The front squat is one of the best compound exercises, but it’s often overshadowed by the standard back squat.
This is because the back squat is known to be the best exercise for a whole body workout, as it targets the legs, glutes, core, and back muscles. This makes the squat one of the most comprehensive exercises you can do, which makes its popularity quite understandable.
However, the squat also has a lot of downsides. It is an exercise that places a lot of strain on the neck and shoulders as well as the knees and hips, due to the placement of the weight over the rear of our center of gravity. This strain can cause a host of problems, from poor form to injury.
One of the best ways to get the benefits of squatting while avoiding some of these problems is to use the front squat.This exercise reduces the strain of squatting slightly, by placing the weight over your front and across the chest, allowing your body to still get an amazing workout while reducing the chance of poor form.
One of the ways the front squat achieves this is by forcing you to keep your back straight and your head up, due to the placement of the bar across your chest.
People with poor back squatting form quite often bend their backs or lean forward which can result in all sorts of problems while also reducing the amount of weight you can safely lift. Eliminating these problems makes squatting much more efficient and safer.
The front squat does place more of an emphasis on targeting the quads and upper thighs due to the fact that the weight is in a more frontal position, however front squats still work the glutes and the core similar to standard back squats.
Now that you’re familiar, let’s take a look at how to set up front squats.
Front squatting requires a barbell, ideally an Olympic version, plates, clips, and plenty of space. While not essential, some like to perform front squats in the squat rack, while others prefer to do the exercise freely, lifting the weights into position with a clean.
However you prefer to do it, make sure that your bar is loaded with the correct amount of weight, place your safety clips and prepare to start lifting.
Ideally, you’ll be starting with the bar in the squat rack, especially if you’re using a significant amount of weight. The bar should be positioned at about chest height to make it easy to lift the bar and get it into the correct position on your chest.
You should then grab the bar with both hands at around shoulder width. Step into the bar so that it's almost touching you, then lower yourself so that the top of your chest and shoulders are positioned beneath the bar.
Now, keeping your hands in position, move your elbows so that they are pointing forwards, and raise your elbows as much as you can. Keeping your elbows high throughout the exercise is a great way to ensure that your form remains strict and clean through each repetition. It will also help to keep the bar stable and in a position that is important for stability and safety.
From this position drive yourself upwards and take the bar up out of the rack with your chest and shoulders, using your hands to keep the bar steady and in position against them.
Now that you have taken the weight, you can step back slightly from the rack to avoid clipping it with the bar and prepare to begin lifting.
Your feet should be positioned around shoulder-width apart, or maybe a touch wider if you prefer, with your toes pointing a little out from the centerline. Take a breath in to prepare yourself, and then bend your hips, then your knees until the backs of your thighs are parallel with the floor.
Keep your torso strong throughout the squat, and try to keep your elbows as high as possible. Keep your knees apart as you hit the bottom of the squat and make sure your heels remain planted to the floor so that you can drive back up to the starting position.
From this position, you may drive back up, keeping your back straight, elbows high, and exhaling as you press up to a standing position. From here you can continue for as many reps as you need to complete the set and then step forward to lower the bar back onto the rack after completing a set.
Simply repeat for as many sets as required.
Proper Form Checklist
If you’re unsure about your form one of the best ways to check this is to perform front squats in front of a mirror. Most gyms will have a setup to accommodate this, and it’s a great way to keep track of your positioning and really pay attention to every aspect of your form, from the starting position through the squat and placing the bar back on the rack.
Not everyone works out at the gym, and sometimes gyms don’t have the best set up to allow for this so we’re going to list some tips here to help you make a mental note of the correct form and how to maintain it which in turn will help you avoid injury and improve the speed of your progress.
As we mentioned in the technique section, keeping your elbows high is of paramount importance. If you allow your elbows to lower or drop altogether, the weight will start to creep away from you, tilting forward and potentially sending you totally off balance.
This is a great way to end your set with a clattering fall to the mat and can be dangerous when using heavy weight.
Keeping your elbows pointing up as high as possible at every stage of the front squat, and if you’re struggling with this you can try repositioning your hands so that they’re further apart or closer together to try and help find a position that allows you to maintain elbow height.
Another thing you can do is work on your flexibility, which will improve your range of motion and prevent injury.
This is one of the surprisingly difficult parts of front squatting that can take some getting used to, particularly for those with weak wrists or a lack of flexibility. Limited range of movement in the wrists can be helped by warming them up, rotating them, and flexing them to ensure they’re able to take the strain that comes with front squatting.
Additionally, you could do some grip training outside of the gym, at home, or at work to help improve your wrist’s durability and overall hand strength.
With that said, it can be hard to find a position that works perfectly until you’ve tried a few different options. If you’re still unable to find a comfortable position using the clean grip, there is an alternative grip type you can use to make things more comfortable.
This is known as the cross grip and it’s a very common grip among experienced front squatters who find it much more comfortable than the clean grip. It’s quite a stable platform to use for front squatting, particularly when using heavier weights, however, some say it isn’t quite as reassuring as actually holding the bar in a position like in the clean grip format.
Nonetheless, it can be a great option to prevent injury to your hand or wrist. To use this grip, simply cross your forearms over each other and position your hands on the barbell where it touches your shoulders.
This creates a sort of basket for the weight to lie in which is comfortable, places the weight evenly against the chest and shoulders, and doesn’t require a slightly awkward wrist position.
As with the clean grip, however, your elbows should still be held up as high as possible to keep things stable, and ideally, they should be held out perpendicular to the floor or as high as you can raise them.The cross grip can take some getting used to but with practice, it will become as reassuring and stable as the clean grip without straining your wrists.
Your feet should be at shoulder width, with your toes pointed slightly outwards. Some people may do a slightly wider squat for more stability, but generally, shoulder width is best. Be careful not to stand too narrowly or you may find yourself buckling or tipping without a solid base under the weight.
Depth of Squat
There is a lot of debate about how deep you should squat, with some people believing that bottoming out is the best way to maximize the difficulty of the exercise. However, this generally puts a lot of pressure on your joints and could be considered a sort of elitist bad form. Squats perform perfectly well when the rear of the thigh is parallel to the floor, and this system ensures that everyone is performing the correct squat regardless of height or any other factors.
Keeping the back straight and core engaged is key to ensuring a safe squat. This is helped by good elbow positioning as we’ve already mentioned, but it can be tempting when using heavy weight to bend forward. This is a huge mistake and can result in injury. Keeping the spine straight and the shoulders back ensures that the weight is evenly distributed and that the legs are doing most of the work, which is what squats are intended for.
Mistakes to Avoid
Pressing the weight against the throat
If you’re doing a front squat and you can feel the bar pressing your throat you’ve positioned yourself incorrectly and run the risk of serious injury. While keeping your elbows high is important, don’t force the weight into your neck area to try and offset this. The weight should primarily be resting ACROSS the top of the chest and shoulders.
It’s a fact of life that sometimes we overreach. It’s human nature. When weight lifting however this can be really dangerous, so learning how to safely drop the weight without hurting yourself or others is really important.
Set up the safety bars on your squat rack properly, and learn to get out of harm’s way quickly if the weight becomes unstable!
There are a few variations of the front squat which can be substituted when the situation dictates. They may not be perfect substitutes but will perform much the same way and target the same muscles, using slightly different equipment and technique.
Kettlebell Front Squats
This version of the front squat uses kettlebells which are much easier to manipulate than a barbell and are often quite a bit lighter. It’s a great way to build up confidence and strength to eventually allow you to graduate safely to the full-front squat. This is usually done with a single kettlebell which is held in one hand and then swapped between hands.
The beauty of this exercise is that it’s a great core workout, as the offsetting of the weight forces your core to keep your body stable, providing a great challenge for your abs and obliques.
You can perform this with a kettlebell in each hand however if you’re up for more of a challenge. The basic technique required you to hold the kettlebell with your arm bent and the weight resting on your upper arm/shoulder. You can get into this position by cleaning it up.
Keep your elbow high and the weight resting against your shoulder, and place your offhand on your hip, then perform a squat, keeping your weight central and your core engaged throughout.
Similar to a standard squat, make sure to dip until your thighs are parallel to the floor or a little lower if you’re finding the exercise too easy.