If you want to get big you need to build a solid foundation to stand on. Among all exercises the squat is the highest ranked exercise for building size and strength in the legs. However, if you only use one squat variation in your training you obviously don’t know squat about leg training.
There are 3 squat variations that are need-to-know. They are the low bar back squat, high bar back squat, and front squat.
A difference in where the bar rests on the back of the shoulders of just a few inches is enough to biomechanically alter how the exercise is performed. As a result, the low bar and the high bar back squat are two distinct exercises.
In the high bar back squat the positioning of the bar is in such a way that the lifter is mechanically required to squat vertically placing emphasis on the quadriceps muscles as opposed to using the posterior chain in the low bar back squat.
The purpose of the high bar back squat is derived from the sport of Weightlifting where it is used to build the strength needed in the quads to lift heavy in the snatch and clean and jerk. This is different than Powerlifting where the squat is not only used to build a foundation of strength but also to test strength.
Positioning the bar lower on the back causes the lifter to naturally lean forward in the squat activating the posterior chain. The involvement of the posterior chain allows more weight to be lifted. The goal of Powerlifting is to lift the most weight humanly possible so all lifters essentially use the low bar back squat.
The weight difference between these two squat variations is hard to determine as few athletes take the time to master both techniques. However, on average a lifter should be able to low bar back squat 120% of their high bar back squat.
The advantages and disadvantages of these two exercises are based on application. A bodybuilder would benefit more from high bar back squats as it develops the lower quads more greatly.
Some bodybuilders claim that heavy squats make the waist large similar to how some Powerlifters develop a thick trunk lifting monolithic weight. Switching to high bar squats reduces the amount of weight lifted while placing more stress where bodybuilder’s need it to be – on the quads.
The front squat is another important variation that is more similar to the high bar back squat than it is to the low bar back squat. The front squat is used by Weightlifters for the same reason they use the high bar back squat. It develops power in the quads needed for Olympic lifts.
The front squat places more stress on the lower quads than the high bar back squat but reduces the amount of weight lifted by 80%. As a result, Weightlifters often incorporate heavy back squats into their training to build strength. The heavier you lift the stronger you get.
Understanding these three squat variations can also help prevent overlaps in training. For example, if you use low bar back squats for legs and conventional deadlift for back the same muscles get worked both times just in a different way. A better approach would be to use the front squat or high bar back squat on leg day if you need to train back around leg day.
Also, front squats and high bar back squats do not burnout your nervous system compared to as low bar back squats. You could potentially get away with training front squat more frequently for an extended period of time whereas with the low bar back squat you could expect to burnout much earlier.
If you don’t know squat about these three variations than do yourself a favour and invest time needed to learn them. Remember, if you want powerful, muscular legs than you need to know squat about quad training.