This article is an honest summary of why you should consider the safety squat bar. Ironically, I am personally not a fan of most specialty bars and could be seen as a purist by an untrained eye. From time to time I see a few good inventions, but I have seen more vanity barbells than really good tools, so it’s time to set the record straight on the safety squat bar.
In this blog post, I promise to really dive into both the application of training and the relevant science, so it’s useful for coaches and not just another opinion piece like the ones we tend to see online. What you should note, though, is that the mentions of the barbells later are without bias, as I hate sales pitches disguised as independent reviews or guest blogs.
If you are hesitant to use a safety squat bar or want to know how much of an impact the barbell makes on training, this is a perfect read. Not only do I review rationales for safety squat bars and address some of the popular brands, I cover a lot of the reasons why the bar may not be as useful as coaches believe so we can be better informed.
Science and Use of Safety Squat Bars
I will not spend long here, but there are around six research studies that show how safety squat bars can make a difference in training acutely and chronically. I was very surprised that the barbell had so little research, but that’s the nature of the beast. Coaches have to contend with the fact that practice will always be one step ahead of science, but don’t assume that step is always in the right direction.Coaches have to contend with the fact that practice will always be one step ahead of science, but don’t assume that step is always in the right direction, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
From what we know, just three direct safety squat bar studies demonstrate that some mild differences exist between straight bars. I will cover those differences in this section before jumping into the more applied areas. The other studies available don’t really directly review the safety squat itself; it’s just that reviewing barbell placement helps for understanding how the line of thrust interacts with a human body. The sum of all of the research can be enlightening, provided you make allowances for the limitations of study design such as looking at specific bars with specific populations.
Video 1. Use of the safety squat bar has grown in popularity over the last few years, mainly from the inclusion of split squats and hand-supported exercises. Other benefits like torso positioning and the comfort of the padding make the bar an attractive option.
Just to be on the same page, a safety squat bar is simply a padded cambered bar with dual handles. Various makes and models exist, ranging from simple options from Gopher Performance to the Kabuki Strength Transformer Bar. To do this review, we evaluated every major bar on the market and looked at important areas such as the bar materials, the padding and handle design, and even how the bar fit with various sized athletes. Some of the information was surprising, such as comfort and barbell quality. Those factors may not matter much in a research study, but when you try to apply the science, it is important because the bar must actually be useful in a real-world environment.
To summarize a few studies succinctly, a safety squat bar recruits the upper body more than a regular bar and perhaps alters the muscular demand to the lower body. Along with keeping the torso more vertical, it looks like the barbell helps similarly to the way it does with regular back squatting over a longer training period. Another recently published study showed that while absolute loading is different between the safety squat bar and the straight bar, the muscle recruitment of the legs and the bar speeds were not as significant as the earlier study.
Personally, we did a few electromyography studies and found the differences to be noticeable only with the anterior thigh, but the number of athletes was too underpowered to make a real conclusion. I think it will take time to figure out if the differences between bars matter enough for conventional back squatting to warrant concern or be a true opportunity for athletes. In summary, we can’t confidently know the differences between the barbells, but they appear small, and the benefits lie in how they are used in a setting. I will also cover those benefits and make a case for why they are often oversold.
1. Working Around Injuries
A lot of coaches make the claim that a safety squat bar is great for arm injuries, and I agree, but you can also use a hip harness or belt squat. When solving problems with athlete limitations, it’s not about finding a better bar—it’s likely that you need a better loading option. Still, I am a believer, as I have seen athletes with serious injuries make progress with the safety squat bar, but I feel that if an injury is that severe, you are still playing with fire and must be very cautious with any type of extreme loading. When an upper body injury exists, I simply prefer belt squatting in some fashion, as I worry about the load being held in a potentially dangerous manner.When solving problems with athlete limitations, it’s not about finding a better bar—it’s likely that you need a better loading option, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
One factor to think about with the safety squat bar is the avoidance of a back squat position. The same pundits who claim the bar is perfect for throwing athletes are often the same people who stress mobility. If their mobility programs work so well, why are athletes unable to get into positions that require decent mobility? The amount of external rotation and thoracic extension in a high back squat isn’t at the level of a circus contortionist, so the elbow and shoulder strain should not be an issue unless the athlete indeed has a unique structure. Each athlete should be profiled and identified for ideal exercise fit, but many athletes don’t have a good racking position because the mobility and training program failed to deliver.
2. Enhances Hand-Supported Split Squats
When I saw William Wayland promoting the HSSS (hand-supported split squat) regularly on social media, I was immediately convinced that he took a Hatfield squat variation to the next level. It looked straightforward and consistent enough for me to trust the exercise in the wild. Immediately, the adoption of the exercise was everywhere, but mainly with coaches interested in a better split squat than the conventional Bulgarian options. What coaches loved was the clever use of the squat rack, as well as the removal of a rear foot apparatus.
The exercise feels like a lunge but has the stability of a split squat. Those who appreciate single leg training feel empowered, and traditionalists love that it maintains the heart and soul of a heavy conventional back squat. Several programs have made the exercise a staple, and I am very impressed with the results of those who adopted the exercise as a primary lift.
Video 2. Coaches can choose to use the safety squat bar to do single leg singles, or very heavy maximal work. Here, professional golfer Miles Collins does single leg work with William Wayland.
Now for my criticisms of the exercise, or really of the zealots who rely on it too much. I do think the exercise is an excellent tool, but you need to develop well-rounded athletes and make sure they are fluent in other exercises. It’s not that the movement pattern has problems, it’s just that those who prefer only one exercise are often more interested in the coaching convenience than getting an athlete fully prepared for training later. Generally speaking, the exercise is great, but I recommend learning to use other bars and other exercises to overload the lower body.
3. Boosts Alternative and Conventional Exercises
When you see online barbell reviews, usually the list of exercises you can do with the safety squat bar is the same as with regular bars. While it looks like a great opportunity on paper, they are just barbell exercises with a very small twist, for the most part. If you are not using the exercises to begin with, the safety squat bar offers little to no benefit outside of, perhaps, comfort. Some exercises, like front squats (some models), walking lunges, Zercher squats, and even good mornings, have merit though.
Overall, it’s up to the coach to determine why they will modify the exercise. Usually, the padding and change of grip make the exercise a better fit. For example, lunging can fatigue the grip and sometimes using a safety squat bar makes sense, provided those performing the lunges are skilled and focused.
Video 3. Athletes who utilize the safety squat bar can use the handle or hands-free version of exercises provided that the coach understands both the lift and bar limitations. Not all exercises can be done without hands, so be careful.
One exercise I have mixed feelings about are step-ups with the safety squat bar. When I saw the safety squat bar used in step-ups, I was worried that the bar or athlete would fall. Like all exercises, safety is a priority, and (ironically) the safety squat bar didn’t look safe when performing step-ups. My experience is that an athlete could fall and be encumbered with a yoke around their neck, but it’s not about the bar—it’s really about how you set up the rack and the platform. Small box step-ups to me are nearly dead, mainly because jerk boxes and other options such as adjustable trunk-style boxes are now accessible.The strength of the safety squat bar is that the load is oriented in a mechanically advantageous way for athletes who want to stay tall, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The strength of the safety squat bar is that the load is oriented in a mechanically advantageous way for athletes who want to stay tall. It’s not going to be dramatic, but the improvement is enough to be worth considering when using heavy loads and short box heights. After my step-up article, I was asked a few times why I don’t use a safety squat bar, and my answer was that I like the idea that I could dump the bar if needed. I really didn’t have a good answer outside of my concern for the forward falling potential of the safety squat bar.
With heavy step-ups, the box height must be very short and the load heavy enough for a challenge, provided you have a spotting setup that is safe and sound. I personally don’t use safety squat bars for step-ups, but I do see enough of a case that it can be used if set up properly.
4. Creates Variation Without Change
An athlete’s career may be long enough that burnout and boredom become a problem. Mixing things up without a purpose is a bad path for coaches because it’s just self-defeating in the long run. The solution is simple: Change the stimulus to create enough novelty without ruining the process. Adding a safety squat bar into the training equation will not boost an athlete to the next level or build muscle like crazy, but it may help with the monotony of training. Remember though, don’t just change things up because you are bored, as an athlete’s career is far shorter, on average, than a coach’s. Only add them in when an athlete is past four years or when you think they would welcome a change.
Specifically, I have seen two approaches with the implementation of the safety squat bar for variety. The first is to just have the bar used by more experienced athletes who would find the switch a breath of fresh air or cycle them in to reduce boredom in the first place. I am not sure how I feel about “preventative” approaches to keeping an athlete from getting stale.
Video 4. It’s essential to use all of the necessary equipment to ensure the right training effect is achieved while making adaptable athletes. The right balance of personalization and general training is the cornerstone of LTAD.
Personally, I tend to not change anything until it’s clearly necessary, but decisions like this are always up to the coach. For my own training, I just use something until it’s obvious that a change is necessary or there’s a rationale that supports the cause. No matter what your training philosophy is, remember a happy athlete will likely improve more than one who is not engaged to a perfect training program. Use the safety squat bar judiciously, and you should be fine in the long run.
5. Encourages Technique and Range of Motion
If you are buying a safety squat bar to improve technique, it’s time to go back to interning or start an apprenticeship. I do agree that sometimes using simpler exercises fosters technique better than more demanding movements, but coaching is the ultimate tool. Too many coaches turn to easy solutions that work great immediately, but the athletes become very dependent on workarounds rather than becoming adaptable. As with the goblet squat I mentioned earlier, you can only go so far without coaching, but I do see why the convenience of looking good early with coaching ease is popular. Sometimes a good tool does much of the coaching, but there are limits to this approach, and it’s a dead end if relied on too much.
I am seeing more and more attention back on the art of coaching and honing the craft of strength and conditioning. That is essential because all of the statistical analysis and coding that coaches learn will not hold up when the athlete needs to lift. Lower body strength is a major KPI (key performance indicator) with nearly all programs, so using a safety squat bar for better leg training is a worthwhile endeavor. Frankly, the bar helps the athlete stay upright if used properly and can foster range of motion if the athlete is coached well. Adding in slants or wedges to the lifting session enhances all lower body training if dorsiflexion is an issue.If you’re diligent about improving technique, the safety squat bar is a fine way to enhance range of motion and keep the torso up slightly more than with back squatting, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The safety squat bar is not a magic bullet, so if you are expecting the equipment to do much of the work for you, disappointment awaits. However, if you are diligent about improving technique, the safety squat bar is a fine way to enhance range of motion and keep the torso up slightly more than with back squatting, but it’s not a guarantee.
6. Provides Comfort and Customization
Finally, the most common reason many coaches favor the safety squat bar: the comfort factor of having industrial padding on the shoulders of an athlete. Let’s be honest: A heavy barbell on the traps isn’t easy, especially with athletes who are less developed in the upper back. Perhaps using a safety squat bar early with athletes makes sense because it’s comfortable and actually recruits more upper back musculature.
Front squats are also more comfortable, provided that the safety squat bar model has padding that is not too large, as it could be a problem fitting with smaller athletes. I’m generalizing here that the use of a safety squat bar tends to be more comfortable, but most athletes with experience will not miss the padding so much that switching back is a problem. Still, the use of an ergonomic barbell is a major selling point for athlete adherence and compliance with training.
The Transformer Bar by Kabuki Strength, specifically the new model, is promising. The first-generation barbell is frankly not worth getting, so if you are looking for a used version to save money, don’t bother. The second-generation bar is much better because of the quick position knob and the labeling feature they added. If you are a garage gym coach or want a super customizable bar, this model is perhaps the most versatile option on the market.
The Transformer Bar literally changes form to mimic different types of loading patterns. I was suspicious at first, but it works as promised. The real question is the efficacy of the changes with regard to muscle recruitment and joint loading, and the answer is the bar modifies the mechanical stress on the body based on the setting selected. To me, the adjustments are great for preference, but I doubt that the settings are enough to see changes in sports performance. Therefore, if you are buying bars for your gym, it’s better to stick with the conventional weightlifting bars, invest cautiously in a safety squat bar you think is a good fit, and have a Transformer Bar for special occasions with athletes who may be coming back from injury or similar.
Choose Your Tools Wisely
I hate being the critic, but if you just accept hype as fact, it leads you nowhere fast. Safety squat bars have some great qualities that make them excellent investments, but honestly, they are mainly options when so many other pieces of equipment can do the job well. I consider it a bar that you get along with the other tools such as hexagonal bars and specialized cambered bars for lifting. Most of the time dumbbells and straight bars will be fine for the majority of athletes, depending on your environment and preferences.
In 20 years of coaching, I have only used the safety squat bar a few times, just out of curiosity, and prefer regular bars for squatting. After reading some of William Wayland’s work, I am more open to the equipment, as I see a rationale and recommend it to those who prefer the experience. Often coaches ask if I suggest or recommend the bar since many programs have already outfitted their gyms. I don’t hesitate to recommend them if their use is coached properly.I don’t hesitate to recommend safety squat bars if their use is coached properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you plan to buy additional bars, remember that you have to try each available model and decide what is best for you and your athletes. Don’t feel pressured, as one bar will not hold back a great training program, but don’t dismiss it either, as the safety squat bar has a lot to offer athletes.
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