What is the Safety Squat Bar?
A safety squat bar, or SSB, is a cambered bar that has two handles to form a U-shape around a person's neck and shoulders. When used in place of a straight barbell for back squats, the camber of the bar makes the weights tilted slightly in front of the squatter instead of behind the shoulders. The end result of this positioning is a slightly more upright torso during the squat than a high-bar or low-bar back squat. This also has the effect of pushing your upper back forward during the squat.
Making Up For Lacking Shoulder Mobility
The primary reason I ever bought or used a safety squat bar was due to left shoulder issues I had in 2017. My shoulder heavily affected my overhead press and bench press, but I was able to drop the weight on those and build back up over time. My OHP has seemed to fully recover back to the weights I was doing before, and my bench press was only minorly affected and quickly recovered.
A secondary effect of my left shoulder pain was that it was painful for me to get into a full back squat position. The entire squat movement ended up being a practice in pushing through pain long enough to finish the set and rerack the bar. Eventually I tried tying some straps to the bar and holding the straps over my shoulders, which made some makeshift handles similar to the SSB handles. This worked surprisingly well for the 9 months that I used it, but I felt that if I was doing this long-term then I needed a safer solution.
I ended up buying the EliteFTS SS Yoke bar, although there are similar options from Rogue and Titan Fitness. I was ready to buy new, but I lucked out and found a used SSB on Craigslist for $100 cheaper from a local strongman competitor. Since the SSB ends are 1.9" instead of 2" like normal olympic barbells, I had to buy Lock-Jaw Pro 2 Axle collars to make sure the weights wouldn't come off the end.
Safety Squat Bar Benefits and Drawbacks
By the end of 2018, I was using the SSB for all squatting movements. This came primarily from shoulder mobility, but also due to the fact that I was unlikely to be entering any powerlifting competitions. If I was planning to compete in a competition that included the standard barbell back squat, I'd definitely use the SSB less than I do now. The fact that the SSB squat is a different enough movement from the barbell back squat is probably the biggest drawback of using the SSB (if the back squat is a requirement).
One thing I also came to realize about the SSB is that I have to use far less weight, at least to start out. Depending on what your goals are, this is either a drawback or a benefit. If your main goal is increasing your 1-rep max on your squat, then this might be a drawback. I've become a big believer in sub-maximal lifting as a majority of one's training, so this is actually a benefit for me.
While the legs are still the primary target of an SSB squat, your back and core seem to be working harder to stabilize and brace than a standard back squat. I feel like this has strengthened my upper back specifically, as you have to fight against the weight during heavier sets as it tries to push you forward. One drawback this has is that your upper back is in a less contracted position than a barbell back squat due to the positioning of your arms and shoulders, so you must focus on squeezing the shoulderblades together and keeping your chest up during the lift.
My Main SSB Uses
Much like kitchen appliances, I like to try to have multiple uses for any home gym equipment I purchase if possible. In my current lifting routine, I use the SSB in three ways.
The SSB squat is the "traditional" use of the SSB, and I have this as my main movement on squat days instead of barbell low-bar or high-bar back squat. The handles are coming out in front of me, and I program this using 5/3/1 percentages.
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SSB squat 330x5. Last time I tried this weight I got 2 reps, so that's progress! If you are thinking to yourself "yikes, your back", the SSB is cambered so the weights push you forward, which strengthens the upper back. I appreciate any concern, but it's not a bug, it's a feature! #homegym #powerlifting #wendler531 #safetysquatbar #minimed670g
SSB Front Squat
I do the SSB front squat as a secondary movement on my OHP days. Since it's secondary, I do this at roughly half my training max for the SSB squat for 5 sets of 5-8 reps. To get in position, I put the SSB in my rack backwards with the handles facing me, then reach my arms up and grab the pad in front of me. This makes the U-shaped pad rest on my front delts and side delts, and the bottom of the U is up against my neck with the handles extending behind my head. The key for this exercise is to keep the arms, shoulders and chest up during the entire movement.
SSB Bulgarian Split Squats
Part of 5/3/1 accessories is doing single-leg movements, which I've always hated until I actually did them consistently. Don't get me wrong, I still hate them, but I don't fall over anymore, which means my balance has improved. For split squats, I put my bench outside of my rack and put my back foot up on the bench, then squat on the front foot. Since the balance of the safety squat bar is setup to be able to sit on your shoulders without holding the handles, it makes it easier to unrack the SSB and then hold the rack while getting your back foot in position.
Should You Buy A Safety Squat Bar?
Personally, I love having the safety squat bar in my home gym. The EliteFTS version is so well built that I don't think it would ever break or bend, but if something happened to it I would absolutely replace it. Like most specialty barbells, it's certainly not a requirement, but it's really nice to have. If you have any shoulder mobility problems, this is a lifesaver. If you're competing in powerlifting events, you may not use it as much, but I think it can still be a squat variation that can help you switch up your leg exercises.