Do you want to add muscle to your quads, hamstrings, and glutes? If so, I would like to introduce you to the front squat.
Should you walk into most gyms around the country, there’s a high chance you will see someone performing the traditional back squat, and there’s every reason why.
It has stood the test of time and is one of the most conventional classic lifts that work the whole lower body and core. Furthermore, it is an excellent compound exercise and is ideal for anyone who likes to keep fit, from your average gym trainer to American Footballers, for example.
However, if increasing your strength and adding muscle mass to your lower body is your goal, you will not go wrong with introducing the front squat to your weekly workout program.
Though not dissimilar in fundamentals to the back squat, many people leave the front squat out of their leg workout. The technique can be pretty intimidating to some – especially those who have never done the lift before – so they prefer to stick with the barbell squat as they feel more at ease with the exercise setup.
The bar is held behind the neck throughout the back squat, whereas with the front squat, you have it across the front of your shoulders, at the top of the chest, which is a more complex technique to master.
However, there is great benefit in the setup being different. It isolates the quads in their entirety, forcing them to cope with and shift the load. It also incorporates the core muscle groups, ensuring your torso is upright and stabilized during the movement.
How To Do a Front Squat
I will walk you through four key steps to master the front squat technique.
1. Prepare the Rack
First things first, you never want to be in a compromised position on your tip-toes when you’re unhooking the bar. It is safety rule number one.
So, with this in mind, ensure the pin of the J-hook is just slightly below shoulder height, as this will keep you safe.
The next step is to place the safety bars on the rack at the level you will squat the lowest. Again, this is essential as they will protect you if you’re in a deep squat position and your legs give out due to fatigue.
Here’s a valuable tip: never think it won’t happen to you because it just might.
If you’re in a deep squat position and you cannot lift the weight, there’s a potential injury going to happen, so it’s worth getting set up correctly.
Try a few bodyweight squats without any weight to ensure the bars are in a safe position and you’re good to go.
Once you’re satisfied that your J-hooks and the safety bars are all hunky-dory, load the barbell with weight plates. Also, I’d highly recommend you put collars on either side of the bar, too.
Start light, even with the bar only, and make gradual, incremental weight jumps from there if you’re new to the front squat.
2. Unrack the Bar
At this point, people can become flustered and struggle with technique; therefore, I would arrive 15-30 minutes before your planned workout to experiment with different grip and elbow placements and adjust as necessary until it feels perfectly natural (and safe) for you.
Here are the correct steps in unracking the bar:
- At the rack, line up the bar with the upper part of your chest where there is some muscle for it to rest on. The bar should be slightly below your neck – not even touching it – and, of course, not restricting your breathing in any way.
- When you grip the bar, your hands should be shoulder-width apart. Put your fingers under and around the bar so that the elbows automatically lift forward, up, and away from your body. Some people feel more comfortable using only two fingers under the bar – the forefinger and middle finger – while others prefer four. See what works for you.
- Standing with a proud chest and a solid spinal position, use the chest to support the bar. The fingers are there to prevent the bar from rolling only and nothing else.
- While remaining careful, unrack the bar and take a step back away from the rack. The feet should be a little beyond hip-width with toes slightly pointed out.
3. The Movement
Ensure that you remain tall and upright here, with heels staying firmly on the ground. It is very easy to move your weight either back into your heels or onto the balls of your feet.
- Get into a deep squat, otherwise known as “ass to grass.” In essence, this means your hamstrings should be nearly touching the back of your calves, then you know you’re deep enough. Ensure your chest remains high throughout the movement to keep you safe so the bar doesn’t roll forward.
- Next, slowly come out of the squat by reversing yourself back to the starting position.
4. Re-Rack the Bar
After finishing your front squats, it’s time to re-rack the bar like so:
- Take a step or two forward, ensuring the J-hooks align with the shoulders with elbows remaining up.
- Compose yourself and stick your chest out to slightly lift the bar up and into the J-Hooks safely, then step away from the bar.
Front Squat vs. Back Squat
These two exercises are similar in many ways, yet different simultaneously.
With the front squat, you can feel a difference when your glutes squat down to knee level as your hips remain under the bar instead of behind it like they do in the traditional squat. Due to this, your ankles may flex more, and your knees may come out more in front of you.
Also, during the back squat, there is a slight lean of the torso as you descend into the squat; however, the back remains near enough completely straight and tall during the front squat.
Front Squat Variations
Don’t feel married to this exercise. If it doesn’t feel right – or you’re struggling with the setup – by all means, try different ways that work better for you.
This exercise is excellent for those who lack confidence in using the barbell to front squat as you can replace it with either a dumbbell or kettlebell.
It would be best if you held the weight against your chest with arms bent so your hands are above your elbows, then squat down until your elbows touch your knees and drive back up to the standing position.
It is a perfect exercise that isolates the legs.
Again, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell close to your chest, place one foot in front of the other and lower toward the floor, assuming the lunge position.
Keep your chest up and your back horizontal throughout.
Barbell Front Squat With Straps
This exercise isn’t for everyone, but still a great one nonetheless.
However, it is worth noting that it can be harder to use the straps as the weight increases. I would highly recommend you dedicate some time each week to work on wrist flexibility exercises, as this will assist you in working your way up to the traditional grip required for front squats.
The everyday use for straps is to maintain a better grip of the barbell, especially for advanced lifters who move large amounts of weight.
The idea for including straps here is that they help keep the elbows lifted and wrists facing inwards, which is one of the more common challenges a trainer faces when attempting the front squat.
There is nothing technical about applying the straps; wrap them around the bar and play with hand positioning.
Resistance Band Squat
You can use a resistance band when doing the split squat exercise too.
Stand with one foot in the center of the band while the back foot is behind you, and grab both handles. Ensure your palms face each other and bring the handles near your front delts.
Lunge down on your front knee so that your back knee sinks to about an inch off the ground behind you. This will put you in the lunge. Stand back up straight, then switch legs.
Benefits of the Front Squat
Squats are excellent for building strength and mass and, as such, can increase one’s overall athletic performance.
However, the barbell front squat is more effective at increasing quad strength than the back squat. The quads do more of the work, and the hamstrings do not play a significant role as they otherwise do in the back squat.
It is a more quad-dominant exercise, though it still relies on activation from the hips, glutes, and hamstrings to execute the lift correctly, just not to the same degree as the regular squat.
Interestingly, there is an age-old debate between the barbell squat and the Smith machine squat as to which one is best.
Some say the Smith machine is much safer than the regular squat for this exercise, as the bar is wedged between metal rails, and the movement of the bar is in a straight vertical line. Though this may be correct to some extent, the barbell squat allows for far greater body stabilization and significantly improves the core comparatively.
The following common mistakes will improve your form and safety with the front squat.
Bouncing Out of the Hole
There are two reasons you will be bouncing out of the bottom of the lift:
- The weight you’re using is too light
- You’re going too fast
The front squat should always be done slowly and controlled, which is why people tend to bounce at the bottom as they do the opposite.
So slow down first, and if that doesn’t make a difference, increase the weight and reassess.
Dropping of the Elbows
An issue that often happens is that the bar can roll forward off the chest because the elbows drop down during the squat, which is a safety issue, and potential injury is waiting to happen.
The reason why this happens, believe it or not, is down to poor wrist flexibility.
There are, however, three things you can do to help you with this issue:
- Do wrist flexibility exercises 2-3 times per week.
- Have your hands positioned a little wider on the bar to free up the elbows, which will therefore release some tension and pressure from the wrists.
- Adjust your grip to use two fingers under the bar instead of four.
Knees Coming In
We will all be different when it comes to positioning the feet and toes, but your feet should be a little wider than they would be in a barbell back squat stance, just not so wide that your knees roll in when you squat.
Do some bodyweight or barbell-only squats to test your stance before you start. Try and find a nice, comfortable position for your feet and lower your body into the squat.
The knees should never naturally roll in when you squat. If they do, you must play about with your stance as they are too wide.
Again, grip comes down to what feels suitable for you. There isn’t a “best” grip, so never copy someone else’s as it may not work for you.
The aim is to keep your chest up, and your elbows elevated, so find a grip that allows you to achieve this.
You are robbing yourself of all the benefits of this squat if you don’t perform it using a full range of motion; therefore, it is essential that when you front squat, you sink into a deeper squat than you otherwise would with the traditional squat.
The hips only come down to around knee level during the traditional squat; however, your butt should be nearly touching your lower leg at the deepest position of the front squat.
I would also encourage you to work on your hip flexibility by stretching to help you with the movement, and always start without weight and add weight to the bar when ready.
About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).