Brothers Fight: Front Squats vs. Back Squats

The barbell back squat is treated like the emperor of the iron world. Many popular routines are engineered to flatter the king’s ego. Monday: Squat. Wednesday: Squat. Friday: Squat. Trying to convince a die-hard fan that the squat is just an exercise is more difficult than making a banker donate money. According to the doctrine of the back squat, you have the right to do all the sins in the world as long as your squat numbers are strong.

Add biscuits to the bar! 

One of the main reasons why the back squat is considered the king is the opportunity to lift a lot of weight in an impressive fashion. The position of the bar makes it easier to support the weight in comparison to the front squat and activates the strong posterior chain to a larger degree.

Many powerlifters perform low bar squats – a variation of the back squat that allows you to lift even more weight. The low bar squat shifts the stress towards the hamstrings and glutes even further, and as a result, most people can squat 10-20% more thanks to the low bar position. Conversely, the front squat uses less of your posterior chain and usually amounts 70% of your back squat.


The Back Squat – Hate It or Love it

A proper back squat is one of the best exercises ever, but it can quickly turn into a nightmare for your spine, knees, hips and even shoulders when ego, macho nonsense, impatience, lack of information and bad programming take over the wheel.

The only way to find out whether back squats are your thing is to give them a fair run. It takes a while to learn how to squat with good form, but once you get it – it’s the easiest thing ever. As Bruce Lee‘s famous quote says:

“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”
— Bruce Lee

Unfortunately, not every squat story has a good ending. Individuals who are not built to squat upright (long femurs, short torso) will have hip dominant squats. If that’s the case, you may fail to experience the awesomeness that people talk about because your glutes will grow more than your legs. To minimize this effect, it’s better to stick with high bar back squats and/or front squats. In addition, you may even consider doing leg presses for extra leg work.

The Underdog

Front squats are as rare as real tits on an Instagram model. Yet it’s still a great movement that will build your quads, glutes, upper back and core. The hamstrings won’t receive as much stimulation, but that could be easily countered with deadlifts.

The front squat comes with many specifics that most people are not aware of. Here’s a short list:

– Barbell front squats do not tolerate high reps because holding the bar in the rack position is very uncomfortable. It’s better to do multiple sets of 3-5 reps. If you are doing front squats with kettlebells, dumbbells or a harness, you can get away with high rep work.

– The clean grip gives you the most control, but it also requires the highest level of flexibility. If you can’t hold the bar, you can use straps as described here.

– You can benefit a lot from wrapping your wrists when doing front squats. Don’t worry, it’s not cheating.

– Your upper back has to work very hard to support the bar in front of you. Consequently, the front squat represents a very effective way to build the upper portion of the spinal erectors.

The main advantage of the front squat over the back squat is that it keeps you honest. Cheating is still possible, but it’s harder. You can’t turn the exercise into a cheated good morning because you will either drop the bar or strain your wrists.

Summary & Additional Notes

– The front squat and the back squat are two brothers. Outside of a specific context, there isn’t a clear winner.

– The back squat is a fine exercise that allows you to lift a lot of weight, but unless you have short legs and long torso, you may need to add leg presses and/or front squats to acquire a balanced lower body development. Low bar squats are a poor quad builder.

– The front squat is less likely to hurt your back because you are more upright.

– Out of the two, the back squat feels more comfortable because the bar isn’t crushing your throat. It’s resting on your traps, and that’s a pretty good place for a heavy bar.

– The back squat places less stress on the knees than the front squat. However, this advantage could be negated if you are using too much weight and perform high squats.

– The front squat does not work the hamstrings as much. A combination of deadlifts and front squats calls for a healthy and balanced leg development.

2 comments

  1. ian

    Hi there,
    Great advice, is doing back squats and Romanian deadlifts in the same session too much for the hamstrings.
    Thanks.

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