This post is contributed by strength coach Brian Pankau of Strong Fit Living.
Front squats are often performed with the sole purpose of quad development. Many program this exercise with random intentions instead of truly focusing on the strength benefits. There’s much more to front squats than just isolating a muscle group. If this were the case then leg extensions would easily do this for you.
Some may disagree, but front squats are the king of all squat variations. This compound lift should be utilized with more efficiency within a training program to improve all other lifts, and your overall strength as well.
Difference Between Front Squats and Back Squats
The position of the bar is the most notable difference. Aside from the obvious, you benefit from the bar position differently because of the way your body must respond to the load.
During back squats there’s a lot more posterior chain work taking place. Your back will do a lot for you to successfully execute a squat, and those lifting heavy singles and doubles will get away with a good morning looking squat.
The forward leaning position is quite commonly used to lift heavier loads, and powerlifters executing the low bar are inclined to lean excessively. The posterior chain in full use allows competitive powerlifting athletes to squat 10% or more this way versus those in an upright high bar position.
Front squats can’t be executed like this. The front-loaded position forces you to remain upright and keep your torso tight to prevent rounding of the back. Any forward lean will almost certainly cause the bar to drop to the floor.
Less use of the lower back makes this a squat variation you can execute following a deadlift focused day, or even as an accessory after the deadlift is executed. Rehab wise, you can program front squats when cleared to lift again after a lower back injury with little worry of pain (if executed properly).
Ironically, a lot of the lower back injuries occurred from performing back squats. Deadlifts falling in second place for athletes performing these exercises correctly. Injuries can’t always be prevented, but training your torso to be stronger and full back reliance minimized goes a long way.
Benefits of Front Squats
Increased Quadriceps Activation
Let’s cover the main reason many use the front squat exercise. Your quads do get plenty of attention, which is a great carry over for improving your other lifts. Even athletes in sports such as football, soccer, and even marathon runners will benefit from stronger quads.
Your quads are activated with more emphasis due to the bar being in the front on your shoulders. Holding this position and staying upright places a lot more focus on your anterior leg muscles.
Improves Posture in and out of the Gym
The upright, front held position also helps reduce thoracic spine kyphosis by recruiting upper back muscles to forcefully initiate thoracic extension. This carries over to better posture during lifts especially when the elbows are up as high as possible.
Targets Weaknesses in Flexibility and Mobility
Mobility is the ability to move the joint through its full range of motion. Flexibility is the maximum length your muscles can be pushed into. Front squats assist with both of these, which makes them perfect for rehab, athletes, and those looking to improve weaknesses.
Primary possible weak points are your core, hips, shoulders, ankles, and wrists. Back squats allow many to reduce the depth of their squat, thus neglecting their need for ankle mobility. Wide stance, low bar position is a good example.
Is this wrong? Absolutely not. Those positions allow the athlete to squat more for their specific competition. However, with better mobility you can lift slightly more, and the calves will be used to support the punch out from the hole also.
How to Properly Perform Front Squats
There are two different methods to perform the front squat “racked” position. Racked is when the bar is deep in the shoulder pocket. Similar to how the bar during back squats is sunk into your traps.
First position is with the bar held in place with your palms up. You would easily recognize this from how Olympic style weightlifting is. Some even hold a higher elbow position by releasing the thumb wrapper around the bar. Instead, 3-4 fingers stay in place to keep the bar from rolling forward.
Normally this would be thought of as a suicide grip, but for this particular position you are not pressing or in a dangerous position. During bailout you can simply push the bar forward and drive your body back to clear the bar. Presses and back squats are not the same since you are beneath the bar completely.
If you wish to develop wrist mobility not under the bar in this position, then you should look at this other article on front squats with bands.
Second position is with your hands crossed over and palms are down. Those with weak wrist mobility or pain would want to utilize this method of the front squat. Powerlifting athletes who want to program front squats, but lack the mobility should consider this if you don’t plan on doing any Olympic style lifts.
Regardless how your hands are positioned, you will still execute the same style for the rest of your lift. Before going over execution, you should first set the bar height to bisect the middle of your chest. Place the bar in the shoulder pockets and clear the rack.
Weightlifters from the floor will clean the bar into the racked position if you wish.
- Ensure your elbows are up with the bar rolled into your shoulder pockets. The bar should not be fully across your throat!
- Feet should be shoulder width or slightly wider apart. Hips need to be able to open up more than back squats.
- Breathe into your diaphragm to tighten your core.
- Initiate the front squat by dropping your hips and bending your knees simultaneously.
- Keep your body upright throughout the whole squat. No forward leaning!
- Drop fully into the squat, and then drive your feet into the floor to come out of the hole.
If you lean onto your toes during the front squat, then you most likely have a weakness in your ankle mobility. Your heels will try to come up and you counter this by falling forward onto your toes.
Poor hip mobility, weak quads, toes pointed forward, or feet too narrow are also causes.
Programming Front Squats into Your Workouts
Programming this exercise into your workout program is important to stay consistent with these. They don’t need to be a weekly movement unless you practice weightlifting or CrossFit. Powerlifters will generally program front squats when not in comp prep unless they compete high bar position.
Those looking to see benefits with an open workout program should do a minimum of one training day bi-weekly. Muscle development and endurance works best with 4×8-10 set and repetition ranges.
This will ensure you use enough resistance. Usually people searching for quad gains assume to do 12 reps. However, if you execute this exercise with reps + higher resistance you’ll see better results.
Strength training with heavier resistance can be a variety of set x reps: 1×1; 3×1; 5×1; 3×3; 4×4; 5×3; 5×5; 3×7
This can be an accessory exercise following the primary lifts of either squats or deadlifts. They are quad specific in terms of muscle regions, and fit well with either days. You could also use them as the actual primary lift instead.
Weightlifting programs can be progressive 5×1 front squats before moving into power cleans + jerks.
You can see there’s a large variety of methods for adding front squats into your program. Everything depends on your goals and current training program.