You Can and You Should Front Squat

Have you seen the buzz lately? Front squats are the new black!

Everybody is talking about them, which is bizarre as this exercise has been around since the beginning of time (well, actually since 1940 when Weider magazine introduced them to the wider fitness community).

Everybody is talking about them, which is bizarre as this exercise has been around since the beginning of time (well, actually since 1940 when Weider magazine introduced them to the wider fitness community).

I am a big fan of the front squat and over this past year have replaced any back squats with some variation of this exercise (more on that later). The holding position of the barbell can look so intimidating to the everyday gym folk and looks unachievable to most, yet I would argue that everybody can and should at least try it, especially if all you do is barbell back squats.

Why Are Front Squats so Great?

The front squat is a corrective exercise in nature and will immediately highlight any limitations you may have, so your aim is to focus on improving those weaknesses before you add more weight. You can’t really fake this exercise, you have to have good form, unlike the back squat which allows a few more imperfections to be present.

If you look at a back squat performed badly, you might see emphasized lordosis or protruding belly and that can be a sign somebody has over-developed hip flexors, the front squat as a corrective exercise can start to address those limitations.

The front squat requires you to be in a more upright position as you descend down, this places a large emphasis on the quadriceps and encourages your hips to be tucked underneath you a little more, rather than pushing back as you do in the back squat. This positioning encourages a more open hip and can really increase mobility through the hip joints, but it can also be your limiting factor. So if tight hips are your issue, working on mobility outside of this exercise will be helpful.

Inherently these days we are a nation of forward-hunchers, sitting at desks all day or bent over our phones, the inability to extend fully through our thoracic spine is more common than ever. What does that mean exactly?

Well in the case of the front squat, the inability to keep your chest lifted. It is impossible to carry a weight in front of you if you dip forward on the eccentric part of the squat, the load will just fall forward. Again, working with the front squat will improve the ability to extend through the t-spine to correct those weaknesses.

Another thing that the front squat brings to the table is improved range of motion in the knee and ankle joint, as your hips are aligned more underneath you than behind, the squat places lots of emphasis on these joints. To observe, this looks like the knees are forward of the ankle joint, Jo DeFranco calls this the Positive Shin Angle, where the foot and hip position are behind the angle of the shin, allowing for power, drive and acceleration.

Lastly, this is a great exercise for improving core strength and stability. You need to keep your elbows high when you hold the weight in front of you, doesn’t matter what your hand position is, and to keep that load safe, you need to have a very strong core to stabilize you.

Where Should You Start?

The front squat can start off is a really hard exercise and you tend to have to reduce your weight significantly to perform one with good form, but the payoff is great. You have to have good posture to make this exercise work, by simply doing this exercise your mobility in both your thoracic spine and your hips will improve and your core will get “lit” as you stabilize the barbell with your elbows lifted, plus it has all the peachy “bootie-benefits” you would expect from a squat.

Firstly it’s ok to be a little intimidated by this exercise, that way you stay safe and alert, plus they can be a little uncomfortable. So the first step is to start small, which means little to no weight on a bar or opt for one of those smaller fixed weight barbells.

If you are struggling with mobility issues in your hips, knees, ankles, t-spine or wrists, then do some simple mobility drills to prepare those areas before you start the exercise.

Adjust your body position so that you feel strong the whole way through the exercise, which might mean raising your ankles on a small block or using straps on the barbell in the beginning. Know that if you do these things, you may have less control on the bar so please use a low weight.

If you are used to doing back squats you will find a key difference is the stresses are placed in a different area of your body. Back squats put more stress on the lower back/spinal erectors where front squats place more emphasis on the frontline of the body, which makes the exercise so good for improving your posture and anterior core.

Don’t be put off by these difference, understand that the way to improve the exercise is to “grease the groove”, to keep doing the repetitions and you will reap the rewards later.

Front Squat Coaching Tips

  • Practice with a light bar or dowel to work on form before you start to load the barbell.
  • The barbell rests on your shoulders/upper pecs and not your hands. Your fingers are placed to help support the bar. I use two fingers to keep the bar in position.
  • Keep your elbows high throughout the exercise which will mean you have to use your core to stabilize.
  • Keep your chest lifted to emphasis thoracic spine extension. We tend to come into exercise rounded forward from all that sitting at a desk all day, so this is a great exercise for improving that.
  • Actively use the floor to push your heels down on both the eccentric and concentric part of the movement.

Are Front Squats for You?

The answer is yes. It doesn’t matter what age, gender, fitness level or ability you are, there is always an entry point into this exercise and the benefits are worth it. In addition to this, I write specifically for the Over 40 crowd and as I am but a stone’s throw away from 50, my reasons for continuing on my strength journey are shifting.

Of course I want the aesthetic component that comes with weight training, I intend to keep this peachy butt for life, but that was never my primary reason, instead, I just loved the empowering feeling of being a strong woman and how that translated over into my everyday life. Back to my epiphany, I realized that so many people, women especially, still do not believe they can do weight training, nor do they truly appreciate the importance of it.

It’s hard to get excited about osteoporosis or osteopenia, yet it is a bold reality of half of all women, and one-quarter of men over the age of 50, who will experience a fracture during their lifetime. As you can see, women are a much higher risk and we know this is directly related to the drop in our estrogen levels during menopause. The science is pretty clear when it comes to osteoporosis and osteopenia, load bearing exercise is superior to bodyweight exercise to help support and prevent both conditions.

So all that being said, the front squat can play a huge part in your strength program, even for the older generations, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a valid exercise

How I Train my Front Squats

Over time by doing this exercise you will find that your mobility will naturally improve, but you can also prepare the body for a full barbell front squat by trying one of the following exercises. I use these in my own training and they have been key to improvements in my technique.

Ultimate Sandbag Bucket Hold Squat

To me, this is the ultimate exercise for improving hip mobility with great spine alignment. If you tip forward, you lose control of the sandbag, so it encourages that amazing alignment and deep hip squat.

Ultimate Sandbag Front Loaded Squat

The front-loaded squat allows you to hold a heavy load in front of you, so that you have to engage the core to create stability as you lower into the squat. Again helps improve hip mobility and spinal alignment.