The front squat is a grueling leg exercise. While not as common in bodybuilding or Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifters will front squat regularly because it's an essential aspect of the success of the clean.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t front squat if you aren’t an Olympic Weightlifter. There are many benefits when holding a barbell in the front rack position that carries over to physique gains and everyday strength.
What Is The Front Squat?
The front squat is differentiated from all other squat variations based on where the weight is loaded. That is, on the shoulders, which is a front rack or front-loaded position. You can't squat loads as heavy as you would when back squatting as more significant stress is placed on your upper back and core musculature to maintain an upright posture.
Hence, you are limited by your upper body strength, not your lower body strength. However, that doesn't make it less effective for building big legs.
Front Squat Form
The front squat is easily butchered when mobility isn’t considered. You can get away with poor upper body mobility in the back squat, but you will be exposed in the front squat if you are lacking. However, there are workarounds which I will show you below.
Getting the rack position right will set you up for success when front squatting. There are two main rack positions:
The clean grip front rack position is ideal if you have decent mobility. It is more secure and feels easier to maintain an upright posture. However, if you don’t have the front rack mobility, you can use the cross-arm front rack position.
Many bodybuilders use this position when front squatting as there is no way they can find a clean grip position with the mass of their arms.
But, if you want the benefits of the clean grip front rack position without mobility, there is a third option using straps.
It takes wrist mobility out of the equation while giving you the benefits of the clean grip front rack position. Once you've taken the bar out of the rack, keep your elbows as high as possible.
Take one step back with each foot and point your toes slightly out. This is the starting position for the front squat.
Front Squat Muscles Worked
The front squat primarily works the quads, glutes, and spinal erectors . But where the front squat shines is quadriceps activation. For example, lifting loads above 70% 1RM results in greater vastus medialis (teardrop) activation compared to the back squat .
When back squats and front squats are loaded with 80% 1RM front squat load, the quads produce more force during the front squat . This is often why front squats are used to build huge quads.
Front Squat Benefits
Target The Quads
The greater quad activation is due to the more upright posture allowing the knees to track further forward over the toes. As the knees travel forward, greater stress is put on the quads, increasing their contribution to the exercise.
Easier On The Lower Back
Individuals who suffer from lower back pain will often ditch the back squat in favor of the front squat. The back squat causes greater forward lean, putting more stress on the lower back than the front squat .
Since the front squat is performed upright, the lower back is not taxed to the same degree. This doesn’t mean everyone with lower back pain can front squat. If it's extreme, machines and other exercises may be better options.
Build Immense Upper Back Strength
To support heavy loads on your shoulders in front of your neck, you need a big and strong upper back to prevent rounding. Any weakness in this area will limit the weight you can front squat as you won’t be able to maintain an upright posture.
Common Front Squat Mistakes
Dropping The Elbows
Dropping the elbows is often a symptom of either poor mobility or upper back weakness. If you're not strong enough to handle the weight, your upper back will round, leading to lowering of the elbows.
You want to keep the elbows as high as possible to maintain an upright posture. As the elbows drop, so does the chest and the potential to lose the bar off the shoulders resulting in failure of the lift. Typically, this is why we never program high rep front squats. It's not the legs that give out; it's the upper back.
Catching The Bounce Forward
When you see a lifter descend in the front squat, then as they bounce out of the hole, you see their upper back round drastically, catching the bounce forward. Sometimes it's inevitable if the weight is heavy enough. But it shouldn't be a consistent problem.
Typically, it is caused by a lack of "tightness" at the bottom of the squat. The bounce catches you off guard. Instead of controlling it and maintaining posture, the bounce causes the upper body to relax as you push with the legs.
The trick is to maintain full-body tension with high elbows as you bounce. You'll find the front squat much more manageable when doing this.
Sitting Back Instead Of Down
Many lifters will be taught to sit back like when sitting in a chair to bodyweight or back squat. This is a horrible cue for those exercises and even worse for the front squat. The front squat requires an upright posture, and by sitting back, the torso has to lean forward.
As soon as you start leaning forward, your hips are no longer under the bar and your potential to lose the bar from the shoulders is high. By not having the hips under the bar, you can't transfer force into the bar effectively, resulting in lighter loads being lifted.
Front Squat Alternatives
I have listed many great front squat alternatives here. Here are a couple of alternatives from that article:
Double Kettlebell Front Rack Squat
- Pick up two kettlebells and perform a kettlebell swing to bring them to the rack position. The rack position will have your fists facing each other with the bells resting on your forearms.
- Maintaining this strong position at your chest, squat by descending between your legs with your knees pushed out and feet flat.
- Hold a dumbbell or upside-down kettlebell in the goblet position (palms facing up with fingers to the side).
- Keep the elbows facing down to fall between your legs when you squat. If you let your elbows flare, they will touch your legs, stopping your descent.
Barbell Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
- Unrack the barbell in the front rack position. If you have mobility problems, use the above methods, such as straps or cross-arm positions.
- Place your back leg on a bench with your shoelaces face down.
- Descend your hips straight down until your back knee is slightly above the floor.
- Push through the entire front foot to return to the starting position.
How Often Should You Front Squat?
How often you front squat depends on your goals, the number of times you train per week, and what other athletic endeavors you participate in. For example, very high-frequency Olympic Weightlifting programs may have lifters front squat 6+ times per week.
However, those who only train 3-5 times in Weightlifting per week may front squat 2-3 times depending on their weaknesses.
But what if you're not a Weightlifter? For physique or other strength sports athletes, once a week is usually best as it gives you time to attack different squat variations or leg exercises. However, twice a week is recommended if you are performing a leg specialization or chasing a big front squat.
Can You Go Heavy On Front Squats?
You can go heavy on front squats. Just not as heavy as you would when back squatting. However, it's all relative. If you're lifting close to 90% of your front squat max, it'd be considered very heavy, even if it's only 70-80% of your back squat max.
Why Are Front Squats So Hard?
Front squats are hard because you support the barbell with your upper back and trunk muscles. The bar sits slightly in front of the back muscles, increasing the moment arm, resulting in these muscles needing to generate greater force to maintain an upright posture.
Whereas a barbell placed on the upper traps is easily supported since it sits directly on the spine and the muscles surrounding it.
Are Front Squats Necessary?
Whether front squats are necessary depends on what you are training for. If it's Olympic Weightlifting, front squats are necessary. If it's any other sporting or physique goal, front squats are not required but are still a great option.
Do Front Squats Work The Abdominals?
Front squats work the abdominals in an isometric fashion. That is tension without a change in muscle length. But not to the same extent as targeted core training.
Is The Front Squat Better For The Knees?
If you have existing knee pain, the front squat is probably not better for your knees. As the knees track further forward and more stress is placed on the quads, you may experience more knee pain.
But if you have healthy knees, the front squat will strengthen them. Further, it puts the knees through a full range of motion which is epic for overall knee health.
Do Front Squats Work Your Butt?
Front squats do work your butt. They significantly activate the glutes, and the glutes are put under an extensive stretch in the bottom position. This is why lifters will squat to make their butts bigger.
Can You Replace Back Squats With Front Squats?
You can replace back squats with front squats if you are not a competitive Powerlifter. Powerlifters use the back squat as a competition exercise, so there is no way around it. However, you can exclusively use the front squat for any physique or sporting athlete.
I used to only front squat for many years at the beginning of my lifting career. If you can front squat double bodyweight, no one can say you’re not strong enough. Further, if you decide to start back squatting, you will be much stronger.
While some athletes will use the front squat, it's not commonly prescribed outside Olympic Weightlifting. Likely because it's damn hard! But challenging exercises typically equal astronomical gains, and while it's not a necessity to use, you can't go wrong with adding it to your training routine.
Grow Enormous Legs That Won’t Fit Your Jeans
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1. Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of sports sciences, 33(10), 1058-1066.
2. Krzyszkowski, J., & Kipp, K. (2020). Load-dependent mechanical demands of the lower extremity during the back and front squat. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(17), 2005-2012.