by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Many lifters avoid front squats like a lifetime subscription to the Oprah Winfrey Network. That's a downright shame because not only are "fronts" an awesome exercise, they're really quite user-friendly, once you get the hang of them.
Like most things that "suck" at first or are difficult or uncomfortable, front squats deliver superior results. EMG data shows higher muscle activation in the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris as compared to the back squat, with similar muscle activation in the vastus medialis, suggesting that front squatting is a great way to build massive quads.
Front squats also keep you honest. If you cheat, you drop the bar, simple as that. For this reason, many strength coaches consider the front squat to be a better lower body strength test than the mighty back squat. It also creates a built-in safety mechanism.
On the topic of safety, having the bar loaded anteriorly forces you to keep a more upright torso, thereby reducing spinal shear and making it more low back-friendly. Similarly, biomechanical analysis shows that there are less compressive forces on the knee during a front squat as compared to a back squat.
When the rubber hits the road, the biggest knock on front squats is simply that they're hard and can be uncomfortable at first, which is a terrible excuse when you consider weight training is supposed to be at least a somewhat masculine endeavor.
But front squats are worth the temporary discomfort. This article will give you five tips and drills that you can try today to help you front squat more effectively and take your training to the next level.
Get a Grip
First things first – you've got to figure out how you're going to hold the weight.
Assuming you have the requisite upper body flexibility to use the clean grip, that's your best bet. It's very secure and will have the most carryover to the Olympic lifts (if you're into performing them).
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to get into this position without putting undue stress on the wrists. If you fall into this camp, don't force it. Definitely work on your flexibility (giving special attention to the wrists, shoulders, lats, and triceps), but use a different grip in the interim.
The cross-arm grip is another popular option and is what I used for years when I started out. While it worked well for the most part, I found that as the weights got heavier, I had a hard time keeping my elbows up, which led to me rounding my upper back and having the bar slide forward off my shoulders.
Behold, the best of both worlds – the modified clean grip using wrist straps, an idea I picked up from Charles Poliquin and Mike Boyle.
Loop the straps around the bar where the knurling meets the smooth to create a set of handles. I like to fold the straps in half first so there isn't much slack and I've something thicker to hold on to. (See figure below.)
This method is great because there's no stress on the wrists and it's easy to keep your elbows up. I was resistant to trying it for a while because I worried that the straps would slip under heavy loads, but that hasn't been a problem at all.
The fact is, I've found that I can actually use more weight than I could when using the cross-arm grip. This is definitely one of my favorites and something I highly recommend.
My other favorite is using the safety squat bar. Simply turn the bar upside down and backwards from how you'd use it for back squats so that the yoke is facing behind you and the camber on the ends of the bar is angled down and back.
I like this version for several reasons:
- If you hold it correctly, there should be about a half-inch space between the yoke and your throat. This makes it easier to breathe and you don't get choked out like you do with a barbell.
- The yoke helps to keep the bar from sliding off your shoulders.
- The padding is more comfortable and forgiving on the shoulders, and could be particularly useful for people with AC joint problems who can't tolerate the direct pressure of the barbell.
- Because the camber bends back and down, it helps to keep your weight back on your heels as you squat, which in turn helps you stay more upright.
- It allows you to use higher rep ranges. I've done 20-rep sets with no problems.
- Unfortunately, not many gyms have a safety-squat bar, but if you do, it's worth a try.
Typical coaching usually revolves around a set of generic cues. You've probably heard a lot of them – "elbows up," "knees out," "spread the floor," etc. These cues can be great reminders if you have someone there watching you, but if you're on your own, it can be too much to process at once.
Instead, I'd prefer to give you some drills that will get you to do all the right things reflexively without over-thinking it.
The Squat Stretch
I've seen this one called many different things but whatever you choose to call it, it works.
Put your hands together like you're praying, squat down to the bottom position with your weight on your heels and push your knees out with your elbows, keeping your chest up and your back arched.
Now hold it.
How long? It really depends. Do it until you can do it really well. If you can't, well, then you better be doing it all the time and supplementing it with some of the mobility drills in this article.
You really can't overdo it; the more the better. When I was first trying to master the squat, I would post up in this position for minutes on end while I was reading, watching TV, whatever. Laugh all you want, but it helped.
The beauty of this one lies in its simplicity. It functions as a screen (if you can't get into the proper position with your own bodyweight, then you have no business doing heavy squatting until you can), a mobility drill, and a teaching tool all in one, making it extremely versatile and efficient.
As a teaching tool, it's great because it reinforces the idea of pushing your knees out and allows you to experience what it should feel like in the hole. Most lifters – coaches included – think they're going much lower than they really are, as evidenced by all the ridiculously high squats you see in gyms.
I'll never forget the first time I filmed myself squatting (if you've never done it, I highly recommend it). I'd always squatted in front of a mirror, and they looked pretty good from the front – to me anyway. After watching them on film, it was eye-opening to see that the squats I had thought were deep were really quarter squats at best.
Don't be that guy. Learn from my mistake and save yourself the embarrassment.
Get used to sitting in the bottom of the prayer squat until it becomes second nature. You'll develop some great mobility in the process, killing two birds with one stone.
Don't worry, you don't have to do it forever. Once you master this drill, you really won't need to do it a lot except for perhaps as part of a quick warm-up, and you'll be able to maintain your mobility by squatting through a full range of motion. Until then, make this one your best friend.
The Box Method
This probably isn't the box method you're thinking of. It's common practice to use the box squat – where you sit back onto a box – to teach the squat, using a progressively lower box until the trainee can squat below parallel.
This sounds good in theory, and I have no qualms with the box squat as an exercise, but I don't like it as a teaching tool for the free deep squat. I think it's a fundamentally different movement pattern and doesn't translate very well.
The box squat is much more hip dominant and is typically done with a vertical (or almost vertical) tibia. The front squat, on the other hand, is much more of a knee dominant movement where the knees travel further out over the toes. The box squat teaches you to "sit back," whereas with the deep squat you need to think more about sitting down between your feet.
To help groove this pattern, I like to use the box in a different way, using a tweak of something I picked up from Dante Trudel, the creator of DC Training.
Stand in front of a mirror in your typical squat stance with a heavy box in between your feet (the box should be almost the same width as your stance).
Now pick it up, watching yourself in the mirror the whole time and making sure to keep your heels on the floor. That's it.
I love this drill because it essentially teaches itself. If you successfully pick up the box, then you've just figured out how to squat. You'll have to push your knees out to make space to grab the box, and by looking at yourself in the mirror, you'll ensure that your chest stays up.
Furthermore, it helps program proper sequencing in the hips and knees, which is essential to squatting well. Ideally you want to initiate the movement with a slight break at the hips (pushing your butt back) followed closely by a break at the knees. Many lifters struggle with this sequence and break from the knees first, which leads to weak squats as well as knee and back pain.
Putting a box between your feet automatically fixes this issue because you'll quickly find that you must push the hips back slightly first before descending or else you won't be able to get low enough to pick up the box without rounding the back.
Get up from your computer right now and give it a try. You may be surprised how quickly it clears things up!
The Smith Machine
I hear the collective groans and snickers already. Did he really just use the S word?
I'm not a fan of the Smith machine and think it ranks right up there alongside the Shake Weight and the Ab Solo for the "Most Useless Gym Equipment" award. I'm especially not a fan of it for heavy squatting because it takes away the need for stabilization and locks you into an unnatural movement pattern.
That said, I do think it can be effectively used as a teaching tool, albeit unloaded, to help teach and ingrain good technique, especially for those with a tendency to fold forward. Sometimes this issue is due to a mobility restriction, and sometimes it's simply a form flaw. The Smith machine can help with both.
Set up just as you would for a regular front squat using your grip of choice, only with your feet about a foot out in front of you, and start squatting as normal.
You won't have to worry about the bar sliding off the shoulders so you can focus on squatting correctly. Moreover, since the bar is on a fixed track, you literally can't bend forward, thereby reinforcing the idea of keeping an upright torso.
Having the feet out in front will make it significantly easier to squat to proper depth, allowing you to practice moving through a full range of motion. It also helps loosen the hips and ankles, making it function as both a technique drill and a dynamic mobility exercise.
As your mobility improves and the movement feels more natural, move your feet in closer until they're underneath your body in a normal squatting stance. At this point, you'll be amazed how much better your squat looks in a short amount of time.
Now go back to the barbell and forget the Smith machine ever existed.
Look Ma No Hands!
Once you're comfortable with the drills above, the hands-free front squat is a great way to put everything together. I got this one from Mike Boyle and it works well for getting comfortable with bar placement.
The key here is getting the bar in the right groove in your deltoids so your wrists and hands don't have to do much work. Going hands-free makes it easy to find that sweet spot because otherwise you'll dump the bar. It also teaches you very quickly to keep your elbows high so the bar doesn't roll forward on you. If you can learn all that without the use of your hands, it will feel much more secure when you grip the bar again.
It's also useful for advanced lifters to use from time to time just to reinforce good technique. I still use it a lot during my warm-up sets with moderate weights to dial in my form before the heavier work.
Get To It!
Hopefully this article has addressed any issues you might have with front squats and perhaps even given you some ideas for improving your own. Regardless, I feel better knowing that I've done my part to help rescue the much-maligned front squat from the bodybuilding dog house.
If front squats leave you frustrated and sore in all the wrong places, try using some of the tips mentioned here for a month. I may just make a believer out of you too.
Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 1 - pp 284-292.
Russell PJ, Phillips SJ. A preliminary comparison of front and back squat exercises. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1989 Sep;60(3):201-8