The Squat Conundrum: Front to Back

What are the important differences in exercise selection between the front and back barbell squats, and when might one be more appropriate than the other.

Theodore Sloan, Antonio Squillante, and Giulio Palau are three up and coming young coaches, part of a vanguard of new minds coming into the industry. They will approach a coaching tactic or strategy from a different perspective and share their insights here. If you have a training subject you would like to see addressed by these guys, send an email to [email protected] with #ThinkReps in the subject line.

Giulio Palau – The Stable Barbell

What are the important differences in exercise selection between the front and back barbell squats, and when might one be more appropriate than the other?

There are a few important considerations when selecting front versus back squat lifts for a client. Although most people consider the front squat the more challenging of the two in terms of shoulder mobility, and it is, the importance of the stability of the shoulder complex in the back squat should not be overlooked.

That being said, if you have the prerequisites to perform both exercises properly you should reap the benefits of both by training both. Now, let’s get into the details. Studies have shown similar muscle activation during both back and front squats. However, the center of mass of the bar in relation to your center of gravity is what changes the emphasis of the lift.

The back squat is a much more stable lift due to the mechanical advantage of loading the bar axially (closer to your center of gravity). The trade-off is that this results in more compression forces in the knee, due to the longer distance between the bar and the fulcrum at that joint.

The front squat may be more effective in avoiding some of the stress placed on the knees, which can be an important consideration in programming for someone with a ligament tear or chronic injury. The front squat has also been shown to increase the activation of knee extensor muscles (quads), specifically the vastus medialis, which is commonly regarded as an important stabilizer of the patella. Another advantage of training the front squat is the carryover of the shoulder stability for power cleans, an indispensable exercise for developing athletic power.
However, The advantage of a more stable bar is the ability to lift more weight, resulting in more overall strength and power development. In addition, the back squat has the potential to cause more posterior chain activation as the hips tend to shift back slightly during the descent.
All things considered, the front squat may be more beneficial for athletic development because of the carryover to power cleans and because it challenges the core to stabilize more dynamically. However, the back squat seems to be more effective in developing raw power, due to the ability to lift more weight.

Whichever you perform, take the time to learn the movements properly. Remember that function follows form.

Theodore Sloan – Well Rounded Athletes

There are many pros and cons between these two methods of squatting, especially when comparing athletes from different sports. Both forms of squats are great and should be used interchangeably, depending on the athlete.

Front squats tend to be a more quadriceps dominant variation, which can promote strength and growth development of the VMO (vastus medialis oblique) quadriceps muscle that contributes to knee stability.

On the other hand, back squats are still a quadriceps dominant exercise, however, they can target hamstrings and gluteal musculature to a greater extent, which can help balance the strength ratio between hamstrings and quadriceps; usually an issue in sports such as hockey and skiing. The extra gluteal activation in the back squat can further contribute to knee stability.

Back squats require a greater range of motion through the shoulder joint and can consequently place unwanted stress on overhead sport athletes such as baseball, volleyball and basketball players; consequently, front squats are often the better option for this population. The back squat requires greater range of motion in the hips and ankles in order to perform the exercise to a proper depth. Due to the position of the bar in the front squat, the exercise can more easily be performed in an upright posture and requires greater balance in order to complete; as a result, the front squat can be the better exercise to introduce to a new young athlete since it forces them to perform the exercise properly and has fewer limitations.

Just as with any exercise though, it is important to mix up the exercises performed, if only by manipulating a specific exercise, such as changing tempos, depth of movement, stance width and so on.

Alternating between the two squat variations for athletes without limitations can help to create a better, more well rounded athlete, which can increase stability, strength and longevity.

Antonio Squillante – In Medio Stat Virtus

Back squat and front squat are both excellent exercises to develop lower body strength and power. Too often they have been considered as general and sport specific exercises, respectively, whereas they both display similar biomechanical features. I believe the question of “which one is more beneficial and when” pertains to the individual situation.

A weightlifter, for instance, might find it beneficial, more often in the off season, let’s say a 3:2 ratio on a weekly basis between the back and front squat while inverting this proportion as a competitions approach.

A powerlifter, on the other hand, would front squat very rarely and more likely than not during the off season. For an athlete – let’s say, a soccer player, a football player, or a track and field athlete – I would recommend back squatting at least twice a week: back squatting involves more muscles than front squatting, promoting a better balance between anterior and posterior muscle chain.

High-bar, half squats, in particular, allow for greater power output and they display a better transfer in sports requiring linear and change of direction speed. Any other athlete should instead alternate back and front squat within the same week. I would say, in this circumstance, a hybrid approach to strength training, powerlifting/weightlifting oriented – common among collegiate athletes – in order to promote balance between agonist and antagonist muscles in the lower extremity.

Ideally, back squat and front squat should be alternated on a weekly basis in a 1:1 ratio: however, short mesecycle (4 to 6 weeks) of back squat and/or front squat only can sometimes be recommended to focus on specific weaknesses.

In order to create proper balance between quads, glutes and hamstrings it would be ideal to test both back and front squat on a regular basis to assess proper development of the lower body musculature as a whole.

A ratio of 1:0.7 between back squat and front squat – with the back squat 1RM being 1.5 to 2 times an athlete’s bodyweight for female and male athletes age 19 or older, respectively, and the front squat 1RM being 70% of BS 1RM – has been suggested to provide the optimal H:Q ratio (hamstrings to quadriceps ratio), a main indicator of proper muscular development of the lower extremity.