You probably don’t do front squats, do you?
I can say this with confidence because in the gym that I frequent, I have seen only one other person do a front squat – in (6) months. And the number of people that I have seen back squatting I can count on one hand. Too bad. Because not only is squatting a fundamental movement pattern, it is a great integrative body movement that can build muscle, burn calories and boost your athleticism.
So, the question at hand – are front squats better?
Just like anything, the answer will depend on your particular goals and what it is that you’re really training for. To start things off, I’m going to assume that you know plenty about the back squat. Therefore, let’s talk about some of the things that front squats can bring to the table.
Obviously, the difference between the back squat and the front squat is bar placement.
With the back squat, the bar is directly on top of your spine. OK, it may be resting on the soft tissue ‘shelf’ of your shoulders (and yes, this depends on the low, medium or high bar placement), but a large percentage of the load is being transferred right through your spine.
The front squat, however, rests the bar on the ‘shelf’ created by the front of your shoulders. If you’ve never front squatted before it is easy to look at the exercise and say, “how come the bar doesn’t fall straight off the front!?” After all it sure looks like it has nothing holding it in place. But if you have the shoulder mobility to get into a good front squat position and try it first hand, then you’ll see that there really is a nice little shelf created by the front of your shoulders. And with your elbows held up during the movement that bar isn’t going anywhere.
Therefore, the front squat does a better job of sharing the load. It’s not just your spine that is working, but your core as well. [Your core is certainly engaged in a back squat as well, but not to the extent in a front squat.]
So, if the back squat puts more load directly onto your spine, what does this mean for safety?
Serious lifters are probably going to disagree with me on this one, but that’s OK because I always err on the side of caution.
If I can get similar results with less weight then I will always go that route because less weight means less stress on the body. And with the front squat, research has shown that you’ll get the same quad activation as the back squat, but with less spinal loading1. And less spinal loading means less compression in your vertebrae and I think we can all agree that that’s a good thing.
In fact, research has shown that you can front squat about 85% of what you can back squat. Why the difference? Primarily because when you have the barbell on your back, you are able to pull down with your lats and really tighten up. As powerlifting expert Dave Tate says, you need to tighten your back with all (4) ‘hemispheres’ of your back – your lumbar, your left and right sides (lats and shoulders) and your neck/traps. A super tight back allows you to not only protect your spine, but also to transfer the load into the ground better.
At Motus, I rarely coach the back squat because for most people I think the risk outweighs the reward. More joint friendly options like the front squat, goblet squat and split squat can usually build all the strength a person wants with less risk of injury.
Level of difficulty
I’m not going to say that the front squat is any easier to learn than the back squat because if you know anything about squatting you’ll agree with me that a squat done properly it is a very technical movement. And if you don’t believe me, then spend some time with a group of powerlifters who really know what they’re doing.
However, I will concede that actually getting into the position of a front squat can be the hardest part. For most people, the main culprit is externally rotating the shoulders in order to get their fingers under the bar. Furthermore, keeping your elbows up and your chest up during the movement requires a healthy dose of thoracic spine mobility and extension. But here’s a question to ask yourself: is any of this asking for ‘super human’ mobility in the shoulders or spine? No! I believe it is asking for an average amount of mobility. But the problem is that most people don’t have an average level of movement and that’s what can make the front squat tricky.
The front squat forces you to squat with a more upright posture. If you don’t, you’ll dump the bar. Consequently, you’re going to need a strong core to lift this way. In fact, after a heavy day of lifting front squats, both my quads and my abs will be sore. And by externally rotating your humerus your shoulders are being opened and what’s coupled with the shoulders? Your T-spine. So, with one exercise you’re reminding your body in a not so subtle way to keep those shoulders back and that chest out.
I imagine that you don’t need a refresher on ‘office posture,’ do you? The rounded shoulders and hunched-over look? Think of the front squat as another tool in the fight against lordosis.
Will this exercise correct bad posture, no? To change your posture you’re going to need to do a lot of soft tissue work and change your daily habits. And a front squat is just one more way you can remind your body to open up.
It’s worth noting that for heavy back squatters, it’s very easy to overdevelop your hip flexors (i.e. hypertonic). This can rotate one’s pelvis forward just like sitting for long periods of time can.
Now with more of an upright posture your butt isn’t going to shoot back as far as it will with the back squat. What does this mean? That you’re not hinging as much at the hips to achieve depth.
But you have to get the movement from someplace and where it comes from is greater flexion at the ankle and the knee. Without tumbling down the rabbit hole of running mechanics, to be an explosive runner you need to be strong in triple flexion – flexion at the ankle, knee and hip. Because the front squat gives you all this great stuff it’s going to transfer over better than the back squat to running sports like football, soccer, basketball and so on.
So, are front squats better for you? Hopefully this article helps you to answer this question for yourself. There is no definitive answer because it really depends on what you’re training for and how you weigh the risks versus rewards.
Is there still a place for the back squat? Of course there is. The back squat has been proven many times over to be an effective mass builder. And regarding strength, you’ll always be able to lift more weight with a back squat than you will with a front squat so this article doesn’t apply to the powerlifting crowd. If you’re trying to set PRs you’re going to be back squatting.
But for the rest of us it’s important to know that there are other options out there.
Have I given the front squat a little more credibility? Are you going to give it a try? Let me know in the comments below.
Happy lifting folks!
By Ryan Wagner
(By the way, in a future blog I’ll give you some coaching cues to performing a competent front squat…)
Here are (2) great sources on performing the front squat:
Tabata Times: How to perform a proper front squat
(1) Gullett JC, Tillman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009 Jan;23(1):284-92.Are front squats better? by Ryan Wagner