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The MAGIC of the front squat



Lets set the scene, we join up for a training session. It’s the very first session working together and I ask you to perform a front squat……….with only the bar.

So how do you go about doing it?

Would you hold the bar as if you were in the bottom position of a military/overhead press?

Would you cross your arms in front of your chest?

Or would you adopt the Olympic clean grip in the above picture? 

Whichever you opt for, it tells me a substantial amount about what is going on internally as far as your muscles and joint integrity concerned.

This isn’t just my view, it’s the view of a magnitude of well renowned strength coaches worldwide. Charles Poliquin and Elliott Hulse to name a couple. One simple conclusion can be drawn if you cannot perform the PROPER front squat……….everything ISN’T working as it should.

The front squat has an extremely high neurological demand and seriously activates the C.N.S. (Central nervous system)

So what is a “proper” front squat? It is the Olympic “clean” grip. Where the bar is actually resting on the front of your BODY. You aren’t HOLDING the bar at all. The misconception that you have to “hold” the bar is seriously common! 

Why is holding the bar wrong?

When you hold the bar in your hands, the weight isn’t distributed over your centre of gravity! Therefore, all the load is baring down on your small and relatively weak wrists and your rotator cuffs are under uncomfortable pressure. As a result, your Quadriceps, core and lower back aren’t taxed like they should be. Those are the targeted areas with the front squat, not the wrists and rotator cuffs!

Unlike the back squat, there is no cheating with the front as far as posture is concerned!

Basically, if you do not remain completely upright throughout the entire range of motion, guess what happens? Yep, you’re dropping that weight straight on the floor in front of you! Not cool. Not cool at all. With the traditional Back squat, it’s common to see people leaning too far forward as they descend to the bottom portion of the range, usually because of a weak lower back.

Like its cousin the Overhead squat, the front squat is a great detective

Maintaining Thoracic extension is essential. Hip and Ankle mobility is also essential. The Elbows must remain in (close to the body) and “up” a good cue is to imagine your elbows are attached to a string that is simultaneously pulling them to the ceiling. Mental cues like this are worth their weight in gold when learning challenging movement patterns! Prime example: the pushing the Armpits forward for Overhead squats as mentioned in my previous post. 

To Front squat correctly you need your Quads, Glutes, Spinal erectors, Core and Abs working in unison! 

That’s correct……ABS! Want strong, functional abdominals? It’s time to get friendly with the mighty Front squat! The Rectus Abdominis and Erector spinae muscles endure a high work demand during the Olympic style Front squat. They are the main tool keeping you “upright” and I mean BOLT UPRIGHT! 

I have done some heavy Front squat workouts and the next day my Abs were FRIED! I couldn’t sit down to drive without it feeling like an actual “Ab workout” this lasted for TWO days! 

If you ever need confirmation that you’ve been Front squatting optimally, sore Abs are your indicator. MOST people wouldn’t deem Front squats as an “Ab workout”. But the Abdominals get a real thrashing when done correctly, as does your lower back, Rhomboids and Quadriceps. Now we see exactly why this movement has such a high level of activation of the Central nervous system. We also observe just why it is so neurologically demanding, all these muscles……not to mention joints! Must work nicely in sync with each other.

Lets wrap up with a few tips and guidelines.

ALWAYS strive for the Olympic clean grip variant of the front squat. The benefits are just far superior than those offered by the in-correct “gripping” of the bar. It is also more valuable than the “crossed arms” method. The Crossed arms version isn’t wrong, but it is generally adopted by larger individuals who lack mobility through the upper body. They may have a very pronounced Chest and Biceps, thus causing a lack of mobility in the Wrists and arms. 

Do not get attached to the idea that more weight is better, drop your ego, concentrate on mastering the technique outlined throughout this post. It will serve your structural foundation far better than 500lb, technically wrong Front squats will ever do! Progress progressively, you should be doing this in ALL walks of life. Progressive overload is the secret to increased performance capacity.

If Ankle mobility is letting you down, an awfully simple modification technique is to place a couple of weight discs/plates under your heels. This is an increasingly popular “trick” for those who have trouble squatting deep and find their heels come off the ground as they descend. Give that a try, you should see a great advance/improvement in the range you can access. 

On the flipside, if the upper body department of the move is your weakness, it generally can be due to an in-ability to externally rotate the upper arms. Basically, extend your arms overhead and turn your Palms outward. That’s external rotation, if you cannot achieve this spend time stretching your external rotators, even spend time in the overhead, externally rotated position, gradually trying to ease into a greater range each time.

One last thing

If you’re now raring to go and want to design your own Front squat workout to put into action, according to Charles Poliquin (world famous strength coach) you should use the exercise as a high intensity, lower volume exercise. He advocates limiting repetitions per set to 6 as the Rhomboids, that are used to keep the Elbows and arms up throughout, tire isometrically long before the quadriceps do! So if you fancy 20 rep sets of front squats, your Quads may well be up to the challenge. But you will begin adopting a Kyphotic posture as your reps go beyond 6. Your upper back will begin rounding and your shoulders will internally rotate (this is a prime example of classic “bad posture”)

Keep the weight fairly high, reps low and inversely keep the sets fairly high

I.E. 5 sets of 6, 8 sets of 4, 10 sets of 2. Those would be good parameters to structure your workout around.

A target for your Front squat is to have a front squat 1RM (one rep max) that is 85% of your 1RM in the Back squat

This is according to the

If you back squat 100 KG, you’re looking for an 85 KG front squat to be structurally balanced. If this is too advanced at present, this can be your long term goal! 

As you can see, Front squats are an invaluable tool to have in your armoury in order to develop a functional, balanced and structured body of which provides a solid level of performance. 

The same applies for the full library of Olympic lifting movements, so if you’re bored with your training or between phases and not sure which direction to embark on next, allow me to suggest spending 4-6 weeks trying out and mastering some old-school Olympic lifting patterns. It will take you a lot longer to truly perfect those movements, but be patient, harbour your enthusiasm and above all, trust you will be improving your very foundation! 

This would be perfect if you’ve just finished a long and hard body-building training phase of which you’re likely to have developed a considerable amount of muscular tightness. The Olympic movements will assist in reversing the accumulated tightness.

Get front squatting and Overhead squatting and let me know how you find it! 

Have a great workout.



JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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