More on Low Bar Squatting and Olympic Lifting

In my piece from last October, Musings on the High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Debate, I distilled some of the main arguments (as I understand them) for and against the use of the low bar squat for olympic weightlifters.  Coming from the angle of Starting Strength, it’s no surprise that, contrary to the overwhelming majority of olympic lifting coaches in the United States and abroad, I feel that the low bar squat has not been given a fair shake when it comes to basic strength development for olympic lifters, and that piece from last October explains why.  

One of the biggest issues we have, however, is getting any serious olympic lifters or OL coaches to even give it a try.  The preference for the high bar squat is so ingrained and deeply held, that usually the best we can hope for is to be dismissed out of hand.  Often, derision and mockery ensue – this has been not only my own experience in attempting to discuss it with some in the OL community, but also that of others I know.

Presumably the easiest way to combat this attitude and open doors to more OLers giving the LBBS a try, would be to produce a large and successful group of lifters who use it as their primary squat variant.  While I think this will eventually happen, and my more recent post, quoting OL Coach Tim DiStasio, was a nice illustration of both this phenomenon at work, and the conventional widsom’s reaction to our ideas, it’s a slow process.  Probably primarily because, for a number of logical reasons, most people utilizing the Starting Strength model and method of lifting focus more on the basic strength lifts: Squat, Press, Deadlift, Bench Press; than they do on the olympic lifts of the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk. But, there are some O-Lifters in our ranks as well.  If my buddy and fellow Starting Strength Coach Nick D’Agostino can manage to avoid injury for a full year, he could make some waves at the national level.  I had the pleasure of coaching Nick at the American Open this past December, and he pulled 173kg (381 lbs) high enough to power clean it.

Nick D’Agostino pulling 173kg high enough to power clean it, at the American Open in Dallas: December, 2013

With more time to develop his strength, and work on his technique, Nick could make some noise.  So, the process is happening, but slowly.

Be that as it may, in the nearly 10 months since I wrote the High Bar vs Low Bar piece, I’ve come to realize there’s another argument here against one of the more oft-cited contentions against the Low Bar Squat.

Referring again to the original article linked above, I pointed out that the snatch recovery looks a lot like a LBBS: hip drive gets the lifter up out of the hole from the overhead squat position of a snatch.

Here’s a few examples from an international level, olympic medalist lifter:

Dmitry Klokov: 192 in competition, 206 in training, 202 in training, slo-mo.   That 202 slo-mo is really great here, because you can so easily see the hips lead up out of the hole and the change in back angle from more vertical to more horizontal that this produces.  It really does look an awful lot like the mechanics of the SS Model of the low bar squat, except with the bar held rigidly locked out overhead, instead of on the back.

Here’s some more examples of well known lifters displaying hip drive and back angle change to get up out of the bottom of their snatch:

Kendrick Farris, Tatiana Kashirina, 4x Crossfit Games champion Rich Froning, Matthias Steiner, Julia Rohde, Marcin DolegaLu Xiaojun, etc etc etc…

Speaking of Lu Xiaojun, it was his WR snatch (and 616 squat video) that prompted my original article on the subject last October.  So let’s look at his snatch specifically.  Here is a freeze-frame shot of him getting up out of the snatch, taken from the video linked above, at the point where he’s just below parallel, i.e. the correct depth for the bottom of a low bar squat:

This still-shot is taken from Lu Xiaojun’s 176kg world record snatch, the one that prompted my original article on this subject. His diagnostic back, hip, and knee angles here are right in line what we’d expect to see from someone with his anthropometry in the low bar back squat

As I point out in the caption, look at his diagnostic angles – they’re just what you’d expect to see in a low bar squat at this position, for someone with a long torso and short legs.  Basically, he’s replicating low bar squat mechanics in the overhead squat portion of his snatch.  Compare, for example, to his diagnostic angles of back, hip, and knee to where he first caught the snatch:

What’s happened in between?  His hips have risen, his back angle has changed to be significantly more horizontal, and the bar has stayed basically over mid-foot thanks to his shoulder mobility.

Here’s the same thing, with Marcin Dolega’s 202.5 kg snatch in training.  Catch position freeze-frame:

vs just below parallel position freeze-frame:

Watch the two videos again, as well as the other vids I linked above.  This happens time after time in heavy snatches.  It’s only reasonable to conclude that this hip driven, more horizontal back angled squat is how heavy snatches are generally recovered from.

Then, according to the logic of the conventional wisdom, squat snatching would actually ruin your ability to recover from a clean.  After all, it uses very similar mechanics to the dreaded Low Bar Back Squat.  So why don’t we see the “Low Bar is a waste of time” coaches require their lifters to power snatch or split snatch?  True, it would limit the weight used in the snatch, but heaven forbid they should have to lean over and drive their hips up out of the hole, right?!?  Especially given that the C&J is by far the heavier of the two lifts, and thus a larger driver of the lifter’s “Total,” you’d think we’d see this pointed out and implemented.  But I’ve never seen nor heard this argument.

They aren’t worried about the snatch ruining their lifter’s ability to get up from a heavy clean via a chest-leading front squat, because they’re two completely different movements, whose unique motor patterns any internationally competitive athlete can successfully separate.  Why should the low bar back squat be any different?

I can only assume that either they haven’t closely observed how most lifters get up from the bottom of a snatch, or have a special bias against the LBBS which causes them to dismiss it out of hand.  Yet I think I’ve shown, with multiple examples and for multiple reasons, that the LBBS for olympic lifters should not be dismissed out of hand.

If you’re not worried about the snatch ruining your lifter’s clean, why do you maintain this concern regarding the LBBS?

Or, we could get our lifters stronger, via the squat variant that best combines the elements of a) most muscle mass utilized  b) over the longest effective ROM  c) that allows the most weight to be lifted….and thus d) get stronger.  And then harness that strength to greater success in the power-displaying, strength dependent lifts known as the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk.  And maybe even win some medals or something.  Because ‘Murica!

EDIT, 8/27/14: After seeing a facebook discussion in which some people predictably  took issue with this position with ad hominem arguments and mischaracterizations of our nuanced position, I want to clarify what I wrote in the last sentence.  I wrote “And maybe even win some medals or something. Because ‘Murica!”   Followed by the Chuck Norris pic.

Though I thought it obvious, this line was not meant to suggest that if we only switched all our lifters to the LBBS, this would solve all our olympic lifting problems.  I’ve seen the same thought process applied to two of our other unconventional views: a) that US olympic lifters need to be stronger  and  b) that a pull off the floor more closely approximating vertical, as opposed to sweeping in from further away, is more optimal.

In all cases, no one is suggesting that this is the ONE SINGLE factor needed to medal.  Or even all three.  If our US lifters did all the things we suggest, we’re not saying that will automatically lead to a place on the podium.  That would be a stupid thing to say, however that is often how our position is characterized by those who want to knock it down, probably because a straw man is easier to knock down than dealing with a nuanced position.

To quote Mike Tuchscherer:

The real question in any training discussion is not “what works.” Rather, you should ask, “What is optimal?”

We’re trying to find what’s optimal.  Not what people in the past have done that has worked.  There’s absolutely no doubt 100% that high bar squats have worked to get people stronger.  There’s absolutely no doubt that a very strong, explosive person can lift a lot of weight using a non vertical bar path.   There’s absolutely no doubt that humans got from Point A to Point B before the domestication of the horse.  And again before the invention of the locomotive.  And again before the invention of the personal automobile.  And again before the development of commercial jets.  The analogy isn’t perfect, but the idea is that those things helped us get further, faster, and it would have been stupid to say “You can’t get there faster with a car, because no one’s ever done it before!”  I’m not saying the LBBS is like a commercial jet compared to the HBBS being like riding a horse.  What I’m saying is that if it provides an advantage, even a marginal one, that makes it more optimal.  And if pulling in as straight a line as possible provides an advantage, even a marginal one, it is more optimal.  And if you do several things that provide marginal advantages, they might just all add up to make a difference.

Or they might not.  Our talent pool of athletes for olympic lifting is depleted by football and other more popular, lucrative sports.  Our drug testing policies are stricter.  Etc etc etc all the many, multi-factorial reasons we’re working with.  But we can’t do anything about those, at least not immediately.   It makes sense to try to optimize the things we can control, such as technique and strength.

Because not enough people have actually tried these things, due to the immediate, visceral dismissal of them by the weightlifting establishment, we don’t know for sure that they’re optimal.  What we’re saying is that analysis suggests they are, and they’re worth exploring.  The small number of people who have tried them (in an intelligent context – for example, doing an uncoached low bar squat or a geared lifter style squat for a few weeks while not snatching at all, and then coming back to snatch a few weeks later and lifting less than before is a good example of an UNintelligent context) have had good success.  These ideas deserve a fair shake, and they do not get one, not even close, because of appeal to authority, phenomenology, and closed-mindedness.  Not because an alternative, better analysis against their possible superiority has been developed.

6 thoughts on “More on Low Bar Squatting and Olympic Lifting

  1. I’ve yet to encounter anyone make a reasonable argument against LBBS+FS. However, I have personally experienced that LBBS in isolation doesn’t seem to translate directly to an improvement in my clean. Specifically, when I incorporate LBBS volume into my training, I can progress both maximal and volume load over multiple weeks, but won’t see direct translation to my clean improving. With FS or HBBS, an increase in my maximal or volume progress has tended, though not always, to correlate to an increase in my clean.

    I do notice that pulling has never been an issue with my cleans. I’m always able to get under the bar and, interestingly, am often able to pull the bar nearly high enough to power clean as you mentioned your lifter is able. However, I do find that when I’m not pushing my FS or HBBS numbers up I sometimes get pinned at the bottom of the clean and am limited by my ability to front squat the weight. My ignorant theory is that the fully bottom position of the clean requires strength at a range of motion and posture that isn’t normally seen by a LBBS.

    In summary, I agree that the rejection of LBBS is unsubstantiated. The more interesting discussion, for me, is how to incorporate squat variations into an Olympic weightlifting program in the most efficient manner possible. The use of LBBS during my SS progression was by far the most efficient improvement in strength. However, since training for Olympic lifting for a few years, I’ve seen the best results from combining the variations – including HBBS at times. LBBS is still my primary squat, but as is stated in Practical Programming, FS needs to be included as well. To what degree each lift is included has been, in my limited experience, dependent on several variables – general strength level, individual weakness, time available/number of sessions per week, etc.

    Very Humbly,

    Andrew

    • Andrew, I basically agree with you. The LBBS alone will likely drive up the Sn & C+J numbers only of a lifter who is still very far from his or her genetic strength potential. Nick, Steven Miller (another SS style olympic lifter from England), and I had a discussion about this on the forum last year. The general thrust is that we don’t see a need for HBBS, it’s more the frequency, timing, volume, and load of the two variations (LBBS and FS) that need to be modulated around the Olympic Lifter’s competitive training schedule, with a reduction in frequency, volume, and possibly intensity in the LBBS happening as the lifter approaches a meet. This can allow recovery capacity and training time to be devoted to both FS and the competitive lifts (and any necessary variations), at a time when those more specific things need to be done to facilitate the best meet performance.

      I fully agree that the programming details incorporating both our basic philosophical differences from the American OL community (1. LBBS as the back squat variation and 2. Programming for regular, recurring PRs in the slow lifts of squat, press, and deadlift) for an individual lifter are not simple. I think to have a better developed framework for answering the question broadly, we need to have more data from more lifters doing it this way. And like I wrote, this is happening, but very slowly.

      Your conclusion that this is all dependent on a number of variables is one I share. I’m certainly not suggesting this is all really simple. Just that the LBBS+FS combo trained for strength and regular PRs would seem to have more analysis in its favor than the HBBS+FS combo usually done as an afterthought to the training of the competition lifts, typically under conditions of pre-fatigue.

  2. Fascinating article! A few thoughts:

    1. To get better in the SN/C&J, you need to practice SN/C&J. But isn’t the primary purpose of squatting to strengthen the legs, which will then translate to bigger SN/C&J if proper technique is used? In my opinion, HBBS/LBBS are just tools used to increase strength in the legs. In addition to HBBS/LBBS, why not hip belt squats, yoke bar squats, trap bar squats, split squats, maybe even leg presses? I really like the yoke bar and safety squat bar because it feels more like a front squat but you do not have to worry about holding the weight up with your arms and shoulders like in a regular front squat. I agree that an experienced athlete will not just forget to keep their torso vertical in the clean if they are training their legs in other manners, in addition to front squats.

    2. I agree that training the front squat has direct correlation to cleans for obvious reasons. However, I’ve seen very few lifters whose torsos don’t fall forward when going for a max HBBS attempt and that certainly does not resemble a clean. When this happens, it places the lower back in a more vulnerable position because it creates a longer moment arm than a LBBS.

    3. Another argument for LBBS: In the SN/C&J, there is a ton of emphasis placed on contracting the glutes at extension to maximize power. Stronger glutes = more power and LBBS is better at developing the glutes and hips than HBBS.

    4. You rarely see a lifter fail to stand up with a snatch if they get under it and are able to stabilize. Even in Lu’s WR snatch, he stood up with it fairly easily after going completely ATG. Therefore, I would posit that the primary reason for strengthening the legs is to improve the clean and increase reserve leg strength for the jerk, and those improvements in strength in turn translate to improved snatches, as long as proper technique is used.

    5. The best lifters in the world are able to time the whip of the bar just right when catching the clean, which helps them stand up with it. It is less a matter of strength and more a matter of technique and timing.

    6. In response to your other article, I disagree with you that the US has failed to produce world record weightlifters in the past few decades due to a lack of strength. The US has had numerous weightlifters that have squatted huge weights.

    One primary reason for our lack of success is that we have not trained our lifters from a young enough age to ingrain the best possible technique and motor pathways that allow us to compete with the rest of the world. Many of the best US lifters only started training in their mid to late teens while in other countries, kids as young as five are picked to attend sport schools because they possess certain physical attributes that will allow them to succeed with proper training and coaching. The US has produced the best basketball and football players because we have a structure in place where kids can compete at a very young age which then allows elite talents to rise to the top at high school, college, and eventually the professional levels. It’s like comparing Peyton Manning who started tossing a football when he was 3 years old and who’s father was a successful NFL quarterback to somebody who decides to start playing football when they are 15 and may not possess the ideal genetic traits to be an elite talent. It isn’t much of a comparison.

    Separately, testosterone levels usually peak in the mid-twenties, meaning that a lifter will have the best chance of putting up his best numbers during this period. Would you have more faith in a 25-year old lifter who has been training for 8-10 years or one who has trained for 15-17 years?

    The other primary reason for the US’ lack of weightlifting success is that we do not have a proper financial support structure in place that allows athletes to focus their energies 100% on training while making a living. MDUSA is the only US program I’m aware of that pays their athletes and this is a recent development. The US can’t possibly compete with athletes who can devote 100% of their energy to training as is done in the most successful weightlifting countries. In the US, financial incentives exist for football, basketball, etc which in turn produces the best athletes in the world.

    Keep up the great work!

    • That was a long comment, Dan; I’ll try to reply without leaving anything out.

      1. I Agree completely – and in fact, this is one of the points we try to make and seems to be contentious in the WL community – that the squat is performed, in fact, for its strength training purposes, not as a way to embed motor pathways for the snatch or clean & jerk. That’s what the snatch and clean & jerk, and variations, are for – squatting is to get stronger. This is why we encourage the use of the squat variant that allows the most weight to be lifted over a long ROM, and includes the most overall muscle mass – thus, best developing lower body and systemic strength. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the other variants you listed, but they don’t fit that criteria for exercise selection that I mentioned, as well as the LBBS does. I could see them being more potentially useful for an advanced powerlifter or strongman competitor, who is using them as a way to modulate training volume and intensity, which is necessary due to his level of advancement. An olympic lifter is already dedicating a lot of time to the competition lifts and variants, so the strength lifts aren’t going to be terribly varied. Nor do they need to be for a Novice or Intermediate powerlifter.

      2. An interesting point. Some have also noted that when the bar is already up there on the traps, it has no ‘up’ left to go – if you lean over and the bar rolls up, it’s on your neck and you’re in the danger zone, and you’ve lost the lift. In the low bar position, if thebar does roll up a little – while certainly not ideal – you might still be able to save the lift.

      3.Yes, the great emphasis on the hip musculature in the LBBS is definitely one of the reasons we like it.

      4. Squat strength is never the limiting factor in a snatch, as you point out. But overall systemic strength might be, which the LBBS helps develop better than the HBBS.

      5. There is no doubt that both the snatch and the clean & jerk depend much more on technique than the squat and the other ‘slow lifts.’ They are technically demanding movements which must be practiced regularly to achieve proficiency and mastery. However, they are also greatly dependent upon power and strength; power itself is literally mathematically dependent on strength. Watch Taranenko’s all time WR clean & jerk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQZjC7cNbyE) and tell me strength played no role in his making the lift. Technique is important and must be quantified, then practiced. But the lifter who lifts the most weight is the one who wins the meet, and this is still highly dependent on strength.

      6. To clarify: I did not argue that THE REASON we haven’t medaled at the olympics in so long, and why we rank so low in the world, is solely because of strength. The idea is that it’s one of many factors, but it’s a factor we can easily control and do something about. Just because a lifter squats 700 or pulls 750 doesn’t mean he can clean 550. But, power being so intimately dependent upon strength, it is a mistake to not program strength increases as an important part of lifter’s training plan. Not just go for, and celebrate, PRs, but actually design the programming around regularly scheduled PRs in the slow, strength dependent lifts. Not right leading up to a meet, of course, when the comp lifts must be done with even more focus than usual, but around the competitive schedule.

      The things you mention all undoubtedly play a role. Our lifters typically being introduced to the lifts at an older age; football and the track and field sports taking many of the strongest and most explosive athletes away towards better financial incentives, strict drug testing, etc… But right now, there’s nothing we can do about those things. One factor we can do something about is making sure our guys and gals are strong enough to compete internationally. With a few possible exceptions, this doesn’t seem to be the case, unless there is now something going on that I’m unaware of.

      And, like I wrote in the October, 2013 article: if we had a 77kg lifter who was high bar squatting 616, then I don’t care if it’s high bar. That’s fine. He’s already strong enough to compete internationally anyway. But if we don’t – and we don’t – then it makes sense to me to get the lifters stronger in the most efficient way possible, which I think points to the LBBS, if analysis is accepted in lieu of phenomenology.

      • Really appreciate you taking the time to write such a detailed response.

        As someone with disc issues in my low back, I have been searching for alternatives to HBBS to strengthen my legs, specifically to improve my olympic lifts. With lighter and moderate weights (85% max and lower) I am able to stay very upright with HBBS, even for high reps (10+). But when I get above 85%, I tend to fall forward a bit which creates tremendous torque on my low back because the bar is as far away from the fulcrum as possible, setting me up for further injury.

        After reading your post, I decided to max out with the LBBS this past weekend. I used LBBS when doing Starting Strength two years ago but haven’t really done it since then. With the bar placed lower on my back, I felt less concerned about low back pain from leaning forward because even though I was learning forward more than HBBS, the moment arm was shorter, creating less torque on my low back. I hit a double bodyweight squat for the first time ever! The movement admittedly felt different than HBBS; specifically, I felt my quads working less and hips working more.0

        As far as alternatives to the HBBS, the best tool I have found that allows me to really work my legs while keeping my low back safe is the safety squat bar (SSB). It allows me to keep my torso very vertical, even under near max loads, and I can really load up the weight unlike in a front squat. I’m not sure if the stress is balanced between my hips and quads or if one group is working one harder than the other. Any thoughts on using the SSB as the primary strengthening exercise to improve the olympic lifts?

        I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!

  3. The argument of the high bar squat and low bar squat seems stupid to me personally. I’m not even an oly lifter and I know that the power for those two movements comes from the hips and since the low bar squat trains hip drive while allowing for the most amount weight it seems conducive to driving up the c&j and snatch. In Everett’s book he argues that the time it would take to teach the low bar would be counter productive, but I guess he just sucks at teaching it since I’ve seen coaches teach someone the basics in about an hour. Anyways, great article.

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