For reasons that will become apparent later in this article, the front squat is not as popular as the back squat but many sports strength and conditioning coaches actually prefer it as there is a commonly-held belief that the front has a greater performance carryover into athletic activities such as jumping and running. Also, the front squat encourages or, rather, insists on a much more upright torso position which means that your lower back is under much less stress compared to back squats.
Irrespective of why you might choose to perform front squats instead of back squats, placing the bar on the front of your shoulders compared to the back changes the entire feel of the exercise and variation alone, the front squat is a great addition to your training tool box.
Front squat versus back squat torso position
Front Squat Anatomy
Like the back squat, the front squat is a champion lower body exercise and uses a large number of muscles. Your quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings all get in on the act, as do your abductors, adductors and your erector spinea. The more upright torso position means that erector spinea are less in demand when compared to the back squat and in electromyography (EMG) tests have shown that front squats work your quads harder than back squats.
A very noticeable difference between front squats and back squats is the amount of upper back involvement. In the back squat, the bar rests in position and will stay there with minimal upper body musculature involvement. In contrast, if you relax your upper body when front squatting, you’ll soon find the bar rolling off your shoulders and heading towards the floor – not good! Subsequently, front squats can be considered more of a whole body exercise than back squats although the focus of both of these exercises is the legs.
Front Squat Equipment
Unlike the back squat, if you get into trouble while front squatting, you can simply dump the weight off your shoulders so it lands in front of you and so it is less essential to use a squat rack. Olympic lifters often clean the bar up into the front squat position or take it from simple squat stands.
For ease of performance, I suggest using a squat rack or power cage but if you don’t have access to either of these you can still perform this exercise in relative safety – at least while the weights are light. For simplicity though, I’ll describe how to front squat as though you are using a squat rack.
As with back squats and deadlifts; solid, flat shoes are best so as to minimize the amount of wobble at your ankles. IF you don’t have suitably firm-soled shoes, I suggest squatting in just your socks – if your gym allows it. Mind your toes though!
Grip is essential in the front squat so make sure you have a towel handy to dry your hands or, alternatively, use some lifting chalk. There are some great grip-enhancing products available such as non-coloured chalk substitutes and even liquid chalk which only needs to be applied to your hands once per workout. The beauty of these products and more traditional lifting chalk is your hands stay dry so you don’t have to worry about losing your grip on the bar.
As for clothing, front squats tend to be deep squats so make sure your leg wear is up to the challenge – there is nothing worse than descending into a deep squat only to be greeted by a ripping sound coming from the back of your shorts.
Front Squatting Technique
In many ways, the front squat and back squat are very similar in that you push your hips back, bend your knees and lower your butt down towards the floor. There is no need to over think this action – you have probably done dozens of squats today already! The hard part about both types of squat is doing them while supporting a potentially heavy weight on your shoulders. And, as with all exercises, if you are going to perform the exercise properly, you need to make sure your initial set up is correct.
Set the barbell in the squat rack so that it is mid-chest height. Reach out and grab the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. You may find that a thumb-less grip is more comfortable than a thumb-around grip and, in this instance, that’s quite acceptable.
Walk forwards and push your elbows down and under so that the bar is resting across the fronts of your shoulders. Push your elbows forwards so that your upper arms are as close to parallel with the floor as possible. This is the hard part! If you let your arms drop, you’re likely to lose the bar as it rolls of your shoulders. You MUST keep your arms up. Try to point the tips of your elbows forwards at all times but do not lean back to achieve this.
Straighten your legs and take a couple of steps back out of the squat rack. Inhale, lift your chest and remember push your elbows up up UP! You may feel the bar pressing against your throat – this uncomfortable phenomenon is normal. If, however, you feel like the breath is being choked out of you, I suggest re-racking the bar and starting again.
Position your feet so they are around shoulder width apart with your toes turned very slightly outwards. Re-check your elbow position and prepare for descent.
With your chest up and your lungs full of air, brace your abs and then push your hips back slightly. Bend your knees and, keeping your torso upright, descend until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
As you descend, push your knees outwards. Imagine you are trying to spreads the floor with your feet.
Because of the upright torso, it is not uncommon to see front squatters go very deep – to the point where the hamstrings actually touch the calves. Squat as deeply as you feel comfortable but don’t feel you have to go “ass to grass” as the expression goes. Parallel is just fine.
Make sure your lower back does not become rounded and keep driving your elbows up to keep your arms level. Your weight should be slightly more on your heel and your toes should be free to wiggle inside your shoes.
Drive down thought your feet, keep your chest and elbows up and stand up, exhaling as you do so. Keep pushing your knees outward to ensure your thighs don’t fall inwards as you come up. Reset your core, check your elbow position and then inhale and repeat.
On completion of your set, walk forwards into the squat rack and deposit the bar back from whence it came. Give your arms a well deserved shake and then start thinking about your next set.
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