Learning the Front Squat

The front squat is one of the best exercises, period. It can help build strength and power. It can help burn fat. And it can add size and muscle, too. However, like any compound exercise, it needs to be done with proper form.

Read on to learn more about this fantastic lift, and how to avoid common pitfalls that come with it.

Like the more commonly used back squat, the front squat works your upper body, core, and legs all in one movement. But unlike the back squat, it is less stressful on your back (less forward bending = less shear on the spine), it forces you to maintain better posture throughout the movement, and, simply put, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult to get good at.

Front squat vs. back squat

Before diving into the front squat in greater detail, remember one thing – any squat variation is a good squat variation. The squat is a great exercise for so many reasons, and just the fact that you are using at least one variation in your workout routine is a great start. The back squat is easier to learn, and you can usually squat a lot more weight compared to a front squat. But it is also easier to get injured back squatting because of the bar placement and how said bar placement changes the movement (especially if you have any weak points along the way). And the back squat places a lot of stress on the shoulders, making it an exercise to be cautious of if you are an overhead athlete (baseball, volleyball, and so on).

Why front squats?

Why is the front squat a preferable exercise over the back squat?

Here is a handy picture to look at the differences in position depending on where the bar is:

Any squat variation is going to be difficult to execute properly if you have poor hip and/or ankle mobility, but you will notice it more during front squats. It is corrective in nature – if you have an underlying issue, the front squat is going to let you know very quickly what it is.

The front squat places more of a stress on the core relative to the back squat, as you will be actively working throughout the movement to keep your elbows up and the weight from dropping forward. You very likely won’t be able to squat as much weight with front squats compared to back squats, but if you are seeing better gains and minimizing your injury risk, who cares? Check the ego at the door – front squats provide better glute activation and allow for greater depth, too.

Eric Cressey’s main problem with back squats:

The main problem with the back squat, in my eyes, is that not everyone has sufficient upper body mobility to position and stabilize the bar properly.  As a result, it can “roll forward” on people – and that’s where more of the forward lean problems come about.  More forward lean equates to more shear stress, and an increased risk of going into lumbar flexion under compressive load.  The front squat – even under heavier loads – keeps a lifter more upright, or else he’ll simply dump the bar.

If you have proper mobility at all of the major joints, and no knee pain, there isn’t any extra benefit to doing front squats compared to back squats. But I’d wager that very few people have proper mobility at every major joint and absolutely zero knee pain.

Common mistakes with front squats

The grip

The classic front squat grip is a clean grip. Most people don’t have the shoulder/elbow/wrist mobility to comfortably grip the bar clean while squatting, but with a few simple stretches that can be corrected in a week or two. Here is a great way to build a stronger front rack (you are “racking” the weight on your shoulders, hence the name):

And for those that still struggle with the clean grip, you can use a crossover grip temporarily while you work to improve your flexibility or level of comfort with the clean grip (even using an unloaded bar to start will really help).

The cross-arm grip isn’t the preferred method, though.

It’s much harder to keep your elbows up with the crossed-arm grip, and if your elbows don’t stay up, the bar will roll off your shoulders. The clean grip is therefore not only safer than the crossed-arm grip, it also allows you to Front Squat heavier weights.

And I recently came across a great tip – using lifting straps to help with your front squat grip. Why is this beneficial? Well, it allows you to use a clean grip without hurting your wrists or forearms, and it is safer than the cross grip (especially if you are lifting a heavy load).

Lifting straps are really cheap and you can pick them up at any fitness/gym store.

How to implement front squats

As with any compound lifts, they should be done at or near the beginning of your workout. And lifting heavy two or three days a week is fine, too. You can and should be working on your squat technique every day (especially if there are weak points). That could mean goblet squats, or just working on mobility and/or flexibility. There are an infinite number of ways to program squats in – high volume and minimal rest time for fat loss, high weight and long rest time for strength or power gains, and so on. Figure out your goals first, and then choose your sets and reps accordingly.

Putting it all together

Learning a new exercise is always difficult. For the first few sessions, try and find a coach or more experienced trainer to watch and correct your form. Or film yourself doing a front squat set and compare it to how the lift should look.

It isn’t beneficial to take a bunch of information in your head into the gym – clear mind, better workout (in my experience, at least). But here are the most important front squat cues to remember:

  • look forward
  • drive your elbows up throughout the movement
  • stand tall
  • toes forward
  • drive your knees out as you descend (but don’t open your feet at all)
  • pull your hamstrings to the ground

The front squat isn’t an easy lift to learn, but once you master it, you will see significant improvements in whatever you are hoping to accomplish. And if you are an athlete, you will see a direct correlation from this exercise to improved athletic performances, too. It’s an extremely functional movement.

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