How To Properly Perform the High Bar Back Squat

Joseph Rosi
April 10, 2021

Let’s walk through how to perform the high bar back squat with perfect technique.  The squat is often called the king of the lifts and for a good reason. Before we look at the actual exercise, let’s review the muscles that we will be targeting throughout the lift.  

Muscles Used in the High Bar Back Squat

With the squat we will be targeting hip extension and knee extension. The hips will extend to lift you up from the bottom of the hole position, which will primarily be done via the glute max and to a smaller component, the adductor magnus as it plays a role in hip extension with the squat. The quads will be the primary component of knee extension. Other muscles will consist of the spinal erectors, gluteus medius, deep abdominals for bracing as well as the gastroc and soleus complex.

What is the Difference Between the Low Bar and High Bar Back Squat?

When taking a look at the main difference between the high bar and low bar squats, other than the bar placement, the high bar creates greater stress on the low back via shear forces in the lower lumbar spinal discs relative to the low bar. Therefore lifters are typically able to perform the low bar lift with more weight.  In addition, we see the high bar squat is more quad dominant.

How to Train the High Bar Back Squat

The squat is composed of mostly big muscle groups, making it very conducive to progressive overloads and should be trained with relatively heavy weight between 3 – 8 reps. Although there are exceptions to this rule, just note we typically see compensations in technique as well as decreased muscle activation with lower loads for higher reps.

How to Properly Perform the High Bar Back Squat

Let’s take a look at what perfect technique should look like. For a visual walkthrough go to the youtube video at the top of this post.

Set Up of the High Bar Back Squat

When walking up to the rack for the first lift, we want to position the bar in the rack so it is just above the nipple line. This will allow you to safely walk in/ out of the rack without hitting the J-hooks.

As you unrack the bar, you’ll want to place the bar on the meatiest part of the traps by squeezing the shoulder blades together. This is done by bringing our hands as close to our shoulders as possible. Another benefit to having our hands closer is you will have better control of the bar.

When looking from the side, it is easier to see the elbow and hand/ wrist position. The angle of the elbow should be pointing down.  We also want the wrist in a neutral position, which is in slight extension. This allows good contact with the bar without excessively stressing the wrist as it will take some of the load. 

The cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine should all remain neutral throughout the entire lift.  The pelvis should be in pelvic neutral prior to the start of the lift for proper bracing.  This will set the spine in a neutral position and provide maximal stability.

As we continue down we should see the hips and knees in full extension with the bar over the midfoot. 

When looking at the foot either from behind or in front, we should see the heels at shoulder width apart and toe out angle which is equivalent to the sacral angle or your natural toe out angle.  

Now that you have the set up, we are going to separate the squat into 3 distinct phases: 

  1. Descent
  2. Transition
  3. Ascent

Descent of the High Bar Back Squat

After assuming you are in a good starting position, you should begin the descent by unlocking your hips and pushing them backwards allowing the knees to remain in line with the middle toe of the foot while having the bar continue in a straight down position over the midfoot.  

This allows the knee joint to be the axis of rotation, where little to no movement should occur here in an anterior or posterior direction and allow movement to occur only around that joint. 

As the hips sit back the glutes, adductor magnus, and quads all eccentric load to help you absorb energy as well as protect their respective joints.  

As the hips come back, we should see the spine angled forward via a bend in the hips.  This is completely fine and will not cause any excess stress as the entire spine should remain in a neutral position through the entirety of the lift.  

When in the bottom of the hole, we want to make sure we still have a tripod stance throughout the foot where there is equal pressure over the heel, great toe, and pinkie toe creating optimal foot stability.  

Transition of the High Bar Back Squat

As we approach the second phase of the lift or the bottom of the hole we should start to see a few things line up. Most notably the angle of the torso should be parallel to the angle of the shins as well as the top of the thigh parallel to the ground. The knees should be tracking over the middle toe of the foot and we should remain in a tripod stance on the foot.  

This phase occurs only a moment in time until moving onto the final component or the ascent out of the hole. 

Ascent of the High Bar Back Squat

The first thing you should do is extend your hip in which your hip will move straight up.  The knee will remain the axis of rotation in which the hip joint will move around the knee as the glutes and adductor magnus extend the hip. The knee will actually extend secondary to the hip extension.

The spine should remain neutral throughout the ascent and you should see the hips finish the lift by tucking under the bar and bringing you back to the starting position.

Common Compensations and Technique Errors

Now that we know what perfect technique should look like let’s break down some common technique errors and compensations we will see starting from the top. 

One of the most common mistakes I will see all stem from incorrect set up with the bar on the shoulders.  Typically it will go like this:  The athlete shrugs their shoulders to create stability in their upper back rather than squeezing them together.  This will draw the scapula or shoulder blade into an anterior position or forward tipping creating more stress on the front of the shoulder.  

With limited or decreased ROM of the shoulder, you typically find the athlete using a wider grip.  The athlete will typically hyper-extend the wrists to have better contact with the bar and extend the shoulders to create a false sense of stability since it is lacking from the shoulder blades.  This is when we see the elbows are much too high for the back squat position.  

Once in this set up position, many athletes will continue to create compensations throughout the remainder of the lift.  Before descending into the squat, many athletes who don’t feel “secure” will hyper-extend some or all parts of the spine to increase or create tension.  This is seen by looking up, or exaggerating their hips out. 

Another common compensation you will see is the hips shooting up in the air or muted hips where the legs drive forward to increase tension on the quads to push you up rather than lift you up.  

Finally, one of the easier and most common compensation is the knee valgus where the knees come inside the feet when standing from a weakness in the hips.  

These are definitely not the only compensations that an athlete can demonstrate, but some of the most common ones I see when working with lifters.  

Bonus Tip

One last note to leave you with…recording yourself or your athletes allows you to watch the movements later and gives you the ability to slow the movement down to really hone in on the technique. Sometimes it is challenging to see things at full speed and they become very apparent when slowed down.

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