As always please be sure to watch my YouTube video dissecting the high bar squat before continuing on here. The majority of our blog posts will be tied into the topics we discuss on YouTube & Instagram. Today we will be dissecting how to best program the high bar squat along with a more nuanced look at what adaptations the high bar squat trains. I will give you an exact breakdown of how we program high bar squatting into our clients training protocols.
In order to fully reap the rewards of the high bar squat we must understand why this lift is so beneficial which will in turn allow us to understand proper execution to match the benefits we are trying to obtain from this exercise. Although my video breaks down the high bar squat thoroughly in what adaptations it creates I want to mention a few more points here! This will allow you to understand WHY and HOW we program this lift the way we do at Prime.
Movement/muscle adaptations trained in the high bar squat
The high bar squat trains an upright squatting posture by emphasizing tension in the musculature responsible for remaining upright in the low bar squat. This is achieved via moment arm increases by placing the bar higher on the upper back than a low bar position requires. For those unaware of the term moment arm: Layman’s terms = the force demands of the functioning joints of the exercise. I.e the quads are the knee joint extensors which will increase in demand (moment arm) as you go deeper in the squat. Now the bar position change in a high bar squat increases the moment arm on 3 main joints the most, the hips (think glutes/adductors/mildly hamstrings), the knees (quads), and the thoracic spine (traps/rhomb./etc). Out of these 3 the Thoracic spine has the largest % moment arm increase when changing from low bar to high bar. The knees have the second largest. Therefore we can conclude that not only is a high bar squat more quad dominant but the upper back is taxed the most making the high bar squat a great trainer for staying upright and training the T-spine extensors/quads.
Your form matters for maximizing these adaptations
It’s highly worth noting if you just let the high bar bend you over and collapse your positioning out of the hole you will get VERY LITTLE positive adaptation both in regards to building muscle and strength carryover. Even if you aren’t a low bar squatter this is not an optimal way to squat. Due to the high technical proficiency required of a high bar squat most low bar squatters just don’t get much out of it. The reason being is when we fold over out of the hole of the squat a few things are happening.
When collapsing/tilting over in the squat the knees are receding (when viewing the squat from the side aka sagittal view). This means the quads are not increasing in demand but rather shifting concentric demand to the hip extensors & low back extensors (isometrically for low back). (isometric layman’s terms = holding muscles in a still contraction aka no contraction concentrically or eccentrically)
Your upper back (thoracic spine) is flexing which puts an active extension demand on the thoracic extensors. This is not how we want to squat in any position regardless of low or high bar. Instead of getting isometric rigidity adaptation we now are strengthening a flexion/extension ROM at the T-spine while squatting. That means we are training our body to improperly squat and it’s probably not the nicest feeling on the spine.
THIS IS WHY YOU MUST WATCH MY YOUTUBE VIDEO FIRST TO LEARN PROPER HIGH BAR POSITIONING/TECHNIQUE TO REAP THE REWARDS!
Now shut up and tell me how to program the damn high bar squat
The reason I had to explain all of this in detail is so you can understand how to properly program the high bar squat. There are a few scenarios most of you will commonly be in when looking to implement the high bar squat so I will give recommendations to each individual scenario.
First scenario: You suck at staying upright in any squat and are not versed in high bar squatting at all. Your probably have small quads too and can still fit into skinny jeans/women’s no stretch denim jeans. If this is you you’ll want to program high bar squats into your protocol:
1. Do them on a secondary squat day. If you are squatting 2x a week this means the lower priority squat day. Your primary squat day should most likely be a low bar squats or a close low bar variant. The other day you squat will be the secondary day and this is where you will put the high bar squats in your microcycle (training week). If you are squatting 3x per week this means the medium priority squat day, the tertiary day would be something of less importance in overall adaptation like a power day or far variant like SSB squats.
2. Do them for higher volume! I would say start a 8-12 week training cycle around 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps no higher than RPE 6 most days. The goal is work capacity, quad growth, upper back stability, and a ton of volume! Over the cycle you can taper reps down to about sets of 5-7! This will give you a ton of hypertrophy and work capacity in the early part of the cycle and some more strength in the later part of the cycle.
3. Focus on FORM! Don’t be afraid to even do a set or two submax below RPE 6. You will still get a TON of adaptation if your sets are 8-10 reps. The goal is to learn form and not push RPEs too high. Towards the end of the cycle you can take a set or two closer to failure but keep in mind the goal is not training near failure, save that for the heavy low bar days. Get the most out of this by limiting your RPEs to form focussed RPEs so to say. If form breaks down that means the muscles are too taxed to maintain the positions we are trying to strengthen.
Second scenario: You are proficient at high bar and can no longer fit skinny jeans. You still aren’t perfect in your low bar squat but can decently high bar with moderate to light weights in an upright posture. AKA you are an intermediate.
You definitely want more strength adaptations on high bar than the beginner, this means we can add in some top sets instead of just straight sets. Again use a secondary squat day (read above if you skipped)! Now instead of just straight sets of 8-10 to start a training cycle lets add a heavier top set in. To start a cycle on your high bar day maybe have a top set of 5-6 at a progressive RPE from week to week. This means beginning of a 4 week training block start around RPE 5-6ish. Then by the end of the block finish around rpe 7-8ish. The stronger you are the lower the RPE you will need on these top sets so you don’t mess up recovery. After your top set do some back down sets, 2-3 sets of 7-10 reps will suffice. Just like above taper the reps down throughout the training cycle. Towards the end you can hit sets of 3-5 for top sets and have back off sets around 5-7 reps.
Still focus on form, the whole idea is to strengthen an UPRIGHT POSITION. Don’t get greedy and allow sloppy form. Cap the RPEs also by form strength rather than all out maximal strength.
Third scenario: You got some fat quads and already have a great low bar squat that always remains upright. Brendan would be highly impressed by your squat form and use you on his youtube channel as a high bar demo.
This is where we get fancy. You can use the second scenario tactics but instead of having a high bar squat top set you can instead have a low bar (competition style squat) top set and then high bar squat sets for backdowns. The goal here is more so comp specific practice and high bar volume to maintain positive adaptations. This is also beneficial for very strong lifters who get too beat up from too much low bar work. I would do this exactly the same as outlined above in scenario two the only difference being the top set will be low bar instead of high bar. Keep the backdowns to RPE 7 or less, any higher and they will be too taxing, even going mostly rpe 6/sub 6 will be beneficial at your advancement levels.
You can also do this on your primary day. I like heavier sets of high bar after a top set of low bar on the primary day where we usually go heaviest. This allows for some heavy volume work on high bar of sets of 3-5 which I used going into my last meet. Again my top sets were low bar but my strength volume work on my primary squat day was done with a high bar position. In fact more than 70% of my volume in the squat came from high bar when I squatted 622lbs in competition.
Fourth scenario: Now for all of the folks out there who use high bar in competition (or just main squatting style if you don’t compete) I can advise you on how to program high bar as well. The goal here is to ensure you learn to squat more upright in your high bar position as I am assuming if you are reading this you aren’t the most technically proficient yet.
Squat 2x per week. Have one high bar day and one paused high bar day. The high bar squats should be on the primary day (heavier day) and the pause squats on the lighter higher volume day. Skew the reps by at least 2 on each day meaning if you are using 4’s on the heavier day do at least sets of 6 on the paused day. Yes sets of 6 paused. The reason being you are probably lacking work capacity and hypertrophy if you are having a hard time staying upright. We need some bigger quads and resiliency of the muscles to resist the flexion tension the high bar squat places on your spine/knees/hips. The best way to practice staying upright is by pausing and the best way to grow some legs is by getting a crap ton of tension in them. Have some back down lighter sets of higher reps on both days too.
Over the cycle you can reduce the reps down on both days as with all training cycles. Maybe start the training cycle at sets of 4s/6s on each day and work down to 1s/3s on the top sets. Obviously you can have backdown work where you’re doing more than sets of 1-3 reps but I am mainly referring to the top sets.
I’d say about 7-10 sets of direct squat work per week along with some quad volume on a belt squat or hack squat will do for maximum gains!
For those of you who don’t have the attention span of a gold fish, there are a few things worth noting in closing.
1. I write these free blogs for you. I love teaching so thanks for actually reading all the way through.
2. Don’t over think it. More than anything get the form down! Listen to these guidelines loosely. If you can get your technique to how I demonstrated in the YouTube video that’s 70% of the battle. The programming side is important but the technique is where the high bar squat thrives. Without that you cannot get any good strength adaptation from it (at least the kind for advanced squatting patterns) and you also will just have small quads. Focus on form above all else.
3. If I had to choose to do all of my training high bar and then switch to low bar in competition or do all of my squatting low bar i’d still opt to do high bar in training! It is that valuable. Like I said I did 70% of my squatting volume with a high bar position leading up to my best meet so far. It is amazing when done correctly.
4. Your skew between low bar and high bar should be small, mine is about 3.5% however I am very advanced. Most will suffice with a 5-7% skew, aim to get to that discrepancy between your low bar and high bar squat.
5. If you ever get them almost neck and neck you might actually be built more for high bar, this happens sometimes. Bryce Lewis is a great example of a high bar squatter more built for that than low bar. Coach Andrew from here at Prime is another example! Don’t be fooled into thinking low bar is for everyone. For most it will be but for some it may not be.
Aight peace out bye see ya l8er my hands hurt from typing, subscribe to our mailing list! Soon we will be mailing all of these out regularly as well as a ton of informative content!