Troubleshooting the Front Squat
Since writing Front Squats Made Easier, I’ve received questions from lifters having difficulty with the exercise. It’s not surprising – front squats are damn hard, and there are bound to be some growing pains, literally and figuratively.
In this article, I’ll address some of the finer points and common issues I see, and show you how to fix them.
With no further ado, let’s pimp your front squat!
Sounds like you’re doing it right. The bar should be touching your throat. Now, literally getting choked to the point that you can’t breathe is obviously a problem, but most of the time it’s just mild discomfort.
I’d just stay the course. You’ll get used to it.
This is a common complaint, and one that I can relate to. I’m going to assume you’re using a clean grip because that’s the usual offender. If that’s the case, the simplest fix is to switch to the strap method or even the cross-armed “bodybuilder grip.” That should take care of the problem right away. Consider it a Band Aid.
If you’re intent on the learning the clean grip – which is extremely important if you’re going to be doing any Olympic lifting – or want to fix whatever is causing the pain, then that’s a different story.
Keep in mind that the ability to get into a good rack position isn’t just a matter of wrist flexibility. It also requires good shoulder mobility, thoracic mobility, and flexibility in your lats and triceps, so you’ll want to hammer those things as well.
When you work your way back into the clean grip, you don’t need all your fingers wrapped around the bar; just two will suffice, the index and middle fingers. This helps many lifters with limited wrist flexibility use the clean grip effectively.
In the interim, don’t try to force it. That’s just asking for trouble. Stick with the strap method until you can use the clean grip pain-free.
Dude. Do not use the bar pad (a.k.a. the Maxi-Pad, the tampon) unless you’re ready to turn in your man card and add the Oprah network to your cable package.
You probably aren’t keeping your elbows up as much as you should, which is causing the bar to slide down onto your collarbone. Ideally, the weight should be resting in a nice groove on the anterior deltoids. Try working in some hands-free front squats to help reinforce proper bar position.
This is the biggest complaint I hear regarding front squats – they are uncomfortable on the shoulders. I’ve searched long and hard for a good remedy and polled numerous strength coaches, and after it all, I’m left with only one conclusion.
Just man the frick up.
The one caveat is someone with an AC joint injury. Direct pressure will really aggravate it, so unless you access to a safety squat bar, choose a different exercise.
The key difference here is pain versus discomfort.
Discomfort = Suck it up, Buttercup.
“Easy” is a relative term. Sure, front squats will typically be easier on the lower back than a back squat, but I still wouldn’t call loading 300+ pounds on your shoulders low-back friendly. Friendlier, maybe.
That said, low back pain during front squats is often a result of either going too heavy too soon or squatting too low. The solution to the first issue is clear; lighten the load, master the form, and only progress as long as your form stays tight.
The second issue isn’t so cut-and-dried because I don’t believe that everyone should necessarily squat to the same depth. There are many “ass to grass” zealots that believe if you aren’t leaving butt sweat on the floor you’re somehow cheating.
On the other side, you have those that think that no one should ever go a smidgen below parallel under any circumstance.
I’m somewhere in the middle. I think you should only squat as low as your body structure and flexibility will allow before your pelvis tucks under and your lumbar spine begins to round.
That point will be different for everyone. Some lifters are just built to squat and will be able to go pretty darn low without issue. Others will struggle to make it even to parallel with significant lumbar flexion. In this case, forcing them into a deep squat – especially under heavy loads – is just asking for back trouble.
Find the place where you lose neutral spine and stop there. If it’s rock bottom, so be it. If it’s higher than that, who cares? You may have to deal with some ribbing from the YouTube form police (who interestingly never have videos of themselves), but I’d much rather deal with that then deal with back pain.
Most people, however, should be able to front squat to the point where the top of the thigh is at least parallel to the floor (it’s easier to get low in a front squat). If you can’t get that low, take it as a sign you seriously need to improve your hip, ankle, and/or thoracic mobility.
If you’re over an inch above parallel, I might even recommend canning front squatting all-together for the time being and use single-leg work to get a training stimulus for your legs while you work to develop sufficient mobility to squat safely.
As for using a belt, I’m fine with it in certain situations, but it definitely won’t protect you against crappy form. I also think they’re often misused and abused. The belt shouldn’t be seen as a crutch, but rather as insurance for stronger lifters on near maximal attempts.
As such, I wouldn’t worry about using one until you can front squat at least 1.5 times your bodyweight, and even then, I’d only use it on attempts over 90% of your 1RM.
Don’t be that guy that leaves it on for the whole workout.
It may turn out that front squats are just not for you, but before you rule them out, first check to make sure your form is up to par.
Deep squatting is often thought to cause knee pain, but I’m more concerned about the lower back during deep squats than I am about the knees. Knee pain is more often a result of valgus collapse (knees caving in) and improper sequencing. Let me explain.
Valgus collapse. Ideally, the knees should track over the middle of the foot. If you find them caving inward, it’s a sign your glutes aren’t engaged. The solution may simply be cueing to “push the knees out” or “spread the floor.” If that isn’t enough, try putting a small band around both legs directly below the knees and concentrate on keeping the band pushed out as you squat.
Improper sequencing. Front squats are deceiving because while it’s a primarily knee-dominant movement pattern, you still want to initiate the movement from the hips first and push your butt back before breaking from the knees.
It’s an almost simultaneous hip/knee break, but it’s important that it happens in that order: first back, and then down. Breaking from the knees first will create excessive sheer forces on the knee – not good.
To help ingrain the idea of sitting back, it may be helpful to put a box behind you for a little while. This isn’t your typical box squat where you try to keep a vertical tibia and pause on the box. Your form should mirror a regular front squat and the box just there as a reminder to initiate the movement from the hips.
Set the box up so that one corner is between your legs with your feet on either side. Something about having your calves in close contact with the sides of the box at the start of the movement seems to encourage pushing your knees out, and there’s big incentive to push the hips back so you don’t sit down on the corner – ouch!
Another factor to examine when it comes to knee pain is footwear. To assist in staying upright, lifters will often elevate their heels while front squatting, either with specific weightlifting shoes or by using a heel wedge. While I think this is fine for most, it may be prudent for folks with knee pain to wear a flat-soled shoe or go barefoot to help keep the weight on the heels and prevent the knees from traveling forward as much.
If you’re still experiencing knee pain after trying these suggestions, it’s probably time to cut your losses and go in a different direction. Sorry, no exercise is for everyone.
Of course, the best way to get better at front squatting is to front squat. However, that’s certainly not to say other exercises won’t help.
Single-leg work can help tremendously by strengthening the quads, glutes, and hip rotators, thereby improving stability and preventing valgus collapse, as well as evening out any imbalances between legs. For even greater carryover, try doing exercises like rear-foot elevated split squats and lunges with a front squat grip to increase core strength and practice holding the bar.
For some, the ability to hold the bar will often be the biggest limiting factor, not the legs. If this is you, then you’d better spend time working on your lats (think pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, etc.), upper back (think rows, face pulls, etc.) and core stability (rollouts, Paloff presses, etc.) or all the leg work in the world will be for naught.
You may also want to incorporate some front squat iso holds where you walk out a heavy weight and hold it for a prescribed time, say 20 seconds. This will smoke your upper back and anterior core in a manner specific to the front squat and help you get acclimated to heavy loads, so you won’t feel intimidated by the weight. I call this the “oh shit!” factor. If you’ve ever lifted heavy then you know exactly what I mean.
If you have access to a giant cambered bar, that’s another great way to improve your ability to support the weight while still getting some good leg work in.
I tried these on Eric Cressey’s recommendation and they’re definitely tough. You won’t be able to handle as much weight as you could with a barbell, but when you go back to the barbell it’ll feel like nothing. I typically won’t go over 5-6 reps when doing front squats because the upper back fatigues much faster than the legs, but when using this bar I go a bit higher because my main goal is working the upper back anyway.
It should also be mentioned that the front squat is actually a good assistance exercise in its own right, especially for the deadlift and the Olympic back squat.
You’re clearly a pretty strong guy and have put your time in, so you may just need some variety in your programming and/or exercise selection. This could mean dropping front squats for a month or so and trying something entirely different (not a bad idea), or it might mean just doing a different variation of the front squat to provide a slightly different stimulus while still keeping the same basic movement pattern. Since this article is about front squatting, I’ll go with that.
There are tons of different variations you could try, but I’d start with paused reps first because they’re relatively simple and give you a tremendous bang for your buck for both strength and muscle gains.
Now, not all paused reps are created equal, and which method you chose will depend on your goals.
Using a brief 1-2 second pause at the bottom of every rep is a great place to start. Everything else remains the same as a regular front squat. It’s important to maintain core rigidity in the hole to keep from falling forward, and you’ll need to pay special attention to keeping the knees pushed out as you transition from the eccentric to concentric as they’ll have a tendency to collapse inward if you’re not careful.
This is how I do the majority of my own training because the short pause serves as a great way to the keep my form in check, which is crucial for staying healthy over the long haul.
It forces you to control the eccentric portion to the rep (no dive-bombing) and keeps you from bouncing out of the hole, which can be potentially injurious to the knees if done in excess.
Furthermore, it’s harder, so you aren’t able to handle as much weight. If you have a history of back pain, less weight is a good thing because it equals less spinal loading. I’m always looking for ways to get more out of less.
More time in the bottom position also means more time developing hip mobility. Think of it almost like a weighted squat stretch.
If you want to focus more on your starting strength coming out of the hole, you could increase the length of the pause to 3-4 seconds. I highly recommend using the pins if you decide to go this route to take pressure off the knees. A brief pause may actually help the knees feel better, but anything over two seconds can become problematic.
The longer pause will dampen the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) so you’re forced to do more work to overcome inertia coming out of the hole.
The rationale here is very similar to why a powerlifter might chose to do a paused box squat, but I don’t find box squatting works as well with front squats because it encourages an increased forward torso lean, which can make it difficult to hold the bar.
Although thousands of powerlifters have box squatted successfully without injury, the compressive forces that come from wedging your spine in between the bar and the box could be problematic for some. Pausing on the pins eliminates this scenario while still allowing for the removal of the SSC, which makes this variation appealing to those with back issues.
Note that this is not an Anderson squat. Normally I couldn’t care less what an exercise is called, but in this case I think it’s an important distinction. An Anderson squat is a version of a paused squat, but it’s done starting “bottoms-up” as opposed to “top-down.”
The dynamics of the lift change considerably when you get rid of the eccentric preload. Suddenly your core is forced to fire in a new way and you must explode off the pins to get the bar moving. Consider it the squatting equivalent of the deadlift.
One potential issue is that unless you’re Paul Anderson and do them standing in a hole or have absolutely freaky flexibility, it can be nearly impossible to get into a rock bottom starting position.
Thus, if you were trying to work on your strength from the deep position, I’d recommend starting from the top down. Otherwise, for every other sticking point, use Anderson squats. I recommend doing these as singles and literally stepping away from the bar and resetting on each rep to really get the full effect.
For a whole new level of awesomeness, make like Paul and do them with two hot chicks sitting on the plates.
Get really strong on front squats and you’ll have the diesel quads you desire. Ever seen Olympic lifters? I rest my case.
If your joints can’t tolerate all that heavy loading day in and day out, all hope’s not lost. You can also try taking a lighter weight and doing piston-like continuous reps without locking out at the top. This will keep constant tension on the quads and ensure that you’ll be hating life for the entire duration of the set. It won’t take much weight at all for these to suck, badly.
You’ll probably be cussing me out after your first set of these, but remember, you asked for it.
The good news? Hopefully this article has given you some ideas about how to fix some of the problems you’ve been having with front squatting.
The bad news? Now you have no excuse not to do them. Get to it!