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Is There a Best Way to Squat?

A question that comes up quite often is whether there is a best way to squat.  The answer, as usual is that it depends on context.   One issue is how the trainee is built but, as importantly, their actual goal plays a huge role.

Types of Squats

If you ask someone what the best way to squat is, invariably their answer will be: the type of squat I choose to do, like to do, am built for.  There’s a lot of proximity bias here and people think the best way to squat is the way they do it.  If only it were that simple.

While I’m sure you can find people with more lists, there are generally considered to be three primary “types” of squats:

  1. High-bar/Olympic squat
  2. Generic Power Squat
  3. Geared powerlifting squat

The Olympic/High-Bar Squat

The high-bar/Olympic squat is done with the bar held high on the traps and the goal is generally to keep the torso as vertical as possible; this is usually facilitated by wearing shoes with a slight “heel” on them as this lets the lifter get the knees further forward.     This keeps the torso more upright.  This is good for Olympic lifting since it’s closer to the mechanics of the clean recovery.   A heel is also good for trainees with bad levers for squatting who get bent over too much.

The focus of an Olympic/High-bar squat is more on sitting “down” rather than “back”.  It’s critical to push the knees way out and squat ‘between the knees’ (as Dan John puts it so simply).   A slightly narrower stance is also usually used (as this tends to have more carryover to pulling and the jerk in Olympic lifting).  Shoulder width would be fairly common here.

Olympic lifters use this as a general leg strengthener as well as to strengthen the muscles used in the Olympic lifts.  Generally, lifters using this type of squat aim for maximum depth (often called ass to grass or ATG).  Once again this is to strengthen the ever critical recovery in the clean and jerk.

Bodybuilders commonly squat high bar although they may use a narrower stance and stop parallel.  The goal here is generally to emphasize the quadriceps while limiting glute involvement.

Here’s an example of an Olympic style/high-bar squat.

The Generic Power Squat

The second type of squat is what I call the generic power squat.   The bar is held lower on the shoulders in this still, usually at the top of the rear delts.  While there is still a down component of the movement, there is also a greater tendency to sit back.

Due to the difference in squatting style, the torso will always be angled further compared to a high-bar squat.  This will put more stress on the low back.  There also tends to be more glute involvement due to the increased angle at the hip.

A generally wider stance, perhaps shoulder width would be common here and depth will generally stop just below parallel. This allows for heavier poundages to be used than in an Olympic style squat and this technique is appropriate for raw powerlifting competitions.

The following video shows a fairly generic “power” squat.

The Geared Powerlifting Squat

Quick note, I’m not a gear guy.  I’ve had one lifter use a light shirt and this isn’t my area of expertise.  So take my comments with that caveat.

As the name suggests, the geared powerlifting squat is used for geared powerlifting federations.  Frankly, technique here can vary massively depending on the federation, the depth required, whether or not a monolift is being used, etc.

You will see anything from a squat that looks almost like a high-bar squat (in IPF competition) to insanely wide stance squats in federations that use a monolift and pass bullshit (because it’s impossible to get below parallel with a super wide stance).

The focus is generally more on squatting back than down but, again, there is huge variance here. Unless you’re planning on competing in a geared powerlifting federation, this probably isn’t relevant to you.  You can go Youtube videos and you’ll see all kinds of different techniques, again depending on the gear and federation and what’s being passed as a squat so I won’t try to post a singular example up.

Other Aspects of Proper Squatting

Outside of the general types of squats, there are endless other details and debates.  People will argue about head position, how much torso lean should occur or is optimal, whether you should break at the knees or the hips first, etc.

All techniques have their pros and cons and there are always trade-offs in techniques and you will see top competitors doing all kinds of different stuff along with differences in “style” between two people doing the same ‘type’ of squat.  I doubt this really answers your question but short of writing a lot more, that’s the best answer I can give you.

Is There a Best Way to Squat?

So is there a best way to squat.  It’s a question with no answer.  For the average trainee I’d generally trend towards the generic power squat as it gives the best balance in terms of musculature used and poundages lift (the geared extreme powerlifting squat is for competitive geared powerlifters).

A high-bar/Olympic squat can also be appropriate.  A lot would depend on the mechanics, build and goal of the lifter.  To really do a proper high-bar squat generally requires Olympic lifting shoes, or at least shoes with a heel.  Luckily these are a lot easier to get and more affordable than they used to be.  I’d note that even for a generic power squat, many benefit from a heel.  Especially if they have long femurs since it will put them in a more upright position and take the stress off of their low back.  In some cases, they should just abandon the squat for the leg press.

If you want to get more information about squatting than you ever hoped for, I’d refer you to Boris Bachmann’s Squat RX blog and video series.  There’s some excellent stuff there and I wish he got more exposure than he does.

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14 thoughts on “Is There a Best Way to Squat?

  1. Thanks for this Q&A, Lyle. I’m trying to fix the exact tendency you describe (‘butt tuck’). Pretty sure My hamstrings are to blame for this one. If I’m standing completely vertically, I can’t bend forward with my legs still straight and touch my toes…

  2. Brilliant article!

    I used to perform a high-bar squat. Found my knees would click when doing them. Got knee pain eventually. Some massive guy told me not to let my knees go over my toes… Rebuilt my squat to a generic PL style. Along the way I read a lot of different (conflicting) advice. Even got a bio-kinetics textbook (which didn’t mention the knees over toes!). In the end, there is no secret ingredient.

  3. @Ryan

    I have had the same experience as you on high-bar squats, to the point to where my knees were hurting on warm-up sets.

    Nice article, Lyle. For my next training cycle I will be moving back from Leg Press to BB Squats, so this is a great refresher.

    You mentioned that bodybuilders usually stay above parallel when performing a high-bar squat. What is the physiological advantage to this? My first reaction was that it was to save the knees, but wouldn’t decreasing ROM also inhibit recruitment of muscle fibers?

    Thanks Lyle.

  4. Thanks for the good article……what a relief to know that there is no ‘real’ answer to the question……its been driving me crazy for a year now! From now on I will squat the way i do because I can, not because some ‘expert’ said that that was the way to do it THANKS for the freedom

  5. Nice article…PS your RSS feed does not work properly…

  6. Best one is the one you can safely perform and progress on.

  7. First of all, Lyle thanks for the article. In my opinion, there is an answer: it depends on what is the purpose of your squatting. The low bar version uses more muscle mass, and I think is better for overall strength, while the high bar is more appropriate for people who are concerned about aesthetics – they give more work to be done by the quads, and less from the hamstrings and glutes and abductors which the low bar uses more.

  8. Thanks for this info as this has settled my mind at last, so much crap on the internet you get bogged down with who to believe. I know this is a good source so i can crack on and just Squat!
    Many thanks

  9. I don’t think it was Rippetoe who coined the term “butt wink”. Last time I checked Rip hates that term.

  10. @Alec

    I believe Bodybuilders use half-squats so they can use more weight, which in turn is often considered a requirement to stimulate more muscle growth. It’s pretty debatable in my opinion. I would consider it only as a “once in a while” stimulus, but not a regular practice.

    I don’t think it’s particularly Knee sparing either. Forcing your knee joints to stop at the middle point of their range of motion, does not really seem particularly “safer”. Though it’s probably true that with the weight they use, going for a deep squat would probably end in very poor over-all technique, which could wreck the knees and back – thus you could consider it “safer” from that angle.

    So if you want to push some additional weight stimulus on your quads, while avoiding excess stress on the lower back and knees – you might want to try some parallel or Box squats every now and again. – But personally I wouldn’t use them as a regular exercise for my main development.

    – And Lyle – Great article as always.

    I just watched some Rippetoe videos and he’s a pretty big advocate of the Low-bar squat, and advises just about everyone to do that, instead of any High-bar stuff.

    His line of thought is that a low-bar squat more accurately reflects the posture and muscle utilization of the Olympic Lifts. Thus it makes little sense for anyone to use High-Bar.

  11. Lyle,

    This is one of those down-the-rabbit-hole topics since it’s so much about personal preference. I mainly stick with the power squat, which is what I’ve first started with and am used to, and I’ve also experienced similar knee issues as mentioned above with the high-bar squat. I’m very protective of my knees because I’ve seen my father go through several operations on each one of his. A little bit of precaution does go a long way.


  12. How does one overcome the extremely long femur/short torso problem when squatting to parallel or below?

  13. I see a lot of people complaining about knee problems when doing the high-bar squat.

    But would it not be possible to avoid the pain if you progressed slowly and carefully in the high bar squat, even someone with a history of patellar tendon problems like should be able to do it safely as long as the progression is slow right?

    I reckon this only applies if we assume that the knee pain people are complaining about is coming from too much stress, too early on the knee.

  14. I always had lower back pain whilst squatting high bar. I joined a new gym which happened to have mirrors to my side and low and behold I saw my butt wink was phenomenol!!. I squat parallel now so less butt winking. (very tight hip flexor too)

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