This article is the ultimate front squat exercise guide.
Implementing front squats into your training can increase overall sport performance, posture, strength, and muscle growth. It’s no surprise that the front squat is a staple movement for most strength athletes.
I’ll cover everything you need to know, including:
Let’s get started!
Why Learning The Front Squat Is So Difficult?
The front squat is a complex movement pattern that requires a high level of mobility and body awareness to execute effectively. As such, the front squat has a high learning curve. Don’t let this scare or detract you from trying it though.
Here are a couple of key things to know before getting started:
1. The front squat requires lifters to have greater mobility in the ankles, hips, and shoulders compared with other lower body movements in the gym.
This is because the front squat is a multi-joint movement and requires a full range of motion. As such, the ankles, knees, and hips need to act in coordination with each other when squatting down. The elbows also need to remain up and forward to hold the barbell in position, which requires a high level of external shoulder rotation.
In the next section, we’ll cover how to set up the movement effectively, and later in this article, we’ll detail mobility drills that will help you maximize the front squat position.
2. Lifters need to have a high level of motor control and body awareness before starting the front squat.
The front squat technique relies on mastery of certain movement skills, such as keeping the elbows up, pushing the knees forward at the bottom of the squat, and maintaining a vertical bar path.
There is a lot to think about when front squatting, but in the next section we’ll cover how to set up the movement effectively. We’ll also cover how to progress into the front squat so that you’re learning each part of the movement in stages.
Even though the front squat has a higher learning curve, I still don’t shy away from teaching my athletes how to front squat early in their lifting career. There are several benefits, which will be covered later in this article.
Takeaway: With learning any exercise, you need sufficient practice with the movement skill to get better at it. As long as you start light, and follow an appropriate progression, then you’ll reap the benefits of the front squat. The benefits of front squatting will be discussed later in this article.
How To Front Squat: Step-by-Step Technique (With Pictures)
This section will cover the proper form on how to front squat.
The 17 steps are:
- Set the rack to the appropriate level for your height
- Place the barbell on the front deltoid
- Select a grip that feels comfortable
- Set your elbow position
- Breath and brace your core before take-off
- Walk back from the rack with the minimal distance possible
- Set your squat stance width
- Breathe and brace your core again before squatting down
- Crack at your hips and knees at the same time to initiate movement
- Use a tempo that allows you to maintain tightness and control
- Ensure your knees are tracking over your toes
- Maintain an upright torso
- Go as deep as your mobility allows
- Push your knees forward in the bottom of the squat
- Drive your feet through the floor and use your quads to drive up
- Drive your elbows up and forward to prevent bar slippage
- Accelerate through the entire range of motion to standing
In a rush? I’ll send you a PDF version of this article to read later. Just drop your email below.
Step #1: Set the rack to the appropriate level for your height
The height of the rack should be set up so that you have a slight bend in your knees when the barbell is resting on your shoulders.
You want to make sure the barbell can clear the lip of the rack when you straighten your knees. If I’m clearing the lip of the rack by 1-2 inches when I straighten my knees then I know I have the rack height set up properly.
Note: If your knees are starting too bent, then you’ll essentially perform a half squat to get the weight up and out of the rack, which would waste energy for the actual lift.
Step #2: Place the barbell on your front deltoid
Walk into the barbell with your arms straight and parallel to the floor.
Place the barbell on your front deltoid. It should sit as close to the base of your neck as possible, but not on your neck.
Note: If you place the bar on the lower part of your shoulder or the top of the bicep then there is a risk that the bar slides off your shoulders as you’re squatting.
Step #3: Select a grip that feels comfortable
Selecting a grip that works for you is the most challenging part about the front squat setup.
If you select the wrong grip it can feel very uncomfortable on your wrists and elbows. Try experimenting with one of the four grip styles below (starting in order that I have them listed)
1. Standard Grip
The standard grip would be to place your hands just outside your shoulders with the barbell resting between you first and second knuckle.
You don’t want to ‘grab’ the barbell in the palm of your hand. You want to let it rest on your fingertips and apply pressure between your fingertips and the barbell.
In this grip, you should be able to get all four fingers (pinky, ring, middle, and index) making contact with the barbell.
2. Modified Standard Grip
Depending on your level of wrist and shoulder mobility, and the length of your forearm, you might find it easier to have a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Try experimenting with placing your hands several inches away from your shoulders.
In this grip, you may only get 2-3 fingers (index, middle, and/or ring) making contact with the barbell. Not having all four fingers on the barbell is totally normal — it depends on your mobility and ability to keep your elbow position up and forward (discussed in Step 4).
3. Cross Arm Grip
Bigger lifters who have a lot of upper arm girth or lifters with extreme mobility restrictions may not be able to find a comfortable position using the two grips described above.
In the cross arm grip, you would cross your arms in front of you and grabs the barbell with an overhand grip inside their shoulders.
It’s still important that you place the barbell on your front deltoid when using this grip style.
4. Strap-Assisted Grip
This grip would be suited for anyone who can’t front squat comfortably using any of the grip styles above.
Take lifting straps and loop them around the bar. Leave a large piece of the lifting strap hanging from the barbell.
Set up the barbell on your shoulders, and then grab the end of the lifting strap. The further to the end of the lifting strap you grab, the less mobility is required in your shoulders.
In this grip, you should have no wrist mobility issues. You’ll want to make sure you’re always ‘pulling up’ on the straps as you’re squatting in order to prevent the bar from slipping out of position.
One more thing: This is a great grip choice if you have long forearms.
Step #4: Set your elbow position
As you set your grip, you’re also setting your elbow position. These two steps are done at the same time.
You want to ensure that your elbows are pointing up and forward and that the back of your tricep is parallel to the ground.
Note: If you don’t maintain this elbow position while you’re front squatting, i.e. if your elbows start to point down, then you risk the bar slipping off your shoulders. This is why it’s important to find a grip that allows you to maintain a proper elbow position throughout the full range of motion.
Step #5: Breath and brace your core before take-off
Before you take the bar off the rack, you want to take a big breath, pull the air into your stomach, and squeeze your core. Think about someone punching you in the stomach, and you’re bracing your core for impact.
You can read more about breathing and bracing in the squat HERE.
Note: If you don’t brace your core before lifting the barbell off the rack, the weight will feel heavier than it should and you’ll lack the core strength to keep your torso upright.
Step #6: Walk back from the rack with the minimal distance possible
Once you lift the barbell off the rack, you want to walk it back with the least distance possible between you and the rack. If you walk the weight out too much, then you’ll just waste energy doing so.
I teach my athletes to walk the weight out in 3 steps:
1. Drag step:
Drag one foot across the floor backward. It should be about the distance of your foot.
2. Width step:
Take the opposite foot and place it with how far you want your feet to be apart
3. Corrective step:
This is an opportunity to take your first foot and make any minor corrections to the width or positioning.
Step #7: Set your squat stance width
Your squat stance will vary based on your individual mechanics.
You can read more about how far your feet should be apart while squatting HERE.
In general, you want to take a stance just outside shoulder width with your toes slightly flared.
Try and not to compare your front squat stance with anyone else. You’ll find a personal preference given how comfortable and strong it feels when squatting.
Note: Your front squat stance width might be slightly narrower than your back squat stance width. This is because you will be required to push your knees more forward in the bottom of the front squat, which would feel awkward in a wider stance.
Step #8: Breath and brace your core again before squatting down
Before you squat, repeat step 5: take a breath and brace your core.
This will ensure that you’ve re-engaged any tension on your muscles that you may have lost while walking the weight out into the start position.
You want to breathe, brace, then squat. Don’t try to breathe, brace, and squat all at the same time. If you’re inhaling while you’re squatting down, then you won’t be maximizing the stiffness through your core.
Step #9: Crack at your hips and knees at the same time to initiate movement
To initiate the front squat, you’ll want to flex your hips and knees at the same time. Your hips will drop toward your ankles, and your knees will begin to push forward in front of the barbell.
Step #10: Use a tempo that allows you to maintain tightness and control
It’s important that you execute the movement with a tempo that allows you to maintain maximum muscular tightness and control of the barbell.
- Maintaining muscular tightness: This refers to your ability to maintain core and spinal stiffness.
- Maintaining control of the barbell: This refers to your ability to keep the barbell in a straight line over the midline of the foot throughout the entire range of motion.
If you’re just starting with front squatting, you might want to use a slower tempo. As you become more proficient, you can speed up the eccentric tempo so long as you can still maintain muscular tightness and control of the barbell.
Step #11: Ensure your knees are tracking over your toes
Like most lower body movements, you want to have your knees tracking over your toes.
It’s okay that your knees push in front of your feet. In fact, by having your knees push forward that’s one of the ways you’ll get the range of motion needed to squat to the proper depth.
What we’re trying to avoid is having your knees cave inward. This is called “knee valgus“.
This will cause a lot of sheer force at the knee, which over time can lead to aches and pain, and even worse, injury.
Note: If you struggle with knee valgus, we’ll be covering how to fix it later in this article.
Step #12: Maintain an upright torso
While front squatting, you want to maintain a vertical torso position.
This is because if you start to lean forward too much, you risk your elbow position dropping down and the bar slipping from your shoulders.
Note: Based on an individual’s biomechanics, one person might naturally have more forward torso lean compared with another. But broadly speaking, you’ll have more of an upright torso compared with your back squat. Therefore, a good cue to remember is to keep your chest up (and elbows up) while front squatting.
Step #13: Go as deep as your mobility allows
The full range of motion for the front squat is when the crease of your hip drops below parallel.
The front squat requires an incredible amount of mobility through the ankles, hips, and shoulders to get to the bottom position.
If you can’t get to the full range of motion in the front squat to start, then simply squat to the range of motion that feels most comfortable. But over time, work on your mobility issues so that you can improve your range of motion.
You can learn about my 9 tips on how to squat deeper HERE.
Step #14: Push your knees forward in the bottom of the squat
As you get deeper into the squat, you’ll want to push your knees forward while maintaining a flat foot on the ground. As a result, your lower leg angles (your shins) will also shift forward.
What you want to avoid is ‘sitting back’ and keeping your shins vertical. Whereas some lifters might be able to get away with this position in the back squat, it will feel more natural to push into your knees in the front squat.
Note: The longer your femurs are, the more your knees will need to push forward in the bottom of the squat. This will require your quads to work even harder to stand up with the weight.
Step #15: Drive your feet through the floor and use your quads to drive up
When you’re ready to stand up, you want to actively ‘drive your feet through the floor’.
When squatting, a lot of lifters like to draw their attention to where the bar is sitting on their back. This is because the load is making contact with the body at this point, and where it ‘feels the heaviest’.
I like to cue my athletes to shift their attention from where the bar is sitting on their shoulders to the point of contact on the floor. This requires the athlete to ‘feel the ground with their feet’, and then actively push into the floor.
At the same time, you want to think about using your quads to extend the knee out of the bottom position.
The cue I use with my athletes is: “feel the floor, push with your knees”.
Step #16: Drive your elbows up and forward to prevent bar slippage
As you stand up it’s important that you don’t let your elbows drop down. Cue yourself to drive your elbows up as you stand through the range of motion.
I’ve said this a few times already, but it’s critical to maintain your elbow position at this point in the movement because any shift in the elbow position will cause the bar to slip from the shoulders. If this happens, you might dump the bar onto the floor.
Note: If you’re lifting with bumper plates, it’s not a big deal if you drop the weights on the ground. It would be totally safe to eject from the movement in this way. However, if you’re squatting with steel plates, you’ll want to make sure to set the safety pins in the squat cage appropriately so that you can drop your body and barbell (not the weights) to the pins.
Step #17: Accelerate through the entire range of motion to standing
A good reminder for everyone is not to be lazy as you drive through the mid-range.
Some lifters ‘casually’ stand up with the barbell because they assume they’re going to finish the lift. This is a bad habit to reinforce, and rather, you should think about applying maximum force at all times.
So even if the weight is light, practice driving fast through the entire range of motion.
Takeaway: If you’ve practiced any squat variation previously, then there are some common elements between the front squat technique and other variations (walk-out, knee position, breathing & bracing). As such, you shouldn’t have to re-learn everything from scratch, it’s simply applying what you already know to a new movement. Most of my athletes need to front squat for about 3-4 months in order to feel comfortable. So, don’t expect any quick wins in learning the technique. It takes hard work and patience.
7 Front Squat Tips To Improve Performance
Here are my 7 front squat tips for improving your performance:
- Have a specific warm-up for front squatting
- Experiment with your grip style
- Experiment with how many fingers are on the bar
- Practice the movement at least once per week
- Get proper squatting shoes
- Practice gripping the floor with your feet
- Keep your eyes up and forward
These are what I call the “big bang for your buck” items to focus on. This means that if you were only to focus on these things, then you’d be well on your way to improving your front squat and building confidence in the lift. These tips should allow you to hone your attention on what matters most.
Tip #1: Have a specific warm-up for front squatting
An effective squatting warm-up will include the following 5 phases:
- General warm-up to increase your heart rate
- Mobility drills to increase range of motion and improve blood flow to the muscle
- Dynamic stretching to lengthen the muscle and improve function
- Muscle activation to prime the stabilizing muscles that have a role in supporting the prime movers
- Barbell warm-up to prime the nervous system for heavier weights
You can read my full guide on warming up for squats HERE.
While I suggest you read my guide on how to warm-up for squats, there are some additional mobility drills that you should do before front squatting (versus other squat variations). Specifically, ankle and wrist mobility.
If you are restricted in your ankle mobility, you’ll have a hard time getting to the bottom of the squat position. Similarly, if you are restricted in your wrist mobility you’ll have a hard time setting your grip and keeping your elbows up while squatting.
Try adding these two mobility routines before front squatting:
Ankle Mobility Routine
Note: I would only suggest implementing the first 4:30 minutes of this 10-min routine.
Tip #2: Experiment with your grip style
A lot of people who try front squatting will experience pain in their wrists. It’s very common.
This is because lifters have yet to find a grip style that works with their level of mobility and personal preferences.
I’ve provided four grip styles above that you should experiment with:
- Standard Grip
- Modified Standard Grip
- Cross-Arm Grip
- Strap-Assisted Grip
The main goal should be to find a grip style that allows you to lift pain-free. Use pain as your primary feedback mechanism. If you are experiencing extreme discomfort, stop, and try a different grip.
You should also find a grip that allows you to progress the load over time without risking dumping the weight forward because you can’t keep your elbows in the ‘up position’.
Tip #3: Experiment with how many fingers are on the bar
Similar to the previous tip, you’ll also want to experiment with how many fingers you have in contact with the bar.
One other reason why you might experience wrist pain while front squatting is because you haven’t found the best finger position for your mobility. The more fingers you have on the bar, the more strain you’ll feel in your wrist and forearm.
You’ll want to try having fewer fingers on the bar if you are experiencing pain in your wrist or you are unable to keep your elbows up while squatting.
While I always try to start my athletes having all four fingers in contact with the barbell when front squatting (index, middle, ring, and pinkie), it’s common to see lifters only have two fingers on the bar (index and middle finger).
Note: you might be wondering why I’m focusing so much on ‘reducing the amount of wrist pain’. From my experience, the #1 cause of lifters not wanting to learn the front squat is because they can’t handle the initial pain in their wrists. As long as the lifter doesn’t have a pre-existing medical condition, any pain in the wrist should be solvable through the technique adjustments mentioned in this article.
Tip #4: Practice the movement at least once per week
As I said at the beginning of this article, the front squat is a complex movement skill.
To learn any skill, you must have a sufficient level of practice executing the targeted movement. Therefore, if you want to learn how to front squat, you need to front squat more often.
Also, you should not treat all squat variations the same. For example, you shouldn’t expect to get better at front squatting by performing back squats. These are different movement skills, that require separate practice.
Note: When learning the front squat, I would suggest implementing the movement several times per week in order to practice the technique. Over time, you could drop the frequency to one time per week while focusing on other squatting variations. But initially, you’ll want to prioritize the front squat until you feel comfortable in the movement pattern.
Tip #5: Get proper squatting shoes (heeled shoes)
If it’s not obvious already, the front squat requires greater ankle mobility than other exercises in the gym.
The more restriction at the ankle, the harder it will be for the lifter to squat deep, and the more benefit they will get from heeled shoes.
You’ll notice Olympic weightlifters wear heeled shoes because they are constantly in the front squat position when performing any clean and jerk variation.
A heeled shoe places the ankle in a greater degree of plantarflexion, which means the heel is higher than the toe when standing normally. This allows the ankle to go through a greater range of motion than it otherwise would be able to naturally.
You can read more about the difference between heeled and flat shoes HERE.
I have two recommendations for proper shoes for front squats:
- Nike Romaleos: These are a great choice for people with wider feet. The shoe feels a bit heavy to wear, but that’s good because you’ll feel a sense of stability when heavy front squatting Click here to check price and sizing on Amazon.
- Adidas Powerlift: These are a great choice for people with narrower feet. They have the same construction and design as the Romaleos. Exact same price point too. Click here to check price and sizing on Amazon
Tip #6: Focus on gripping the floor with your feet
Draw your attention to your feet when squatting and think about gripping the floor.
You want to feel your big toe, little toe, and heel pressing into the ground.
By focusing on your feet, you’ll feel more balanced over your centre of gravity, and maximize the force transfer between the barbell and floor. Keeping your feet engaged will also assist with proper knee tracking and maintaining the arch in your foot.
Note: Because the front squat is loaded on the frontal plane of the body, a lot of people trying front squats for the first time will feel like they’re tipping forward in the bottom position. This is where it’s important to cue your feet and find your balance.
Tip #7: Keep your eyes up and forward
Your body will have a natural tendency to follow where your eyes are looking.
When front squatting, it’s important that the torso stays upright and your elbows don’t fall toward the floor. If you look down, your torso might start leaning forward, which would affect your elbow position.
Even micro changes to your torso and elbow position under heavy loads will make a huge difference in your ability to make the lift or not. As such, always keep your eyes up and forward when front squatting.
Takeaway: There are countless things to think about when front squatting, but if you simply focus on these 7 tips then you’ll find yourself feeling more confident in executing the movement effectively. You can also practice these tips when doing some of the exercises I’m going to recommend in the next section on “how to progress to doing front squats”.
How to Progress To Doing Front Squats
The front squat is an exercise that requires a high level of mobility and body awareness.
As such, before starting to the front squat, I recommend mastering three exercises:
- Bodyweight squat
- Overhead squat (with wooden dowel)
- Goblet Squat
These are the exact exercises I get my athletes to go through to assess whether they’re ready for front squatting.
Exercise #1: Bodyweight Squat
The bodyweight squat is a good opportunity to find your optimal stance width, and practice your cues such as “gripping the floor with your feet” and pushing your knees forward to track over the toes.
You’ll also find out what squat depth feels the most comfortable given your current level of mobility.
What the following video for a step-by-step explanation of the bodyweight squat:
The things you want to master before moving onto the next progression are:
- Feeling balanced while squatting. You shouldn’t feel like you’re going to fall forward or backward.
- Your heels stay on the floor. You don’t want your heels coming off the ground when you’re squatting.
- Maintain an upright torso. When you’re squatting, stick your arms out in front of you and keep them parallel to the ground. If they start to drop, it might mean that you’re leaning too far forward.
- Keeping the knees tracking over the toes. Ensuring your knees aren’t caving inwards.
Exercise #2: Overhead Squat
Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight squat, you can move to the overhead squat.
The overhead squat is a more advanced exercise because it requires greater mobility in your ankles, shoulders, and hips — just like you’ll see when performing the front squat.
If you have the mobility to perform an overhead squat, then you should have no issues performing the front squat.
I would also recommend overhead squatting with a wooden dowel or broomstick. For the purposes of increasing your body awareness while squatting, you don’t need a significant amount of load.
Watch the following video for a step-by-step explanation of the overhead squat
The things you want to master before moving onto the next progression are:
- Maintain alignment of the barbell over the midline of the foot. If the barbell is drifting forward, it could mean you are leaning too far forward or lack the proper mobility in your hips, ankles, or shoulders.
- Proper knee tracking. Just like on any squat variation you want to ensure your knees are tracking over the toes.
- Practice eccentric control. With weight overhead, it’s easy for the barbell to move you out of position if you’re squatting too fast on the way down.
Note: You should use a wooden dowel or broomstick instead of a barbell to perform the overhead squat. The idea is not to load this exercise, but to practice the technical points as a way to progress to the front squat.
Exercise #3: Goblet Squat
The last progression is the goblet squat
The goblet squat is a front-loaded squat, but instead of using a barbell like a traditional front squat, you’ll use a dumbbell or kettlebell. This variation is easier on the wrists and shoulders because it doesn’t require the same level of extension through those joints compared with the front squat.
This progression will teach you what it feels like to have a load in front of your body when squatting. You’ll get to practice how to distribute your body weight over your center of mass when there is a load trying to ‘pull you forward’.
The goblet squat is similar to a safety bar squat; however, you’re using a dumbbell rather than a specialty barbell.
What the following video for a step-by-step explanation of the goblet squat:
The things you want to master before moving onto the front squat are:
- Finding your balance. You want to make sure your feet stay flat and you don’t feel like the weight is pulling you forward.
- Maintaining an upright torso. You don’t want your hips shooting up too quickly as you stand up. If they do, your torso will become more parallel to the floor.
- Proper knee tracking: Just like the other progressions, keep your knees tracking over your toes while squatting.
Take a look at my article on the Goblet Squat vs Front Squat to find out whether you should be doing one or the other, or both.
Takeaway: Once you’ve gone through each of these three progressions, you’re ready to start front squatting. You may want to consider doing some of these exercises regularily in your program as a way to reinforce the basic technique that underlies the front squat. Additionally, these exercises can serve as a good warm-up prior to front squatting.
Muscles Used In The Front Squat: What Does A Front Squat Work?
The same muscles that are used in the back squat are used in the front squat, including the:
- Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
- Upper Back and Lats
However, the amount each muscle is activated in the front squat differs slightly compared with other squatting variations. This is because in the front squat the loading demands differ based on the barbell being placed on the frontal plane of the body.
This changes the lift in two fundamental ways:
- The front squat requires stronger upper back and core muscles in order to keep the torso in an upright position. If you’re unable to maintain an upright torso then there is a higher likelihood that the barbell will dumb forward.
- The front squat requires lifters to have a greater forward knee bend in the bottom of the front squat. As such, the quad muscles will be used a lot more to extend the knee from that position. This has been shown to be especially true during the ascending phase, as the lifter drives out of the bottom.
It’s important to recognize that the quads are most activated at the bottom of the squat when the knees are fully flexed. The quads will work the hardest to extend the knees from the bottom position to about halfway up. At that point, the lift becomes less about quad strength and more about using your glutes and adductor magnus to extend the hips into the final position.
What this means is that if you are not squatting to the appropriate depth, and your knees aren’t fully flexed in the bottom position, then you won’t get the added benefit of greater quad activation in the front squat.
Takeaway: A lot of strength coaches choose to implement the front squat to build up quad strength. If the quads are lacking in other exercises or sport skills, then the front squat is a solid choice to develop these muscles further. As you’ll read in the next section, there may be some other benefits for programming front squats versus back squats.
What Are The Differences Between Back Squat vs. Front Squat?
The front squat and back squat are the two most popular squatting variations in the gym.
So what’s the difference between these two movements? There are 5 main differences:
- The bar placement (front vs. back)
- The maximum amount of weight lifted will vary
- Less compressive forces at the knee for front squats
- Greater forward torso lean for back squats
- Greater hamstring activation in the back squat and quad activation in the front squat
Difference #1: The Bar Placement (front vs. back)
The back squat is loaded by placing the load on the back of the shoulders. The front squat is loaded by placing the load on the front of the shoulders.
Whether you place the bar on the back or front will fundamentally change the movement, including the angle of your joints while squatting, the primary muscles used, and the amount of mobility required.
Most people will say it’s more natural to have the bar placed on the back of the shoulders vs the front because it feels more stable. This is why it’s easier to learn how to back squat.
Also, when someone begins to front squat, there is the risk that if they lose their elbow or torso position that the barbell will drop toward the ground. This risk isn’t nearly as high when back squatting.
This isn’t to say that you should avoid front squatting because of bar placement, it just means that you have less leniency on improper form.
Difference #2: The Maximum Amount of Weight Lifted Will Vary
You can lift more weight in the back squat than you can in the front squat. This is because of the amount of torque you can leverage at the level of the hip, and the more stable bar position.
In the general gym environment, some trainers believe that you should be able to front squat 90% of your back squat. For example, if you back squat 300lbs for 1 rep, then you should be able to front squat 270lbs for 1 rep.
While the “90% ratio” may be used for novice trainees or untrained populations, I don’t agree with this ratio for highly competitive powerlifters. This is because a competitive powerlifter’s main goal is to develop their back squat maximal strength far more than any other lower body movement. Therefore, you can assume that the back squat will be a much higher ratio of their front squat compared with the average person.
From my experience, a competitive powerlifter should be able to front squat 70% of their back squat for most protocols.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule for me, but if my powerlifting athletes start to fall below this ratio, I will monitor their progress to see if implementing more front squats could be a way to increase their back squat strength.
Similarly, if my athletes are above this ratio, I wouldn’t implement more front squats into the program. This is because I’d be worried that they would be developing a stronger front squat for the sake of a stronger front squat, which isn’t a competitive lift in powerlifting.
Difference #3: Less Compressive Forces At The Knee For Front Squats
A study by Gullett et al. (2009), showed that the back squat and front squat had similar overall muscle recruitment; however, with significantly less compressive forces at the level of the knee for front squats.
Compressive forces are when a joint is either pushed or pressed due to an external load acting along a structure’s longitudinal axis. When a barbell is sitting on your shoulders (either on the front or back), there is a vertical line of force transferring the load into your spine, knees, and ankles.
The result of this study suggests that front squats may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems.
In the realm of powerlifting or other sport contexts, the front squat could be added into the program periodically to relieve the stress on the knees from heavier back squatting. The athlete would still get the lower body muscular activation needed to further development but prioritize long-term joint health.
Difference #4: Greater Forward Torso Lean for Back Squats
The back squat will have greater forward torso lean.
This is for two reasons:
- To feel balanced and distribute the load over the centre of mass, you want to keep the barbell over the midline of the foot. As a result, some forward torso lean is required in the back squat to maintain this “midline position”.
- To prevent the barbell from sliding down your back while squatting, some forward torso is required. This is truer if you back squat in a ‘low bar’ position versus ‘high bar’.
Because of the greater forward torso lean of the back squat, any rounding of the low or mid-back will cause greater sheer force at the level of the vertebrae. This may increase the likeliness of a back injury, especially under maximal weight.
Researchers Yavuz et al. (2015) suggested that the front squat may be preferred to the back squat for preventing possible lumbar injuries.
Don’t take this advice as gospel though. You certainly don’t want to avoid the back squat.
You simply want to ensure that when back squatting you’re selecting loads that allow you to keep your spine neutral. You may also consider front squatting over back squatting if you find your lower back getting sore or if you’re rehabbing a back injury.
Difference #5: Greater Hamstring Activation In The Back Squat & Quad Activation in The Front Squat
In the previous section, I mentioned that the quads are more activated in the front squat, which is true.
However, I didn’t mention that during the back squat, it’s been shown that the hamstrings (semitendinosus) are more activated.
It makes sense that the hamstrings are more activated in the back squat because:
- In the back squat, the hips are required to push back more and travel further away from the barbell. In part, this is due to the greater forward torso lean.
- In the front squat, the hips stay underneath the shoulders more without as much travel backward.
- Because of this subtle change in hip position, there will be slightly more hip extension required in the back squat
- The hamstrings act as a synergist to support the glutes in hip extension. As the knees straighten, the hamstrings are engaged more in order to bring the hips back underneath the bar to the start position.
It’s important to know that a lot of these muscular differences don’t seem to be present under lighter loads. Based on a study by Clarke et al. (2012), differences in muscular activation are only present using loads exceeding 70% of 1RM.
Takeaway: There are differences between the back squat and front squat that perhaps make the front squat a slightly safer movement for some trainees. It’s also important to understand the biomechanical differences in the technique when executing each movement, primarily the angle of the torso and hips. If your goal is to lift the most weight possible, then back squatting is a superior variation.
4 Benefits of Front Squats
In this section, I’ll cover 5 benefits of front squatting:
- Improved core strength
- Greater quad development
- Decreased lumber and knee stress
- Improved performance on back squat
Benefit #1: Improved Core Strength
Personally, any time I front squat my core is always sore the next day.
It’s the type of soreness that I don’t typically get when doing weighted crunches or leg raises. This is because I’m usually bracing harder to maintain an upright torso, which is truer when I’m performing a heavy set in the higher rep range (6-12).
The science also backs the claim that front squats lead to greater core activation.
An article by Bird et al. (2012) in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning says that the “front squat is a total core movement, recruiting each part of the core musculature, including the erector spinae, quadratus lamburoum, obliques, rectus, and transverse abdominis”.
The reason for this is because the anterior (frontal) bar placement forces the lifter to maintain an upright torso, and at the same time, forces the pelvis not to go into an excessive tilt. Due to these torso and pelvis requirements, the core needs to work a lot harder to execute the movement effectively.
Benefit #2: Greater Quad Development
The quads work a lot harder in the front squat compared with other squatting variations.
This is why I experience more muscular soreness in my quads than glutes after front squatting.
Under heavier loads (70% of 1RM and above), the more knee extensor demands are required to front squat. This was shown in a study by Clarke et al. (2012) where they looked at how loading impacts muscle activation in the front squat.
This also makes sense bio-mechanically because in a front-loaded barbell position the knees need to travel more forward to get the appropriate depth. When the knees have greater flexion, the quads are required to generate more force to extend out of the bottom position.
Benefit #3: Decreased Lumbar and Knee Stress
As mentioned in the differences between front squats vs. back squats, the front squat has less compressive forces through the lumbar and knee joint.
This was shown in a study by Gullett et al. (2009), which concluded that the more upright position leads to a decrease in stress at the level of the knee.
This is a benefit for those who are coming back from a knee inury, or already have sore knees and want to continue to find a squatting variation that doesn’t cause as much pain.
Additionally, we see the front squat being taught more in youth settings because coaches believe it’s a safer movement to learn the biomechanics of the squat before transitioning to the back squat.
Benefit #4: Improved Performance on Back Squat
The front squat has a high carryover to your back squat strength.
For powerlifters, whose main goal is to improve their 1 rep max back squat, this is a clear advantage.
You may want to consider programming front squats if you experience any of the following issues when back squatting:
- If your hips are rising too quickly out of the bottom position. For example, you’re coming into a ‘good morning‘ position as you stand up.
- If you always fail your back squat reps in the bottom position. For example, when you fail a rep, you fail below parallel.
- If you generally feel like you have a quad weakness.
The idea is that if you have a knee extensor weakness, then building up your quad strength by front squatting should transfer strength to your back squat over time.
Takeaway: The front squat can improve your overall core strength, increase the size and strength of your quads, reduce the stress on your lower back and knees compared with other squatting variations, and facilitate the development of your back squat.
7 Mistakes to Avoid When Front Squatting
This section will cover mistakes to avoid when front squatting.
I’ll discuss the mistake in detail, the potential causes, and how to correct them.
The 7 mistakes to avoid are:
- Walking the weight out in too many steps
- Heels coming up
- Elbows dropping
- Knees caving
- Not getting deep enough
- Standing too wide
- Hips rising too fast out of the bottom
Mistake #1: Walking The Weight Out In Too Many Steps
This mistake occurs when you lift the bar up from the rack in the start position and walk the weight back using more steps than needed.
The goal would be to walk the weight out using the three-step method detailed earlier: 1) drag step, 2) width step, and 3) corrective step. Any other steps taken to walk the weight out is unnecessary.
The problem with taking too many steps in your walk-out is that you waste energy.
This isn’t necessarily the case under lighter loads, but under heavier loads, the more time under tension you spend ‘not squatting’, the more inefficient the movement becomes. You want to keep all your energy for squatting and not walking the weight out.
Additionally, before you unrack the bar you’ll want to brace your core in order to increase stability and spinal stiffness. The more steps you take to walk the bar out into the start position, the more you’ll lose this brace. It becomes extremely hard to regain this brace before you squat if you’ve lost it while walking the weight out.
Causes & Solutions
There are two possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: You’ve lost your balance at some point during the walkout and stumble with getting your feet in the correct position.
Solution: Before walking the weight back, lift the bar from the rack and hold it. Don’t take any steps until the bar settles. Once you feel you’re stable, start taking your first step. Do so deliberately, and not rushing the process.
- Possible Cause #2: You lack discipline or knowledge of how to walk the weight out properly.
Solution: Practice using the three-step walkout method for all squatting variations. Any time you’re about to squat, whether its a warm-up or working set, make sure you take the opportunity to practice the skill of walking the weight out. After several weeks and months of training, it should become a habit.
Mistake #2: Heels Coming Up
This mistake occurs when you are descending into the squat and your heels lift from the floor. This might happen slightly, where your heels barely lift off the floor, or it can happen to a greater extent where you’re squatting primarily on your toes.
The goal would be to keep your heels on the ground throughout the entire movement.
The problem with your heels coming off the floor is that you will feel off balance.
Rather than focusing on transferring as much force through the floor over your centre of mass, you’ll be wasting energy trying to prevent yourself from falling forward.
Additionally, when the heels lift, you won’t be leveraging your ankle joint to perform a deep squat. Therefore, other joints will need to compensate for the lack of mobility, and this is often done by pushing your knees much further forward than necessary or your hips tucking underneath of you too much (posterior pelvic tilt). This can cause extra stress on the knee and low back, which may lead to pain or injury if continuing to squat in this movement pattern.
Causes & Solutions
There are two possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: The front-loaded position of the barbell is pulling you forward and off-balance.
Solution: Find your balance over your centre of mass before squatting. To do this, I like to cue my athletes to ‘grip the floor with their feet’. I ask them to curl their toes into the floor. Then, when descending into the squat, take a video from the side angle and observe the bar path. The bar should be somewhere in line with the mid-part of the foot. If the bar path starts to drift in front of the foot, then you’ll need to actively think about shifting your bodyweight back (more on your heels).
- Possible Cause #2: You lack the ankle mobility required to achieve a deep squat position.
Solution: Perform ankle mobilitization drills prior to squatting, and stretch your calf muscles multiple times per week. These are my favorite ankle mobilization drils (click for video on YouTube). Additionally, you should consider squatting in heeled shoes, which will increase the angle of your ankle naturally without straining your mobility. These are my favorite heeled shoes (click to check price on Amazon).
Mistake #3: Elbows Dropping
This mistake occurs when you drop your elbows when squatting.
You’ll experience this issue if you simply can’t get into the proper elbow position as you set up the movement, or you may start with the proper elbow position, but under fatigue or heavy load your elbows drop.
The goal would be to keep your elbows up where the back of your arms are parallel to the floor throughout the entire movement.
The problem is that when your elbows drop, the barbell may slide off your shoulders and fall onto the floor.
Even if the barbell doesn’t slide off your shoulders completely, any movement of the barbell from the starting position will cause you to feel off balance. If balance becomes an issue, then you won’t be able to transfer force through the ground effectively while executing the movement.
Causes & Solutions
There are three possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: You lack the wrist mobility required to keep your elbows up.
Solution: The front squat has more wrist mobility requirements than most exercises in the gym. Therefore, it’s not natural to start front squatting and have the adequate level of wrist mobility to keep your elbows in the correct position. As such, you’ll want to start implementing wrist mobilization drills into your warm-up routine, and regularly stretch your extensor muscles in your forearm. These are my favorite wrist mobilization drills (click for video on YouTube).
- Possible Cause #2: You lack the shoulder mobility required to keep your elbows up.
Solution: Similiar to the wrist mobility, the front squat has a high degree of shoulder mobility requirements. Specifically, the shoulder is required to be in flexion under load. When someone lacks shoulder mobility in the front squat, you might see them over extend their upper and mid back in order to draw their arm up into position. This is a compensation strategy for a lack of shoulder mobility. As such, you’ll want to start implementing shoulder flexion mobility drills into your warm-up routine. These are my favorite shoulder mobilization drills (click for video on YouTube).
- Possible Cause #3: You lack body awareness of where your elbows are in space.
Solution: For most people new to front squatting, having your elbows up may feel awkward and unnatural, or you might not even know that you’re dropping your elbows because it’s a foreign position. In this case, all you need is more practice with front squatting and using video feedback to assess your elbow position.
Mistake #4: Knees Caving
This mistake occurs when your knees don’t track over your toes while squatting and cave inward.
Most often, you’ll notice this mistake when you are driving out of the bottom position or pushing through your sticking point and your knees cave.
The goal is to have your knees in line with your foot throughout the entire range of motion.
The problem with your knees caving under load is that it increases the sheer force at the level of the knee.
Sheer force occurs when unaligned forces push one part of a body in one specific direction and another part of the body in the opposite direction.
In the front squat, the line of force is traveling vertically from the shoulders to the floor. When the knee caves inward, there are now lateral (shear) forces acting on the knee. While the knee is able to handle a certain level of shear force, if repeated over time or executed at heavy loads, it can lead to pain or injury.
Causes & Solutions
There are three possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: You didn’t start the movement with your knees tracking over your toes.
Solution: When you start the movement, you want to ensure your knees are already tracking over your toes properly. If you start with your knees caving, it will be harder to correct this movement pattern deeper into the range of motion. I like to cue my athletes to externally rotate their hips/upper leg bone before starting to descend into the squat. Then, when they drop their hips down, their knees should already be in the correct alignment.
- Possible Cause #2: You lack strength in your glute medius.
Solution: Your knees will track over your toes properly if your hips are externally rotated. The muscle responsible for external hip rotation is your glue medius (the outer/side part of your glute). If your glute medius is weak, your hips will fail to externally rotate properly under load. If this happens, you need to strengthen your glute medius by doing exercises such as X-Band Walks, Medial Band Split Squats, and Banded Clamshells (click links for YouTube videos).
- Possible Cause #3: You have tight calves or flat feet.
Solution: If you have tight calves, then your ankles will begin to pronate in the bottom part of the squat. This means that your ankles will roll internally causing the arch of your foot to collapse. When this happens, your knees can also cave inward as a way to compensate for poor mobility. Here is my favorite foam rolling exercise for the calf muscles, which can be done prior to squatting to improve ankle mobility (click link for YouTube video).
Mistake #5: Not Getting Deep Enough
This mistake occurs when you fail to get your hip crease below the plane of the knee, which would be considered the appropriate range of motion for a squatting movement.
If you struggle with getting to depth in other squatting variations, you’ll likely also struggle with your range of motion on front squat.
The goal would be to squat to depth consistently every time you squat, regardless of the load.
The problem with not getting to depth is that you’re limiting the range of motion of the movement. This will impact hypertrophy (muscle growth) because full range of motion training involves stretching the muscle fibers to a greater extent.
Furthermore, if you’re not training to proper depth then you’re not developing the strength required at the deeper end ranges of the movement. If you train like this for too long, you’ll start to fail weights at the bottom end of the squat without having the ability to ‘grind through the reps’.
Causes & Solutions
There are three possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: You have poor ankle mobility
Solution: As you’re probably starting to realize, having adequate ankle mobility is important to successfully execute the front squat. If your ankles are tight and you’re struggling to get to depth, you may start to compensate by leaning too far foward at the hips or coming up on your toes to gain the extra range of motion. Here’s one way you can diagnose and correct your ankle mobility (click link for YouTube video).
- Possible Cause #2: You have poor hip mobility
Solution: If your hips are too tight then going deeper into the squat may feel uncomfortable. You’ll start to compensate by either leaning too far forward or having your pelvis tucking underneath of you (posterior pelvic tilt or ‘butt wink’). My three favorite exercises to increase hip mobility for square are: frog stretch, rear foot elevated hip flexor stretch, and banded hip distractions (click links for YouTube video).
- Possible Cause #3: You are squatting in the wrong stance width
Solution: You may need to experiment with your stance to see if its impacting how low you can squat. Everyone will have different anthrometrics (bone and joint structure), which will impact how your bone structure responds under certain joint angles. For example, if you’re squatting in a narrow stance, and you have a wide hip structure, it will feel more uncomfortable the lower you squat. Simply experiment with different stances and see if your range of motion can be optimized.
- Possible Cause #4: You lack body awareness of what ‘full range of motion’ looks and feels like
Solution: If you’re new to squatting, you might not know where your hips are in space, and what it feels like when your hips cross the plane of your knee. If this is the case, you simply need more practice squatting and using video feedback to help provide visual reference points.
- Possible Cause #5: You lack the discipline of committing to depth every time you squat
Solution: You may know where proper depth is, but you choose not to squat deep because you’re sacrificing range of motion for load. In this case, you’ll just need to drop your ego and squat deeper.
Mistake #6: Standing Too Wide
This mistake occurs when you’re standing too wide for both your individual mechanics and the specific nature of the front squat.
As I said previously, everyone will have different bone structures and limb lengths, which impact the joint angles under specific ranges of motion. Additionally, for most people, the front squat will have a slightly different stance because it’s more knee-extensor dominant.
The goal is to find an appropriate stance that feels comfortable and strong under a loaded barbell.
The problem with not finding the right stance in your front squat is that you’ll always feel awkward doing the movement. It may also limit the depth you’re able to squat (as discussed above).
Causes & Solutions
There’s only one cause for why you’re making this mistake
- Possible Cause #1: You haven’t spent enough time progressing into the front squat.
Solution: I spend a lot of time with my athletes following the steps I laid out in the “how to progress into doing front squats” section. By performing bodyweight squats, overhead squats, and goblet squats prior to front squatting, we’ll have figured out an appropriate starting point for our stance width. Once front squatting, we’ll spend the first few workouts experimenting with bringing the feet wider/narrower and turning our feet angle in/out.
Mistake #7: Hips Rising Too Fast Out Of The Bottom
This mistake occurs when your hips pop up out of the bottom of the squat faster than the speed of the bar.
You’ll know if this happens because your torso angle will come into a ‘good morning’ position. In other words, your torso will start to lean more forward.
The goal is for the bar and your hips to rise at the same tempo out of the bottom, and to keep the same torso angle you had while descending into the squat.
There are two main problems when this movement pattern occurs:
First, in the front squat, you risk dumping the bar onto the floor. If we can’t maintain an upright torso then your elbows are more likely to drop, and the bar will roll forward.
Second, you’ll be shifting the loading demand from your knee extensors to your hip extensors and you’ll rely a lot more on your glutes and low-mid back to compensate. This is a weaker position to be in and you’ll likely hit a strength plateau unless you can engage your knee-extensor muscles more.
Causes & Solutions
There are two possible causes for why you’re making this mistake:
- Possible Cause #1: You lack knee extensor strength
Solution: If your hips are rising too fast it’s your body’s way to compensate for a lack of knee extensor strength. When you lean forward, you’re shifting the loading demand from your knee extensors to hip extensors. To fix this, you need to develop greater quad strength, which is your primary knee extensor. As well, only select loads that allow you to maintain proper positioning. If your knee extensors can’t handle the loading demand, then don’t compensate with poor form simply to lift more weight.
- Possible Cause #2: You aren’t using the right cues
Solution: You may be focusing on too many squat cues or not implementing the right one. If you are experiencing your hips rising too fast, you’ll want to cue yourself to have your ‘chest up’ and ‘drive hard with your quads’ out of the bottom. If that doesn’t work, try using the cue ‘elbows up’ as a way to force your torso in a more upright position.
Takeaway: It’s not important that mistakes are being made when learning the front squat. What you need to do is understand why the mistakes are happening and then select the appropriate intervention to correct it. The mistakes discussed are only the most common. If you have a specific issue you want to discuss, you can get an individual technique assessment from us (click link for more info).
Front Squat Alternatives
Fronts squats are not the only exercise in the gym that can improve quad strength, hypertrophy, and overall posture.
Here are three front squat alternatives that you can either do in combination with front squats or substitute with altogether:
- High Bar Pause Squat
- Dumbbell Front Squat
- Barbell Split Squat
I only cover 3 alternatives in this article. Read my complete guide on 10 Front Squat Alternatives.
Alternative #1: High Bar Pause Squat
The High Bar Paused Squat will place a similar emphasis on the quad muscles, and you’ll likely be able to lift more weight in this exercise.
In a high bar squat position, you’ll have the barbell resting on your upper traps. This is in contrast to a low bar squat where the barbell will rest 2-3 inches lower on the top of your rear deltoid.
I wrote an entire article on where you should put the barbell on your back while squatting, which you can read HERE.
In short, however, by placing the barbell higher on your back, your knees will need to track slightly more forward compared with a low bar back squat position.
As a result, your quads will be required to generate slightly more force to extend out of the bottom position. This is a similar phenomenon that happens in the front squat, which is why the high bar squat is a closer relative to the front squat than the low bar squat.
As an extra protocol, I like to implement a 1-2 second pause at the bottom of the high bar squat. This will place more time under tension for the quads.
Alternative #2: Dumbbell Front Squat
The Dumbbell Front Squat is a good teaching tool in learning the front squat.
It can also be an effective exercise to build strength and hypertrophy if you don’t feel totally comfortable front squatting with a barbell.
The important point to remember is to rest the end of the dumbbell on your shoulders, much like the barbell would rest on your front deltoid in a traditional front squat, and keep your elbows up the entire time.
The only limitation to this exercise is that at some point the set up of the movement will be too awkward if you’re lifting heavier dumbbells. At this point, I would start transitioning to one of the other alternatives or performing the front squat.
Related Article: 9 Highly Effective Belt Squat Alternatives
Alternative #3: Barbell Split Squat
The Barbell Split Squat can ben an effective exercise to improve quad strength and muscle mass.
It’s used as a unilateral exercise to help work through any potential imbalances between the right and left side. This would be beneficial to lifters who have clear asymmetries between sides or have a ‘dominant leg’.
You can perform this movement with a barbell on your back; however, there are also versions of the split squat where you can hold it in the ‘front rack’ position, just as you would while front squatting.
One of the limitations of this exercise is that it requires superior balance and motor control. However, this is not something you should shy away from, as improving your balance and motor control will carry over into other exercises.
Takeaway: Some alternatives to the front squat are the: high bar paused squat, dumbbell front squat, and barbell split squat. While I still recommend learning how to front squat, these alternatives can be stepping stones to the front squat or be used as part of a well-rounded training program.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about the front squat:
Can You Front Squat In A Powerlifting Meet?
No, you can’t front squat in a powerlifting meet. The back squat is the only type of squat that is allowed.
My Forearms Are Too Long For Front Squats. What Should I Do?
I would recommend using the ‘strap-assisted grip’ explained earlier in this article. You can’t control the length of your limbs, but you can certainly modify the movement and still gain the benefits of front squatting.
Can I Deadlift Before Front Squatting?
Yes, you can deadlift before front squatting. Your exercise order should determine your priority for the workout. So if your deadlifts are the priority on that specific day, then deadlift first. However, if you’re aiming to build your front squats, then place the front squat ahead of any other exercise.
What Is A Good Weight For Front Squats? (Strength Standards)
If you’re looking for a general rule of thumb then check out the strength standards for front squats. The charts on this site will break down ‘what’s good’ based on gender and bodyweight.
However, these standards become a bit skewed if you’re a competitive powerlifter because your back squat strength is going to be much superior to your front squat strength.
As such, a competitive powerlifter should aim to front squat 70% of their back squat, which would be considered elite.
Implementing front squats into your training can increase overall sport performance, posture, strength, and muscle growth. It’s a staple exercise in the gym for powerlifters, bodybuilders, crossfitters, and general athletes.
Clarke, Dave, R., Lambert, M., Hunter, A. 2012. Muscle Activation in the Loaded Free Barbell Squat: A Brief Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(4): 1169-1178.
Ebben, W., Carroll, R., Simenz, C. 2004. Strength and Conditioning Practices of National Hockey League Strength And Conditioning Coaches. Journal of Strength And Conditioning Research. 18(4): 889-897.
Gullett, J., Tillman, M., Gutierrez, G., Chow, J. 2009. Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23(1): 284-292.
Yavuz, H., Erdag, D., Amca, A., Aritan. 2015. Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads.. Journal of Sport Science. 33(1): 1058-1066.