The Serious Guide on How to Low Bar Squat

Legs 25 min Read

Written by

Keith Hansen

Here it is.

Low bar squats are our specialty.

No one teaches it like we do. 

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

This guide covers techniques, programs, equipment, variations, and links to more in-depth articles on each subject.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Benefits & Uses

Equipment

Technique

General Strength Programs

Squat Focused Programs

Squat Variations

Accessory Work

Why Low Bar Squats Hurt Your _______

Additional Readings on Low Bar Squats

Useful Links

BENEFITS & USES

A Brief History

Humans have been squatting since before there were humans.

The next question is, “How long have we been low bar squatting?” 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 squat version 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 a greater hip load. Naturally, this means more hamstring & glute development, but it doesn’t stop there. Every muscle of the thigh is engaged entirely 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.

The low bar squat allows you to move more weight because of its enormous muscle recruitment, and recruited muscles grow.

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EQUIPMENT

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. In addition, 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. Setting the safeties is not a suggestion. It is a requirement to keep you safe.

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 suitable 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 load away from the hip (toward the knee).

Weightlifting Belts are the next thing to purchase. These vary significantly 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 buy your next PRs with a good belt. 

Additional reading:

What weightlifting belt should you buy?

When should you wear a weightlifting belt?

What does a weightlifting belt do?

Wrist Wraps are helpful 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 of 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 help warm 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 pain. If you feel your knees are stiff, then sleeves might be helpful.

Knee Wraps are a huge step up from knee sleeves. Knee wraps are like wrist wraps in that they provide a lot of pressure around the knee. Knee wraps are very tight, so the knee is difficult to bend. This equipment will allow you to squat more weight, so some powerlifting federations do not allow their use. I do not recommend using knee wraps until you have at least a 2x bodyweight squat. Knee wraps will enable you to overload the movement, so you need great form before pushing it heavier. There are many ways to wrap a knee. The video below shows a simple technique I use.

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TECHNIQUE

The technique section is two topics.

The first topic is “Setup” and covers how to grip the bar, where to place it, the correct foot stance, and how to set up the rack effectively.

The second topic is “Action,” which explains how to perform your squat. The videos below are helpful because some things are easiest to understand when you see them.

Setup

Rack Height

The rack height is the first thing you set up when preparing to low bar squat. A good height is 2″ below the top of your squat when in the correct stance. When appropriately set, 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. However, it isn’t set correctly if you have to go on your tiptoes or squat more than a few inches to get the bar in/out of the rack. See the video below for a proper rack height.

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 place them too low on the first warm-up set and raise them a little each set until you have found optimal depth.

It would help if you wrote 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 bar’s weight to the safeties, they are too low. Watch the video below to set the safeties properly.

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

Grip

Grip in the low bar squat is highly variable. However, you will most likely 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, which is necessary for progressively heavier sets.

Ensure that your wrists are engaged and there is pressure on the bar through your palms. If your wrist is relaxed back, you will probably experience wrist pain. Watch the video below to get your perfect grip.

Placement

The barbell should rest atop the rear delts & just below the upper trap in a valley formed when the shoulders are set. Watch the video below to know exactly where to place the bar.

Stance

Your 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

Watch the video below on where to place your feet.

Action

Now it’s time to squat. Watch the video below to see a low bar squat.

Exiting the Rack

After setting your body correctly, 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 without fully extending your knee/hips. You should always be short of lockout for maximum control. First, step your non-dominant leg back a few inches. Next, 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 executed correctly, your bar path will be perfectly vertical.

Descending into the Squat

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)

Reaching the Bottom

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 right.

 

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.

Those things lead to a vertical bar path & a great low bar squat.

Ascending to the Top

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

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

Returning to the Rack

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, the j-hooks were not set correctly. 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 precisely 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.

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 many squats and answers with massively strong legs.

Congratulations. Every day is leg day.

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 you must give it everything on a squat day. 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. You will love the Seriously Strong Advanced Program if you’ve completed the first two programs.

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Squat Focused Programs

Smolov/Smolov Jr.

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

I haven’t done the complete 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 complete Smolov program, but the minimum 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 three squat workouts per week, so you progress 15lbs per week & 60lbs per month.

The first 2 to 3 workouts will be tough as you adjust to the high volume set. After that, 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 helpful if you video each set and review them. You are looking for the solid position I outlined above and zero movement in the hole for the duration of your pause.

Paused low bar squats help fix 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

This variation aims to eliminate the stretch reflex at the bottom of your squat. Box squats significantly increase the difficulty of the low bar squat and help fix your transition to the ascent.

Box squats are a more taxing variation than chain suspended low bar squats but help 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 a 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.

The real use for accessory work is to get your low bar squat to that point.

Accessory work brings lagging muscles up to speed and helps work around injuries/overworked muscles/joints.

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

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. Squatting too low manifests as a loss of extension in the low back (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. When the bar moves in front of your balance point (the midfoot) it causes a significant increase in 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

Wrist pain comes from 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 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 test: using only your bodyweight, squat to your bottom position, and pause. Do you feel hip pain? If so, drive your knees out wide. Wide knees 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

Keith Hansen

Keith was an All-State wrestler in high school and in 2007 hung up his singlet to attend Florida State University to pursue a B.S. in business management. He wasn't sure what industry he wanted to be involved in at the time, but soon realized after graduating in 2011 that fitness was the ever-constant activity in his life. Keith began studying to become a personal trainer and in 2013 earned the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Personal Trainer certification. After a short stint as a big box gym trainer he realized he wanted to bring something different to Tallahassee. Keith competes in Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and Crossfit.