Getting on for 10 years ago now, I was aware of the power of the front squat. I even wrote about it when this website was an infant (Overlooked Movements: Front Squat).
Nowadays with my transition to more calisthenics orientated training, people assume I’m ‘anti – weights’ and have never done any ‘conventional’ gym training – i.e. squatting, deadlifting, pressing and even some cheeky bicep curls……..
Truth is, I’ve done loads of it. That’s how I got started! I did basic barbell routines and craftily subbed in one or two extra compound lifts that I figured were even more functional – pull ups/weighted pull ups, dips/weighted dips & FRONT SQUATS.
It’s all so clear now: the pull ups and dips set the path for my calisthenics success down the line and believe it or not, the front squat did too.
I’m always asked whether I’m pro or against direct core training for calisthenics success, and top of that I’m asked what core work I did to build my base……..
And the reality is I didn’t do much at all. Yep, NO direct core work. So where did the ability to do reasonable form toes to bar and dragon flags come from? How could I comfortably plank with more than my bodyweight on my back?
Most don’t know the power of the front squat for core development but as you’ve seen, this is the only real ‘core’ exercise I did. Obviously there are way more benefits to front squatting than just strengthening the abdominals/core, but you know that anyway and my ancient article covers those.
Basically, I owe a lot to the front squat. I wasn’t the world’s strongest at it but I did build up to more than my bodyweight for sets and reps. And no matter how far you go or how much time passes, you never forget your beginnings and what’s helped you. The same goes for people in your life.
Saying goodbye to the front squat
As the years go by and you get stronger and more exposure to new moves, other moves phase in and out and you realise you simply cannot maintain your level on everything, despite how much your ego kicks and screams that you can.
Even though I didn’t train the front squat regularly as part of any program of any kind, I could still front squat if I needed to or wanted to for old time’s sake.
Until late 2020.
Most of 2020 was spent back squatting (particularly in the very early part), pistol squatting, Nordic curling, shrimp squatting and working on my lower body flexibility. Every now and then the itch to front squat would get me wanting to scratch……..
And each and every time I did try to scratch, I COULDN’T. Yep, a once 100 kg front squat-repper couldn’t even front squat with 60 kg! The front rack position made my left shoulder and elbow feel like they were going to explode – and any time I went below parallel my elbows would droop and I’d have to wrestle not to lose the bar forward and on to the floor.
This was bitterly disappointing and equally frustrating. What the fuck was wrong with me?! This used to be easy. It’s not even the weight, it’s the damn mobility!
How did my mobility get SO BAD I couldn’t front squat kids’ weights?
I’d been training balanced as far as I knew. I’d been doing handstand work as well so how could my overhead range worsen?
I was left bemused.
For a few weeks (maybe months?) I didn’t confront the issue. I cowered away from front squats and told myself they require ‘extreme mobility’ to do correctly.
Until I had left shoulder pain so bad I couldn’t ignore things anymore. Like they often say, pain forces action far more than pleasure does.
I knew the signs well and this was an easy one to diagnose: SHOULDER IMPINGEMENT. My old nemesis was back to face me again, despite me defeating him on my right shoulder some 2 years prior. This time he was back for a go at my left shoulder.
Battle hardened this time, I knew how to tame the beast and kill him, literally. My left pec minor had become super tight and short, my already poor thoracic mobility had decreased and my shoulder extension locked right up. On top of this my internal rotation on my left shoulder had returned to baseline, DESPITE all the work I’d done on it through the summer.
The (indirect) front squat reincarnation
The tasks were simple:
- Restore and increase thoracic extension & rotation
- Release the tissue around the pec minor & front delt
- Release and restore shoulder extension
The methods were also fairly simple:
- Revert back to daily passive hanging (anywhere from 2-5 mins daily accumulated)
- Mobilise (dynamically) my thoracic spine prior to EVERY training session and before bed EVERY day from Christmas day to now and counting…..
- Perform daily soft tissue work on the pec minor and delt with the arm in internal rotation (mobilising in the ‘position of restriction’ as Kelly Starrett says)
- Start with passive shoulder extension stretches to clear tension then reclaim the range with dynamic drills to strengthen the range
- Alongside this, reduce the offending (pain causing) exercises – namely dips, muscle ups & anything internally rotating the shoulder(s) under load. And instead, double up on ring rows, rear delt exercises at different angles at the end of every session
As you can probably see, I was pretty militant about this. I never missed a day of mobilsing and the pay-off was huge……….
Here’s a timeline of the recovery phase:
- Pain reduces through the day but is still there after sleeping
- Pain in the shoulder is there after even doing pull only exercises; there’s a dull ache that often needs calming back down at the end of sessions
- Less and less pain after sleeping to eventually there being no pain after sleeping – even if I slept on the offending shoulder (WHOOP!)
- No pain after doing non-offending exercises but still pain after trying anything push based of any significant intensity
- Handstand line looking and feeling miles better along with passive and active shoulder extension looking notably better
- Front squat feeling and looking better than it’s ever done
- Dips to real depth with weight accessible again and pain free
I will admit that originally I vowed to not dip, muscle up or do any of the offending moves until at least February but as my body began feeling better, my ego couldn’t let me not try some of these – with caution of course.
But as recent as the week between the 10th of Jan and the 17th of Jan I was able to do these moves again. While you may think I’m jumping the gun, trust me, I’m doing them low volume and at a crazy low ratio to the corrective exercises.
And as I wrote in my post on shoulder extension, the worst approach to corrective exercise is to assume you’re fixed as soon as the pain subsides. But if I’ve learnt anything from my time in this game, it’s that you need probably another 6 months more of hard work on the cause before you’re anywhere near ‘cured’.
The real lesson
I had always heard how mobility dependent front squats are but I didn’t truly appreciate it until I lost the ability to do them. I was the guy who needed to squat with straps because I couldn’t get the elbows high enough. I couldn’t stay upright at the bottom anymore either.
How did it get like this, I wondered. But despite the immediate annoyance, my journey back to front squatting was pretty fast and it showed all I needed was a little maintenance really.
It’s mad, we drive our cars thousands of miles without servicing them, we go years without health checkups and we do tons of the same training while expecting the body to just remain as it is and not reshape for the worse, as a result.
Often times you just need to give your body some TLC and spend some time mobilising the tight spots and freeing up space. In an ideal world you would never get to this stage; you’d keep a hold on things and never let them deteriorate. This needn’t be a lot, a simple weekly maintenance session should be enough assuming your program is balanced anyway and your body isn’t out of balance to begin with.
This is what I will do going forward: phase the corrective work down to 3/4 times per week from every day in February and then phase it down further in March to 1-2 times per week. From then on though, the work will stay in my schedule for good once weekly.
Because I’m not cured and I know I’ll never be totally cured.
Happy front squatting!
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.