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16 May 2020

Safe to Say Safety Bar Squats are Here to Stay

by Jake Remmert 0

Gone are the days when all we have at our disposal for heavy, compound exercises are your run-of-the-mill barbells. So primitive. Now, there are a bunch of cool toys you can buy – buffalo bars, transformer bars, barbells of different mass and size, even bars that are wobbly. But perhaps the most beloved of all…

Gone are the days when all we have at our disposal for heavy, compound exercises are your run-of-the-mill barbells. So primitive. Now, there are a bunch of cool toys you can buy – buffalo bars, transformer bars, barbells of different mass and size, even bars that are wobbly. But perhaps the most beloved of all of these is the safety squat bar, or SSB. They’re so popular that a bunch of different companies make them with different specs and handle orientations. 

SSB has been a mainstay in powerlifting training for years now, with the goal of accomplishing a couple different things:

1) allowing the lifter to keep their arms in front of the body, getting some sweet relief from the wear-and-tear normal squatting (especially low bar) has on the shoulders

2) allowing the lifter to remain more upright, mimicking the loading you might get with a front squat – just easier to do for us… flexibility-challenged… powerlifters

Staying more upright has a few applications, including:

1) working around lower back discomfort/pain

2) Targeting the quads a bit more (assuming you also have more forward knee travel)

3) Forcing the athlete to fight to keep their chest up as they fatigue, which should transfer back to combat excessive forward lean (more than is dictated by structure) and any “caving in/forward” that might happen with heavy loads on normal squats

4) This different positioning can also act simply as variation in training, helping the athlete avoid overuse injuries and staleness

One of the coolest things about exercise/sport science is that it commonly takes things that are used in practice and puts them to the test. The flip side of that coin: one of the coolest things about evidence-based coaching is that, after using the available evidence and sound logic, you get to think outside the box and try things that make sense, but the science just hasn’t caught up to yet (science is SLOW). The SSB fits that bill – there is almost no research on it, and the first study is only two years old. But, the newest (and third) study on SSB just came out, so this seems like a good time to get a lay of the land.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 2018, researchers Meldrum and DeBeliso did a retroactive study on a group of 28 baseball players who had included SSB in their S&C training program. In an effort to put less stress on their shoulder joints, the pitchers did SSB while everyone else did squats with a normal barbell. Following a 9-week periodized program, pre- to post-testing comparisons of vertical jump, 60-yard sprint time, and squat 1RM were made within groups; they looked at gains in pitchers using SSB, and separately at non-pitchers using a normal barbell. Both groups saw similar increases in vertical jump and sprint time, but the people doing SSB saw greater estimated 1RM gains. On average, SSB squatters added 40.3kg to their 1RM, while normal barbell squatters added 29.3kg. A 10kg difference sounds like a lot, but let’s think about this. The normal barbell squatters, with an average body mass of 86.7kg, had a pre-tested 1RM of about 136.2kg (roughly 1.5x bodyweight) and improved to 166.1kg. The SSB guys, with about the same average body mass, went from a pre-tested SSB 1RM of 112.3kg to a post-test of 152.6kg. So, yes, they made more progress in terms of kilos added to the bar, but with such a lower starting 1RM, they were probably just less familiar with SSB and therefore both had more room to grow and made some newbie-gainz thanks to the novelty. 

While that 2018 study was cool in that it was the first time SSB was “used” in the literature, it isn’t super informative since there were no comparisons made between it and normal barbell squatting. The next year, Hecker and colleagues used competitive powerlifters who all had prior experience with the SSB, and directly compared their performance with the SSB and a normal barbell. Now we’re talking. They allowed subjects to choose their preferred squat stance – and since they were all competitive powerlifters, I’m assuming many/all of them chose a low bar squat, but that wasn’t specified in the paper. They found that when using the SSB, lifters had less trunk and hip flexion (stayed more upright) and higher muscle activity in the lower traps (presumably to help maintain upright posture). When they instead used the traditional barbell, their tested 3RM was about 11.3% higher than SSB 3RM, they had more muscle activity in the legs and, interestingly, rectus abdominis. I would have expected greater ab activation in the SSB, but it could be due to more forceful bracing (if the lifters were more accustomed to their normal squat and better at bracing in that position) and the higher absolute load used with the traditional barbell (since higher loads typically bring about higher EMG). This study suggests that, while the SSB allows the lifter to stay more upright and use lower loads at the same relative intensity, lifters might get more muscle activity in the legs with a normal barbell at a given %1RM. We should acknowledge that EMG isn’t the be-all end-all for muscle growth and strength, but it’s a factor. EMG data with loads equated would have been nice to see also, but alas, we get what we get. It’s possible (and logical) that with the same load on the bar, SSB would allow for higher muscle activity in the quads than a low-bar squat, and might allow for more efficient quad growth, but we can’t say that for sure.

And that brings us to 2020. Another year, another SSB paper to dissect!

Vantrease et al. took 32 trained men (not as highly trained as the Hecker study, but still trained) and had them each test SSB and traditional barbell 1RM and do a triple at 65% and a triple at 85% of the tested 1RM for that specific bar type. None of these subjects had any prior experience performing the SSB. In addition to 1RM with each bar type, they also examined mean and peak velocity and EMG at the erectors, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. There were no differences in velocity based on bar type (although, as expected, lifts at 65% moved faster than lifts at 85%), nor were there differences in EMG at any of the sites (except for, again, the expected higher EMG at 85% than 65%). This study finding similar EMG values between SSB and traditional squats, while the Hecker study found some differences, could be because in this study, subjects did high bar squats, which allow people to stay more upright than a low bar squat (as was likely used in the Hecker study, but again, that’s speculation on my part). Unsurprisingly, 1RM was higher for a normal squat than for SSB; on average, 10.9% higher. Further, a strong correlation was found (r=0.947) between 1RM values of the two bar types.

Now, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but I just want to throw this out there. Both studies comparing strength in the two lifts have found a roughly 11% difference favoring traditional squats. The Hecker study used low bar squats and lifters with previous SSB experience. The Vantrease study used high bar squats, which are typically weaker than low bar squats, and lifters without previous SSB experience, meaning their maximal SSB strength would be weaker than if they had some experience with it. Taking into account the super high R-value Vantrease found… is it crazy to think that a “high bar/no SSB experience” condition would show a roughly equivalent difference in SSB and traditional squat strength to a “low bar/SSB experience” condition? I don’t know. What we’ve seen so far is: low bar squat and experienced SSB 3RM’s are about 11% different, and 1RM’s likely diverge a bit more and strength differences would be larger; high bar squat and inexperienced SSB 1RM’s were roughly 11% different; and, anecdotally, many coaches have seen a roughly 10-15% difference in strength between high bar and low bar 1RM. Wouldn’t it be something if, for the average powerlifter, low bar squats are roughly 10% stronger than high bar squats, which are roughly 10% stronger than SSB? Obviously, anthropometry, training experience, and so on need to be accounted for, but it might not be the worst starting point in the world. 

In the future, I think it would be really interesting to see a long-term training study looking at any potential differences in hypertrophy between SSB and normal squats, but what I’m even more interested in is whether SSB can be used to improve powerlifting technique. Take a group of powerlifters, analyze the kinetics and kinematics of their competition squat as they work up to a 1RM, then have one group perform a mesocycle of SSB, followed by a mesocycle of normal squats to re-familiarize, and then re-test squat 1RM to see if their bar path, trunk angle, etc. improve compared to another group who just does two mesocycles of normal squat training before the re-test. And of course, equate average volume, relative intensity, and all of that important stuff. 

While we wait for more research to be performed, we should lean on the available evidence (conveniently summarized in this article) and logic to decide how and when to implement safety bar squats. Based on the data, if someone is a low bar squatter, switching to SSB should allow them to stay more upright, which should hypothetically allow them to work around any lower back issues. They might be able to get more direct quad work by doing this also – but that could also be achieved through accessory work. Whether the athlete prefers low bar or high bar, if he or she has any nagging shoulder soreness, SSB should be able to offer a reprieve. Finally, the novelty alone should help avoid overuse injuries and may even help spur some new adaptations.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of periodization… but what the heck, let’s just touch on this.

Because it isn’t highly specific to competition, if used, SSB should probably be programmed far away from a meet in a general preparatory phase when the goal is more focused on hypertrophy, technique improvement, and setting yourself up for productive strength gain later. As competition gets closer and you transition into a more specific preparatory phase and focus on general strength, SSB could stay in with heavier loads to (perhaps) cue the athlete to stay more upright during the concurrently-programmed traditional squats, or you could ditch them for another variation that’s a bit closer to meet-specificity. As the meet gets even closer and you move to a peaking phase, SSB should probably be dropped in the interest of high competition specificity (i.e. heavy squats). Then again, maybe the athlete has shoulder issues and can only handle a tiny bit of normal squatting – in that case, maybe work up to a heavy single, double, or triple and then do a few lighter sets with the SSB. Probably not ideal, but for someone who simply can’t do much normal squatting, it might be ideal given those specific constraints. Coaching is an art – know your athlete (or yourself, if self-coached), experiment, take a lot of notes, and program accordingly! 

References:

  1. Meldrum R, DeBeliso M. A comparison of back squat & safety squat bar on measures of strength, speed, and power in NCAA Division I baseball players. Int J Sports Sci 8: 137–144, 2018.

2. Hecker KA, Carlson LA, Lawrence MA. Effects of the safety squat bar on trunk and lower-body mechanics during a back squat. J Strength Cond Res, 33(Suppl 1):S45–S51, 2019.

3. Vantrease, WC, Townsend, JR, Sapp, PA, Henry, RN, and Johnson, KD. Maximal Strength, Muscle Activation, and Bar Velocity Comparisons Between Squatting With a Traditional or Safety Squat Bar. J Strength Cond Res, 2020.

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