A well-executed front squat is a thing of beauty, upright torso, core braced, full range of motion, and it LOOKS almost effortless. If you’ve ever done a front squat, though, you’ll know just how difficult they can be, demanding incredible levels of leg, core and upper back strength.
- What’s the Difference Between a Front Squat and a Back Squat?
- The Benefits of the Front Squat
- Step by Step Front Squat Technique Guide
- Common Front Squat Mistakes
- Front Squat Variations You Should Know
- How to Programme Front Squats into Your Workout
- Front Squat Summary
What’s the Difference Between a Front Squat and a Back Squat?
Well, as you can tell from the video, and from the names, the main difference is the position of the barbell. In a traditional back squat the bar is either going to sit on your traps (high bar or rear delts (low bar) whereas in a front squat the bar is going to sit in front of you, on your front delts.
The result of this difference in position is a change in the biomechanics or movement patterns of the lift. Front squats will be more upright, will require greater knee flexion (more bending at the knees) and will be more quad dominant than back squats.
Also, because you’ll be supporting the bar in front of you, your upper back will have to work harder to stop you from rounding forwards and dropping the bar. This is why front squats often feel harder than back squats, and a big reason why most people front squat much less than they back squat.
The Benefits of the Front Squat
So, if the front squat feels harder and allows you to lift less weight, why on earth should you even bother with it?
1) Front Squats Are Great For Quad Muscle Development
If you’re looking for a way to build big, strong quads then front squats are your answer. Since you’re forced into an upright position your quads have to do way more work than in back squats.
2) Front Squats Are Essential for Clean & Jerks
If you’re a weightlifter then building a strong, solid and comfortable front squat is essential for maximising the amount that you can clean and jerk
3) Front Squats Are Easier on the Lower Back
Since there’s far less hinging at the hips, the amount of sheer stresses placed on the lower back are much less than in back squats. If you’re dealing with a back injury, front squats can be a great way to build leg strength whilst reducing reinjury risk.
4) Front Squats Build Torso and Upper Back Rigidity
The challenge of having to keep your torso upright, elbows up and core braced makes for an incredible method of developing torso and upper back rigidity, which has great carryover to a range of athletic activities like jumps and sprints.
Step by Step Front Squat Technique Guide
Alright, so you’re keen to give them a go. Here are the 3 key steps to performing a perfect front squat.
1) Set Up Correctly: Rack, Barbell Placement and Foot Position
All good front squats begin with a good set up. You’ll want to start by setting up your squat rack slightly lower than normal, usually one setting (about 2″) lower does the trick.
From there, put your fingertips on the bar, just outside of shoulder-width apart, and perform an exaggerated ‘revving’ motion with your elbows to scoop them down and around the bar, until they’re driving upwards in front of you. This motion allows you to maximise tension in your upper back, priming you for a strong, stable lift.
The bar should be sitting on your shoulders, close to your neck, but not so close that it chokes you. (*If you cannot achieve this position, scroll down to the variations section to find a couple of alternative grips)
Walk the bar out, taking 2 or 3 small steps.
Your feet should be somewhere around shoulder to hip width apart, with your toes pointing out at around 30 degrees (10 and 2 on a clock) Everyone’s hip structure is slightly different, so feel free to play around a bit to find the position that feels best for you.
2) The Descent: Starting the Movement, Alignment and Control
As with back squats, start by taking a deep 360-degree breath, and then brace your core as if you were about to be punched.
However, unlike in a low bar back squat, where you might have been told to initiate the movement by pushing your hips back, a good front squat begins by bending your hips and knees simultaneously.
As you descend, you should aim to keep your balance over midfoot, with your knees tracking in line with your toes. Visualise moving directly downwards so that your bum sits in between your heels.
Since the positions can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first, you may be tempted to rush. Instead, aim to keep good control throughout the descent, maintaining a braced core and an upright posture.
3) The Ascent: Tension, Drive and Finishing Strong
As you hit the bottom position, stay tight and keep tension throughout your body.
Drive through your midfoot, as if trying to push the floor away, and keep this aggressive drive going until the movement is complete.
To finish the movement strong, really focus on keeping your chest up, your upper back and core tight, and on not letting your elbows drop.
Common Front Squat Mistakes
Mistake #1: Choking Yourself With the Barbell
As a coach, one of the biggest mistakes I see people new to the front squat make is positioning the bar too close to their neck and half-choking themselves with the barbell (not exactly ideal for performance) Keep the bar close to the next, but not quite touching it.
*Pro-tip, if you’re a female lifter, or a male lifter with a smaller frame, I really recommend using a women’s weightlifting bar, as it’s slightly narrower and will fit on your shoulders better.
Mistake #2: Trying to Lift the Bar With Your Fingers and Wrists
Another really common mistake is I see is putting excess pressure on their hands and wrists by trying to use them to support the weight. I promise, in the battle of heavy barbell versus human wrist, barbell wins.
This mistake happens when people with limited wrist, shoulder and/or thoracic spine mobility try to keep a full hands grip on the barbell but can’t get their elbows into the right position (left pic) A better option is to open out your hand so that the barbell is just resting on your fingertips, with the load supported by your shoulders and your elbows able to point up and out (right pic)
Mistake #3: Not Staying Vertical
Whilst it might feel natural to lean forwards in a back squat, it’s a guaranteed way to drop the barbell in a front squat. Throughout the movement you need to keep your chest up, head looking forwards (or slightly up) and torso vertical.
Mistake #4: Not Hitting Depth
Front squats feel uncomfortable at first, and generally feel more uncomfortable as you squat further down. This often leads newer lifters to cut their depth and end up doing a sort of half dip movement. To fix this, lower the weight on the bar, and focus on achieving a full range of motion.
Usefully, performing full range of motion reps is also the quickest way to get used to the positions, improve your mobility and remove the discomfort.
Front Squat Variations You Should Know
For the most part, a combination of back squats and front squats in your workout should give you plenty of leg development. With that said, there are a couple of variations that can be useful to know.
Cross Grip (Bodybuilder) Front Squats
Cross grip front squats are exactly what their name would suggest. They’re a regular front squat performed with your arms crossed in order to grab the bar. The grip isn’t quite as stable as the regular clean grip, but it’s easier to achieve and may feel more comfortable for people with limited shoulder, wrist and thoracic mobility.
They can also be a useful variation for larger bodybuilders, as having extra large biceps can make it difficult to achieve a proper clean grip. (Weird flex but okay)
Clean Grip with Straps
Another variation for those with limited mobility is the use of straps. In this variation the bar will be on your shoulders, but your hands will be grabbing the straps above it. Again, it’s not as stable as a proper clean grip, but it’s easier to achieve, and can help to develop some of the upper back strength and positional awareness necessary to front squat with a clean grip later on.
This simplified variation of a front squat uses a dumbbell or kettlebell held close to the chest in front of your body. Now, because you’ll essentially be holding the weight in your arms you won’t be able to use heavy loads (typically 30kg+ becomes a problem for most people) you will, however, be able to get used to the front squat movement pattern whilst building a little leg and upper back strength. This makes it a great choice for beginners to start strength training.
How to Programme Front Squats into Your Workout
Alright, so you know the benefits and you’ve read the step by step technique sequence, but how do you integrate front squats into your training?
Front Squat Session Order:
Front squats, being a heavy, multi-joint movement should be placed towards the start of your workout. The only thing that should, or rather could, come before front squats are things like sprints, plyometrics or olympic weightlifting movements.
Front Squat Sets and Reps:
As a classic strength exercise front squats are effective with a wide range of sets and reps. Personally I recommend something in the range of 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps.
You technically CAN go higher in reps, and I’ve done so in the past (up to sets of 20 reps) but if I’m honest it becomes incredibly hard to breathe beyond rep 7 or 8, and by the time you get to 15+ reps your form goes out the window and you’re just hoping to survive.
So, if you want to use them for hypertrophy (muscle size), I’d probably add extra sets before adding extra reps; i.e. 5 sets of 8 rather than 3 sets of 14.
Front Squat Frequency:
Generally speaking anything from 1 to 3 times per week works great. Anything more than that and you’ll probably find yourself struggling to recover.
Front Squat Summary
And that’s it, pretty much everything you could need to know about the front squat. We’ve covered the benefits, step by step technique, common mistakes, useful variations as well as how to integrate them into your training.
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‘Til Next Time
MSc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator