Overlooked movements: Front squat
“Shut up and squat!”
If there’s one movement pattern that never gets any hate – and I mean any at all………it’s the squat. While you’ll hear differing opinions on most other movements; bench pressing destroys shoulders, upright rows are bad for the shoulders too? Deadlifts even stir up some controversy among a few respectable authorities.
Do as much digging as you can, see if you can find a renowned and respected strength coach/trainer who flat out rules against squatting of any kind. I challenge you. You’ll even find it tough to offer a viable reason to never squat. We all roll our eyes when we hear…………”But I can’t squat, my………..”
The squat is a primal pattern.
If we journey back to the pre-toilet era (if I may call it that), you would squat to defecate. You’d just do it. It’s the only way you would have known. Unfortunately, most people have lost the ability to even attain that ultra deep squat. Hip dysfunction, ankle immobility and glaring muscular imbalances prompted mainly by modern life, have thwarted our capacity for something we evolved doing!
I’m blessed with natural squatting mechanics; fairly short femurs, long torso and decent dorsiflexion capacity. If that’s not you, there’s no reason to write off squatting completely. As always, all that’s needed is a little personal modification and mobility work, consistently.
If everyone endorses the squat and it’s so ‘primal’ and natural, how has it made into the overlooked movement series?
Not so fast. I could have gone down the route of adding to the thousands of articles boasting the top ten reasons you should squat that already exist. The horse is dead. You know all that. These articles are almost always promoting the back squat. When in reality there are way more pattern variations of the squat…….
– FRONT SQUAT
– Overhead squat
– Pistol squat
– Split squat
– Various stance squat styles, sumo, narrow, toes out, toes straight etc..
The front squat is a movement I’ve loved and promoted since getting into the fitness scene.
Front squat facts & properties:
One of the most prominent aspects of the font squat is it’s higher demand for mobility than its cousin the back squat. The picture above compares the low bar, powerlifting style squat, and a high bar olympic style back squat with a front squat. We can see the front squat requires more extremes in terms of mobility across particular areas. Two major areas of demand are dorsi-flexion at the ankle and the maintenance of thoracic extension.
The spinal position of a correct front squat mirrors most, the military posture in the photo above. The magic happens at the elbows though. It’s the elbows that create the demand for thoracic extension.
As you keep the elbows as high as possible, you support the correct bar position for the front squat. Which is across the clavicles. NOT off the clavicles, with the load in your hands! If anything, ‘gripping’ the bar will encourage thoracic kyphosis, not extension, as the load will be pushing your elbows down. Elbows up will engage the Rhomboids. The role of which is primarily retraction of the shoulder girdle.
Other muscles in play –
The front squat involves a plethora of muscles. Few people realize it actually utilizes the erector spinae (lower back muscles) more than the back squat. EMG studies have confirmed this. Furthermore, everybody loves a core workout. Planks, side planks, stomach vaccums, Russian twists, leg raises and crunches. All great abdominal movements. But the front squat calls on your rectus abdominis massively. Because virtually all the load is being distributed frontally, the bottom position is hammering the abdominals. Anyone who’s done a correct front squat with considerable load, can attest to the abdominal stimulus provided. I’ve even had DOMS on par – or greater – than when I’ve done direct ab work!
Squat for big legs bro!
Everyone is unanimous on the squat being a phenomenal lower body developer. But the extent to which it works the quadriceps, is largely dependent on the style of squat being employed. In powerlifting the low bar, bigger sit back squat is used by the majority. This style promotes greater incorporation of the posterior chain (lower back, glutes and hamstrings). It’s the utilization of the hips which allows more muscle synergy.
Point being, this is good for powerlifting/strength training (maximal numbers wanted!). But, for quad development there’s fewer a more potent movement than the front squat. Sure the high bar, Olympic style back squat comes close. Although you can, technically, cheat a little with that movement too. And displace the tension/load away from the quads.
I’ll do my utmost to refrain from the lifetime habit of majoring in the details, but this is a common issue among many – particularly when the load is heavy. The hips shooting back and the bar ending up in a position of mechanical disadvantage. This is the survival instincts of the human body coming to the fore; your body detects some muscle(s) involved are insufficient for the weight being used, and it goes elsewhere to prevent the bar pancaking you.
This is the quads being overloaded and the lower back being recruited instead.
Try doing that in a front squat. See what happens if the hips violently shoot back. Spoiler: Bar ends up on floor!
So the front squat has a natural mechanism that stops overloading, cheating, improper muscle recruitment and compromised safety. That’s why I like it so much. It’s humbling. The movement makes you use a weight suitable for your strength levels (particularly quad strength).
A few interesting notes of importance –
- The ‘crossed arms’ style squat is acceptable if you lack flexibility at the wrist. The caveat is, you must have the elbows HIGH. They should remain parallel with the floor from start to finish.
- NEVER grip the bar. This displaces the load, mainly to the front delts, elbows and wrists. Not good.
- Using straps on the bar is fine too, Elliott Hulse has videos on this on Youtube. This allows you to keep the required elbow position in spite of restricted wrist mobility.
- If ankle mobility is a problem, elevating the heels via small weight plates is the finest solution. Some are reluctant to do this, they seem to think elevating the heels disqualifies their squat. In reality, most would improve their squat mechanics by doing so as they’re able to access a greater active range of motion.
- Your torso should be BOLT UPRIGHT – or as close as possible throughout.
- Your upper arms should be parallel with the floor throughout. No drooping at the bottom.
- The usual rules apply; once you enter a range where lumbar flexion occurs (butt wink), end the eccentric phase and begin the concentric (come up).
More points of interest!
In terms of ideal programming for this movement, it’s widely accepted the front squat lends itself to lower rep, higher set protocols. Figures such as Eric Cressey and the Poliquin Performance group promote this concept too. The reasoning is the upper back muscles isometrically involved; Rhomboids namely, tire out long before the prime movers (leg muscles). A kyphotic squatting posture is the result. 6 reps per set seems to be the cut off point. The front squat also suits a power rep range, such as triples or even lower.
This movement, even more than most, should be incorporated gradually. Start light (Olympic bar) and really build the motor pattern(s) required and mentioned above. You’ll soon be using challenging weights. Don’t be the clown who wants to do front squat rest-pause dropsets.
‘Optimal’ strength ratios –
Because of the bio-mechanics of the front squat, it’s never going to be your strongest squat pattern. Unless you have a really bizarre imbalance where your quads, abs and thoracic erectors are stronger than your erector spinae, hamstrings and glutes. Unlikely. Again, the Poliquin Performance group have put out numbers for optimal strength between the front squat 1 RM and back squat 1 RM.
85% is the magic number.
A 100 kg back squat should accompany a 85 kg front squat. It’s a tall order. Most will have a woefully low actual percentage/ratio. I myself do not front squat 85% of my back squat. It’s actually quite a bit less. I have much to gain from front squats, as most do.
Better posture, stronger quads, bullet-proof core and more “functional strength”………….in one movement.
Front squats are another ally in your quest for the best body possible.
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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