Ask 10 people what their opinions of front squats are, and 9 of them will tell you that they would rather sit on a parking cone decorated with broken glass than do them. That’s fair, because they are really f’in hard. From feeling like you’re going to suffocate with a bar up against your throat, to keeping your elbows up as the bar tries to roll forward and collapse you, all while squatting big weights is no easy task, but the rewards, if you’re willing to pay the price of admission, are plentiful.
Front squats will build big legs and a thick back, and even with the above struggles, are still generally easier to perform for most people than traditional back squats. With the bar on the front of the shoulders rather than behind the head, you have to keep a more upright torso, so they tend to be more low back and knee friendly and allow for a deeper squat. If you can’t keep position, then you just can’t complete the lift, so there are really no ugly reps-you either do it right, or you aren’t able to do it at all.
Having a history of knee issues (I’ve had operations on both), these feel significantly better for me than back squats, and I’ve included them in tons of programs over the years, for both athletes and everyday peeps looking to get #jacked and #tan. Here’s how to do them for maximal benefit and minimal risk:
Start by putting your arms out straight in front of you. On the top of your shoulders, you’ll feel a little divet, and thats where the bar will go, just above your front delts. I like starting people with a hands free front squat, so they get a feel for keeping the bar stable. Here’s an old school video of one of my mentors, Mike Boyle having someone perform it:
This is just a learning tool so that you understand that any lowering of the arms is going to result in the bar rolling, which is obviously going to lead to a failed lift. Get a few sets of these under your belt before proceeding.
A clean grip requires quite a bit of wrist and finger mobility. Having all 4 fingers under the bar is best, but realize that its just the fingertips under the bar, not the whole fingers, and you’re going to want them to be just outside your shoulders. Otherwise they’ll be getting crushed between the bar and your front delts. If you don’t have enough mobility to get a good clean grip, I prefer to have people use straps as opposed to the old school bodybuilder cross grip. It seems to help people keep a more stable upper body position as the weights get heavier.
- Get a big breath into your belly and brace your abs (IE: squeeze them like Mike Tyson is about to punch you in the gut), set up and get your grip, and unrack the bar forcefully. Take as few steps as necessary to clear the J hooks and get into your squat position. I like a slightly narrower stance than back squats, so about hip width with the toes pointed out slightly. This is going to be different for everyone based on a host of factors. Find what feels strong and comfortable for you!
- Breath out some, but not all the air that you took in before unracking the bar, and then get another big breath in. Brace hard and sit straight down. Think 2 things: drive your knees towards your little toes and drop your tailbone between the heels. Sitting back on a front squat is going to lead to the upper body leaning forward, and that’s a quick way to get the bar rolling forward-we need to keep ourselves vertical throughout. While descending, also think, “drive the elbows up and away from the knees.” This helps with keeping vertical as well.
- Once you get to slightly below parallel, push the ground away with everything you have, and keep driving the elbows up and together, away from the knees. Use your breath by letting it out as you get to, and through, the sticking point. At the top, squeeze your abs and ass tight so you get back to the same position as you started the first rep.
- Get another big breath in, brace, and repeat.
Front squats are one of my personal big 3’s, and I’ve worked up to a max of 290, which won’t break any internet records, but is still relatively strong. The big reason why they’re a staple in my personal programs is that they don’t beat me up like heavy back squats do, and it’s a big bang for my training buck, and that’s why I love them for my clients and athletes, too.
Give them a shot on your next lower body day and really utilize the cues and execution I laid out. They’ll be a lot more comfortable than you remember and you’ll be well on your way to building some big wheels and a cobra like back to go with it.