To start with, I used to hate front squats, too, so I don’t want to hear any “but they hurt my wrists” business, OK? Front squats are an amazing exercise for your legs and — secretly — for your back. They have great carryover to other things you might want to do in the gym or in life. And they really, truly do not have to suck.
What is a front squat?
When you think of barbell squats, you’re probably thinking of the kind where you hold a barbell on your back. To people who do both kinds, those are sometimes called “back squats,” to distinguish them from front squats, in which the bar is in front of you.
In a front squat, the bar rests on your shoulders, just in front of your neck. This means you need to keep your torso upright while you’re squatting. If you lean forward while doing a back squat, that actually makes the squat a little bit easier, since your back and butt muscles can take over some of the work as your legs are getting tired. But in a front squat, if you lean forward, the bar falls off your shoulders.
That makes this squat great for (a) working your legs, especially your quads, without letting your back take over too much; and (b) keeping your core braced and able to support a heavy weight while upright.
Why front squats are great
If you think about it, there are a lot of times in daily life when you might need to support a weight while keeping your torso upright. Think about picking up a child or a large dog. Or bending your knees to be able to give your suitcase a big ol’ shove into the overhead compartment on a plane. (That second one is only a partial front squat, but front squats will definitely build the strength you need to do it.)
And then there are sports where supporting a heavy weight in a front-squat-like position is the whole point. In weightlifting, the act of standing up a clean is exactly the same as a front squat. And the jerk has you dip and drive from your legs while supporting the bar on the front of your shoulders — another front squat movement.
In strongman, front squats are often considered to be a more useful exercise than back squats. They’ll help you to load atlas stones, carry sandbags, and push press logs.
How to front squat comfortably
Great, so front squats would make a wonderful addition to your routine. But if you haven’t gotten comfortable with them yet, you’re probably trying to think of excuses right now for why you shouldn’t have to do them.
Here’s the thing. When done correctly, front squats are fine. They might not be the world’s most comfortable exercise, but it’s not like squatting with a bar on your back is super comfy either. If you “can’t” front squat, or if it hurts your wrists or your neck, try these tips:
- Make sure the bar is resting on your shoulders, not your neck or your hands.
- Push your shoulders forward, so that you make a space for the bar behind your deltoids (shoulder muscles) but in front of your check.
- Get your hands off the bar entirely. Hold them in front of you like a zombie (these are sometimes called “zombie squats” or “Frankenstein squats”).
- Keep your arms parallel to the ground the entire time you’re squatting.
When you hit the sticking point of the squat — just after you start coming back up — your body is going to want to tip forward. Resist this urge, and keep your upper arms parallel to the floor.
Once you get the hang of the zombie version, you can put your hands on the bar. Weightlifters will use a “clean rack” position, hands gripping the bar to the outside of the shoulders, because this is how you hold the bar when you catch a clean. If you don’t care about your ability to hold a clean rack position, you can do like eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman and cross your hands in front of you. This lets you put your hands on the bar for a bit of extra stability, but you still aren’t supporting the bar with your hands. You can also use straps to hold the bar, as we detailed in this post about dealing with wrist discomfort in front squats.
One of the underrated benefits of front squats is that once you have the bar positioned properly, it’s almost impossible to do them wrong. If you don’t keep your torso upright and your hips under you, you won’t be able to lift the weight.
So remember that as long as you can get your hips underneath the bar, all you have to do is stand up; and get a friend to scream “ELBOWS UP!” anytime you start having trouble.
How to work front squats into your routine
If you’re a weightlifter, front squats will be your main squat, and back squats will be the variation. If you’re a powerlifter, back squats are the main event and front squats are a variation. If you’re a strongman or a bodybuilder or you just squat for strength and fitness in general, you get to pick how you spend your time. If you don’t already front squat, try adding them (or swapping them in) for one squat session per week.
Aside from the bar positioning, you may find that front squats are more difficult in other ways. Importantly, it’s normal to front squat substantially less than your back squat. One rule of thumb holds that your front squat should be about 85% of your back squat. This will vary from person to person, and the percentage will be even less if you’re not used to front squatting yet.
Another difference is that front squats require your knees to travel forward of your toes. When you’re doing a back squat, you have the choice of either staying more upright and pushing your knees forward, or leaning your butt back more, which keeps your shins more vertical and usually keeps your knees behind your toes. There’s no safety reason to worry about where your knees are relative to your toes (that’s an old myth) but you may find that your Achilles tendons, between your calves and heels, are too tight to allow you to get below parallel with your heels still on the ground. In this case, it helps to wear weightlifting shoes that have a raised heel, or to put your heels on a pair of weight plates on the ground.