Everything You Need to Know About 5 Barbell Squat Variations

Master these five barbell Squat variations to build lower-body strength and power.

A strength training program is not complete without the Squat. It's called the "king of all exercises" for a reason.

The Squat works the powerful lower-body muscles, primarily your glutes and quads. However, your hamstrings, lower back, abs and even part of your calves play a role. Since, depending on the variation of the exercise you perform, the load is supported by your torso in some way, it really becomes a full-body effort to execute a perfect Squat.

In this article, we focus on 5 barbell squat variations—the kinds of Squats that allow you to add the most strength, size and power. Typically, the Back Squat gets all the love. But we break down each variation so you'll learn the differences among them.

WATCH: Learn How to Squat Properly With This Exercise

1. Front Squat

Front Squat

The Front Squat is often thought of as an advanced version of the Squat. You don't see as many people doing it, and you can't lift as much weight as you can with the Back Squat. But the Front Squat is one of the most effective and safest ways to learn how to Squat properly, especially when you load up with heavy weight.

"The Front Squat is my base squatting exercise for the athletes I work with," says Brandon McGill, sports performance director for STACK Sports Performance Training. "When an athlete comes to the gym, I have them Front Squat first, not Back Squat."

In the Front Squat, the bar sits comfortably across your shoulders. This loads your torso anteriorly (i.e., on the front of your body), which pulls your body forward. To counteract this, you need to engage your core, keep an upright torso and sit back—all critical Squat form cues. If you don't do these things, the bar will roll forward off your shoulders.

"These important cues in the Front Squat reinforce a lot of the qualities that will actually make for a better Back Squat," says McGill.

Due to the position of the load and the upright torso technique, your quads are much more active in the Front Squat than in Back Squat variations. Also, it requires a large degree of mobility in your shoulders and lats, which McGill says are important for athletes across the board.

The Front Squat is also a relatively safe exercise. Less stress is placed on the lower back because, again, your torso is more upright throughout the exercise. Also, if you fail a rep, you can dump the weight easily, unlike with the Back Squat. If you set the rack pins just below where the bar travels at the lowest point in your Squat, you can dump the weight without anyone even noticing.

But just because it's a great move to learn how to Squat doesn't make it exclusively a beginner exercise. It's a great move to load up with heavy weight to build lower-body strength.

How To:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and angled slightly outward.

  2. Position the bar across the front of your shoulders using a clean grip with your fingers under the bar and your elbows forward. Your hands should help keep the bar in position but shouldn't support the weight.

  3. Keeping your back straight, core tight and chest up, sit your hips back to lower into the Squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. As you lower, push your knees out to keep them in line with your knees and ankles.

  4. Drive through your hips to stand up out of the Squat. Your weight should be on your heels and midfoot through the exercise.

  5. Fully extend your hips at the top of each rep.

2. Zercher Squat

Zercher Squat

The Zercher Squat confers benefits similar to the Front Squat. Again, the weight is anteriorly loaded, so it will pull you forward, forcing you to use proper squat technique. The position of the weight is lower, closer to your core, so the challenge is a bit different from that of the Front Squat.

According to McGill, one of the great benefits of Zercher Squats is that you don't hold the bar with your hands. If you have an upper-body injury, you can usually keep training your lower body with Zercher Squats.

However, don't expect to use quite as much weight as with other Squat variations, since the weight is held in the crook of your elbow and not supported by your torso.

RELATED: Beware of This Zercher Squat Fail

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and angled slightly outward.

  2. Position the bar across the crook of your elbows held tightly to your torso. Place a pad or towel under the bar to reduce the pressure on your elbows if needed.

  3. Keeping your back straight, core tight and chest up, sit your hips back to lower into the Squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. As you lower, push your knees out to keep them in line with your knees and ankles.

  4. Drive through your hips to stand up out of the Squat. Your weight should be on your heels and midfoot through the exercise.

  5. Fully extend your hips at the top of each rep.

3. High Bar Back Squat

High Bar Back Squat

The High Bar Back Squat is the variation you see performed most frequently when you walk through a gym. In this variation, the barbell rests across your upper traps on the back of your shoulders, sitting on the collar of your shirt.

McGill explains that high bar position allows you to maintain a relatively upright torso throughout the exercise. You won't be as upright as when you do the Front Squat, but not as bent over as when you use the low bar position (see below). This shifts some of the work away from your glutes to your quads, but not as much as the Front Squat due to the intermediate torso position. You're able to squat a very heavy weight, but not quite as much when you use the low bar position.

Although common, this is considered a progression from the Front Squat, because it doesn't inherently teach proper squat form. It's important to master the fundamental techniques before placing a heavy load on your back.

If your hip hinge technique is good but not perfect, you can still perform the high bar version thanks to maintaining an upright torso. However, if your technique is poor, it can put a ton of stress on your lower back. Also, sometimes athletes complain that the bar placement is uncomfortable.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and angled slightly outward.

  2. Position the bar across your upper traps. Hold the bar with your hands a few inches outside your shoulders or as far out as the collars of the bar, depending on your preference.

  3. Keeping your back straight, core tight and chest up, sit your hips back to lower into the Squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. As you lower, push your knees out to keep them in line with your knees and ankles.

  4. Drive through your hips to stand up out of the Squat. Your weight should be on your heels and midfoot through the exercise.

  5. Fully extend your hips at the top of each rep.

4. Low Bar Back Squat

Low Bar Back Squat

In the Low Bar Back Squat, the bar sits 2 to 3 inches below the high bar position, between your rear delts and upper traps. You essentially create a shelf for the bar to sit on with your muscles.

The lower bar position alters the center of gravity of the exercise, which changes the technique. To keep the bar over your center of mass, your torso must lean forward at about a 45-degree angle instead of maintaining the upright position of the high bar  variation.

This requires excellent hip hinge technique, meaning you can bend at your waist through a full range of motion without moving through your lumbar spine. "If you don't have a solid hip hinge pattern, you're going to hinge in your lumbar spine," says McGill. "You could lose your balance, and it puts more stress on your lumbar spine."

Since your glutes do most of the work, the low bar position allows you to lift more weight than the other squat variations—which is why this version is used by powerlifters.

Should you choose this over the high bar version? It really depends. If you like the low bar version and it's comfortable for you, go right ahead.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and angled slightly outward.

  2. Position the bar on your back across the back of your shoulders. Hold the bar with your hands a few inches outside your shoulders or as far out as the collars of the bar, depending on your preference.

  3. Keeping your back straight and core tight, sit your hips back to lower into the Squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. As you lower, push your knees out to keep them in line with your knees and ankles. Your torso will bend forward, but don't exceed a 45-degree angle.

  4. Drive through your hips to stand up out of the Squat. Your weight should be on your heels and midfoot through the exercise.

  5. Fully extend your hips at the top of each rep.

5. Overhead Squat

Overhead Squat

You don't see the Overhead Squat performed very often in a gym. Why? Because it's super tough. Try it with just a bar and you'll see how challenging it is.

However, this doesn't make it a bad exercise. In fact, it's one of the best moves for increasing overall athleticism.

"If I have an athlete who really needs help establishing mobility and stability and reinforcing functional movement patterns, the Overhead Squat is a critical exercise," McGill says. "It works on shoulder range of motion, shoulder stability, lumbar stability, hip mobility and ankle mobility, while building strength."

Everything McGill refers to are critical attributes for athletes.

You can use this as a strengthening exercise if you desire. But don't go too heavy too fast (this advice applies to any exercise). It's extremely difficult to hold the weight overhead in the squat position, and you might need to work on your mobility to do the exercise correctly.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and angled slightly outward.

  2. Hold the bar overhead with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  3. Keeping your back straight and core tight, sit your hips back to lower into the Squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground. As you lower, push your knees out to keep them in line with your knees and ankles.

  4. Try to keep your torso upright and the barbell directly in line with your feet.

  5. Drive through your hips to stand up out of the Squat. Your weight should be on your heels and midfoot through the exercise.

  6. Fully extend your hips at the top of each rep.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: SQUAT | EXERCISES