearing a shoe with a stable, firm platform. Running shoes are a terrible choice. Nike MetCons are phenomenal. Converse Chuck Taylor's are good for low bar squats, but aren't as versatile for other gym activities. Olympic weightlifting shoes are usable, but not recommended because they shift some of the load away from the hip (toward the knee). More about shoes for the low bar squat.

Weightlifting Belts are the next thing to purchase. These vary greatly in size, material, cut, joining mechanism, and more, but the best overall belt for strength training is a 4" wide, 10mm thick, single prong powerlifting belt. For ~$100 you will have a belt that will outlast you, and improve your PRs immediately. You can literally buy your next PRs with a good belt. 

Watch THIS video to learn how to wear a weightlifting belt.

What weightlifting belt should you buy?

When should you wear a weightlifting belt?

What does a weightlifting belt do?

Wrist Wraps are useful if the low bar squat position is painful on your wrists. The pressure provided by these wraps is typically an instant fix for wrist pain. A quick fix is a couple loops of athletic tape over pre-wrap. Wrist wraps are better because the pressure is adjustable and you can take them on & off quickly.

Knee Sleeves are useful for warming the knee joint quickly. I didn't use them until I was recovering from a knee injury and found that the knee sleeves helped alleviate some of the pain. If you feel your knees are stiff then sleeves might be helpful. 

Knee Wraps are a very big step up from knee sleeves. Knee wraps are like wrist wraps in that they provide a lot of pressure around the knee. They can be wrapped very tight so the knee is difficult to bend. This typically will allow you to squat more weight and is why some powerlifting federations do not allow their use. You should not consider using knee wraps until you are squatting over 400lbs. This isn't a strength requirement but an experience requirement. There are many ways to wrap a knee, and this video shows the one I use.

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TECHNIQUE

Setup

Rack
Rack Height

The rack height is the first thing you setup when preparing to low bar squat. Good height is 2" below the top of your squat when in the correct stance. When set properly you will only have to lift the bar 2" before clearing the J-hooks, and when you need to replace the bar it will be as simple as walking forward. If you have to go on your tip toes or squat more than a few inches to get the bar in/out of the rack it isn't set correctly. 

Safeties Height

The safeties are the next thing for you to set. They should be 2"-4" below the bottom of your squat. Usually you will set them too low on the first warm-up set, and raise them a little each set until you have found optimal depth. 

You should write this height in your workout log so you know where to set them each time you squat.

If you bump the safeties at the bottom of your squat they are too high(assuming your squat depth is consistent & ideal). If you have to lower your body more than 4" below your ideal squat depth to shift the weight of the bar to the safeties they are too low.

Safeties that are set too low aren't safe at all.

Grip

Grip in the low bar squat is highly variable. For the average guy you will end up with your hands between the powerlifting rings and the beginning of the knurling. 

I start with my grip wide and move in as my shoulders loosen. A closer grip coincides with a tighter setup--a necessity for progressively heavier sets.

Ensure that yourhttps://youtu.be/BXgzM8XmJDE https://youtu.be/BXgzM8XmJDE through your palms. If your wrist is relaxed back you will probably experience wrist pain.

Placement

The barbell should rest atop the rear delts & just below the upper trap in a valley that will be formed when the shoulders are set.

Here is a video on exactly where to place the bar.

Stance

Low Bar SquatYour stance will be unique to your body type, but a general rule of thumb is:

-feet slightly wider than the shoulders
-feet turned out 15-30 degrees

Here is a video on where to place your feet.

Action

Watch this video to see a low bar squat.

Exit

After you have set your body properly the next thing to do is remove the bar from the rack to assume your squat position.

Extend your legs so the bar rises high enough to clear the j-hooks but without fully extending your knee/hips. You should always be short of lockout for maximum control. Step your non-dominant leg back a few inches. Step your dominant leg back and assume your squat stance outlined above.

You don't need to move far from the rack--6 inches is more than enough because when the low bar squat is properly executed your bar path will be perfectly vertical.

Descent

Begin your descent by simultaneously:

-driving your knees outward
-allow the knees to shift forward slightly
-push your hips back
-rotate your pelvis anteriorly(think about sticking your butt out)

The barbell should track perfectly vertical when viewed from the side.

Bottom
Heavy Squat

The bottom of your squat is reached when you have maximized hip flexion (your thighs are closest to your torso).

You will feel tension/stretch in the:

- groin
- outer thigh
- where the hamstrings meet the glutes
- tops of the quads

If you only feel it in the quads/knees your squat isn't quite right. 

Here is a video on what the bottom of your squat should look like.

 Take a video or ask a friend to look for:

-foot/femur alignment (no valgus knee movement)
-thoracic extension (chest up)
-lumbar extension (minimal buttwink)
-evenly weighted feet (you do not want your weight on the inside foot or toes)

Read more about the 4 Components of a Perfect Low Bar Squat.

All of those things lead to a vertical bar path & a great low bar squat.

Ascent

To ascend drive your knees out and keep your chest up to return to your starting position.

There is no need to lockout your knees/hips between each rep. Do not do this because it causes a loss of tension and control between reps.

Finish

Returning the bar to the rack should be as simple as walking forward until the bar makes contact with the rack and squatting down a couple of inches.

If it wasn't that easy chances are the j-hooks were not set properly. Adjust them.

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General Strength PROGRAMS

Beginner Program

A good beginner strength program has you squat often.

A great beginner program requires you to squat every workout. 

That's exactly what we've done with the Seriously Strong Beginner Program. You will squat every workout to maximize strength gain, leg hypertrophy, and proficiency in the low bar squat.

Download the Seriously Strong Beginner Program

 

Intermediate PRogram

Intermediate programs are a step up from beginner programs because they begin to allow for more customization & interesting loading schemes.

But do you know what they have in common with great beginner programs? 

You squat every workout.

The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program calls for lots of squats and answers with massively strong legs.

Congratulations. Every day is leg day.

Download the Seriously Strong Intermediate Program

 

Advanced Program

Okay we're going to give the legs a break. Sort of.

You don't have to squat every day anymore. But the catch is that on squat day you must give it everything. There is no holding back--as many reps as possible. There's a lot more to the Seriously Strong Advanced Program, and you can follow the link below to read the entire program. If you've completed the first two programs you will love the Seriously Strong Advanced Program.

Download the Seriously Strong Advanced Program

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Squat Focused Programs

Smolov/Smolov Jr.

Check out these programs at http://www.smolovjr.com/

I haven't done the full Smolov program, but I've had many clients run Smolov Jr. for bench press with great success. 

It is reported that large guys add up to 100lbs to their squat max in the 13 weeks of the full Smolov program, but the mininum squat for beginning the program is 300lbs. 

20 Rep Squats

This one is simple. Very simple. 

Take 50% of your 1RM low bar squat and warm up to that weight.

Then do 20 reps at it. That's the squat workout for the day.

Hit some lower accessory work and you're finished.

Add 5lbs each workout to that 50% number and keep going. Try to get 3 squat workouts per week so you progress 15lbs per week & 60lbs per month.

The first 2-3 workouts will be tough as you adjust to the high volume set. The next few will be easy. Then they will start to get hard. Then harder. And harder. 

You will get to the point where you must pause at the top of your squat between reps 10-15 to give yourself a pep talk and catch your breath. Keep going.

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VARIATIONS

Band Assisted Low Bar Squats 
Band Resisted Low Bar SQuats
Chain Resisted Low Bar Squats
Chain Suspended low Bar Squats
Paused Low Bar Squats

Use these to improve your bottom position in the squat. It is most useful if you video each set and review them. What you are looking for is the solid position I outlined above and zero movement in the hole for the duration of your pause.

Paused low bar squats are useful for fixing your transition out of the bottom.  Pay special attention to your bar path. If the end of your barbell moves horizontally at any point your squat needs more work. Lower the weight and fix this issue. 1-3 second pauses are common, and ensure you are perfectly still for the duration.

Low Bar Box Squats

The purpose of this variation is to eliminate the stretch reflex at the bottom of your squat. This significantly increases the difficulty of the low bar squat, and is very useful for fixing your transition to the ascent.

This is a more taxing variation to chain suspended low bar squats but helps to accomplish a similar outcome--developing strength out of the hole. 

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ACCESSORY WORK

When you've got your low bar squats dialed in there isn't need for much accessory work. The low bar squat is so effective at recruiting the muscles of the legs that with good technique nothing else will help progress squats quicker than more squats.

With that said the real use for accessory work is to get your low bar squat to that point.

Accessory work should be used to bring lagging muscles up to speed, or to work around injuries/overworked muscles/joints.

Accessory work should target the upper back, low back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

If you click here you can learn the 5 best accessory exercises for the low bar squat.

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Why Low Bar Squats Hurt Your

Knees

Low bar squats can hurt your knees for two reasons:

-your knees are moving too far forward
-your knees are moving too far inward

Fix either or both of those errors to alleviate knee pain caused by technique faults. Revisit the section on technique above, and watch our YouTube series on the low bar squat.

Low Back

If your low back hurts from low bar squats you may be going too low. This manifests as a loss of extension in the low back(called buttwink) and forces the spinal erectors to work overtime. Make sure you are squatting to the correct depth.

The other cause is that your bar path is incorrect--it isn't perfectly vertical. This is what happens when the bar moves in front of your balance point(the midfoot) and causes a significant increase on stress in the low back. Take a video of your squat to check your vertical bar path.

Fix your technique to alleviate this issue.

Wrists

Incorrect grip placement/wrist engagement. Engage your wrists. Ensure they are placed correctly on the bar.

Read Why Low Bar Squats Hurt Your Wrist

Shoulders

Shoulder pain in the low bar squat is usually caused by overly tight muscles around the shoulder joint. The biggest offenders are the pecs.

Take some time getting the shoulders loosened up before squatting.

Read Why Low Bar Squats Hurt Your Shoulders

Hips

Most hip pain will show up where the hip flexors cross the joint--the fronts of your hips. 

Try this: using only your bodyweight squat to your bottom position and pause. Do you feel hip pain? If so, drive your knees out wide. This is will alleviate that pain by stopping the tissues from pinching. 

Read Why Low Bar Squats Hurt Your Hips

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Additional Readings on Low Bar Squats

4 Reasons You Shouldn't Squat 
The 4 Components of a Perfect Low Bar Squat
Why Squats Won't Grow Your Butt
The BEST Exercise for Learning the Squat
7 Squat Cues That Suck

USEFUL LINKS

The Serious Guide to the Conventional Deadlift
The Serious Guide to the Bench Press
The Serious Guide to Nutrition
The Serious Guide to Core Training
The Serious Guide to Glute Training
The Seriously Strong YouTube Channel
The Seriously Strong Beginner Program
The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program
The Seriously Strong Advanced Program