Front Squat

front-squat

Front squats are a different animal.

After years of dedicated powerlifting training and back squatting, I read an article by one of my strength training mentors, Brad Gillingham.

“Big Brad” is one of the strongest human beings on the face of the planet, and his 5×5 squat program had worked wonders for my back squat.

In this article he mentioned that he front squatted a lot in the off-season, so I figured I’d give it a shot as well.

And all I can say is, I got dominated!

I was squirrelly under the bar, my thighs were burning, and my core was crushed for three days straight as a result.

And needless to say, I loved the pain, and I’ve grown to love the lift.

The front squat is an amazing exercise, and one that’s well worth your time and attention to master. In this article, I will take you step-by-step through the process, to help you learn everything possible about the front squat.

Let’s start with the big benefits you get from the front squat.

Benefits of Front Squatting

There are numerous reasons you should learn to front squat. Here’s just a short list.

Mobility

Female-Front-SquatOne of the biggest benefits you’ll receive from front squatting regularly is improving (or at least maintaining) your mobility through all the key joints: The ankles, , knees, hips, shoulders and elbows.

Too often people assume that if they want to be mobile, they have to do extensive mobility or stretching routines day-in and day-out forever.

And this simply isn’t the case.

Instead, what it often requires is a block or period of time that’s dedicated to improving mobility, and then maintaining that mobility going forward.

Front squatting can help you build the mobility, and by regularly including them in your programming they will keep you mobile for years to come.

Core Strength

Another benefit to front squatting is improving core strength.

This is where a key distinction needs to be made; while back squats tend to put more stress on the posterior core such as the lower back/spinal erectors, front squats put more stress on the anterior core.

This area is typically very weak and underdeveloped, so front squatting can be a great tool to bring this up to snuff. And don’t worry, I’ll make sure to give you some resources later on if this is an issue.

Muscle Mass – Quads

Let’s be honest – quads get a bad rap, and if your goal is to get flat-out huge quads, I could think of worse ways to go about developing them.

The front squat is at the end of the squat/hinge spectrum. If you want big quads, training with an angled tibia and upright torso (like you do when front squatting) is a sure-fire way to look like Quadzilla come next Halloween.

Strength Gains

Front squats are an invaluable tool to get stronger, regardless of your ultimate end-goal.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a team sport athlete, a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter – getting stronger in the glutes, quads and anterior core is rarely a bad thing. When you combine that with the mobility you can develop as well, you have a first-class exercise you should be using routinely in your programming.

And while we’re talking about Olympic lifters….

Foundation for O-lifts

Last but not least, if you have any dreams or aspirations of Olympic lifting in the future, you need to learn how to front squat.

The front squat is the foundation for catching/receiving a clean. Failure to catch a big clean in the bottom position will force you to either power clean every rep of every set, or simply find a new sport to pursue.

As you can see, there are tons of benefits to front squatting.

Now that we’ve covered them, let’s get down to brass tax: How to front squat.

How To Front Squat – Set-up

Grab the Bar

Initiate the set-up by grabbing the bar with the hands at approximately shoulder width apart. If flexibility is an issue, you can go a little bit wider.

(And if flexibility is an issue, we’ll cover that in-depth below).

Spin Elbows Underneath, Set Feet

rack-positionOnce the hands are set at the appropriate width, you’re going to walk in underneath the bar, spinning your hands and elbows underneath, pointing them at the wall in front of you.

While you’re setting the upper body, you’ll simultaneously want to set your feet as well. I like to set my feet at approximately hip width apart and directly underneath the bar.

Set Neck/Throat

Once the feet and upper body are set, it’s time to set your head and neck position.

There’s no way to sugar coat this – front squats can be damn uncomfortable. There’s a reason you don’t see these performed in most commercial, big-box gyms!

What I want you to do is set the bar as close to the base of your throat as possible. Set the bar at the base of the throat, and then lift the neck slightly to set it as low on your throat as possible (without setting it on your windpipe).

The biggest issue I see here is that new trainees are unwilling to sell out and get the bar set where it needs to go. This may not be an issue when you’re handling baby weights, but as the intensity cranks up, a great starting position is more and more important.

Elbows Up

Now that the bar is set, I want you to actively drive your elbows up.

Too often, the elbows start low when setting up, and this only gets worse when actually performing the lift. Drive the elbows up, making it a goal to have them pointing straight ahead towards the wall in front of you.

Big Breath

Before walking the bar out, take a full, deep breath and hold it.

If you do this correctly, you should feel pressure throughout your entire mid-section, not just your lower back. We’ll talk more about bracing below, but think of this as a 3-D hoop that’s locked in and stable.

Stand Up, Weights Settle

Next, we’re going to stand up with the bar.

If you’re rock solid and stable, all you have to do is drive your feet into the floor and extend the knees.

What I don’t want to have happen is where you make this all one motion – you drive your feet into the floor and them immediately start stepping back to set-up.

Instead, take a breath, stand up with the bar, let it settle for a moment, and then start walking back into your set-up.

Again, it’s easy to get sloppy on lighter warm-up sets, but getting in bad habits now we’ll cause a ton of issues when you get super strong and handle serious weights.

1-2-3 Feet

With the plates and bar settled, it’s time to clear the racks and get set-up.

The goal is to minimize wasted motion here. I prefer a 3-step approach, but it really amounts to one step and then two re-positions to seal the deal.

I’m going to describe this as though you’re stepping back with your right leg:

1. Take one moderate step back with your right leg to clear the racks,

2.  Set your left foot where you want it, and then

3. Set your right foot where you want it.

You may have to make some minor adjustments with regards to your foot position or where your center of gravity is, but this set-up is not only super efficient, but it’s effective as well.

Stance width will be discussed in depth below, but suffice it to say I like the feet to be between hip and shoulder width when front squatting.

Dial in the Feet

The next step is to dial in your foot position.

Stance width when front squatting is relatively narrow (when compared to most powerlifting-style back squats), and as such, you won’t need a ton of toe flare here.

The best way to describe this is to have just enough toe flare such that the foot, knees and hips are in a straight line when set-up.

Furthermore, make sure that your center of gravity is where you want it as well. Weightlifting may be the only sport on the face of the planet where being on your midfoot and/or heels is preferred and beneficial.

At the very least, make sure that your weight is directly over your midfoot, if not shifted back towards the heels slightly. Here’s a quick video on foot position, and how to get a neutral foot.

Reset  

Setting up for a big squat can be challenging, and a lot of little things can go wrong along the way.

Before actually uncorking that monster front squat, take a quick moment to readjust and make sure everything is dialed in and perfect.

Here’s a quick checklist:

  • Take a big breath and brace the core,
  • If possible, think about making the spine long (versus arching hard), and
  • Drive the elbows up and point them towards the wall in front of you.

Now we only have one thing left to do – squat!

How to Front Squat – Performance

Sit back, knees out

Initiate the front squat by sitting back slightly.

The key word here is slightly. What you’re really trying to do is allow the hips and knees to flex simultaneously, but most people have a tendency to just plop straight down if they don’t sit back a bit.

On the other side of the spectrum, this isn’t a powerlifting-style back squat, either. If you sit back too far it’s going to make for a really awkward lift.

The goal of a front squat is to stay more vertical to hit the anterior core and quads. Don’t bastardize the lift – sit back slightly and let the magic happen.

Neutral spine

As you’re squatting, the goal is to keep the spine neutral throughout.

And neutral means neutral – you don’t want to be hyper-extended through the lower back, and you don’t want to be flexed, either.

The nice thing about front squatting is that it’s far harder to screw up than a back squat. If you have a good set-up, you can often maintain a good alignment throughout. If nothing else you may have to cut your depth initially until hip mobility/core stability improves, but front squatting will actually help in that regard.

Here’s a quick video, just in case the concept of neutral spine is new to you.

Squat depth

Kendrick-Farris-front-squatAh yes, the age old question:

How deep should I squat?

You should squat as deep as you can comfortably, while still allowing for good mechanics through the ankles, knees, hips and spine.

Too often if you don’t have the requisite mobility/stability, when you sink into the bottom you lose your lumbar spine position.

This obviously isn’t a good thing, as blasting off a rounded spine in the bottom of a squat is a sure-fire way to long-term low back injuries.

Instead, I prefer to have someone squat slowly early-on, making sure to keep their spine in a neutral position throughout. As mobility improves and the core becomes more stable, squat depth should naturally improve with time.

Chest and Elbows UP!

When transitioning from the eccentric (lowering) to the concentric (lifting) portion of a front squat, two things tend to happen:

  1. The chest begins to cave, and
  2. The elbows tend to drop.

If you were back squatting, the cue may be “chest up.” But the more I watch clients and athletes move, the less I like this cue (at least as a stand-alone).

When you cue someone to stick their chest up, what ends up happening is they slam their back into lumbar extension and allow the lower portion of their rib cage to flare up.

This causes a whole host of issues – poor stability through the core and lumbar spine, a lengthening of the glutes and hamstrings, and crappy biomechanics all around.

What I’ve found to be far more effective is to cue someone to drive their elbows up as they squat deeper and deeper.

If you cue someone to drive their elbows up, they naturally get their chest and back into a better position.

But now, they aren’t fighting it – it’s a much more “natural” alignment.

Next time you front squat don’t think so much about keeping the chest up. Instead, think about driving the elbows up when you’re deep in that front squat.

It makes all the difference in the world.

Keep knees out

Another issue you’ll often see when transitioning out of the bottom of a squat is this “crashing in” of the knees relative to the hips and feet.

Whenever I coach a lower body lift (squat, deadlift, lunge, etc.) I like to maintain a neutral position between the foot, knee and hip.

In other words, the foot, knee and hip should always be tracking and in-line with each other.

I know some big-time lifters use the “knee crash” technique with success, but I’d love to examine their long-term knee and hip health. Squatting in this fashion puts a ton of stress on the lateral compartment of the knees, as well as the antero-medial portion of the hip.

If you want to squat with heavy weights for an extended period of time, keep the foot, knee and hip in alignment as much as humanly possible.

Your body will thank you.

The big finish

As you come up to the top position, congratulations! You just finished an awesome rep.

Now at the top position, a couple things to consider.

If you’re doing a multi-rep set that’s fairly light, you’ll want to reposition yourself to get back into a great starting position. You may also want to reset your breathing/brace a bit, before performing the next repetition.

However, if you’re doing a really heavy set (and you’re trained/medically cleared to do this), you may want to hold that breath for the entirety of the set.

Holding your breath will make sure you maintain all of your intra-abdominal pressure, which should help you move the most weight possible.

A final note on comfort

In case I haven’t made this clear before, let me do so now.

Front squats are hard.

They’re uncomfortable.

And there’s a reason you rarely, if ever, see someone performing them in your local commercial gym.

But they are far and away one of the most valuable exercises you can master in the gym.

Take the time to re-read this entire section once or twice before moving on. If you can hone and dial-in your front squat technique, I guarantee you’ll fast track your progress on numerous other lifts as well.

To wrap this section up, here are two videos of me coaching the front squat.

I created the video below for the Elite Training Mentorship. If you are a coach or trainer and want to learn from people such as myself and Eric Cressey, definitely check out the ETM for continuing education content that’s updated every month.

This second video is from my Bulletproof Athlete training system. It’s a bit more straightforward, as it’s geared towards end-users who simply want to know how to execute the lift with good technique.

Now that we’ve covered all the basics of front squatting performance, let’s look at variations you can use to help you get the most out of your training.

Front Squat Grips

No two people are built alike.

When it comes to front squatting, there are a handful of different grips to choose from, and which one you choose really depends on your long-term needs and goals.

Some people have the wrist, elbow and shoulder mobility of gumby. As such, front squatting with any grip is a viable option.

On the other hand, some of the bigger guys who have been throwing around heavy iron for decades may never get into a great position using an Olympic-style grip.

Regardless, there is an option out there for you if you want to start implementing the front squat in your program.

Let’s take a look at the grips you can choose from.

Traditional grip
Traditional grip

The traditional, Olympic or “clean-style” grip consists of wrapping your fingertips around the bar.

To set-up in this fashion, grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip.

Next, slowly walk your throat into the bar. As you’re walking in, you’re going to “spin” your fingers and elbows underneath the bar, doing your best to point them at the wall straight ahead of you.

From here, try and get as many fingertips on the bar as you possibly can. For many, this may only be two fingers to start. However, as wrist, elbow and shoulder mobility improves, you should be able to get more and more fingers on the bar.

The traditional grip is my preferred choice whenever possible because it gives you the most control over the bar. And while it should go without saying, if you have any hopes, dreams or aspirations of Olympic lifting in the future, you might as well start building the mobility to get into this position ASAP.

Bodybuilder grip
Bodybuilder grip

Next, we have the bodybuilder style grip. The set-up here is a bit different than the traditional style.

Walk in towards the bar and set it on your throat/neck. Next, you’re going to lift your right arm in front of your body and place it on your left shoulder (covering the bar).

You’ll do this again on the opposite side, placing your left arm on your right shoulder (again, covering the bar).

The benefit here is simple: You need far less mobility through the upper body to get into position, and almost anyone can front squat using this grip.

The downside, however, is that you don’t have quite as much control over the bar. While I don’t mind clients using this set-up initially, I’d prefer to simultaneously work on the mobility limitation and get them into a traditional grip in the future.

Last but not least, we have a hybrid version that I first saw used by powerlifting legend Brad Gillingham.

Brad is a monster of a man, and even if he wanted to get into a traditional grip he may be unable to due to the sheer amount of muscle mass he’s carrying.

Strap-assisted grip
Strap-assisted grip

The strap-assisted front squat grip isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other two, it’s just different.

To use this variation, you’re going to take a set of lifting straps and cinch them tight around the bar.

Other than your hand placement, setting up with the strap-assisted variation is essentially the same as with the traditional grip.

Walk your throat into the bar and grab the loose end of the strap as close to the bar as comfort and mobility will allow. From there, drive the elbows up and set the bar exactly where you want it on your neck/throat.

When training Roy Hibbert this past year, this was my preferred front squat grip. The man has a multi-million dollar body, and a sweet stroke for a big man. I could ill afford to have any injuries to the wrist, elbow or shoulder, so this option worked great for us.

Now that we’ve covered the basic lift, as well as the various grip placements, let’s look at some the front squatting variations you can choose from.

Front Squat Variations

While the standard front squat is awesome, sometimes you just need a change of pace.

If that’s the case, here are some alternatives that all bring unique benefits to the table.

Safety Squat Bar Front Squat

The safety squat bar (SSB) front squat is a great alternative if you want the loading of a traditional front squat, without some of the discomfort of using a standard barbell.

Unfortunately, no matter what you try, some people just can’t get used to a barbell digging into their neck/throat area. A bar is relatively small in width/diameter, so it creates a lot of pressure.

On the other hand with a SSB front squat you have a much wider contact surface, which greatly reduces pressure.

While it may not be optimal, at the very least it’s a viable option.

Last but not least, if you want to minimize injury risk to the upper body but don’t like the strap-assisted set-up, this version fits the bill. I use it with some of baseball and basketball players, again, to to take stress off  the shoulders, elbows and wrists.

Goblet Squat

Popularized by the infamous strength coach Dan John, a goblet squat is the ideal teaching tool to help someone front squat safely and effectively.

Two of the biggest issues with the front squat are load (often a minimum 45#/20kg bar), and flexibility.

With a goblet squat, you can load as little as 4kg/9 pounds, and upper body flexibility should be no issue whatsoever.

The other great thing about the goblet squat?

It’s beyond easy to coach.

Even in a room with 15-20 trainees in it, you can have everyone goblet squatting with darn good technique in a matter of minutes.

The last big benefit of the goblet squat is that it’s easy to camp out and get comfortable in the bottom position.

I’ll often have my clients squat down so that their elbows are just inside the knees, and then use the elbows to “pry” the knees and hips apart. Not only does this help improve hip mobility, but gets someone comfortable and confident in the bottom position of the squat.

Goblet Squat with Heartbeat

A tweak on the standard goblet squat is the goblet squat with a heartbeat.

If you think a goblet squat hits the anterior core hard, wait until you try this variation!

Set-up and performance of the lift are identical to a goblet squat, with the exception being that in the bottom position you’re going to extend the elbows and push the weight out in front of your body.

Not only will you need less weight with this variation, but you’ll often feel it more.

Two-Kettlebell Front Squat

If you don’t have access to a barbell, or you simply love kettlebells and feel the need to use them incessantly in your programming, try the kettlebell front squat.

The technique of the actual lift isn’t that different from a barbell variation. The biggest difference comes in the set-up and placement of the actual kettlebells.

In this case, grab two kettlebells and set them against your chest with your elbows dug into your sides for support.

From this position, you’re going to bring the hands together, extend the fingers of both hands and interlock them to set the upper body.

It may feel awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it it’s really quite comfortable

Offset Kettlebell Front Squat

The final variation I’m going to describe is the offset kettlebell front squat. I like this exercise because it allows you to work on strength imbalances, asymmetries, and it overloads the core as well.

For instance if you pick up a kettlebell and rack it with your right hand resting on your right shoulder, the natural tendency is for your body to bend to the right.

To counteract this, the left side of your core/abdominals has to work double-time to “bend” you back to the left. Therein lies the benefit to offset loading: More core stability.

I’ll often use offset kettlebell front squats as a bridge: I’ll start with goblet squats, then move to offset kettlebell front squats, and then finish with either a  two kettlebell or barbell front squat variation.

Common Front Squat Flaws

So far we’ve covered how to front squat, the different ways you can grip the bar, and a bunch of variations you can use to keep your training fresh.

But what happens when you start missing lifts?

Technique breaks down?

Or you simply aren’t making progress?

It’s time to dial in that technique and fix up those flaws!

As a general rule, I love having clients (both online and offline) videotape their lifting sessions. This way we can both review technique and performance from session-to-session to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.

And there’s really no reason whatsoever not to record your lifts these days. You don’t need a $1,000 high-def video camera to do the trick; simply use whatever you’ve got available, even if it’s just the video camera on your smartphone.

It’s a simple tip, but it can a huge difference

Now let’s talk about coaching….

Flaw #1 – Poor bar position

Say this with me:

“You must sell out with bar position on the front squat.”

Wait, I didn’t hear you. Let’s try that again:

“YOU MUST SELL OUT WITH BAR POSITION ON THE FRONT SQUAT.”

Like I’ve said numerous times before, you must get that bar in tight to your neck/throat. Not on your windpipe, mind you, but definitely in high and tight.

If you don’t do this, the bar will have a tendency to roll and drift out in front of you. Not only does this make the lift infinitely more awkward, but it increases the likelihood of your upper body getting injured as well.

Flaw #2 – Poor starting torso position

People get really caught up in the performance of the big lifts, and rightfully so. After all, if your technique is off, no way are you going to maximize your performance.

But I’d argue that perhaps even more important than performance of the lift is the set-up. If you set-up in a bad position from the start, it’s virtually impossible to recover later on.

When it comes to your starting torso position, there are two ways this can go:

  1. Chest caved over/elbows down, or
  2. Low back hyperextended/ribs flared.

Let’s fix both.

If your chest starts caved over or your elbows are down, this is easy – think about pushing the elbows up before you start your descent. I like to cue my clients to have their elbows pointing directly at the wall in front of them.

Even more importantly, cue them to continue driving the elbows up as they squat lower and lower. This is a biggie.

On the other hand, those who have a weak anterior core/abs (at least relative to lower back strength) will have a tendency to hyperextend their lower back and flare their ribs in an effort to create stability.

Doing this not only puts a ton of wear-and-tear on your lumbar spine and discs, but it will also limit your long-term performance as well.

To fix this, I like to use the following sequence. Imagine you’re setting up underneath the bar, getting ready to walk it out.

  • Exhale slightly and allow the ribs to come down.
  • Keeping the ribs down, take another breath of air in. Hold that breath, and then proceed to walk the bar out.

The key here is to get that breath will simultaneously keeping the ribs down. If you do it correctly you should feel air not only go into your abdomen, but to the sides of your core and even into your back as well.

And just in case I didn’t do that justice, here’s a quick video to explain how to do this:

Flaw #3 – Poor foot position

This one is pretty simple. If your feet are in a bad position from the start, everything else is going to feel awkward throughout.

If you have a tendency to offset one foot from the other front to back, have someone qualified assess you to make sure you don’t have any big issues.

If the assessment looks good, throw a piece of tape on the ground to make sure you’re setting up more squarely. We actually have mats with lines on them at IFAST, so that helps ensure we’re putting our feet where we want them.

The other issue that comes up is foot rotation. A front squat isn’t a back squat, so you shouldn’t be going extra wide with your foot stance.

If you’re setting up with the feet hip-to-shoulder width apart, you’ll want around 10-20 degrees of toe flare. If you have to turn the feet/toes out further, get someone to check your hip internal rotation.

Last but not least (and this may sound easy), but make sure your toes are turned out equally. It doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s not uncommon to see clients early on with one foot pointed straight ahead, and the other turned out 20 or more degrees.

As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal and notes either a lack of body awareness, or a major asymmetry that needs to be addressed.

Flaw #4 – Breaking with the knees

When front squatting, the key is to sit back with the hips slightly. It’s not exaggerated – it’s slight.

Someone with weak glutes and hamstrings, or someone that simply doesn’t know how to squat, will have a tendency to drop straight down and really drive the knees forward.

If it’s really bad, they will go so far forward their heels will raise off the floor.

To fix this, make sure the body weight is centered over the midfoot (or back a smidge), and cue yourself to break with the hips. If all goes well you’ll move both the hips and knees simultaneously, putting you in a great position to perform the lift.

Flaw #5 – Not pushing the knees out

When someone struggles to push the knees out, there are a handful of potential culprits:

  • Poor body awareness,
  • Poor squatting technique (they simply don’t know how to do it),
  • Weak lateral hamstrings/glutes, or
  • A stiff groin (inability to “open-up”).

In situations like this, I always start with coaching and cuing first. I’m not going to blow the program up and take someone back to square one if I can fix an issue by making them aware of it.

If I coach them time and again and it’s simply not improving, then you can look at soft-tissue methods such as stretching, foam rolling, etc., paired with an exercise like goblet squats to re-groove the pattern and open everything up.

Rarely does this issue take months to fix. Instead, it can typically be fixed in a handful of sessions or about one month of focused training.

Flaw #6 – The chest caves or elbows drop

I’ve already covered this a handful of times, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. The bottom line is if you allow the chest to cave and elbows to drop, this shifts your entire center of gravity forward and you put yourself in a really precarious position to finish the lift.

If you start with a bad set-up, this will only get magnified as you go. Drive the elbows up at the start and set them in that position.

Furthermore, as you squat down, cue yourself or your client to drive the elbows up.

Here’s how I mentally cue myself: The deeper I squat, the more I want/need to push the elbows up.

This makes a huge difference and helps ensure you maintain good body position throughout the lift.

Another cue you may like is to drive the elbows in towards each other. It does essentially the same thing, but you can try both to see which one works best for you.

Front Squat Fixes

Now that we’ve covered most of the big topics, let’s break down some of the most specific front squat issues I see in the gym, as well as how to fix them.

Wrist/Elbow/Shoulder Flexibility

The most common issue that I’ve seen both in the gym and on the Internet is when people struggle to “rack” the bar in the traditional grip.

Whenever I ask a question about front squatting, this question isn’t just the most popular question, but it blows every other question out of the water!

Let’s break this down once and for all so you can see not only why this is such a common issue, but how to improve it as well.

Whenever we’re addressing a movement limitation like this, understand that it’s not going to improve magically overnight and it’s going to take some time, effort and dedication.

When you set-up to front squat and you’re setting the upper body, there are at least four things going on at the shoulder, elbow and wrist:

  • Shoulder external rotation,
  • Shoulder flexion,
  • Elbow flexion, and
  • Wrist extension.

Once you understand what joints are involved, you can examine the opposite motions/muscles so you can create a program to alleviate the movement limitation.

The Shoulder Joint

  • Joint motion: Shoulder external rotation
  • Opposing joint motion: Shoulder internal rotation
  • Muscle groups creating internal rotation: Pecs and lats
  • Joint motion: Shoulder flexion
  • Opposing joint motion: Shoulder extension
  • Muscle groups creating extension: Sternal head of pecs and lats

The Elbow Joint

  • Joint motion: Elbow flexion
  • Opposing joint motion: Elbow extension
  • Muscle groups creating elbow extension: Triceps

The Wrist Joint

  • Joint motion: Wrist extension
  • Opposing joint motion: Wrist flexion
  • Muscle groups creating wrist flexion: Wrist flexors (sorry, I’m not naming them all!)

Take a look at those opposing muscle groups – does anything jump out at you?

Pecs, lats, triceps, wrist flexors – that’s like a who’s who list of muscles that every bro has trained with reckless abandon from the second he walked into a gym!

Is it any wonder, then, that we might struggle to get into a good starting position when front squatting?

Now that we’ve determined the culprits, let’s focus our attention on fixing the problem.

Without getting into a long-winded diatribe about program design, realize that everything you do in and out of the gym either works to improve your posture/mobility/movement capacity, or it makes it worse.

Everything.

All day, everyday, you’re either working towards moving better or moving worse.

If you’re really limited in movement throughout these areas, take a big-picture approach to improving movement capacity:

  • Self-Myofascial Release (SMR),
  • Direct soft-tissue methods (massage, ART, etc.) if possible,
  • Static stretching,
  • Dynamic stretching/mobility drills.

For self-myofascial release, this video should cover the basics.

And if you’d like something to print off and take with you to the gym, check out the document below:

Self-Myofascial Release E-manual

Once you’ve foam rolled, it’s time to work on improving the extensibility of some of those big muscles, especially the pecs and lats. While some people hate on static stretching, I think it plays a role here.

Most people are horribly stiff through the pecs, lats, triceps, etc., so static stretching should improve stretch tolerance.

This is just a fancy way of saying your body gets used to stretching, more so than actually “improves” flexibility.

When stretching, focus more on getting a very subtle/gentle stretch and then working on breathing deeply, versus just  cranking into more and more range of motion.

Work on getting a full inhalation, and perhaps more importantly, a full exhalation. Allow those muscles to shut off and decrease tone.

Do this for a week or two, just to get a running start into your flexibility program.

Mobility drills play a key role in this, too. With regards to mobility, I like to progress from more general, big-picture exercises to drills that are ever more specific.

My warm-up article covers all the general exercises. Use that as the template, and then add in one or two more specific drills

That should get you started, but again, we have to think big picture to really fix this problem.

The pecs and lats are very problematic, so I’ll often remove some of the big exercises in (i.e. bench presses and chin-up/pull-up progressions) until I can balance stiffness and improve posture.

The key is to simultaneously remove (or back off) on the offending exercises, while cranking up the exercises and movements that will improve posture, mobility and alignment.

Let’s wrap with a thought on your hand grip and finger placement.

Often, people assume they’re going to get all four fingers underneath the bar during a front squat.

And some of you may get there. But chances are if you’re reading this section, mobility is an issue.

Instead of worrying about all four fingers, instead, build up over time. When I got started I could barely get two fingers under the bar, but it was a starting point.

Every session I would front squat with those two fingers on the bar, until eventually it got easier and easier.

Then I moved it up to three fingers.

It’s not necessarily rocket science, but a slow and steady approach is necessary to remedy the problem.

And that’s the point I’d like to leave you with – if front squatting is important to you, take the time and dedicate yourself to having the mobility necessary to do it using the Olympic or traditional grip.

A few weeks (and worst case, months) of work should last you a lifetime.

Core/Torso Strength

front-squatIf core and torso strength are the limiting factors in your front squat, you may have to take one step back to take two (or three) steps forward.

I’ll answer this in more depth in the FAQ section below, but the key lies in building more anterior core, while simultaneously re-grooving technique with lighter weights.

Mobility

If total-body mobility is an issue, it’s hard for me to give one static answer that helps everyone reading.

If I’m evaluating a client either online or offline, my goal is to find the most pressing movement limitation and attack that first.

You start by looking at the core/trunk, and working your way outward. Often if you address the issue closest to the core, the other issues that you see within your assessment clean up without much direct work.

As far as free resources go, I’d again reference my Warm-up article here at RTS. It will cover a lot of the big-bang issues that people have, and it may just be enough to get you moving and feeling the way you want.

If you give that a go for a month or two and don’t see a significant change, I’d highly recommend getting someone to evaluate you and write up a customized routine.

Can’t sit back, or sits back too far

It’s rare that someone can’t sit back when front squatting, especially when compared to a back squat.

What I find more often is that people don’t realize they should still sit back when front squatting!

When people front squat, you either see them sit way back (like they would in a back squat) or just plop straight down.

Neither is optimal, and it comes down to coaching.

With a coach you can find that happy medium. You don’t want to sit back too far, because that puts the torso (and thus the bar) in a horrible position.

Remember: The goal is to front squat, not back squat!

On the other hand you shouldn’t just plop straight down either. While there’s naturally going to be more motion at the knee and ankle joints, you don’t want to exhaust that range of motion right out of the gate.

I always cue to sit back slightly, or subtly. It’s just that first bit of initiating the movement that seems to do the trick for myself and my athletes.

Can’t push knees out

Not being able to push the knees out is a common problem when squatting.

As I alluded to above, a good portion of the time this is just a coaching/cuing/body awareness issue. If you coach/cue someone to fix this, 9 times out of 10 they can.

If you struggle to do this while front squatting, I will typically move you to a goblet squat instead.

The goblet squat does a few things:

  • Reduces the load and discomfort, allowing you to focus on performance of the movement.
  • Allows you to use the elbows to “drive” the knees apart and get into a better alignment.

Often, all it takes is a few weeks of dedicated goblet squat training and your knee cave problem is fixed.

Miss in the hole

Missing in the hole is a common problem, and there are a handful of reasons this may happen.

  • The elbows drop and the center of gravity moves forward,
  • You get loose/unstable in the bottom, or
  • You have too much weight on the bar.

If you miss because your elbows drop and the bar gets forward, think about pushing/driving the elbows up as you squat lower and lower. This is the cuing I use.

It could also be a mobility issue. If you don’t have sufficient mobility, you won’t be able to maintain good positioning deep in the squat. Address the mobility problem and this should clean up.

If you get loose/unstable in the bottom, the first thing I would tell you is stop doing that!

In all seriousness, sometimes the verbal cue of “stay tight” in the bottom is all you need to fix the issue.

If coaching/cuing doesn’t work, try using pause squats, eccentric squats, or 1 and 1/4 squats in your programming.

Pause squats (where you hold for 1-5 seconds in the bottom position) force you to stay tight and in good posture throughout. Slow eccentrics and lowering work much the same way.

Last but not least, 1 and 1/4 squats help get you comfortable, strong and tight in the deep squat position. In this case you’ll squat as low as you can, come up 1/4 of the way up, go back down to the bottom position, and then come all the way up.

That is one rep.

And yes, they are horrible!

Last but not least, if you have too much weight on the bar, hopefully you understand how to fix that 😉

Miss halfway up

Someone who misses halfway up in the front squat typically has one of two problems:

  • The elbows drop and the center of gravity came forward,
  • Leg/thigh (specifically quad) strength needs to be improved.

If the elbows drop at any point in time, this has to be fixed. Just as I cue someone to keep the elbows up in the bottom, you need to cue them to keep the elbows up when coming back up as well.

Often, you’ll see someone in great position going down, but then as they bounce or come out of the hole, the elbows immediately drop and the hips shoot up in the air.

You can do this in a back squat, but it doesn’t work quite as well when front squatting!

Coaching and cuing are part of the solution, as well as continuing to work on mobility and flexibility.

Another possible issue is that you don’t have the anterior core strength to stay in a good position, so you try to make this look and feel like a back squat.

If that describes you, use the exercises I outline here in my core training article, along with dropping the weight a bit on your front squats until technique cleans up.

If leg strength is an issue, some direct work may be of use here. This is actually a really good time to use single-leg exercises like lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats.

Now that we’ve covered all the possible reasons you might miss on a front squat, let’s talk about some of the gear and accessories you might employ to show everyone what a gym beast you are!

Gear and Accessories

You may not use as much gear as your would in a back squat (especially if you’re into the sport of powerlifting), but there are still some items out there that could be useful for you.

Chalk

Chalk is a must-have for any serious strength athlete.

Weightlifting-ChalkThe year that I trained at a standard big-box/commerical gym was no doubt the least productive of my entire training career.

Each day, it felt as though they’d lubed the bars with WD-40. And what’s worse, they wouldn’t allow you to bring chalk in!

Chalk (or anything similar) provides improved grip and control over the bar. If you’re using baby weights it probably isn’t a big deal.

But they heavier you lift, the more you want and need control over the bar.

When front squatting, you’ll want to liberally apply chalk to both the hands and the front part of the shoulders/deltoids.

This will make sure you have control over all the various contact points of the bar.

Belt

A lifting belt is another item that most serious lifters have in their gym bag.

A belt is good for providing not only external feedback to the core and lumbar spine, but it helps increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) as well.

When you take a big breath, the abdomen has a natural tendency to expand. Doing so allows your core to push out into the belt, which then pushes back.

This makes for a tremendous amount of both pressure and feedback to the brain.

The key here, though, is to brace exactly as you would without a belt.

Exhale slightly to get the ribs down, and then inhale again and brace. When done properly, you should not only have pressure on the front of the belt, but on the sides and back as well.

This is the ideal way to stabilize your spine for a big front squat.

Knee Wraps

Knee wraps aren’t used as often by front squatters as they are back squatters. I think this comes down more to the difference between powerlifters and Olympic lifters than anything else, though.

Powerlifters focus their time and attention on the back squat. Furthermore, improving performance of the back squat is necessary since it’s the actual competitive lift they perform.

In this case, if you compete in a powerlifting federation that allows gear, it only makes sense to train with or use knee wraps in competition.

On the other hand, Olympic lifters often spend more time on the front squat than the back squat.

And even if they train the squat a ton, the front squat isn’t the end-goal. In Olympic lifting, the goal is to snatch and clean-and-jerk the maximum amount of weight.

If I’m making this too complicated, think about it like this:

Powerlifters back squat in an attempt to back squat maximal weights. The lift they train is the lift they compete in.

Olympic lifters front squat in an attempt to improve leg strength and improve their clean. The front squat is a constituent part of a bigger lift.

As such, most Olympic lifters don’t use knee wraps, because:

  1. They don’t use them in competition (i.e. an Olympic lifting meet), and
  2. They’re not being tested in the front squat itself.

Compression Gear

One of my favorite pieces of equipment in my gym bag is compression gear. Whenever I squat or deadlift, I love having something that’s not only somewhat tight and form-fitting, but that shows off my sexy physique, too.

All kidding aside, compressive gear is great because it keeps the joints warm, especially if you’re waiting long periods of time between sets.

When front squatting, my personal favorites are hip and knee supports. My personal favorite is Rehband gear, which you can find at Jackals Gym.

(Side note: I have no affiliation with Rehband or Jackals Gym – I just really love their gear!)

Squatting Footwear

When it comes to squatting, one of the biggest questions we get nowadays is what type of shoe is best.

WeightliftingShoesWhen choosing a squat shoe, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you need foot/ankle control?
  • Do you need heel elevation?
  • If yes to the previous, do you have an isolated ankle mobility restriction?
  • Do you have a history of anterior knee/patello-femoral pain?

Knowing the answers to these questions can help you make an informed decision.

Personally, I’ve been all over the board with regards to footwear. I think this is due in part to constantly learning and evolving, having different athletic goals, etc.

Starting off as a powerlifter, I thought everyone should wear old-school Chuck Taylors. As the great Louie Simmons said, “Why have a 100-dollar shoe and a 10 cent squat?”

The bad news with Chucks is that there’s virtually no heel control or lateral stability. You shouldn’t be moving through your heel/ankle in a sagittal plane lift, but if you have instability here (and especially a history of ankle sprains) this could be a bigger deal than you realize.

Next, I moved on to a more standard squat shoe (I was always partial to the Safe brand). This was a great fit for me, personally, when back squatting. There was a bit of a heel built in, and there was definitely more heel control than the Chucks ever afforded me.

But the high top seemed to restrict dorsiflexion through my ankle, so I wasn’t a huge fan of these for front squats.

Last but not least I went through my minimalist shoe phase, but like Chuck Taylors, they don’t give me, personally, enough support.

At the end of the day, there are no black and white answers when it comes to squatting footwear. But I can at least give you a starting point, based on your needs and goals.

Here are some reasons I might recommend a flat-soled shoe for your front squats:

  • You have a history of anterior knee pain,
  • You have good mobility through the lower extremity, and/or
  • You don’t plan to participate in the sport of  Olympic lifting.

On the other hand, here are some reasons I might recommend a shoe with an elevated heel (like an Olympic lifting shoe) for your front squats:

  • You don’t have a history of anterior knee pain,
  • You have minor mobility restrictions through the lower extremity, or an anterior weight shift, and/or
  • You do plan to participate in the sport of Olympic lifting.

The bottom line is if you move well, by all means squat in something flat.

But if you need a bit of help squatting deep, Oly shoes can help get you there. All that I’d say is don’t use this as a permanent crutch. Instead, work to develop the mobility and movement capacity while simultaneously building a better squatting pattern.

Simplified Routine

In my original Squat post, I gave you a simplified routine that I used for years to build my squat.

This program was responsible for me taking my squat from 407 pounds to 530 pounds in competition, so I can tell you from experience it works.

However, the back squat program is built exclusively around sets of five. And I don’t know about you, but I hate doing front squats for anything more than a set of three.

Anything above three reps and it feels like my forearms are going to explode, so triples are the foundation of this program.

A Simple Percent-Based Front Squat Routine

Week 1: 4×[email protected]%, 3 minutes rest between sets

Week 2: 5×[email protected]%, 4 minutes rest between sets

Week 3: 2×[email protected]%, 3 minutes rest

Week 4: 3×[email protected]%, 4-5 minutes rest

And if you don’t like percentages, here’s a similar protocol using ratings of perceived exertion, or RPE’s.

A Simple RPE-Based Front Squat Routine

Week 1: 4×[email protected] 8, 3 minutes rest between sets

Week 2: 5×[email protected] 9, 4 minutes rest between sets

Week 3: 2×[email protected] 8, 3 minutes rest

Week 4: 3×[email protected] 10, 4-5 minutes rest

RPE’s would look like this:

RPE 8 = 2 reps left in the tank at the end of the set

RPE 9 = 1 rep left in the tank at the end of the set

RPE 10 = Max effort (or something really close to max effort)

Run this program back-to-back for a couple of months and I guarantee you’ll see some serious progress on your front squats!

Frequently Asked Questions

Whenever I write these posts, I invariably get a ton of questions.

And while I do my best to answer them in all of the above sections, there are always a few that slip through the cracks.

Here are the questions you might have, and if you can think of anything else, please ask them below and I’ll do my best to help!

What should stance width look like when compared to a back squat?

I get tons of questions on stance width differences between front and back squatting, so let’s address that briefly here.

To answer this, I really need to know the answer to a different question (or two) first:

#1 – Why are you front squatting? And

#2 – What’s the end-goal?

If you’re an Olympic lifter, the answer will be different than if you’re a powerlifter or athlete.

dimas-front-squatThe Olympic lifter is using the front squat to bring up his Olympic lifts. Furthermore, a lot of what he does requires him in a similar deep squat position. The goal is to get strong in that one position so you can be as successful as possible in the gym and on the competitive platform.

One of my favorite coaches, Greg Everett, talks about “the squat stance” for Olympic lifters.

Front squat, back squat, overhead squat – doesn’t matter. There’s one width and one foot placement  for all of them.

And while I don’t coach a ton of competitive Olympic lifters, this makes sense to me philosophically. Get really strong and comfortable with your feet in one position and build everything from there.

On the other hand if you’re a powerlifter and you’re using the front squat for other reasons (quad strength, anterior core strength/stability, improved mobility, etc.) the answer can be different.

Most powerlifters are going to back squat with a bit wider stance and more toe flare so they can sit back into their hips. Comparatively when going to front squat, the feet are going to be a bit narrower relative to the back squat, and you’re going to have a bit less toe flare.

At the end of the day, I’m a huge believer in comfort and biomechanics.

Find a position that puts you in a strong biomechanical position, but even more importantly, make sure you’re comfortable in your technique.

Because if you’re not comfortable and in a groove, there’s no way you’re going to maximize development.

What if anterior core strength is the limiting factor? How should you develop that?

This is a great question, and other than mobility, one of the biggest limiting factors when front squatting.

To fix this I’d suggest reading two previous articles.

Ground-Based Core Training gives you a ton of options to help build a stronger anterior core. The bottom line is too many of us live in excessive lordosis/anterior pelvic tilt, so we have to address this in our programming.

The second is what I call the Clean Volume approach. In essence, you’re going to do more work with submaximal weights, but make sure you’re dialing in perfect technique on each and every rep.

When you work on the weakness (anterior core), while simultaneously rebuilding a superior movement pattern (clean volume) you have a full-proof approach to fixing your underlying issues and setting the foundation for future strength gains.

Front Squat Motivation

Before we wrap this thing up, here’s a bit of motivation before you hit the gym.

As you can tell, there are some incredibly strong front squatters out there. Enjoy!

Fast forward to 3:00 mark

Fast forward to 0:40 mark

Summary

Front squatting isn’t easy.

Whether it’s developing the mobility necessary to do it right, working tirelessly on technique or pushing yourself in the gym, the front squat can tax you like no other lift.

But on the flip side, you also have a lift that’s virtually guaranteed to help you maintain great mobility, builds critical areas of your body, and can fast track your progress in and out of the gym.

Take the time and energy to learn how to front squat correctly. It could be one of the most valuable things you ever do in the weight room.

One final note – posts like this take an incredible amount of time to create. If you learned one thing from the post, please take a moment to share it with your friends on Facebook, tweet it out to your Twitter followers, or just e-mail it to a friend. I’d appreciate it!

Stay strong

MR

P.S. – If you need an awesome training program that’s fully customizable for you, pick up a copy of Eric Cressey’s High Performance Handbook ASAP. It’s on sale and an amazing resource!

22 Comments

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  1. Good lord Mike…this is quite an article you just put together! You don’t mess around with your “everything you need to know about…” articles. Nice work! Although I’m a little offended that you bypassed the goblet squat video that I previously made for you haha.

    I have a long cycle coming to an end next week. After that I’m going to run this front squat cycle and see what I can do! I’ll report back with results. You the man!

    • Sorry about the bypass – trying to keep everything uniform 🙂

      And definitely keep me posted on the front squat cycle. It’s always worked well for me!

  2. Mike, Mike, Mike,

    You KNOW thorough. I am going to share the heck outta this. It is a needed piece. I love the front squat and have made it a point of emphasis in the last 18 months. I have a shoulder issue (severe external rotation deficit) that makes holding the bar with straps or with the traditional grip impossible, and the “bodybuilding” grip is tough to maintain beyond 225 lbs. However, in August of 2012, I was able to get my first 1 1/2 BW (315) front squat using the BB grip.

    What I’ve found is that the SSB is my best way to go. It just feels natural, akin to a heavy goblet squat.

    Thanks for covering the topic so thoroughly and for providing this great resource.

    RS

    • Ronell –

      Thanks for the kind words! I love writing these big pieces, as I feel as though they’re a great way to give a ton of value and show what RTS is all about.

      And you should be damn proud of that front squat, that’s quite an accomplishment!

      MR

  3. Hey Mike,
    You mentioned that if you have to flare your toes out much during front squats you should get your hip internal rotation checked. I am one of these people and have had my hips examined and was told that I have terrible rotation. I do stretch my hips religiously (Franco Agile 8 and Limber 11 are great) and am able to get to parallel or below during front/back squats.
    My question is, are there any specific hip stretches I could be doing or muscles I should be focusing on to help with my hip rotation?
    Also LOVE the article! Amazing information that I have book marked and will be referring back to many times, and sending to people who ask me about exercising

    • Hi Chris, it may just be the way your hips come out of the socket. If so, trying to keep straight ahead feet is going to wreck your knees. Fellow sufferer, and 20-degree flare is just about right. The feet follow the hips, not vice versa. If you lock the foot against the ground into a degree of internal rotation that the hip cannot flex and achieve, it will not end well for your knees and ankles.

      Try this test: Stand on a towel (or slippery floor) where your feet can slide, and squat to the floor. Did your feet start straight and then externally rotate at the bottom? This means to reach terminal flexion without impingement that your hips are turning out.

      Certainly, you can try to mobilize this through internal rotation and glue med exercise, band distractions, etc., but at some point, your hips are your hips, and you must work with, not against, your bony anatomy. (Bony anatomy will win.) FWIW.

      And epic post, Mike. Comprehensive.

        • My bad, BC. Tumultuous times! I’ll shoot you an e-mail. (Must get on social media someday… (Or I could just use Mike’s blog as my “Facebook” ha ha!) Sorry, Mike! and Roy looked good tonight.

  4. Mike,

    This is an outstanding article, thanks for sharing. I have a challenge and would much appreciate any advice you’re willing to provide.

    I’m over 50 y/o and didn’t start front squatting until I was 45 or so. I’m not superman, I max out around 245lbs. I do a mix of endurance and strength so I’m happy with that weight, but here Is my challenge. I recently tore my distal bicep tendon and will undergo surgery next week. According to the doctor the recovery for this type of surgery takes around 4-6 months, so I’ll be stuck working out with one arm for a considerable period. Any suggestions on how I can maintain (to the extent possible) by front squat strength with one good arm?

    My concern is as you get older you get out of shape quicker and back in shape slower, so I’m really eager in finding ways to maintain as much conditioning as possible. Bill

  5. Hmmm….you just magically decided that Chuck Taylors were not good shoes? Hardly. If it hadn’t been for PRI, you and your buddies would still be going around spouting off about the benefits of barefoot everything. Give credit where it’s due.

  6. I am a rugby player and it is difficult for me to do body building with various injuries that is why the front squat is fantastic for me. It builds explosive power without the fear of dropping the bar. I prefer to wear squat suits.

  7. Mike,

    I’ll save you some time by distilling my response below to this: Thank you for writing this piece. This has been the most useful guide on the front squat I’ve come across on the net.

    Now, for those who care to read the details:

    The front squat is currently the only squatting movement I am able to perform right now, with the exception of light overhead squats. The reason for this has to do with an injury. I am recovering from a back injury possibly caused by improper deadlift mechanics due to ‘hypermobility’ (quoting my doctor) causing me to perform that drill incorrectly.

    At the behest of my PT, I am reacquiring the groove I had once had for performing the deadlift safely while *eliminating* the back squat completely. The back squat was a drill I had been coached in, was very strong in, but really don’t think I need. The shearing forces the lower back is subjected to make the risk higher than the reward at this point. So for a few months I couldn’t DL or squat — doctor’s orders. Those were bleak times.

    Enter the front squat – and enter the pain. My god, this movement is awesome to show off since nobody can do it at my gym, but difficult to perform. Yet I love it; it’s the one big lift I am cleared to perform, and feel safe performing while I hone my DL form. But it is tough and a lot of resources on the net are skimpy.

    Your guide is by far the best I’ve come across. I am already able to more confidently perform the lift due to the details you’ve included. In particular, I’ve found that by utilizing the ‘elbows up’ tip during the descent, that I experience no flare ups in my injured back (as I started out learning the drill I had a few troubling incidents but nothing horrible).

    Anyways, I simply wanted to voice my appreciation to you for this article. Fantastic website, as well.

    Best,
    -John

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