Make Your Own Safety Squat Bar To Maximize Leg Growth and Joint Health
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Safety squat bars are used in many powerlifting circles primarily because they don’t require the same degree of upper body mobility. As a result they tend to be much easier on the shoulders, neck, wrists, and elbows. However, by using wrists straps you can actually create your own makeshift safety squat bar that in many ways is superior to standard safety bars.
In fact there are multiple reasons why lifters should incorporate these into their training routines.
1. You don’t need a specialty bar (which most gyms don’t have) or a fancy setup. Simply take two lifting straps/wrist straps, loop them onto to the barbell spaced equal distance from the center knurling, and voila, you have your safety squat bar
And just in case you're still wondering what a traditional safety squat bar looks like here's one of my awesome clients Leslie Petch demonstrating it using the 1.5 protocol.
2. The straps can be gripped as high or as low as feels comfortable (lower position is more unstable but easier on the shoulders) or they can be adjusted as wide or as narrow as you need them. This makes it very conducive for accommodating any size lifter and varying anthropometrics.
3. This makeshift safety squat bar setup is much more unstable than any traditional barbell or specialty barbell due to the lack of rigidity in the handles/straps. As a result this forces the lifter to use very strict mechanics and dial in their form otherwise the barbell will tilt to one side or slide off their back. In fact if you have a tendency to favor one side or allow one hip or shoulder to dip, this set-up will give you immediate feedback via a teeter-totter effect. As a result most lifters will immediately find their abdominal and core musculature working overtime on these.
4. The makeshift safety squat bar is the most effective barbell variation I’ve used for teaching lifters how to pull the bar into their back - a common but important training cue. Rather than simply allowing the bar to rest on your back, pulling or squeezing the bar into your back is a critical component for any barbell squat as it helps create increased spinal rigidity, enhanced lat activation, and a more stable bar position. With the makeshift variation if you don’t pull aggressively on the straps and pull the bar into your back, the bar will literally fall off your back.
5. The makeshift safety squat bar setup does wonders for reinforcing the hip hinge - one of the most important squat cues. The lifter will be required to keep their hips set back near maximally throughout to create a slight forward torso lean in order to keep the bar from sliding off their back. If you assume an overly upright position, pull your head up via cervical hyperextension, let your hips shift forward, or allow significant anterior knee drift, the bar will roll off your back.
6. Lastly, the make shift bar is very conducive for teaching rigid spinal mechanics. Although the arms are pulling forcefully against the straps to keep the weight anchored onto the traps, even the slightest loss of spinal rigidity or proper postural alignment will cause the bar to tilt, become unstable, or simply roll off your back. In addition, spinal flexion often resulting from using excessive depth and exaggerated range of motion is immediately punished with similar deviations to the barbell.
7. Similar to a standard safety squat bar, these are much more conducive for promoting proper lower body squat mechanics primarily because the t-spine and shoulder mobility are not an issue. When the shoulders and scapula elevate or protract (a common problem on normal barbell squats) this impacts t-spine positioning ultimately resulting in faulty spinal alignment throughout the entire vertebral column. Besides making the squat exponentially more dangerous it also makes it nearly impossible to optimally target the lower body musculature.
8. Partial squats performed in the bottom half of the movement are particularly useful when implementing the safety squat set-up as shown in the video. That’s because they keep the lifter locked into a very precise and rigid position that not only keeps the bar locked onto their upper traps but the degree of constant tension is enough to induce growth in even the most stubborn pair of legs.
This same makeshift safety bar squat setup can also be employed on good mornings as demonstrated by one of my NFL defensive tackles, Lawrence Virgil. In fact I’ve found that many of my larger athletes prefer this setup for good-mornings as it doesn’t require the same degree of shoulder mobility and flexibility as standard good mornings do.
Many lifters are unable to keep their shoulders retracted and depressed when performing good mornings which not only makes them ineffective for taxing the posterior chain but they become exponentially more dangerous on the spine, shoulders, and neck. However the neutral shoulder position reinforced by the makeshift safety squat bar eliminates this issue. As a result they’re much more conducive for keeping ideal spinal positioning and postural alignment not to mention being highly effective for crushing the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors.
The makeshift safety bar setup also provides great value when applied to lunges, split squats, and Bulgarian squats. Similar to the squat, it reinforces the hip hinge - one of the most important cues during the lunge and split squat. The lifter will be required to keep their hips set back near maximally throughout to create a slight forward torso lean in order to keep the bar from sliding off their back. In other words it promotes ideal lunging mechanics as proper lunges and split squats involve a moderate hip hinge and forward lean throughout the movement as demonstrated by my awesome client Matt Jordan.
Additionally, you’ll be forced to stay in the bottom ¾ of the movement as locking out or coming up too high at the top of the lunge will cause the torso to become overly upright, again resulting in bar slippage. The amount of constant tension to the lower body during this lunging protocol is incredibly high making it very effective for eliciting gains in functional strength and hypertrophy. Just be prepared for a serious burn.
Because of the controlled tempos and generally greater intensity involved with the makeshift safety squat bar I recommend lower rep ranges using multiple sets of 4-8 reps on each movement. In addition I suggest using eccentric isometrics (slow negative followed by a pause in the bottom position) to help lock in technique and body mechanics. Eccentric isometrics will also help maximize the strength and hypertrophy stimulus.