Can I Front Squat Instead of Back Squat?

No. The Front Squat works less muscles and stresses your knees more than the Back Squat. You can lift more weight, get stronger and build more muscle with Back Squats. If you Front Squat because you have no Power Rack, cleaning the bar will limit how much you Squat and how strong you’ll get.

What’s a Front Squat?

The Front Squat is a variation of the Back Squat where the barbell rests on your front shoulders instead of on your upper-back. You also Squat by bending through your hips and knees until you break parallel. But your torso is more vertical on the Front Squat to keep the bar balanced on your front shoulders.

Olympic Weight Lifters Front Squat because it’s part of the Squat Clean. After they pull the bar from the floor on their front shoulders, they must Front Squat the weight up. So the more you can Front Squat, the easier the Squat Clean. Bodybuilders also Front Squat to target their quadriceps muscles.

Front Squat Technique

Whether you Front Squat or Back Squat the bar must stay over your mid-foot or you’ll lose balance. The only way you can do this on the Front Squat, without the barbell rolling off your shoulders, is by keeping your torso upright. But this results in a different movement than the Back Squat.

  • Front Bar Loading. The barbell sits on your front shoulders, further from your upper-back than when you Back Squat. This forces your upper-back muscles to work harder to keep the bar on your shoulders, and is partly why you’ll Front Squat less weight than you’ll Back Squat.
  • Upright Torso. If you Front Squat with your torso less vertical like when you Back Squat, the bar will roll off your shoulders and hurt your wrists. The only way you can keep the bar balanced over your mid-foot is if you Front Squat with your torso upright, almost vertical.
  • Forward Shins. If you Front Squat with your shins more vertical like when you Back Squat, your torso will go incline and the bar will roll of your shoulders. So your torso must be upright. But this moves your shins forward and puts more stress on your knees.12

Keeping your torso upright makes it impossible to sit back like on the Back Squat. If you try, you’ll lose the bar. A better cue is to Squat between your legs.3 But less sitting back results in less posterior chain work. And less muscles working explains why you’ll Front Squat less than you can Back Squat.

To keep the bar from rolling off your shoulders, keep your torso upright and your chest/elbows up. The crossed-arm grip requires less flexibility. But you’ll struggle to keep your elbows up and can lose the bar if you use it for heavy Front Squats. The clean grip Olympic weightlifters use is better and safer.

Don’t hold the bar with your hands or you’ll get wrist pain. Let your shoulders carry the weight by leaving your hands open. Keep your elbows/chest up so the bar can’t roll off your shoulders. Shoulder-width stance, toes out 30° and knees out. But sitting back less than on the Back Squat.

Front Squat vs. Back Squat

Muscle Recruitment

A study comparing the Front Squat with the Back Squat claimed the Front Squat is equally effective for overall muscle recruitment.4 But their data doesn’t support this. Of the six muscles they measured by EMG, only one (the erector spinae) tested slightly higher on the Front Squat.

The EMG data showed higher muscle activity on the Back Squat for the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, biceps femoris and semitendinosus muscles. The vastus medialis tested equal. Despite this difference, the authors concluded the bar position did not influence muscle activity while it did.

All subjects lifted heavier weights on the Back Squat than the Front Squat. The heavier the weight, the harder your muscles must work to overcome gravity and Squat the weight up. Muscle recruitment is therefore higher on the Back Squat than the Front Squat as the EMG data showed.

Note that the study authors claimed their subjects were experienced lifters. Yet they only lifted 90% of their body-weight on the Back Squat and 70% on the Front Squat. A 61.8kg Back Squat is beginner level for a 165lb male.5 The subjects of this study were therefore beginners, not experienced Squatters.

Knee Safety

This same study claimed the Front Squat is safer for the knees. The subjects lifted heavier weights on the Back Squat so there was less compression force on the knees during the Front Squat. But this ignores the more closed knee angle on the Front Squat which impacts shear force on your knees.

The knee position of the Back Squatter and Front Squatter pictured in the study look the same. Yet knees of heavy Front Squatters come more forward than those of Back Squatters because of the more upright torso. Knees more forward results in more shear force.67 More knee stress is not safer.

Lower Back Safety

Compression force is higher on your lower back during the Back Squat than the Front Squat because you can lift more weight. But your muscles, spine and bones adapt to this by getting stronger. Lifters have 10% more bone density.8 So compression of your lower back on the Back Squat isn’t bad.

Some recommend Squatting upright, like on the Front Squat, to avoid shear force. But it takes 336lb of pressure on the intervertebral disc of a cadaver to cause sliding of the vertebrae.9 It takes even greater pressure in a living body because the muscles around your spine contract when you Squat.

This means the muscles surrounding your spine will resist shear, protect your spine and get stronger. If they fail to keep your spine neutral, sliding of your vertebrae (“shear”) is unlikely to occur because your back will round. So you don’t need to Front Squat instead of Back Squat to avoid shear.

Bad form is the most common cause of lower back injury when lifting weights. Rounding or over-arching your lower back squeezes your intervertebral discs and can result in disc herniation. So you must keep your lower back neutral whether you Back Squat or Front Squat.

Some people claim the Front Squat feels better on their lower back. If it isn’t because of better form, it’s because the weight is lighter than on the Back Squat. You can achieve the same result by doing the Back Squat with better form and/or less weight. This prevents knee stress from the Front Squat.

Pros of Front Squats

The Front Squat isn’t equally effective for overall muscle recruitment because the weight is lower than on the Back Squat. It’s not friendlier on your knees because they’re more forward. And Squatting more upright is not better for your lower back because shear is not an issue on the Back Squat.

The only benefits the Front Squat has over the Back Squat are…

  • Squat without Power Rack. Pull the bar from the floor on your shoulders, then Front Squat. This only works with light weights though. The clean will pre-exhaust your legs, and you’ll always Front Squat more than you clean.1011 So you can lift more, get stronger and build more muscle if you Squat with a Power Rack. Its also safer – the safety pins will catch the bar if you fail a rep.
  • Assist Olympic Lifting. The Front Squat is part of the Squat Clean. After you clean the bar from the floor on your front shoulders, you must Front Squat the weight. Getting stronger on the Front Squat thus makes the Squat Clean easier. This is why Olympic Lifters Front Squat.
  • Emphasize Abs/Quads. The frontal bar loading challenges your abs and quads. But you can lift more on the Back Squat. And more strength is more muscle. So getting your Back Squat to 140kg (300lb) will do more for your abs and quads than the Front Squat if you’re a beginner.

The Front  Squat isn’t easier to teach beginners how to Squat. They usually get wrist pain because they lack the flexibility to keep the bar on their front shoulders. The crossed-arm grip is not a solution. The bar will roll off your shoulders because it’s harder to keep your elbows up unlike with the clean grip.

Regardless of the grip issue, the Back Squat movement is different from the Front Squat. The Back Squat is about sitting back while the Front Squat is about Squatting between your legs. Since the movements are different, they require specific practice to master proper technique.

Cons of Front Squats

The Front Squat is a harder exercise than the Back Squat because of the frontal bar loading. It’s tempting to conclude it must therefore be more effective. But you’re lifting less weight on the Front Squat than on the Back Squat. And less weight means less strength and thus less muscle.

  • Less Weight. The Front Squat engages your posterior chain muscles less than the Back Squat. The less muscles work, the less weight you can Squat. Add the more challenging bar position on the Front Squat. This explains why you’ll lift less on the Front Squat than the Back Squat.
  • Less Strength. You can’t lift as much weight on the Front Squat as the Back Squat because your posterior chain muscle work less and the bar position is more challenging. So while you will get stronger with Front Squats, you won’t get as strong as if you did heavier Back Squats.
  • More Knee Stress. The upright torso position of the Front Squat puts your knees more forward than when you Back Squat. This results in more shear force on your knee joints. The Front Squat is therefore not suited if you have a history of knee injuries.

The Front Squat is a great exercise to challenge your abs and emphasize your quadriceps if you’re past the beginner level. Or to assist your clean if you’re an Olympic lifter. But the Front Squat isn’t a substitute for heavy Back Squats which build more overall strength, quicker and without the knee stress.

My Experience with The Front Squat

Several years ago I read people claiming increasing your Front Squat will increase your Back Squat. The logic: the Front Squat is more challenging than the Back Squat because of the frontal bar loading. So if you focus on the harder thing (Front Squats), your “easier” Back Squat will improve. It made sense…

I spent months training the Front Squat without doing a single Back Squat. I even ran Smolov for Front Squats. Then I hit a new Front Squat PR of 130kg and tested my Back Squat. I thought I’d hit 150kg but barely got 120kg. My Back Squat was weaker than my Front Squat despite increasing it by 22.5kg.

I quit doing the Front Squat after this and wasted months with the Box Squat. Eventually I saw the light, focused on regular Squats and broke PRs again. When I hit 175kg on the Back Squat, I tested my Front Squat. I achieved 140kg, a 10kg PR, despite not Front Squatting in 19 months.

This taught me the need for training specificity – to get better at Back Squats, you have to Back Squat. Training the Front Squat only will improve your Front Squat, not Back Squat. But increasing your Back Squat will improve your Front Squat because the heavier weights increase your overall strength.

Back Squats Beat Front Squats

It’s easier to Front Squat 140kg when you can Back Squat 190kg as I have. It doesn’t matter if the frontal bar position is more challenging on your abs and quads. That 140kg is your warmup weight on the Back Squat. So it’s easier to Front Squat because your body and mind can Back Squat heavier weights.

It’s also easier to achieve a 190kg Back Squat than Front Squat the same weight. Holding a heavy weight on your upper-back is easier than on your front shoulders. And the Back Squat engages your stronger posterior chain more than the Front Squat. More muscles working is more weight you can Squat.

And the Back Squat is easier on your knees than the Front Squat. Your hips and knees are more back on the Back Squat because your torso is more horizontal. This let’s your stronger posterior chain muscles carry most of the weight, keeping stress away from your knees.

Summary: You can lift more weight, get stronger and build more muscle with the Back Squat. The Back Squat is also safer on your knees than the Front Squat. Doing Front Squats because you have no Power Rack is unsafe if you fail and will limit your strength and muscle gains. Get a Power Rack.

See Also


References

  1. John, D. (2009). The Front Squat. Dan John.  
  2. Gullett, JC., et al. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats. J Strength Cond Res. 
  3. Kilgore, L. (n.d.). Squat Standards. ExRx.net 
  4. Fry, AC., et al. (2003). Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J Strength Cond Res. 
  5. Karlsson, M., Johnell, O., Obrant, K. (1993). Bone mineral density in weight lifters. Calcified Tissue International. 
  6. Kilgore, L. (2009). Forcing The Issue. Crossfit Journal. 
  7. Kilgore, L.(n.d.). Squat Standards. ExRx.net. 
  8. Kilgore, L. (n.d.). Power Clean Standards. ExRx.net