The front squat is a very useful exercise that is not often seen in the average gym. But it is unjustly neglected and some coaches even prefer it to the back squat.
What is a front squat?
Holding the bar across the front of your shoulders, squat down until your hips are below parallel and up again. This exercise is known as a front squat to distinguish it from the more common back squat, where the bar is across the back of the shoulders.
Why is it such a great exercise?
The front squat is considered safer than the back squat because there is less load on the spine and it is also easier to dump the bar forwards if things go wrong.
Less weight can be moved in the front squat than the back squat, so there is less likelihood of someone trying to squat a weight that is too heavy for them.
The squat is probably the most important and effective move in weight training. Front squatting gives you many of the beneficial effects of the back squat, with some differences: less weight can be moved in the exercise, the quads tend to be worked more than the hamstrings and glutes and the torso is more upright.
The front squat is also a component of the Olympic lift, the clean. A good front squat will help to develop a good clean.
How to perform the front squat
The key to the front squat is to keep your elbows up and chest lifted. This holds the bar in position while you squat.
Step 1: Starting position
Position the bar in a rack at shoulder height, or clean it from the floor. The bar should be resting across the front of the shoulders or top of the chest. To keep it in this position, raise your elbows as high as you can – think about pointing the tip of your elbows forward.
Don’t be tempted to hold the bar too close to your throat; this is uncomfortable and you might choke yourself! If your elbows are high enough, you won’t need to do this.
Your hands will be just outside your shoulders, bent back at the wrists with the bar resting on your fingers. There is no need to grip the bar, your hands are simply there to stabilise the position of the bar.
Some people cross their hands over the bar in front of their neck, because they don’t want to (or feel they can’t) bend their wrists sufficiently to hold the bar like this. However, if you ever want to attempt the clean – which you should as it is an excellent exercise! – you will need to adopt this position, so it is worth developing the necessary flexibility.
Legs will be slightly wider than shoulder width apart, with toes slightly flared. As with the back squat, you can experiment with leg and toe position depending upon your own build. You will often see back squats performed with a very wide stance, powerlifting style; the front squat stance tends to be narrower than this. Olympic weightlifters are able to perform front squats with a fairly narrow stance as their flexibility is so good. The narrower the stance, the more the quads come into play (olympic weightlifters have massive quads!). Ordinary trainees, myself included, can adopt a wider stance in order to reach the required depth without rounding the back.
Step 2: Squat down until your hips are below parallel
Keeping your elbows pointing forward and chest raised, start to squat down by sitting back as if you were sitting on a chair. Try to lead with the hips, rather than just bending at the knees. Keep the back either flat or slightly hyper-extended to ensure that it doesn’t round as you descend.
Because the weight is in front of you, your torso will naturally have to stay much more upright than it would in a back squat. Some people may find this tricky at first; if you find that your torso is tilting too far forward, try putting a wedge or a weight plate under your heels or wear weightlifting shoes which have a block under the heel.
I wouldn’t train this way all the time, as ideally you want to correct the problem rather than eliminate it with a prop. But using a wedge is useful to know what you should be aiming for.
Step 3: Bottom position
In the bottom position your hips should be below parallel, back is flat, chest is lifted and elbows are still pointing forwards, keeping the bar balanced on the front of your shoulders.
Don’t worry too much if your knees are forward of your toes – this will tend to happen in a front squat. However, make sure that your knees do not come inwards; they should remain in line with the feet. Actively push your knees out if you need to by engaging your adductor muscles (inner thighs).
Step 4: Squat upwards and return to start position
As with the back squat, the bottom of the front squat can be a sticking point. In order to get upward momentum, activate your glutes and press through your feet as if you were trying to part the floor beneath you. At the same time, lead upwards with your chest and your elbows.
Try to avoid what many people do in the squat and lead upwards with your chin. This causes people to tip their head back and point their chin in the air, which is not a great position for your head to be in.
Instead, lift the chest but keep the angle between your chin and chest the same.
Return to your starting position, standing up straight and bar still across the front of the shoulders. Rack the bar.
How to use the front squat in your training
The front squat is a very useful exercise and has its place either alongside back squats or as an alternative.
Alternative to back squat: some people do not want to or cannot back squat. The front squat is an excellent alternative. As strength coach Mike Boyle explains:
“Back pain has three root causes as it relates to lifting. Torque (forward lean), compression (high spinal loads), and flexion are what cause back injuries. Front squats lessen torque, compression, and flexion, and are therefore inherently safer.”
Addition to back squat: if you are looking for a similar exercise to the back squat, say, to do on a medium weight day rather than a heavy day, the front squat is a great addition. It is much more functional than a leg press and takes a bit of pressure off the back while giving the legs an excellent workout.
Training for the clean: the front squat position is the same as the rack position of the clean. Training the front squat will develop the necessary flexibility and confidence to handle heavy weights in that position.
Warm up for Olympic weightlifting: the front squat is a useful inclusion in the warm up for a weightlifting workout.
Further information and related posts
- Front squat instructional video
- The clean: common problems
- For a host of different methods of holding the bar in the front squat, check out this article from Straight to the Bar
- Strong Athlete, Zero Injuries by Mike Boyle – reasons why he uses the front squat with his athletes instead of the back squat
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