The Biomechanical Differences Between Straight Bar and SSB Squats and Why You Should Be Using All Variations
When it comes to adding variety to your training program, exercise selection can be a huge factor in adding to overall strength, help overcome or prevent plateaus in strength and muscle adaptations, and prevent injuries that can occur over too frequently performing the exact same movement. In this article we are going to take a look at the differences between squatting under a straight bar and a safety squat bar. Does a change in bar or bar position change the extent of what muscles are being recruited? And does adding variety to your squat training influence your competition squat and other factors of lifting in a positive way?
First, let’s look at what muscles are used in squatting and the differences bar and bar position make in the recruitment of the muscles involved.
High Bar Squat (1)
In this first study (linked in sources at the end of the article) the researcher looked at the EMG results of the muscle recruitment comparison between a traditional (high bar) squat compared to non-traditional. Honestly, I found the non-traditional squat to be odd. I did not understand where the decision to perform this came from and wish they had used this study to compare high bar to low bar. The non-traditional squat resembled more of a good morning squat with the participants weight on their toes. But, that is simply my opinion. I did really love the data that was found, though, and the information they put together. Within the data that was collected were the muscles highly involved in the squat and the percentage at which they were recruited. Given the fact I am listing all the muscles involved in a squat, I included below any that weren’t apart of the study.
- Glutes (GMax) 29.43%
- Adductors 9.57%
- Hamstrings (BF, ST) 11.14% and 2.67% respectively
- Quadriceps (VL, VM) 16.53% and 14.86% respectively
- Gastrocnemius 2.85%
- Percentage given when flat foot
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Erectors 13.23%
- Core (RA, TVA, IO, EO)
Low Bar Squat -compared to HB (2)
In this second study (link also listed below) the researchers looked at the differences between a high bar, low bar, and front squat. Note: the study was conducted on recreational athletes and therefore would show different results if participants were to be high level athletes. Regardless, the data shown is beneficial in examining the lack of differences found in bar placement. The percentages given below reflect the differences between high bar and low bar that the study revealed. Low bar is shown to be most superior in total lower body muscular recruitment with a higher percentage of everything in comparison to high bar. Placement of the bar doesn’t change the fact that hamstrings act as a knee stabilizer and quads the prime mover of a squat. However, as would be expected, front squats did have the most quad recruitment given the altered torque during the movement, showing to be 6-8% greater when compared to both high and low bar.
- Glutes (GMed) +4.8%
- Hamstrings (BF) +4.8%
- Quadriceps (VM, RF) +1.45% and 9.6% respectively
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Core (RA, TVA, IO, EO)
SSB squat (3)
There are far less studies conducted for comparisons in a SSB squat to high and low bar but I was able to come across one that revealed the percentage of lower trap activation in using the SSB. The study also suggested far less stress on the lower back/erectors considering the upright position of the torso during SSB squats. It is worth noting that there are some discrepancies in the percentages of lower extremity activation in this study based on the fact an individual is less likely to lift the same amount of weight in a SSB squat as with a high or low bar squat. That being said, the muscles involved in squatting are still at work but the level of recruitment from the lower body may be more prevalent with more volume and hypertrophy training in SSB squats.
- Hamstrings (BF, ST)
- Quadriceps (VL)
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Lower Trapezius +50.3%
- Core (RA, TVA, IO, EO)
Keep in mind there are many other variables in how muscles are engaged in the squat no matter what bar or bar placement is being used. Foot stance (narrow to a more wide/sumo stance) and the angle toes turn out is a main contributor in which muscles are more at work. Details like this can be used to your advantage when you practice the stance and position you are stronger and more comfortable in; but, as I will get more into momentarily, strengthening what you might not be strongest in and what comes most naturally to you can also be incredibly beneficial in the long run.
A SSB squat has the most resemblance to a front squat with the bar resting higher on the shoulders and the weight distributed more anteriorly. Moving load in this position places more torque on the quadriceps by requiring a greater degree of hip, knee, and ankle flexion (due to a more upright torso position), creating a higher demand of quad recruitment. The trunk position with using a SSB, as mentioned, has the added benefit in loading less stress on the erectors. This would be beneficial to athletes with low back injuries and in keeping athletes healthy by not constantly adding stress to their low back on a highly regular basis. The SSB bar also, as we saw in the study above, requires more activation of the lower traps to stabilize and balance the placement of the load and in the way we grip the bar with handles placed over and situated anteriorly to the shoulders. The handle placement of the SSB would be helpful for athletes experiencing shoulder or elbow pain and/or injuries that may need a break from the position straight weight requires them to hold the barbell in place.
As we can see from these studies and in understanding biomechanics, all the muscles associated with squatting are being worked, but altering variables and using different bar types and positions can change the level of recruitment needed to stabilize the load and perform the lift successfully with proper technique. With these attributes in mind, this takes me to the next point:
Why Should You Use Variations of the Squat?
Build Muscle Symmetry
Muscle symmetry is important regardless of if you are a powerlifter trying to have stronger lifts, a competitive bodybuilder being judged on overall symmetry, or just your average Joe wanting to live a healthy and active life. The reason being because muscle symmetry, beyond providing more strength and looking good, helps prevent injuries. No matter your goals, preventing injuries should be your highest priority as it is the key component to longevity in your sport and living a healthy and active life. Not saying the sole way to go about this is by incorporating only different squat variations and bars, but it does help along with other methods and exercise selections.
Performing only one squat variation with the same preferred stance forever on end will inherently strengthen it to some extent over time but it will also create a disadvantage by not building the counter parts that are still highly involved in squatting and lead to a plateau in strength gains at some point. As a competitor, or even if not, this is something we want to avoid or easily move past. Becoming well-rounded and well-verse in different squat positions will be largely beneficial in strengthening weaker muscles and phases of the lift, ultimately transferring over into building a stronger preferred/competition stance squat. Therefore, it can be pretty safe to assume, throwing in SSB squats into your programming to add variety and place a different stimulus on the LE can be a beneficial tool in creating overall strength adaptations.
In SSB squats, the bar is positioned higher up on the shoulders and load distributed anteriorly, causing the body to squat through the full ROM with an upright torso and inevitably creating a great degree of flexion in all of these joints. The body is created to move and when practiced it can have the ability to move in its anatomically capable direction more freely. By developing more mobility in these joints they become healthier, more stable, stronger against external forces, develop far less “wear and tear,” and are less likely to acquire injuries.
Positively Impact Longevity in Training
What is the definition of insanity? “Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” Longevity in powerlifting can be cut short when someone gets injured and tries to continue to do the same things they were doing yet expecting the injury to not return. That is insanity. Progressive overload is 100% needed in a program to build strength adaptations, but using the same movement patterns in the same plane for an excessively extended period of time can become too much too handle for the CNS, muscles, and joints involved in said movement. If we are training for strength, we need to stay in the game. By using variations of the same movement we can continue to build strength in both the execution and the musculature involved and remove this issue of only doing the one movement in the same way to the point of injury.
My Personal Experience:
SSB has done a number for me and my squat strength. Since programming in SSB more frequently, I have developed more strength in my quads and back, which has also helped me in my deadlift. Another random but useful tool it has been for me is getting over the nerves of heavier weight on my shoulders. By squatting with a SSB for both max effort (ex. 3RM SSB Squats or 1RM Box Squats) and higher volume, I am learning how to squat a more difficult variation, push through the slower phases in the lift with grit, and, most importantly, get past straight weight mental barriers. When I was able to 3RM SSB at 225# (a weight that used to make me anxious for whatever reason) it boosted my confidence and released anxiety I had over that number all together. I have also noticed this trend with my clients. When they are able to work up to a max effort in a more difficult variation of the big 3, not only do they obviously have the strength to pull off more with straight weight, but their confidence to do so is much higher.
The goal is simple:
Lift heavy and lift for a long time.
If you love to lift then you don’t ever want to experience a delay in the game from overtraining in the same movement patterns. You want to build and strengthen all of the variables, large and small, that impact your competition lift. So, if adding some variety benefits you and your long term goals, why not give it a go?
I hope this article was enlightening, educational, and, as always (a goal I have in writing for my blog) easy to understand. If you would like to read more on SSB squats and/or bar position differences I have several studies and analysis sourced below.
Author: Alyssa Parten