Both front squats and back squats are fantastic exercises for strengthening the whole lower body. Quads, hamstrings and glutes are all involved. But determining which is best for you – Front Squat versus Back Squat – can be a little complicated. All squats will help us get stronger, jump higher and run faster while shaping your legs and butt. But it is important to understand these squats better to determine which you should include in your leg day workout. Let’s evaluate the relative risks and benefits of the Front Squat versus Back Squat and take into account the pro’s and cons of each squat.
Mobility is the #1 Consideration when choosing the Front Squat versus Back Squat.
Front Squats requires significantly more mobility than Back Squats. You need excellent thoracic spine (upper back) mobility to keep your chest up, outstanding wrist flexibility and shoulder mobility to rack the bar, superb hip and groin mobility to front squat low with your knees in line with your toes, and fantastic ankle mobility to keep your lower back from rounding.
Very few women move well enough to execute a textbook Front Squat from the get-go. The positive here is that it forces you to improve your flexibility before going super heavy with a front squat. Limited mobility does not mean that you should never perform a front squat though. You should limit the weight you use until your flexibility improves.
Check out my three tips for improving your squat technique.
Back Squats require less mobility in the shoulders, hips and ankles, so you can jump into them sooner. That is good for getting stronger, but you still need to address your mobility issues.
Better Performance: Front Squat versus Back Squat
Muscles Trained: Front Squat versus Back Squat
Looking to increase your overall athletic performance? Both front squats and back squats have pros and cons when we look at improving athletic performance.
Hip Extension: Squats build tremendous strength in the muscles that extend the hip, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. These muscles provide the horsepower for sprinting and jumping. Back Squats load up the hips more than Front Squats, because you can “sit back” into them more. So if you want more powerful hips, get the bar on your back. Winner: Back Squats
Jump Power: Studies show that improving squat strength is closely linked with improvements in vertical jump height. That’s because if you can extend your hips with more force, you can propel yourself higher into the air which builds powerful legs and glutes. Studies show no clear difference in jump improvements between Back Squats and Front Squats. Winner: Tie
Sprint Speed: Studies also show that squatting more weight can lead to improvements in sprinting speed. Simply, the more force you can apply to the ground, the faster you can move. But just like jumping, both lifts work. Winner: Tie
Overall Strength: Back Squats let you lift more weight than Front Squats, period. Front Squats are limited by how much weight you can hold on the front of your shoulders. Back Squats let you support much heavier loads across your upper back. There’s a reason why the world record in the Back Squat is over 1,000 pounds; it’s better suited for massive weights. And with more weight comes greater potential for strength gains. Winner: Back Squats
Shoulder Health: Many athletes deal with cranky shoulders that can get irritated by Back Squats. Luckily, Front Squats avoid that pain by placing the shoulders and elbows in a safer position. If you struggle with shoulder issues, Front Squat with a clean grip or cross grip for greater safety. Winner: Front Squats
Knee Health: Controlling the movements of the knee is crucial for reducing injuries such as ACL and meniscus tears. Squats can help limit the likelihood of knee injuries by strengthening the muscles that stabilize the knee, specifically the vastus medialis oblique (i.e., your inner quad). Front Squats hit this muscle a bit harder than Back Squats, plus they teach you how to push your knees “out” to avoid the dreaded knock-kneed valgus collapse, which mimics the exact mechanism for an ACL tear. That said, sometimes the deep knee flexion of Front Squats can bug an athlete’s knee, and Back Squats (particularly Box Squats or squatting with a wider stance) can avoid this nuisance by placing more load on the hips than the knees. Winner: Tie
Cleans and Snatches: The most glaring difference between Front Squats and Back Squats is the carryover to Olympic lifts, the Clean and the Snatch. Back Squats let you lift more weight, but the execution of the Front Squat closely mimics the motion of rising from the bottom position after catching a Clean or Snatch. Olympic lifts are widely respected for their ability to improve explosiveness, so if you want to get better at the Clean and Snatch, Front Squats work better. Winner: Front Squats
Front Squats and Back Squats train different muscles in different ways because the placement of the bar causes slight changes in motion of the spine, hips, knees and ankles.
The Front Squat benefits more of the quads and upper back, while the Back Squat benefits more of the hips, glutes and lower back. Both lifts recruit all these muscles together, but the emphasis shifts from one lift to the other.
That said, for a well rounded, athletic body that is strong and performs well, you want a balance of development. Don’t just focus on one muscle group while neglecting others.
Best of Both Worlds: Front Squat versus Back Squat
We really can’t determine a winner when looking at back squat versus front squats. If you can do each movement safely, you will be able to reap the back squat benefits as well as the front squat benefits in most women’s weight training programs.
HOW TO DO A FRONT SQUAT – PROPER FRONT SQUAT FORM
When performing a front squat, begin by setting up a barbell on a squat rack. The rack should be about an inch below your clavicles. This will allow you to easily unrack and rack the barbell as you begin and finish your front squat. Hand position is critical for the front squat. Wrap your fingers lightly around the bar, do not squeeze too tightly. Step forward toward the bar and bring your elbows upward as you create a shelf across your clavicles and front delts. Be sure you do not allow your elbows to drop, this is a similar arm position to a power clean or a clean grip. The barbell will sit nicely at this front position for the front squat. Throughout the movement, keep your elbows shoulder width apart and lifted high. Do not allow your back to arch significantly or to round forward for proper front squat form.
With the front squat, your feet should be about shoulder width apart, toes slightly turned out and the majority of your weight should be pressing through your heels. Stabilize your core and then begin to lower yourself to the bottom position of the front squat, keeping your chest up, with an upright torso, knees pressing slightly outward and don’t allow your elbows to drop as you sit back into the squat position. At the optimal depth there will be a 90 degree bend at your hips and knees and your quads will be parallel to the floor. As you return to the top of the front squat, maintain a tight core, keep your chest up and knees pressing gently outward. Drive through your heels keeping the toes light.
**Julie’s tip – If you have elbow, shoulder or wrist flexibility limitations, you can perform the front squat with the barbell still at your clavicle but with your hands crossed over the top of the bar and fingers lightly gripping from the top. If you choose to cross your arms be sure to maintain the barbell at chest height and don’t allow your elbows to drop lower than the front of your shoulders. You can also switch to a goblet squat or another squat variation that keeps a weight at your chest without applying pressure through your spine.
HOW TO DO A BACK SQUAT – PROPER BACK SQUAT FORM
When performing a BACK squat, begin by setting up a barbell on a squat rack. The rack should be about an inch below your shoulder height. This will allow you to easily unrack and rack the barbell as you begin and finish your front squat. Hand position is critical for the front squat. Wrap your fingers lightly around the bar, do not squeeze too tightly. Step forward toward the bar, ducking underneath and allowing the bar to rest across your traps. In the back squat, your arms will remain on the bar, out to the sides about 6-8 inches from your ears. With the back squat do not allow your back to arch significantly or to round forward for proper back squat form.
With the back squat, your feet should be about shoulder width apart, toes slightly turned out and the majority of your weight should be pressing through your heels. Stabilize your core and then begin to lower yourself to the bottom position of the front squat, keeping your chest up, knees pressing slightly outward as you sit back into the back squat. The optimal depth for a back squat is slightly below parallel. As you return to the top of the front squat, maintain a tight core, keep your chest up and knees pressing gently outward. Drive through your heels keeping the toes light.
**Julie’s tip – If you have trouble knowing how far to sit i the back squat, use a bench that is about your knee height to act as a guide. When you glutes barely reach the bench, you will know you have reached full back squat depth and you can press back up to the top.