The Best Squat You're Not Doing
Back squats get the glory, front squats get results
The barbell back squat is one of those staple exercises that every gym goer will do in their lifetime. They are terrific for building strength in the legs and hips while being touted a great way to build that booty. However, they aren’t the final word when it comes to training your lower body. I believe that the front squat is a better option for your training to build strength and booty gains while taking care of your joints.
Let’s start with the science. A study by Gullet (2009) looked at muscle activation comparisons between the front and the back squat. What they found was that the muscle activation for the exercises was essentially the same (when performing 70% of a one-rep max). However, the weight required for the back squat was more than the front. Meaning that in order to get the same levels of activation, the back squat needs a heavier load.
Essentially, we can get the same muscular activation with less weight when doing a front squat. Lighter loads are easier on the joints and put less stress on connective tissues. If you’re experiencing aching in your knees or back when doing back squats, front squats could help relieve those issues.
In addition to greater activation in the leg muscles, we also see greater core activation. Because of the position of the bar in front of the shoulders, the core muscles need to activate to keep the torso upright throughout the movement. Compared to the back squat where the torso is angled forward at the bottom of the squat to keep the bar over your center of gravity.
This depends on the person, but it’s not uncommon for people to find the back squat to be uncomfortable. Common issues are pain in the knees and back due to bar position and load. I personally have had issues with my shoulders that limit my ability to hold the bar comfortably on my back.
As I mentioned above, the front squat requires less weight to get the same levels of muscle activation as the back squat. By reducing the weight we lower the compressive forces on the joints that are supporting the bar (spine, hips, and knees). If you’ve noticed that you experience pain or discomfort while squatting a heavy bar you can relieve that pressure by switching to a front squat.
The problem I’ve come across with the front squat in terms of comfort is in the racked position. Having a bar sit across your shoulders and pressed into your throat takes some getting used to. When I started, I didn’t have the shoulder mobility to keep my elbows high and hands on the bar. A fairly common problem. Thankfully, this can be solved with some lifting straps placed around the bar. The arm position is the same, but the wrists don’t have to be overextended to hold on to the bar. Over time I encourage clients to improve their wrist and shoulder mobility so that they can hold the bar.
I also prefer the front squat for its application to other exercises. Specifically, to Olympic lifts such as the clean and jerk. These lifts are terrific for building athletic power and have applications for general health training as well. Front squat mechanics are present in the clean and some aspects of the snatch as well. Being able to maintain an upright posture with a load in front or overhead is essential to these movements. The front squat trains this position. Power training is a fun and dynamic method of training and performing the front squat is a way to build up to practicing these lifts.
Back squats are still a staple in most training programs for good reason. They’ve been building leg strength and booty gains for decades. However, just because they’re more common doesn’t mean they’re the best option. I encourage you to give front squats a chance and see the benefits.
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Gullet, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., Chow, J. W. (2009) A biomechanical comparison of front and back squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23(1), p284-292