When in Doubt, Do Front Squats: 25 Tips for Better Front Squats
When in doubt, do front squats.
This is one of my favorite strength training mottos (along with "perfect practice makes perfect" and "fast sh*t is still sh*t"). I’m not here to have a debate about whether front squats are better than back squats. You just need to accept that they are. Just joking. Kind of.
From a coaching perspective, front squats are easier to teach, almost self-correcting, and promote better depth. From an injury prevention perspective, they incur less shear forces and compressive forces. They are also kinder on the shoulders (in most cases.) From an athletic perspective, front squats facilitate awesome core strength and have incredible carry over into other strength movements - not just strength-wise, but in terms of position and mechanics too.
Okay, I’ll admit it, the front squat is outright my favorite movement. Here are 25 ways to increase your front squat, with not a squat program in sight:
- More front squats - The best way to get better at all aspects of front squats is to do more front squats.
- Squat at the start - Why always tag your squats (and your core work, for that matter) onto the end of the session? If you want to improve or increase a skill or movement, then prioritize it. Squat first and frequently for a sustained period.
- Mobility - You know you need to do it, even more so if you’re squatting multiple times a week. So do it. Perform mobility work on the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine, along with some form of rack position work at the least.
- Squat therapy - Like most therapy, this is not fun, but it is worryingly effective. Treat yourself to a therapy session before taking the iron downtown.
- Squat deeper - For maximum carryover, muscle recruitment, glute activation, all round bad-assery, and bad-ass ass bad-assery, squat deeper.
- Squat straight down - Sending the hips back to begin a front squat will send the torso forward, and the bar crashing down. Squat straight down so your pelvis sits in between your legs. Think of your legs like two trees with your pelvis as the hammock.
- Elbows up - Up, up, and up. Did I mention up? Lead with the elbows on the way up. Imagine there are chains attached to the end of your elbows. As you complete the squat the lifting gods are pulling you back up.
- Release your grip - I see so many people try to front squat while still gripping onto the bar for dear life. This is vaguely acceptable if you have the flexibility to do so, but most people aren’t in this position (no pun intended). If your mechanics are correct, you shouldn’t have to grip to hold onto the bar. In fact you shouldn’t need to have to hold on to the bar at all.
- Frankenstein squats - Walk up to the bar on the rack and set in on your shoulders with your hands straight out in front of you like Frankenstein’s monster. Now squat. Also called zombie squats. (I’m sorry, I had to get zombies in there somewhere.) This is a great drill for learning bar position and what your body needs to do to keep the bar in place.
- Rack the bar closer - Yes, I know it’s uncomfortable. Jam that bar into you closer. Okay, you can move it out a bit. There you go. It sits right there, behind the front delts.
- Chest into the bar - Preempt the fact that you are going to lean forward when it gets heavy, and drive your chest up into the bar from the bottom before you start to lean forward. This will assist you in maintaining an upright torso and keep the work where it should be - through the legs and hips.
- Hips under the bar - Get your hips under the bar as soon as possible on the way up, and drive straight up. You will become more upright, and feel the difference in power straight away when you get this right.
- Knees out - I’m aware of the debates circulating the Internet regarding knees out versus knees in versus knees up. I understand the implications of each of them, and believe they all have their place in terms of when and how to coach them. But for now, push your knees out, please.
- Core strength- There are some who advocate that squats and deadlifts are all you need for core strength. I disagree. There comes a point where you need to increase your core strength, separately, in order to squat better and in order to get stronger. It’s a similar concept to playing sport to get fit, or getting fit to play sport.
- Glute activation - Incorporate some basic glute activation drills before you squat. Then squat deep enough to make sure you use your glutes effectively.
- Breathing - I’m shocked at how little emphasis is placed on this. If I had my way, lifters wouldn’t even touch a bar until learning how to breathe properly through a series of progressive breathing drills. (Let me know in the comments if you want to see an article on these.)
- Readiness - You need to take that bar off the rack ready to squat. Jam yourself in between the bar and the floor. It should feel like a standing-up plank. Attempting to find optimum position once loaded is far less effective than setting it beforehand.
- Static holds - Try 3 sets of 30 seconds in the rack position with around 110% of your max. Put simply, this will get your body used to handing heavier weights. Plus, it is one hell of a core workout.
- 1 1/4 reps – This is a squat variation with multiple benefits, including strength, timing, and stabilization. Squat to rock bottom, and then come back up to just above parallel. Return to the bottom of the squat and drive up to the top. Warning: these are harder than you think.
- Pause squats - Add a pause at the bottom of your squat to improve starting strength. Next time you’re pinned under a heavy clean, you’ll thank me.
- Confidence - If you think you’re going to get stuck in the hole, guess what? You’re going to get stuck in the hole.
- Shoes on - If you’ve never squatted in a pair of weightlifting shoes before, get yourself a pair. You will be able to front squat better.
- Shoes off - If you’ve been squatting in weightlifting shoes for a long time, make sure you’re not reliant on them. What is your front squat like without them? Take your shoes off and you will quickly learn what is holding you back.
- Tempo - Slow on the way down, fast on the way up. Master this.
- Drive up fast and hard - If you have something light on the bar, imagine that it’s heavy. If you have something heavy on the bar, imagine that it’s light. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
The front squat is an incredible tool for weightlifters, CrossFitters, and strongmen alike. I’ve found that when I treat front squats with reverence, they pay me back in kind, and everything from my deadlift to my pull up numbers go up. Treat the front squat with the respect it deserves and it will be your dependable friend for life. When in doubt - front squat.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.