In the interest of maximal gains and minimal risk, the front squat is a hands-down better exercise than the back squat.
We’ve all seen it: an overzealous lifter in the squat rack, four plates deep on each side, bellowing out a battle cry as if entering battle against Gregor Clegane in the Game of Thrones.
1. An underwhelming quarter squat.
2. A “hybrid good-morning” that resembles Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMA’s rather than a true squat.
My point isn’t to make fun of these well-intentioned lifters; rather, it’s to bring attention to this commonly butchered exercise. Despite being crowned “the king” of all exercises, few techniques are butchered as poorly as the back squat.
All training — all decisions in life, for that matter — are weighed on a risk/reward ratio. If the risk of a decision outweighs the reward, then it should be reconsidered. Let’s use a night out on the town as a comparison.
With tequila, your hangover’s going to be a killer, but you’ll loosen your inhibitions, have fun, and grow the balls to approach the hottie you’ve been eyeing since you walked in the door.
On the flip side, you’ll potentially make an ass out of yourself and spend tomorrow morning hugging the porcelain queen between episodes of House of Cards.
With the bourbon, you’ll get a little loose, but head home early, sleep well, and crush life tomorrow.
The best decision? Well, that’s up to you. Each has its own risks and rewards.
Curls and abs might give you a temporary pump, but those results are short-lived. Hammer the big lifts and you’ll stimulate a massive influx of anabolic hormones and by all accounts, get more bang for your buck.
The best decision? This one’s not up to you. The best decision is to crush the big lifts, then do some curls for dem biceps.
Back squats have many downfalls, most of which revolve around the fact that back squats are really hard to do correctly. There are a lot of areas where the barbell on your back can lead to issues, from increased spinal loads, to requiring abundant shoulder external rotation, most people can’t really do them safely. If you always bust your shit doing them: you round your back into lumbar flexion, shift your weight forward onto your toes, and feel like trash after each workout, then you should stop doing them. If your lower back aches or hurts after back squatting, this is you.
But hey, the internet says you have to, so that definitely falls under reward.
The better option would be to pick an exercise that improves your thoracic extension and posture, crushes your legs and abs, and leaves you stimulated rather than annihilated. In this case, the front squat wins over the back squat.
Before you crucify me and quote your favorite training manual, consider the following exceptions:
1. If you’re a competitive or aspiring powerlifter, by all means, go back squat. It’s your direct competition. Ignoring your main lift would be like telling Aaron Rodgers to stop throwing a Football.
2. If you can back squat without pain, butt-wink, or turn it into a good-morning, then by all means back squat. I find the number of people in this category few and far between. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning your squat technique, this likely isn’t you.
In the interest of maximum gains with minimal risk, the front squat is an all-around better exercise than the back squat for the majority of lifters.
Front squats can help you reduce your risk of injury because you’re not bouncing out of a deep squat with a compressed and flexed spine.
With the greater range of motion a back squat allows, you have a greater risk of pulling your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. You also increase the demands on each muscle to contract and return to the starting position, which increases muscle activation and stimulates more muscle mass for growth.
You’ll use less weight with a front squat, while achieving a similar muscle activation with less stress to your joints.
There are two spots where the front squat is a notch above a back squat: quad and upper back development.
First, front squats are performed with a narrow, neutral foot stance compared to the wider, externally rotated position of the back squat.
This leads to less activation on the hamstrings and abductors, but increases demand on the quadriceps. Take a look at the quads of any Olympic lifter and you’ll see what I mean: Vastus medialis (VMO) development that would make any dude jealous.
Further, to hold bar position on the top of the shoulders, the elbows must stay perpendicular to the ground. Apologies for this upcoming anatomy bomb, but front squats require scapula and clavicle elevation along with an upward rotation to keep the elbows up and the bar in proper position. This requires the traps, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, rhomboids, and lats to work in conjunction to hold position and prevent you from dumping the bar forward.
What all that means is that the front squat strengthens the muscles that are weak from keeling over your desk for 40+ hours a week.
There’s an overused concept that if you perform lots of compound movements, you don’t need to do isolating ab exercises. There’s some truth to this (although there are other postural considerations why training the abs directly is important). One compound movement that really does train the abs is the front squat. When you have the load in front of your body, your abdominals have to engage to prevent you from falling over.
Doing front squats consistently, you’ll find that your abs will strengthen along with your legs. This concept applies to all front-loaded exercises such as goblet squats (which, as an aside, are a great exercise to progress to front squats).
Back squats can be great, but most people suck at them and don’t have the time, knowledge, or patience to fix the underlying mobility and stability restrictions necessary to do them safely and effectively.
That’s why most of the time, I opt for front squats. For my athletes and busy execs, there’s less risk and a greater reward to keeping them healthy, athletic, and jacked.
That said, I understand the front squat is a tough exercise to learn on your own, so that’s why I put together a Free E-Book to teach you everything I know about the front squat. I’ll show you a step-by-step progression to learning the front squat, exercise substitutions for stiff wrists, and we’ll dive even further into why the front squat is the most underrated exercise around. Get it here, 100% Free.
“Front squat” we assume refers to a barbell front squat, but there are several other front squat variations. One of my favorites is the 2KB front squat. With this variation, you grab two kettlebells (dumbbells can also work) and hold them in the front rack position. here you can work on that thoracic extension and getting your elbows up without worrying about your wrists bugging you. In general, it’s a less technical barrier to entry.
The 2KB front squat, however, does have its weight and comfort limits, so eventually you should make the switch to the barbell front squat.
For the reasons the front squat is superior to the back squat for training the lower body, single-leg squats (like Bulgarian split squats) are better than front squats. Most single-leg squats require even less technical proficiency, even less load to get a substantial training effect, and are overall just much more comfortable to perform. David has written a whole article making the case that you don’t even need to bilaterally squat, ever again.
Whether you’re strength training for health, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, or training for performance, squats are a fundamental movement pattern. Regardless of the variation, there are commonalities in posture and form. And while some variations work better for some people than others, you still need to fix your squat.
If you’re struggling in particular with squat form, check out this article on how to fix your squat technique.