What Does Set the Bar Mean?

Set the Bar Meaning

Definition: To fix standards that one must meet.

Origin of Set the Bar

People often add another word to this expression to create the idioms set the bar high or set the bar low. This shows how difficult the standards are to meet.

  • Setting the bar high means something is hard to accomplish.
  • Setting the bar low means something is very easy to do.

Most sources point to the sport of pole vaulting as the origin for this expression. This sport involves using a pole to jump over a bar. A bar that is set low would be much easier to jump over than a bar that was set up high.

This explanation seems likely since the term started appearing after the 1950s. This was the same time that an improved version of the pole made from composites was invented.

These new poles were better than the old versions made from bamboo or aluminum because they were flexible. This new flexible pole helped pole-vaulters jump higher than ever before.

Examples of Set the Bar

setting the bar highIn the example below, a husband is making cupcakes for his wife’s birthday.

Kip: Don’t come in the kitchen! I’m making you some birthday cupcakes.

Caroline: Really! Thank you. That’s so sweet. Are you sure that you don’t need any help?

Kip: Yes. I’ll do better than last time. I promise. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m setting the bar pretty low since last time I tried to bake I started a small grease fire.

Caroline: I wasn’t thinking that.

Kip: Well, either way, I just want you to know that I am setting the bar higher than that. I plan on making you deluxe cupcakes from a very respectable recipe.

setting the bar lowIn this second example, two lawyers are discussing expectations for new lawyers at their firm.

Jessica: This job is so stressful. They expect new lawyers at the firm to do so much so fast.

George: I know. Apparently they set the bar high in order to encourage us to try our best.

Jessica: I guess that makes sense.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about the European Union.

  • Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned, however, not to set the bar too high, since changes in the bloc of half a billion people have always been tough to achieve. –Houston Chronicle

This excerpt is from an article about football.

  • “We have to expect to score every time we touch the ball and you can’t be happy with 70%, 80% success rates that normal people would consider good or whatnot,” Rosen said. “You have to set the bar unreasonably high and always strive for it.” –LA Times


The phrase set the bar means to establish a level of quality for others to meet.