In an earlier article I put together all of the major squat styles into one complete and comprehensive “Ultimate Squat Guide“. One style of squatting found among the others was the front squat, a uniquely challenging and highly beneficial squat movement that differs drastically from back and overhead squatting.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about how, why, and who should do front squats!
Front Squat Overview
The front squat is a squat style that offers nearly every athlete immense benefits, not only for maximal leg strength and development, but for transferable movement patterning and upper back / postural / core strength and control. The front squat places a high demand on upper back strength, proper hip and knee tracking, and forces the quadriceps to take a large amount of the external loading.
Olympic weightlifters, sport athletes, and functional fitness competitors need to perform front squats primarily because of the highly specific patterning and strength demonstrated in the clean and jerk (receiving the barbell). Powerlifters and bodybuilders can increase leg mass and strength with using front squats as squatting alternatives and/or assistance lifts.
Below is a brief overview on what front squats are and why the really matter:
- Places the barbell in the front rack position, which forces the lifter to maintain upright, rigid torso and involves greater amounts of upper back and quadriceps strength.
- Primary squat style for most Olympic weightlifters, functional fitness athletes, and general fitness geared towards quadriceps hypertrophy and positional squat strength directly applicable to the clean and jerk.
- Lack of upper back and/or quadriceps strength can make this lift very challenging on a lifter. Time spent getting better will result in large increases in back, core, and leg strength.
Front Squat Muscles Worked
The front squat differs slightly from the back squat due to the barbell placement in the front rack position. By doing so, the load is displaced in front of mid-line, requiring stronger upper back and quadriceps to ensure an upright torso and positioning.
- Upper Back
Front Squat Benefits
The front squat offer unique sport specific application and muscular adaptations that every athlete should be aware of. Due to the unique barbell placement, this squat style differs from other forms of back and overhead loaded squatting movements. Below are the benefits of specifically including front squats into your training.
- Increased quadriceps engagement and development due to higher degrees of knee flexion reached at the bottom of the squat. This movement can add quality amounts of lean muscle mass to the quadriceps and enhance overall leg development and performance, especially if athletes find their hips become the primary mover in most squats, resulting in them losing the “chest up” positioning and/or rounding out in back squats (both high and low bar).
- Develop proper knee joint movement integrity, as lack of quadriceps strength and control can impede knee flexion and mobility, creating a cascade of countering movement imbalances throughout the hips, spine, and ankles.
- Sport/movement-specificity to front loaded movements such as those found throughout Olympic weightlifting, functional fitness competitions and training, and even combat based sports and manual labor.
Who Should Front Squat?
This movement can be used by all athletes to increase upper back strength, core stability, and place a greater emphasis on the quadriceps. Additionally, the front squat has direct application to Olympic weightlifting and functional fitness movements, such as the clean and jerk. Similar to the high bar back squat, the front squat places greater loading on the quadriceps and upper back due to the increase knee flexion and vertical torso angles (unlike the low bar squat). By doing so, the movement challenges knee extension performance (quadriceps), thoracic extension and control, and core stability under load. Lack of upper back postural mobility and/or control could result in forward collapse and/or the the lifter trying to drive with the hips (hips rise up faster than torso), suggesting poor upper back strength and quadriceps development.
To reiterate, individuals who should front squat are:
- Olympic weightlifters and functional fitness athletes, due to the direct application to the clean and jerk.
- Individuals looking for increased quadriceps hypertrophy and strength development.
- Individuals with problematic lower back concerns, as this front loaded positioning can minimize shearing forces on the lumbar spine due to a more upright torso angel.
Front Squat Mechanics and Technique
The barbell placement (on the front rack) is a key differentiation of the front squat when compared to other styles of squatting. By placing the barbell in the front rack position, the bar is placed slightly more over the mid foot (towards the toes). This placement will increase the need for a more upright torso (increase thoracic extension strength and postural stability), upper body and core strength, and the highest demands upon the quadriceps (due to increased knee flexion).
In the above video, you can see how the lifter must maintain a rigid and upright torso position with the elbows elevated to ensure a strong front rack position. The barbell itself is in line over the midfoot. To initiate the movement, the lifter must softly allow the hips to move downwards, while drastically increasing the amount of knee and ankle flexion (bending) to allow for an upright descent. This will in turn increase the demands placed upon the quadriceps, as they are the muscular responsible for flexion and extension of the knee joint. Failure to have adequate quadriceps strength, upper back and torso control, and/or sound squat patterning and mobility will send the lifter’s hips back too far (either on the way down or have them shoot up too fast on the way up) resulting in thoracic rounding and/or failure by dumping the barbell out front.
Front Squat Video Tutorial
In the below video tutorial, Max Aita and Colin Burns of Juggernaut Training Systems discuss proper front rack positioning, bar and foot placement, and front squat technique to ensure proper application to the Olympic weightlifting movements and general leg development.
Special Considerations (Different Grips) for the Front Squat
Not everyone who does front squats is doing it to transition to clean & jerks. Many athletes will benefit immensely from front-loaded barbell squats, however grips and front rack positioning may vary depending on the individual.
While the “gold standard” is the full grip, such as the one demonstrated in the video tutorial above, some athletes may have limited wrist and/or shoulder mobility that may impede them from squatting with a full grip.
In such cases, lifting straps can be used, as well as the “arms crossed” to allow for front-loaded racks to still occur, as the benefits of the front squat far outweigh someone not taking the full front rack grip. If a lifter does opt out of taking the “gold standard” grip, he/she should be aware the failure to do so suggests mobility issues, which could be a larger issue and should be addressed, regardless of sport.
For example, I jammed my wrists about 10 weeks ago, and for the past 2 months I have been unable to go into the front rack position, which as a weightlifter was soul crushing. I was forced to spend most of my time performing the front squats with either arms crossed in front, or even performing Frankenstein squats instead of front squats, as to not lose upper back strength and front squat patterning.
Front Squat vs Back Squat
In an earlier article, we reviewed the EMG studies between the back squat (high bar) and the front squat to determine the what the specific muscle firings and demands were on the legs specific to each squat. What the we found was that the front squat has higher EMG activity in the quadriceps when compared to the back squat (accounting also for the load difference, as most people back squat more than they front squat). The back squat has higher readings of hamstring and hip activity.
When determining which to choose (I firmly believe you can do both in same week, if not more) you need to look at the goal of that specific training block. Is it sport specificity? Muscle growth specific to the quads? What about squatting but also minimizing lumbar strain? All of this is covered more in detail in this Front Squat vs. Back Squat article.
Front Squat Alternatives
If, for whatever reason, front squats are not doable, there are some alternatives you can do that can provide some of the similar benefits. If you are a weightlifter however, front squats are a necessity, and should be performed (especially is you dislike them…). That said, some great front-loaded variations that offer similar mechanical and physiological benefits are:
- Double Kettlebell Front Squat: Simply rack two dumbbells in the front position (see video below) and perform in similar fashion. Due to the kettlebells being independent of one another, their is a unique challenge to controlling the back and torso positioning.
- Narrow Stance High Bar Back Squat: Place your feet touching one another, or at least only a few inches apart. This will ensure the knees are flexed maximally at the bottom of the squat. As you lower yourself into the squat, you need to emphasize driving the knees out in front of you while maintaining heel contact to the floor. This squat variation will target almost exclusively the quadriceps.
- Zercher Squat: This may not be 100% applicable to weightlifting and competitive movements such as the clean & jerk, but it can provide great amounts of strength, torso and core stability, and allow for similar loading mechanics as the regular front squat.
The front squat is more than a lower body exercise. It is a movement that is highly applicable to Olympic weightlifting and functional fitness athletes, can increase thoracic and core strength, and can even increase quadriceps development while minimizing the amount of stress placed upon the lower back. The front squat can be used by all athletes as either a squat variation of primary movement, however coaches and athletes must recognize the specific reasoning and benefit in relation to their goals and needs.
Featured Image: @ksushanicole on Instagram
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