Olympic Squats vs Powerlifting Squats

A back squat is a back squat right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. There are two general schools of squatting; the Olympic, high-bar style and the powerlifting, low-bar style. These two variations differ significantly in both execution and rationale so let’s have a look at each in bit more detail.

The Olympic Squat

The Olympic squat - note the high bar position, upright torso, full depth and knees over toes

The high-bar squat is primarily an assistance exercise utilised by Olympic weightlifters for strength development. High tension, max effort lifts are used sparingly with squats generally performed without any sort of emotional arousal or supportive gear (belts, wraps, etc.). Olympic lifters will squat 3-5 times a week in most instances; much more frequently than powerlifters. Here are a couple of examples of Olympic style squatters:

 Chinese Lifters at the 2008 Arnold Pat Mendes squats 350kg.

Key Execution Points:

·         Stance is shoulder width with toes either straight ahead or slightly pointed out. The narrower stance places greater emphasis on the quads during the lift and also requires greater flexibility of the foot and ankle complex.

·         The bar is worn high-bar – positioned high on top of the traps and in the ‘shelf’ created by pulling the shoulder blades down and together. This helps maintain an upright torso which is necessary for a full deep squat.

·         Grip is clean width, which is relatively narrow, and elbows are orientated directly under the bar keeping the forearms perpendicular to the floor. These points also help reinforce the vertical torso.

·         Strict Olympic squats are initiated at the knee, not at the hip, again helping to maintain a vertical torso. The torso remains as vertical as possible during the entire performance of the lift.

·         Lifts are performed to full knee flexion with hamstrings covering calves with knees generally travelling over the toes. As inadequate flexibility of the foot and ankle complex can often restrict individuals from getting into this deep position, Olympic squatters will often wear weightlifting shoes which have a raised heel.

·         Lifts are performed with a quick, although still controlled, eccentric phase and an explosive concentric phase.

Benefits:

·         Strengthens through a greater range of motion

·         Less stress on lower back

·         Forces are balanced relatively equally between the hip and knee extensors

Drawbacks:

·         Less weight can be lifted

·         Reinforces quad dominant movement patterning

·         May be contraindicated for those with acute knee problems

The Powerlifting Squat

The powerlifting squat - note the low bar postion, forward lean and depth just below parallel depth

Unlike Olympic lifters, powerlifters compete in the squat. For that reason the emphasis with the powerlifting squat isn’t so much on strength development as it is on lifting as much weight as possible. That’s not to say it’s inferior to the Olympic squat for developing strength, it just maximises biomechanical advantages in order to lift more weight. Powerlifters squat less frequently than Olympic lifters as they tend to use high load, high tension efforts more often; the massively popular Westside training template calls for one max effort day with heavy weights and one dynamic day with a lighter weight a week. Because the high load techniques used are so demanding on the central nervous system, powerlifters will often train exclusively with box squats – a variation slightly less taxing neurally. Who better to demonstrate a powerlifting style squat than Ed Coan, one of the greatest lifters of all time:

Ed squats 442kg in training.

Key Execution Points:

·         Stance is wide, generally double that of shoulder width, and feet are externally rotated. A wider squat emphasises the adductor group (particularly adductor longus) and the external rotation emphasises glute activation.

·         Barbell is worn ‘low bar’ – positioned across the rear delts and the spine of the scapula. Wearing the bar lower on the back has the biomechanical advantage of moving the centre of mass closer to the joints and decreasing the moment arm.

·         As the low-bar position also moves the load backward slightly, toward the heels, this forces the torso to lean forward slightly to maintain balance. The lean serves to increase loading in the lower back, glutes and hamstrings.

·         Grip is wider than with the Olympic squat, often dictated by shoulder flexibility of the lifter, and elbows are orientated behind the bar. These points again reinforce a slight forward lean.

·         The squat is initiated by hinging at the hips and sitting back. Lifters attempt to keep shin angle as vertical as possible.

·         Lifters descend until the hip joint is parallel to the knee joint.

Benefits:

·         Maximises leverages and ultimate weight lifted

·         Increases loading in the posterior chain

·         Reduces stresses on the knee joint

Drawbacks:

·         More stress on the lower back

·         Reduced range of motion

The Hybrid

In reality, few people are strict Olympic or powerlifting squatters. When you consider the nine variables we’ve mentioned (stance width, foot rotation, bar position, grip width, elbow orientation, torso position, amount of hip flexion, depth, speed of movement) it’s clear that there are almost countless permutations and it’s highly unlikely that two people will squat identically. In the majority of instances, with both general and athletic populations, the squat is coached as somewhat of a hybrid between the two. This hybrid technique generally fuses the upper body portion of the Olympic squat with the lower body portion of the powerlifting squat. This means the high bar position and upright torso of the Olympic squat combined with the hip hinge and depth just below parallel of the powerlifting squat. The rationale is that the hybrid is a compromise between the low back and knee sparing techniques of the respective lifts.

Which Is Best?

The Olympic squat is preferable for developing/maintaining flexibility and strengthening throughout a full range of motion. The upright position of the trunk also makes the exercise preferable to those with back issues or back weakness and the high bar position is easier on the wrists than with the low bar position.

The powerlifting style is preferable for lifting maximal weight and achieving a greater stimulation of the central nervous system. As the forward lean and sitting back technique increase the hip moment relative to knee moment, it’s also a better choice for those looking to develop the posterior chain relative to the quads. The emphasis on the hips also reduces the stress on the knee so it would probably be the choice for individuals with knee trouble. That’s not to say however, that you wouldn’t attempt to gradually progress back to full Olympic squats as well.

Each style has its advantages but in an ideal world you should train with both styles. This could involve cycling phases or sessions of Olympic style squatting with those of powerlifting style or even incorporating both into a single session. Some individuals won’t be able to get on with certain nuances of either style but that’s not really an issue. As long as you stay true to your training programme and the squatting fundamentals you’ll be on the right path!

Exercises, Performance

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13 comments


  1. gilbert

    would be interesting to see the big squatters in powerlifting who handle over 1000 pounds try a front squat .

  2. Mike

    Mark Rippetoe says that the low bar squat places less stress on the lower back?

    • Maloney Performance

      Hi Mike,

      Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I thought part of his rationale for low bar was that it increases activity of the erectors and is a better choice for strengthening them as opposed to actually reducing stresses?

      Best wishes,
      Sean

  3. coop

    when I squat heavy I seem to out of bad habit roll forward, and so work my lower back more than I should… would going lower bar stance help reduce this or is it a matter of going lighter and just nailing the form?

    • Maloney Performance

      Front squats would be a great choice by the sounds of it, as you won’t be able to rock forward without dumping the bar. If flexibility is a problem in getting into the position then you can use lifting straps to make it easier (may have to google the set up as it’s hard to explain in writing). Naturally make sure you’re hammering upper back work too.

  4. Quyen Lam

    Great article. I’m starting to squat olympic style but currently place the bar ‘low-bar’ ,on the ridge between my lower traps and delts when my shoulder blades are pushed together. I’ve tried placing the bar on my traps but have found that pressue is quite painful. I’ve tried adjusting the positioning slightly to try and find the sweet spot but still hurts. Is the pain something I would get used to? What am i doing wrong? Any help would be great or perhaps an article on finding the sweet spot and high bar placement? :)

    Thanks once again.

    • Maloney Performance

      Thanks Quyen. It’s not uncommon when you switch, particularly when the weight gets heavy. As a general rule (assuming no underlying problem) allow 3 weeks or so to become accustomed to a new uncomfortable exercise (i.e. Zerchers, front squats, loaded hip thrust). I’d also have a soft-tissue therapist have a look at you. Trigger points are very common in that area and may need to be dealt with first.

      Hope it helps!
      Sean

      • Quyen Lam

        Awesome thanks! I’ve noticed that I’m only able to squat less from before. Before I was squatting low bar as taught by Mark Ripptoe and was pushing 152kg but now with the Oly squat I’m down to 140kg. Is this normal?

        • Maloney Performance

          No problem. I’d say that’s a pretty normal ratio – naturally you can bring this closer to your low-bar squat if you focus on it in training but it all depends on what you’re squatting for at the end of the day!

          Sean

  5. Patrick

    When I try to go to an olympic squat, I reach two main issues. One is hip mobility in order to get down to the bottom position, and the other is ankle mobility which forces my feet to have a great angle outwards. My powerlifting style squat is supposed to be more stressful on my hips due to the sit back motion, I find that it is the opposite way.

    • Maloney Performance

      Hi Patrick,

      The powerlifting squat is more stressful in the fact that you’re putting greater torques through the hip joint, however, if you’ve got impingement or general lack of ROM issues then it’s not going to be particurlarly nice for the hip joint either. It’s just a case of working hard on getting the ROM there in the first place and then trying to strengthen in that range.

      Hope this helps.
      Sean

  6. David

    I’ve recently started using olympic weightlifting shoes for my low bar squatting, and I’m having issues not leaning too far forward or just the movement feeling “natural”. I know a lot of lifters do use weightlifting shoes to low bar squat, so I’m wondering if this is just something I need to stay with. Is there any benefit to using olympic weightlifting shoes to low bar, or should I just revert to what I know?

    • Maloney Performance

      Hi David,
      Impossible to judge without seeing you squat. There’ll be some natural forward lean with low bar squatting and that’s fine as long as it’s not too excessive. I’m not a really fan of Oly shoes for low bar. One of the big points of low bar is to emphasise the glutes/hamstrings and shoes will have the opposite effect. May help with depth issues and foot/ankle stability though, seems to be the justification for using them.
      Hope this helps.
      Sean

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