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A complete exercise program works every muscle group in the body. When it comes to the legs and glutes, one movement to consider adding to your client's workouts is the front squat. If you're not real familiar with this exercise, this guide is for you.
The main purpose of this guide is to teach you more about the front squat. This includes sharing:
What a front squat is
The benefits of front squatting
Muscles worked with a front squat
Proper front squat technique
Ways to change the front squat, different variations to consider
How to perform front squats without a barbell
Pros and cons of using a squat rack
Front squat vs back squat
Tips for creating an effective front squatting workout
A front squat is a squat that is performed while holding a barbell except, unlike with a back squat, the bar is held in front of the chest. This places more force on the upper body while still working the glutes, hamstrings, and hips.
Because of this posture, front squats are best suited for clients with good upper body strength and mobility. Wrist flexibility is also required to properly hold the barbell against the top of the chest.
Incorporating front squatting in a client's fitness routine offers many advantages. The first is enhanced muscle growth. Like with back squats, front squats increase muscle mass in the lower body. The front squat muscles worked primarily include the quadriceps (quads), glutes, hips, and hamstrings.
If your goal is to build the perfect glutes, front squats can help with that too. They also help strengthen the spinal erectors. These are muscles responsible for keeping the back straight. They also make it possible to rotate.
Unlike traditional squats, front squats work the upper body as well. Chest muscles, the upper back, shoulders, and muscles in the arms all help support the barbell when it is positioned in front of the chest.
Another benefit of front squatting is that this movement can make it easier to perform other exercises. For instance, front squats build the strength necessary to perform a deadlift. They do this by increasing back strength. They also assist in building strength off the floor.
What does good front squat form look like? It begins with standing at the squat rack with the bar at mid-chest. Hands should be placed on the bar shoulder-width apart, palms facing out. Lower the body slightly in a semi-squat position, until the bar is directly in front of the shoulders.
While in the semi-squat, move the elbows forward, lifting them as if you're trying to point them toward the ceiling. This is important for two reasons. First, it keeps the torso upright. Second, it helps secure the bar against the chest.
The next step is to lift the bar up, removing it from the squat rack. Slowly step back, keeping your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointing slightly outward. Breathe in and lower the body into a squat position. Ideally, the quads should be parallel to the floor.
Certain factors can impact a client's ability to perform proper front squat technique. For instance, good ankle mobility is necessary for lower body positioning. If this is an issue, the force of the lift could be placed on the toes versus the heels. This type of position also places more pressure on the quads than the posterior chain (lower back, glutes, and hamstrings). This can increase injury risk to the muscles in the upper leg, due to increased strain.
Some of these issues can be overcome by modifying the way the front squat is performed. As an example, if the client struggles due to poor wrist strength or flexibility, a safety squat bar can be used. This is a barbell with padded handles that can be laid on the shoulders, reducing the force on the wrists.
The front squat position just explained is also known as a barbell front squat or high bar squat. What are additional variations to consider?
Zercher Squat. This squat also requires that the bar be placed in front of the body. The only difference is, instead of it resting on the top of the chest, it is cradled in the crooks of the elbows so it sits more toward the bottom of the chest.
Box Squat. You can also use a box to perform a front squat. This entails lowering the body to the box versus lowering toward the ground. The height of the box can be adjusted based on the client's physical abilities and goals.
Split Squat. This variation involves squatting from more of a lunge position. One foot is positioned in front of the other when you lower toward the floor. There is another version called Bulgarian split squats. The Bulgarian split squat is performed by placing one of your feet behind you as you squat, elevated on a bench or some other type of platform.
Front squats are still an option if a barbell isn't available. That makes these exercises possible for clients who don't work out at a gym or if the fitness center they use doesn't have this particular piece of equipment.
In cases such as these, you can replace the barbell squat with a kettlebell front squat or kettlebell goblet squat. This move involves holding the kettlebell against the top of the chest and doing squats with it in this position.
You can make these loaded squats even harder by doing a double kettlebell front squat. The movement is the same but involves holding two kettlebells instead of one. This allows clients to lift heavier weights, increasing the resistance on the muscles. Alternatively, if clients don't have kettlebells, they can use dumbbells for a dumbbell front squat.
If your clients want to make front squats easier, bodyweight squats are another front squat variation. To perform a bodyweight squat, the client follows the same squat technique but without a bar. It won't work the upper body as much as a weighted squat, but it will still provide a good lower body workout and build muscle.
Does your client have a knee issue when performing squats? Consider these squat alternatives.
Some athletes prefer to use a squat rack when performing front squats. Others go without, performing a sort of deadlift to put the bar in the proper starting position. Which is best? There are pros and cons to each.
The most notable advantage of using a squat rack is that it makes it easier for clients to lift heavier weights. Since they don't have to start with the bar on the ground, they're able to lift more.
A con of beginning with the bar in proper rack position is that you miss the opportunity to work muscles harder. When you aren't able to rely on a squat rack, your muscles must go through more motion to get the bar into the starting position. This engages more muscles in the body.
A pro of not using the squat rack is it can be easier for new clients to master proper form. They become more focused on their body's placement versus concentrating on the rack.
At the same time, doing a front squat without a rack could potentially increase risk of injury. This is because, in addition to doing the front squat, they must begin with a deadlift. The more movement an exercise has, the greater the risk that something can go wrong.
For these reasons, it's important for personal trainers to look at each client individually. Assess their physical strength and ability to use proper form to determine which type of squat is best.
Two important variations on the squat differ in the placement of the weight. While you can do goblet squats and other variations solely with body weight or with kettlebells and dumbbells, front and back squats use a barbell.
The difference between a back squat and a front squat is the placement of the barbell and therefore the weight. This seemingly small variation makes a big difference:
Front squat – During a front squat, the barbell is in front of the body, across the collarbone. This puts more load on the front of the body, shifting the workout into the quads. The front squat is used a lot in CrossFit and Olympic lifting.
Back squat – For a back squat, the barbell sits behind the head along the upper back. This shifts the weight toward the posterior chain, activating the glutes and hamstrings more than the quads. It’s a popular move in most gyms and with bodybuilders and powerlifters.
The answer as to which type of squat is better is, of course, not simple. The answer depends on the individual and their goals or any limitations.
The front squat is more technical, and there is a risk of injury with poor form. While this is true of all lifts, the back squat is more forgiving. In addition to less technique, back squats require less flexibility and mobility. If you have a client new to strength training, start with back squats with no weight on the bar.
The position for doing a back squat is more stable than that of a front squat. This means you can load up with more weight. So, if you’re looking to go heavier and to tax your lower body muscles more, go for the back squat.
The placement of the weight along the upper back forces the torso to lean forward compared to the posture of a front squat. In this position, there is more stress on the posterior chain, so it’s a great way to focus on glute and hamstring strength.
The load on the front of your body during a front squat forces an upright posture. This puts emphasis on the quads but also forces your abs to engage. If your core doesn’t do its job during this move, you’ll fall forward.
The front squat includes some technical aspects that prepare you for competitive movements used in both Olympic lifting and CrossFit. A front squat will better prepare you for moves like cleans and snatches.
According to a study of squat types, the back squat puts more pressure on the lumbar spine (1). This might be partly due to the fact that you can load more weight doing this type of squat, but another issue is posture. Front squats require a more upright posture, which protects the lower back.
Much like lower back pain, front squats are a better option if you have shoulder issues. It’s not so much the pressure of the bar as the positioning of the shoulders during a back squat that can cause problems. The shoulder and elbow alignment in a front squat is safer for shoulders.
Studies of the biomechanics of squats suggest that front squats are better than back squats for someone with knee problems (2). Of course, any type of squat puts pressure on the knees, so it’s important to know who should avoid squats entirely.
The front squat requires significant wrist mobility. You need to be able to bend your wrist back toward the forearm, creating a 90-degree angle. Not everyone can do this comfortably. Back squats are easier on the wrists.
Front squats are great additions to lower body workouts or a full body workout routine. To make them even more effective for your clients, here are a few factors to consider:
Choosing the right weight. The amount of weight a client should be able to front squat depends on their sex, bodyweight, and level of fitness. For instance, a male who weighs 180 pounds and is a beginner should be able to front squat 130 pounds according to data collected from over 623,000 lifts (3). For a male of the same weight who is more advanced, this amount increases to 363 pounds.
An appropriate number of reps. If a client wants to create a slim, trim physique, performing a higher number of reps with a lower weight is key. If their goal is to build massive amounts of muscle, 1-5 reps with higher weights is a better choice.
Add other types of squats. Each type of squat alternative works slightly different muscles. Thus, creating an effective squat routine requires incorporating different squat movements. Including a back squat or overhead squat, for instance, adds more variety.
Incorporate them into the client's current program. If your client is already following a high intensity interval training program, add squats into that. If they're on a strength training plan, build this exercise in. The more seamless it is to integrate front squats into their current exercise plan, the more open they'll be to doing them.
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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. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.984240
Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31818546bb
Front squat standards for men and women (LB). Strength Level. (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://strengthlevel.com/strength-standards/front-squat/lb
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