What Makes the Front Squat Different from the Back Squat?
Michael Sadler, CSCS – Seattle Mariners
Because research indicates that squats improve strength, speed and power, many strength coaches and athletes believe that they are one of the most important exercises that athletes can do to improve performance. Many of the young professional minor league baseball players that I work with don’t ask “should I squat.” Instead, they ask “which is better, front squats or back squats?” My answer is “it depends.” Each lift has advantages and disadvantages so, when you evaluate the relative risks and benefits of these two lifts, you have to take into account the player’s, position, training background, strengths, weaknesses and goals. Each lift has pros and cons. The following reviews some of the primary factors that differentiate the front squat from the back squat.
- In the front squat, the bar is positioned on the front of the shoulder girdle rather than on the upper back. In the process, an athlete is given a counterbalance to allow for a better posterior weight shift, which can help improve squat depth. If you need proof, perform a body weight squat, and then squat while holding a 10-pound plate straight out at arm’s length; most individuals will improve substantially.
- Because the arms are elevated in the front squat, the lats are lengthened. This is in contrast to the back squat, where the lats can be used to aggressively pull the bar down into the upper back and help improve core stability. The lack of lat involvement accounts, in part, for the fact that you can lift less total weight in the back squat than in the front squat. Although you can lift less total weight in the front squat than in the back squat, some strength coaches say this is not necessarily bad because the muscular involvement as measured by EMG activity in the muscles of the lower body during the front squat is similar to that in the back squat. That is, the muscular involvement in the front squat while lifting less weight is similar to that in the back squat while lifting more weight.1
- The positioning of the bar in the front makes the front squat much more shoulder friendly than the back squat. In the back squat, the externally rotated “rack” position poses problems for athletes with poor upper body mobility, and it actually reproduces injury mechanisms at the shoulder and elbow in overhead athletes.
- The upright torso angle of the front squat is less than that in the back squat which helps reduce shear stress in the spine1. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, as the resistance is moved further away from the axis of rotation. Moving the load further away from the axis of rotation also increases risk of excessive lumbar flexion under compressive load. The front squat, even under heavier loads, keeps a lifter more upright, or they will simply dump the bar, making the front squat somewhat of a self-limiting strength exercise.
- Because the load is positioned further forward in the front squat than in a back squat, there isn’t as much of a pre-stretch for the posterior chain, so the front squat will be more quad dominant than the back squat and engage more glutes and hamstrings.
- Because of the upright torso angle and increased recruitment of the quads relative to the muscles of the posterior chain experienced in the front squat, many lifters will use significantly less weight in the front squat than the back squat. If you can achieve a comparable training effect with less external loading, you’re dealing with what would generally be considered a safer exercise.
- Research indicates that the front squat is as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments at the knee2. This suggest that front squats may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.
- Many strength coaches recommend that athletes avoid from doing high-rep front squats. Sets of six are often recommended as the maximum workload, because the muscles involved in maintaining the “rack” position may fatigue early and compromise the safety of the exercise.
- Escamilla, RF. Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jan; 33(1): 127-41.
- Gullet, TC, et. al. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. (23(1):284-92, 2009.
Michael Sadler, CSCS, USAW is a Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Seattle Mariners.