Let's talk about how to squat! We're also going to show you how different variations of the squat can alter muscle activation. While there are many squat variations, the main 3 types we'll cover are: high bar squat, low bar squat and front squat.
Why should you practice squatting?
The squat is a fundamental movement pattern for participation in essential activities of daily living such as sitting, lifting and most sporting activities. The squat is also one of the most frequently used exercises in the field of strength and conditioning, and can be implemented into many individuals' rehabilitation programs to enhance performance and build injury resilience. A basic squat can be used by your physiotherapist as a screening tool to help identify any biomechanical deficits that may hinder your optimal movement patterns therefore compromising movement and your injury resilience. Analysing a squat helps to assess an individual’s neuromuscular control, strength, stability and mobility within the entire kinetic chain.
Firstly, it is important to have an understanding of why you would choose a particular squat variation over another. Adjustments such as placement of the barbell during a squat affect the joint angles that are involved and therefore have a greater influence on how force is applied to different musculature in regions such as the back, legs, and hips.
High Bar Squat
This variation is the most common as it is often found to be more comfortable for most individuals and is relatively easy to learn when compared to other squat techniques. The high bar squat as pictured below is when the barbell is positioned over the upper traps and the individual remains as vertical as possible throughout the lift.
A 2020 study by Van Den Tillaar, Knutli, & Larsen found that this change in positioning of the bar increased the activation of the knee extensors (quadriceps) when compared against the low back squat which is discussed in the next section of this blog. Although this variation of the squat will not allow you to use as much weight as other variations such as the low bar squat, you will be able to perform this lift with a much greater range of motion and reap the benefits from going deeper in your squats along with greater quad activation.
Low Bar Squat
The low bar squat as pictured above is when the barbell is positioned over the back of your shoulders rather than your traps. Using this variation, a wider grip on the barbell is used and a further forward lean in your upper body when squatting is used to ensure the weight is positioned over your mid foot throughout the lift.
This variation is often used by powerlifters in competitions and is recommended when the main objective is to lift as heavy as possible. A 2019 study found that when comparing higher loads such as the 1-repetition max, the low bar squat could lift 6.1% to 6.9% extra weight. This is due to the shorter moment arms throughout the movement along with placing the hamstrings, glutes and adductor muscles in more biomechanically advantageous positions which could ultimately lead to an increase in hypertrophy for these muscles.
A study found a higher peak force was produced in the hip joint with a low bar squat when compared to weightlifters performing high bar squats, however the high bar squat group produced higher forces within the knee joint. With all this being said, the low bar squat may be best suited to you if you are trying to target your posterior chain such the lower back, glutes and hamstrings or if your aim is to lift as heavy as possible.
The front squat is a very common lift among Olympic weightlifters as this movement has a carryover to other lifts they perform within their sport such as the power clean and snatch. The front squat requires a significantly more upright posture along with an increased requirement for mobility around the shoulder, upper back and wrists as seen in the below image.
So why would you use a front squat variation if you're not an Olympic lifter? Well, the good news is that there are still some benefits to this squat even if you aren’t performing Olympic lifts! Current studies show that the front squat is able to achieve similar muscle activation to a traditional back squat with lighter loads therefore reducing compressive forces through your joints and potentially being considered for injury prevention long term. However, it is important to consider that this technique does require an increased amount of mobility as mentioned above, The next image shows the various ways in which this squat can be loaded.
How to perform a basic squat:
Firstly, to perform a bodyweight squat, your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder width apart with your hands up in front. Your weight should be evenly distributed across your foot throughout the lift. Your head should be looking directly forward before you begin. Take a deep breath in and brace your core before you descend. You should attempt to break at the knees and hips at the same time, ensure your knees are tracking over your second toe throughout the lift to ensure adequate glute activation (see the image below for example).
Keep your chest up and descend into the bottom position of the squat whilst maintaining that tension. A good depth to aim for is when your hip socket is in line with your knee as seen in the “good” image above. Begin to ascend back to the original starting position by pushing the floor away extending your hips and knees. See this video for a demonstration on how to perform the bodyweight squat.
For all the above variations and techniques, it is recommended you visit a movement specialist for specific advice and technique breakdown, to ensure the safest possible lifting technique while minimising risk of injuries.
If you have any further questions on which squat variation is best suited to you or your needs, please consult your trusted personal trainer or give us a call on 3061 7128.
Blog and videos by UQ Physiotherapy student undertaking clinical placement, supervised by principal physiotherapist, Winnie Lu.
Souths United Football Club Physiotherapist
Bautista, D., Durke, D., Cotter, J. A., Escobar, K. A., & Schick, E. E. (2020). A Comparison of Muscle Activation Among the Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Back Extension and Plank. International journal of exercise science, 13(1), 714-722. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32509107
Gullett, J., Tillman, M., Gutierrez, G., & Chow, J. (2008). A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 23, 284-292. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res, 23(1), 284-292. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
Neto, W., Soares, E., Vieira, T., Aguiar, R., Chola, T., Sampaio, V., & Gama, E. (2020). Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. Journal of sports science & medicine, 19, 195-203.
van den Tillaar, R., Knutli, T. R., & Larsen, S. (2020). The Effects of Barbell Placement on Kinematics and Muscle Activation Around the Sticking Region in Squats. Frontiers in sports and active living, 2(172). doi:10.3389/fspor.2020.604177