Musings on the High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Debate

Though, in fairness, to call it a debate is perhaps inaccurate.  It’s a small camp on one side, that I believe has analysis in its favor, and almost everyone else on the other side, appealing to history and authority.

This came to my mind today since I was discussing Lu Xiaojun’s record breaking snatch and total at yesterday’s Weightlifting World Championships with a friend this morning.

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(This is Lu snatching, but not his new 176 kg world record from yesterday)

The friend commented that afterwards, he made a comment on facebook deriding Rippetoe’s preference for the low bar back squat (LBBS) for olympic lifters, because Xiaojun high bar back squats (HBBS) 616 lbs / 280 kg (according to my friend), and obviously is the best weightlifter in the world at 77kg.  Basically to sum up Josh’s thoughts: This guy is The Best In The World and he didn’t need no stinkin’ LBBS to get there!  (Edit: This was NOT Josh Wells.  Don’t be silly.  I have another friend named Josh who is a weightlifter and weightlifting coach.  Yes, we are friends even though we disagree on some fundamental training stuff.)

This incident reminded me how many people, especially in the weightlifting world, don’t know what Rip actually says/thinks about how olympic lifters should train.  So I figured it’s time to write a rather long, boring, pedantic piece to clarify these matters.  I believe I understand Rip’s position pretty well, but any errors in interpretation or communication of his thoughts are mine and not his.

The first thing is understanding what he actually says.  If you’re going to be “against” something, it’s reasonably important to actually know what you take issue with.  Otherwise, you might actually agree.  Or disagree less.  Or you might disagree fully, but with something other than what you think you’re diagreeing with.  The point is, you need to know the other side’s position.

The most general thrust of Rip’s position on this issue is the U.S. Olympic Weightlifters are not strong enough to be competitive on the international level.  And that this is a major contributing factor to why we finish 28th or 35th or whatever in the world rankings every year.

The primary ramification of this position is that, to be competitive, we need to get stronger.  Not celebrate the strength PRs that will occasionally happen with consistent exposure to barbell training, but actually plan and program regularly occurring PRs in the slow lifts: Squat, Press, and Deadlift, and to a lesser extent, Bench Press.

We often hear people (mostly on the internet) complain about our country’s rigorous drug testing policy, compared with the countries that are medaling.  This is true, but there’s nothing we can do about that.  What do steroids and other PEDs primarily do, however?  THEY MAKE YOU STRONGER.  They don’t improve technique; there are no “technique steroids.”  Through various mechanisms, they make you stronger.   Since we can’t change our country’s drug policies, what can we do?  Perhaps get as strong as possible via our training by programming for regular PRs in the slow, strength limited lifts, thus lessening the gap that exists because of our drug policy.

When Cal Strength or MDUSA or whoever else posts a video showing one or several of their lifters hitting a squat PR, this is often used as a counter argument to show “Hey look, you powerlifting cretin!  We CARE about strength!  See this here PR right here!  STRENGTH!”   This misses the entire point.  We’re real glad you PR’d, but these lifters should be PRing those lifts on a regular basis, or at least planning to, depending upon their level of training advancement and competitive schedule.  Whether it’s every 2 weeks or 2 months or longer will depend on the lifter, and this could vary quite a bit depending on the aforementioned factors plus things that come up unexpectedly such as injuries.  But the PRs should be regular, programmed, and not too terribly far apart.  In the strength lifts.

From this position, naturally follows the preference for the LBBS.   Why do Olympic Lifters back squat at all?   Before you tell me they don’t, I know a small sub-set don’t, I know the Bulgarians didn’t; but most do, and most coaches insist on squatting as a primary preparation tool for their lifters.  But why?  It’s not a contested lift, so why do they squat?

They squat to get stronger.  A stronger squat leads to a stronger snatch and clean and jerk, and it’s that simple.   It’s not a perfectly linear relationship where we can say X more pounds on your squat leads to Y more pounds on your snatch or clean, but the general principle that getting your squat up will help get your lifts up is something just about everyone agrees on, or else they wouldn’t squat at all, right?  Remember, it’s not a contested lift, so it’s only purpose must be to improve the contested lifts via some other manner.  So why does building up your squat help your WL total since the squat is not specific?  The bar is held on the back, where it’s never held during either of the two lifts.  It’s taken out of a rack.  Why does it work?  Because strength is a general adaptation, which applies/carries over specifically when you perform the target task.

The hip, knee, and back angles, along with the bar carrying position, in the HBBS, – the style preferred by 99.9% of olympic lifters and their coaches, the style simply assumed to have more and better carry over to the olympic lifts – are different than any position a lifter will assume when actually doing the lifts.  I am aware that if you dig around, you will probably find some examples of people who can HBBS with such an upright torso that it essentially looks like a front squat.  But this is more the exception than the rule.  And even in those cases, it’s not at all clear that’s an optimal torso position for the lift, since the bar would likely be over the rear, rather than the middle, of the foot.  The clear takeaway is that the HBBS is not specific.  What IS specific?  The front squat!  Olympic lifters simply MUST front squat as part of the preparation for their sport, because it’s how you recover from a clean.

So we return to the question: why back squat at all, if it’s not specific?  And again we return to the answer: to get stronger.  So if you’re doing a non-specific movement to acquire GENERAL strength, doesn’t it make more sense to use the non-specific movement that allows you to lift significantly more weight, rather than the non-specific movement that forces you to use less weight?

It certainly seems reasonable enough to be worth trying if you’ve got a group of lifters who are clearly strength deficient.  But don’t try telling this to a classically trained olympic lifter or OL coach, because it’s heresy to even suggest it.

One thing that sometimes gets brought up as a counter argument is that the LBBS creates a bad habit of leaning over and using a horizontal back angle, which would ruin a clean.   It’s true that you can’t clean heavy this way.  But there are several compelling responses to this imagined issue:

1. YouTube through several dozen videos of heavy snatches of high level lifters good enough to actually snatch heavy.  Notice how they’re recovered from.  Yup, looks almost exactly like a LBBS.  So LBBS are quite good at training for the positions necessary to recover from a heavy snatch.

2. We humbly submit that if someone is regularly performing the snatch and the clean and jerk, as any olympic lifter must, and is also front squatting regularly, again as any olympic lifter must, than anyone with the natural genetic talent to compete at the international level isn’t going to get confused when doing a clean and suddenly think “oh shit, I better lean over now!”

This assertion is actually ludicrous, if you think about it.  Consider other sports like downhill skiiing, basketball, soccer, where correct technical execution must take place within an extremely fast paced and ever changing environment where there are multiple factors that must be reacted to instantaneously and extemporaneously.

Compare this to Olympic Weightlifting.  It’s true, the snatch and the clean and jerk are not easy lifts.  They’re more technically demanding than the slow lifts, but they’re still only two movements and there are no external, constantly changing factors to take into account.  They’re always the same exact two movements that need to be performed, the exact same way (theoretically) every single time.  There might be some slight variation between reps inherent in human imperfection, but a technically proficient lifter’s lifts will be almost the same every time.  Relatively speaking, they’re a cinch compared to many other sports.

Yet somehow we think that if a lifter – one who has the athletic talent to compete internationally – does his non-lift-specific strength training just a tiny bit less specifically, he’ll suddenly forget how to do a clean when the time comes?   I don’t even know what to say to such a silly argument, other than it would seem that people are only making such an argument because they really, really, really don’t want the other side to be right.   Do we worry that a football lineman who plays both passing and running downs suddenly forgets if he’s supposed to pass protect or run block?   And this is for an activity significantly more complex, as illustrated above, than the snatch and clean and jerk.   Why would a lifter who cleans all the time, front squats all the time, and has done so for years, suddenly forget he’s supposed to be doing a clean and lean over?

Finally, as far as specificity, the LBBS is more specific in one way – it’s more specific to the pull.  It trains the hamstrings and assumes a position similar to a pull off the floor.    This is NOT why we say it’s better even for Olympic Lifters, but it is interesting to point out.

This takes us back to the conversation with my friend.   What’s the upshot of all this?   We feel that the US lifters as a hole aren’t strong enough, and a better way for them to get stronger would be to program regular PRs in the slow lifts, with the LBBS being the squat variant of choice for strength training (along with front squats for specificity).

However, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t LBBS, you can’t be strong.  Lu Xiaojun is so talented, that he’s significantly stronger than any of our guys anyway.  If you can squat 616 weighing 169, it doesn’t matter how you got there.  You’re already strong enough.  You can train using Bulgarian Split Squats and Lunges if you want, it doesn’t matter because you’re already strong enough!

This is point that I think is most lost on people.  If our guys could HBBS that much, they’d be strong enough to be competitive, too.  And yes, they might still not win, even if they could squat 616, if their inherent capacity for explosion were inferior.  The point is, our guys aren’t nearly strong enough in the first place, and Lu Xiaojun is.  It doesn’t matter if he got there by praying to his gods, by squatting, by steroids, by hook or by crook, the point is he’s strong enough.

Strength isn’t the only factor, and we never contend it is.  Genetic ability to be explosive is a huge factor (which explains why just because you can deadlift 800 doesn’t mean you can be a successful international level olympic lifter).  Technique is also important.   But inasmuch as a person’s ability to be explosive is probably about 80% genetic, the stronger he gets, the more that ability can be expressed through power which is, when broken down into it’s simplest terms, strength displayed quickly.  Or strength: RIGHT NOW!

There are other differences of opinion that we have with the way olympic lifting is conventionally presented in America, too.  But the main point I wanted to make here is to clarify what our position on the low bar squat actually is, and why the fact that many, many olympic lifters are lifting tremendous weights using other training styles doesn’t really speak to our position.  If hundreds or thousands of lifters had tried to do it this way and not gotten better because of it, I’d be more skeptical of this position.  But that has never happened to the best of my knowledge.

I suspect many people won’t have even read this far, and many who have and are in the OL community will still dismiss it out of hand.  Most don’t bother to analyze and refute the position, they just appeal to authority and history.

This doesn’t mean we’re definitely right, but it seems to me that it’s worth considering and trying to implement for lifters not strong enough.  We certainly could hardly be doing worse, internationally.  What do we have to lose?

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