Category Archives: Front Squat vs. Back Squat

Squats for Those Who Can’t Squat



Here’s what you need to know…

• Squats may be the king of exercises, but many lifters can’t perform them safely or effectively.
• You don’t need to squat ass-to-grass.
• Switching to front squats, controlling stance and depth, and sticking to moderate rep ranges are just some on the ways to improve the safety and efficacy of squats.

Squats are one of my absolute favorite exercises. Unfortunately, as much as I love squats, my knees and back don’t. If I’m not careful they can really do a number on me. I could nix squats altogether in favor of more single-leg work, but squats are too valuable to ditch entirely, plus I just enjoy doing them.
If you have a similar love-hate relationship with squats, here are some ways to make the lift more user-friendly.

1. Switch to Front Squats

Most lifters who train for general strength and physique goals are better off doing front squats than back squats. For starters, it’s easier to squat to an appropriate depth with front squats than back squats, so more people can do it well.
Moreover, front squats are a lot easier on the body. You’re forced to keep a more upright posture and there’s a built-in safety mechanism that prohibits you from breaking form too much – you’ll dump the bar before it’s able to get too ugly. You’re also using less weight, and any time you can get a comparable training effect with lighter loads, you’re doing your body a favor in the long run.
Lastly, front squats do a better job of targeting the quads, which is why most people squat to begin with. Unless you have a good “squatters build” (i.e., short and stocky), back squats generally end up looking like a good morning and in turn target the posterior chain to a greater degree.
The biggest knock with front squats is that it can be difficult at first to hold the bar, especially if you don’t have the flexibility to use a clean grip. If that’s the case, try using straps or the cross-arm grip and you should be all set.

2. Shoot for About Parallel

Front SquatAim to squat to parallel or maybe slightly below. For most lifters this means you need to squat deeper because most people squat abysmally high. Quarter squats are just an ego exercise; they allow you to handle more weight than you deserve to be lifting. Any time you mix ego and heavy-ass weights, bad things happen.
Some bodybuilders argue that quarter squats are better for targeting the quads, but usually that’s their way of trying to justify squatting high because they don’t have the mobility to squat deep. There’s research supporting the idea that full squats are better than partial squats for leg development, and if you need empiric evidence, just watch footage of guys sporting the hugest quads on the planet squat – Ronnie Coleman, Tom Platz, Olympic lifters, etc. They all get down there.
That said, there’s such a thing as “too low,” especially for those with lower back and knee issues. It’s cool on the internet to preach rock bottom or ass-to-grass squats, but going to that extreme range can be problematic for those with prior knee issues. The last few inches from parallel to rock bottom is where the pelvis tucks under for most lifters, putting the lower back at risk.
I used to squat rock bottom, so I’m not just some guy bashing something I can’t do. I’ve recently switched to at or just below parallel for my heavy work and my joints feel much better for it.
You’re also not giving up much from a muscle-building and performance standpoint by going to just under parallel as opposed to rock bottom. Of course, this is largely a moot point since most people fall in the high squatting camp, but it’s worth mentioning for the few “ass to ankles” squatters out there.

3. Control the Eccentric

When people talk about squats and knee pain, it’s usually the knees coming over the toes. I’m not too concerned with the knees coming over the toes – provided it’s not excessive – but I’m a lot more concerned with dive-bombing the eccentric and bouncing out of the bottom. One study showed that bouncing increases shear force on the knee by 33%, which jibes with my experience.
For folks with knee issues, I highly recommend controlling the eccentric portion of the squat rather than dive bombing to prevent bouncing. You don’t necessarily have to pause in the bottom position, but I suggest it. This will also ensure that you’re relying on the muscles to lift the weight rather than using momentum.

4. Get Wider

Some people advocate a really wide stance squat where you break at the hips and push your butt back while trying to keep the shins as vertical as possible. This will indeed take stress off the knees, but it’ll also puts more stress on the lower back, and it also makes for a shitty quad stimulus.
Others advocate a really close stance squat with an upright torso to smoke the quads and take stress off the lower back, but this forces you into a knee-break squat where the knees shoot forward excessively. I’m not worried if the knees come out over the toes to some extent, but a pure knee break squat is a bad idea for long-term knee health.
Instead, I recommend taking a moderate stance just outside shoulder-width and breaking from both the hips and knees at the same time. This will allow for a good torso position and still smoke the quads without putting quite so much stress on the knees. Personally, just moving my stance out a few inches has made a world of difference for my knees.

5. Squat to a Box or Pins

Box SquatThe primary reason for squatting to a box or the pins in a safety rack is to serve as a depth gauge. For high squatters, it forces you to go all the way down. For ass-to-grass squatters, it stops you from going too low. Squatting to a box or pins also encourages you to control the eccentric so you aren’t bouncing your ass off the box or bouncing the bar off the pins.
Whether you use a box or pins is largely a matter of personal preference and what you have available. Both work well, but remember that if you’re using a box, you’re just using it as a depth gauge, not rocking back onto the box like you would for a powerlifting-type box squat.

6. Use Chains

Chains are typically thought of as a powerlifting tool to help overload the lockout, but they’re also a great way to take some stress off the lower back and knees in the bottom position while still allowing you to move big weights.

7. Stick to Moderate Reps

Those with joint issues will do best spending the majority of their training time in the 6-12 rep range. Going much below that is flirting with danger, and doing super high reps can often lead to some gnarly form breakdown.
The good news is that 6-12 range is great for hypertrophy, so it’s not like you’re resigning yourself to a lifetime of being a skinny little bitch. Getting strong in moderate rep ranges is the best way to get jacked.

8. Squat at the End of the Workout

Squatting at the end of the workout ensures you’re sufficiently warmed up, and it also means you’ll have to lighten the load, which takes stress off the joints and makes it easier to maintain good form.
Most of the time with heavy front squats, the limiting factor is how much weight you can hold, not how much weight your legs can handle. With heavy back squats, the lower back is often the limiting factor, not the legs. If you pre-exhaust the legs prior to squatting, the legs become the limiting factor, which is what you want.

The Ultimate User-Friendly Squat?

Putting it altogether, my favorite user-friendly squat variation is the chain front squat to a box.
As a reference point, I’m using a 12-inch box, which puts me right around parallel. Taller lifters may be able to get away with using a slightly higher box, but don’t get carried away and start rationalizing that your 18-inch box puts you at parallel, because unless your name is Shaq or Dwight Howard, it probably doesn’t.
If you’re gym doesn’t have low enough boxes, you can also do chain front squats to the pins, like so:
The key here is to control the eccentric to avoid bouncing the bar off the pins, so think about resting it on the pins as quietly as possible.
Of course, if you don’t have chains, you can also just use straight weight. In that case I like to bump the rep range up a bit because I find my knees tolerate it better.
Now contrast that to how I used to squat with a closer stance while going all the way down. I no longer advocate that most squat this deep, especially if you have knee issues. If you turn the volume up on your computer and listen closely, you can actually hear my knees cracking!
I’m no doctor, but common sense tells me that can’t be good long term, even if it doesn’t cause pain in the short term.

Closing Thoughts

You don’t necessarily have to apply all the tips here. For example, if you prefer back squats to front squats, that’s fine. Same goes if you prefer free squats to squatting to a box or pins. Putting some of these tips into practice though will definitely help your squatting in the long run.

Works Cited

Ariel, B.G. Biomechanical analysis of the knee joint during deep knee bends with heavy loads. In: Biomechanics IV, R. Nelson and C. Morehouse (Eds.). Baltimore: University Park Press, 1974, pp. 44-52.

6 Truths About Squats

6 Truths About SquatsSquats are the ultimate test of total body strength and mental toughness and one lift that every strength athlete worth his salt takes very seriously.
However, being the big iconic movement that it is, it’s not surprising that there are 50 schools of thought on what exactly a good squat is and what isn’t.
I’ve always found strength and conditioning research fascinating, but some lifters let studies and research go beyond just an opinion with support and let them become indoctrinated dogmas in which there’s suddenly no other way of thinking.
This type of narrow mindedness leads to glorifying the minutiae in our field, not to mention a whole lot of failing to see the forest for all the damn trees. This article intends to break that trend and kick all the squatting dogma to the curb.

1. The Truth about High Bar vs. Low Bar

High bar squatting versus low bar squatting is a frequent point of contention. The few inches of difference between the two styles can significantly affect the geometry of your squat.
A high bar position (where the bar rests high on the upper traps) facilitates a more vertical torso, since the body doesn’t have to accommodate for the bar being too far behind the center of gravity by leaning forward at the waist.
As long as you’re mobile enough, having a vertical torso can have a huge impact on the depth you achieve in the bottom end range of your squat, .
Of course, if you’re looking to compete in the Olympic lifts and need that position ingrained to perfect your mobility for your first pull, then certainly train it.
I myself prefer not to load any barbell whatsoever on my cervical vertebrae (in the high bar position). I think the benefits of doing so come with enough disadvantages to make me skeptical of the overall need for it. I’d rather use other squat variations if bottom end range is the goal. 
Take home point: 

2. The Truth about Hinging

When people refer to “hinging” as it relates to squats, they’re referring to the initial “break” coming from changing the hip angle when they begin the movement. Many people will signify a proper hinge pattern by “spreading the floor” and pushing the butt back, possibly coupled with a notable forward pelvic tilt. This does a few things:

  • Allows ideal amounts of pressure to be placed on the back of the foot (the heel).
  • Encourages the low back to remain tight and not lose its arch, especially not too early.
  • Makes the posterior chain much more active.

A little more on that last point. When the pelvis tilts forward to create the hinge at the hip, the ischial tuberosities travel upwards, which pulls the hamstrings much longer and tighter. The added tension in the hamstrings acts to facilitate their activity much more.
One of my favorite coaches, Mark Rippetoe, uses this to his lifters’ advantage when squatting, since a pair of taut hamstrings will usually be coupled with a much smaller hip angle, potentiating much more hip drive to finish the lift. Check out a prime example below:

Here’s my take. If you want to work your posterior chain more, you’re going to have to apply tension to the right muscles so they’re highly active for a greater portion of the lift.
Hip hinging will activate the posterior chain more, and as a result of the hip hinge, the lowest possible back squat depth will be compensated due to the differences in geometry. And that’s fine, if depth isn’t what you’re after in particular.
Using a knee break to start the descent, Poliquin style, will encourage more quad activation since the knee gets to flex to a smaller angle and migrate differently. In his style, the torso also stays more vertical due to further forward tracking of the knees, and also due to the bar’s placement on the back. If depth and ROM are your goals, you can prepare for a deeper squat by using this style:

I’ve practiced both methods of hinging and prefer to break at the knees first. I find that if I don’t, my 6’4″ frame won’t get down nearly enough for me to comfortably deem it a “back squat” at all.
Below is a video of a heavy set. As you can see, my stance isn’t the widest (more on that later), but I do use the knees to break and track to get my most effective squat. There’s more lean forward than a high-bar squat encourages, and that’s because I still use a lower bar position – but that’s what works for me.

Take home point: 

3. The Truth about Foot Width and Muscle Recruitment

According to Stu McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, squatting foot width is more sensitive to depth and ROM than meets the eye. Most people consider an excessively narrow  wide width to take away from depth, and this is true in many cases.
However, as McGill mentions, we have to consider skeletal anatomy. The hip socket (acetabulum) isn’t located in exactly the same place on everyone’s pelvic girdle. For people whose sockets are placed more toward the front of the pelvis, they’d likely achieve more success deep squatting if they use a narrower stance to mimic their build.
There will be less resistance in the ball-and-socket joint since the femoral head will not be placed in an angled position in the acetabulum as the squat progresses.
To figure out what would be best for you, take this test:
6 Truths About Squats6 Truths About SquatsStart with your back mildly arched and knee angle at 90 degrees. Use your arms to “push” your butt towards your heels – it should look like you’re doing a sideways squat. Take note of what point in your “depth” your pelvis turns under and the low back begins to round.
Repeat the test with a different knee and foot width, narrower and wider. Whatever width promotes the deepest flat-back position is your money-maker, so use that same width when standing in your squat. As a bonus, you’ll likely feel less hip issues from squatting, especially if you squat often.
The cool part about all this is – depending on what width you use and what width is “correct” for your build – you may end up recruiting different muscles through your ROM.
A narrower stance deep squat keeps the hips closed and really curtails involvement of the inner thigh muscles, thereby doubling down on the quads. A wider stance squat on the other hand can activate more glute and hamstring tissue, along with the adductors doing their share to contribute.
Take home point: 

4. The Truth about the Hip Flexors

People always talk about lengthening and mobilizing the hips to assume a better depth. That’s all good and very valid, but people don’t talk about the importance of hip flexor strength relating to the stability of a bottom-range squat.
The hip flexors, in part, are made up of the iliacus, which is the common “go-to” when referring to the hip flexors group. These muscles flex the hip to an angle of roughly 90 degrees. Basically, anyone can train the iliacus muscles, directly or indirectly, through any weight training quad dominant exercise, even jogging.
The hip flexors to look at more closely are the psoas muscles. These bad boys flex the hip to an anglesmaller than 90 degrees. Translate that to a squat, and strong, responsive psoas muscles can actually helppull the lifter down into a deeper and more solid squat position far below parallel.
Of course, there are few exercises that target the psoas muscles directly, but if you’ve got any shreds of athleticism I’d recommend one thing: .
There are few other exercises or movements that accentuate a high-knee concentric action like sprinting, so it’s the easiest way to make the psoas muscles wake up from hibernation. Plus, it’ll get you lean and mean!
Take home point: and

5. The Truth about Tempo

In the previous videos, you’re given different examples of tempo to use when back squatting. My squats and the squats by the athlete in the Rippetoe video use a moderate-speed negative, and an inclusion of the stretch reflex to get out of the hole.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Without getting into the different styles of squatting (like dead-stop box squatting or paused reps), it’s very important that you maintain your muscular tightness at all times when squatting, so load stress doesn’t get shifted to the ligaments. That includes abdominal pressure through the bottom phase too.
You’ll notice that by using a slower, more controlled negative, your stretch reflex will be slightly inhibited and you’ll also spend more time under tension, limiting the amount of weight you can ultimately perform for the same number of reps. The good thing about this method is that it allows the strongest muscle fibers to get trained.
Take home point: 

6. The Truth about Heels Elevated

Elevating the heels is usually done to ensure the full foot remains in pressure on the ground, and also to make up for any lack of depth from a flat footed position. Many view it as a “shortcut” in light of poor flexibility, but we have to remember that weightlifting shoes also perform the same function.
Taking a step back and looking at this objectively, if we want to have the deepest squat depth we can, as soon as possible, and elevating the heels was the way to achieve that, why wouldn’t we?
Elevated heels will change the pelvic angle and encourage the knees to track forward over the toes. This, as I mentioned earlier, will encourage much more quad involvement, depending on the depth you reach. Poliquin also uses heels-elevated squats as a way to tap into the strength of the quads, especially the rectus femoris and VMO, to specifically hypertrophy them.
I say to treat elevating your heels as an option, not only a solution. Work to achieve the ROM and mobility necessary to get as close to a full range squat as possible without anything under the heels. If you need to use heel lifts, use them, but do your accessory work on the side so that the end goal is you squatting without them.
Take home point: 

You Down With This?

6 Truths About SquatsIt’s just common sense. There isn’t a “best method” to do things – it all depends on your build and what you’re after in the weight room. Remembering this will help you keep your headspace open when it comes to the most universally revered (and criticized) exercise in the gym.

The Front Squat/Back Squat Debate: Part 1

The Front Squat/Back Squat Debate: Part 1

Jim Reeves

Leave it to Mike Boyle to get people’s juices flowing. It’s not enough for him to come out and confront the industry with the stance that strongman and power lifting techniques do not make for great sports performance training options. Or that running athletes have a real disconnect with their sport and injury patterns. Next, the guy blows the top off the sports training world saying that he’s taking all squats entirely out of his programming. Shocking statements at the time for some, but not without merit for Mike. His “Death of Squatting” stance certainly caused quite an uproar and has obviously progressed in the time since as Mike continues to search for the most effective way to train his athletes.
On, a discussion developed about the safety of performing double leg loading exercises and Mike Boyle was very front and center in his belief that front squats are a safer option than back squats. As the discussion progressed, many points were raised to support the performance of both lifts by other contributors and the discussion really morphed into a debate over which lift was better to incorporate into a strength training program.
There were passionate contributions on both sides of the debate and it really struck me that the issue of choosing back versus front squats within a program was a confusing collection of thoughts coming from a number of different directions. The issue had many people with distinct perspectives bringing their opinion into the discussion and that this was part of the problem in and of itself.
So to clarify the issue as well as streamline the debate to a very narrow and purposeful focus I decided to put together a couple of articles which looked at double leg loading within a strength training program and give the reader my perspective on how I have come to the decision of safely loading the athletes in the facility where I work.
Before we look about the squat itself, I think it is important to define what correct technique parameters I evaluate the motion. These parameters, regardless of the bar loading position are:
• Maintenance of leg and foot alignment (prevent valgus position at knees, maintaining a neutral/non-internally rotated femur, no rotation of foot) throughout the motion.
• Posterior displacement of the hip joint relative to the feet throughout the lift.
• A 1:1 ratio of head to pelvis vertical displacement in the squat motion.
• Maintaining extension through the lumbar and thoracic regions of the spine and neutral cervical positioning. In other words, not allowing the back to flex or the neck to hyperextend at any point in the movement.
• The upper thighs (femur) must achieve a parallel to the floor orientation at the bottom position of the motion.
To give some perspective on my arguments, I, along with eleven other staff, train athletes in a facility that has a high volume of athletes attending every day (120+), all year long. The facility attracts athletes from many different team and individual sports and these clients range in age from 10 years old up to full grown adults. We have a number of long term clients who have been with our program for five or more years, but the majority of our athletes have been training with us for less than three years.
Most of the athletes we work with are seen at our facility in group situations. Very rarely do we get any time with less than 6 athletes in a group and most of our programs run back to back throughout the day or evening. Due to these time and staffing restrictions, we do not have the luxury of extended time periods working exclusively with one athlete on very technical components within a program on a consistent basis.
Also, athletes attend our facility usually for limited time periods throughout the year, such as an off-season program or an in-season team training situation. We have very few athletes who train with us year round due to the demands of their in-season sport schedules.
Of the thousands of athletes that our facility works with each year, no athlete attends our program to solely improve their performance in the weightroom. Not one. Every athlete is in attendance to improve their performance in the sport where they participate in on a competitive basis, in a sport where they earn a paycheque based on their performance or to improve their health and daily functioning.
This discussion point is one of the key areas where the squat debate really seemed to show the different points of view for everyone who contributed in the forum. Many times contributors to the discussion seemed to be relaying their own personal training experience or relayed that their scope of practice is with training clients who workout only. These contributors were referencing clients who do not play sports at a provincial, state, national or professional level.
For athletes who play at these levels, training is a means to an end, not the end goal itself. We do not have athletes in our facility whose primary sport is weight training, so the measuring stick for success is found on the field of play, not in the poundage lifted. Specific exercises for our athletes are just the pathway that each person will travel upon in their pursuit of their sport specific goals.
Married to the Exercise
Many times I have referred to various types of trainers that will work with athletes in our industry during our staff training sessions. One of the examples I give is the “Married to the Exercise” trainer that many people will no doubt have experience with. “Married to the Exercise” trainer is simply someone who is unconditionally devoted to the performance of a specific exercise.
Obviously in our debate on the subject of double leg loading, there were many opinions given where the arguments had their roots in a ‘Married to the Exercise” mindset. No matter what is said to the contrary, the person offering the comments has an unwavering devotion to an exercise and I definitely saw this tendency in comments about people’s preference for front versus back bar loading.
With this in mind, one pet peeve of I have as a strength coach is another coach who does not keep an open mind about the use of various exercises within their programming. I am a firm believer in the ability to match the exercise to an individual athlete’s ability or situation. Whatever the situation, I hate to hear when someone expresses their opinion and backs it up with “because that’s what you do when you are have a (insert genre here) background”, or “I do it that way because (insert guru’s name) does it”, or “because that’s what I’ve always done, and it works just fine”.
I hate when people blindly follow a philosophy, style of lifting or a specific coach, using exercises that are clearly contraindicated. It just bugs me. I really have a hard time respecting the opinion of anyone who doesn’t clearly think for themselves.
Classifying Exercises
I do agree with the intention of comments that were made in the discussion on-line that there is no “bad” exercise, but I think there has to be some clarification on that point. Not all exercises are bad, but are not all are created equal either. Some exercises are common but not the best available. Just because an exercise is used commonly, does not justify its application if the athlete cannot perform it with the best of technique.
This point I need to be clear on. Let perfect technique dictate the prescription of exercises. A complicated exercise performed badly is not justification for it continuing to be prescribed. Exercises need to be performed with strict technique guidelines and movement patterns in order to obtain the desired results.
I find exercises fall into a designation of first, second or third degree. Exercises categorized as first degree are those exercises that I will use all the time with most athletes. An example of a first degree exercise would be a push-up. For most athletes, the push-up is a safe and effective exercise to include in my programming.
Second degree exercises (not to demean or demote the exercise) are simply exercises which have a limited scope or use within my programming. An example of this type of exercise would be the “Y” of the shoulder and scapular stability exercises “T/Y/J/W’s”. It’s an exercise that too often is butchered by the athlete and needs too much teaching time to be an effective exercise choice in our program.
Remember, limitations such as staff availability or maintaining the regular flow of athletes through our programming can restrict the time and opportunity our staff has to work with an athlete on an exercise. I need to identify the goal of the exercise, scapular stability and find a better, faster and easier to teach variation to give our athletes. I’m not knocking the “Y” exercise, it just isn’t a good fit. So, you will not find it in my programming unless I see a specific need for the use of it with a targeted athlete.
Third degree exercises are exercises which I feel have a high risk of injury or promote adaptation in the athlete which is not consistent with my philosophy of training. A perfect example of this type of exercise is the Seated Medicine Ball Russian Twist. This classic exercise has the athlete seated on the floor, upper body leaning back, a flexed lumbar position, feet elevated off the ground and the athlete swinging the medicine ball from one side of their body to the other.
In performing the exercise, the Seated Medicine Ball Russian Twist promotes rotation of the athlete’s lumbar spine while under load in a flexed position. Knowing what I do about the anatomy and biomechanics of the back, loaded rotation in a flexed position places undo stress upon specific structures within the back that these structures are not designed to handle. Injury to these structures is very likely. This is an example of an exercise which is a non-starter for me. This exercise has no modifications that I can work with and so has no place in my training program.
The goal of any sports performance program should be to produce the greatest physical gains in an athlete with the least likelihood of injury during the program, as well as in the athlete’s return to their sport situation. I need to include as many first degree exercises as possible for my athletes and their training programs. I firmly believe I must always try to find ways to load the athlete with the least physical cost or toll on their body, yet still produce maximal gains and results in the programs they participate in.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series where we will look at a direct comparison of the front and back squats when it is performed by the same athlete.


The Front Squat vs. Back Squat Debate: Part 2

The Front Squat/Back Squat Debate: Part 2
By: Jim Reeves
This article will build off of the previous article where I outlined the technique requirements of a good squat motion and the designation of first, second and third level classification of exercises.
If you missed it, here is a link back to the first article.
Now, rather than go on and on about the squats, let’s just look at the videos of an athlete I took at our facility a couple for years ago. Pictures, and video, can be worth a thousand words.
Front Squat
Back Squat
Below are images I have taken from these two videos that I use to demonstrate to our staff the difference between loading the front squat and back squat exercises. Specifically, I want my staff to see what loading with two different bar positions does to the athlete in terms of body position, limb motion and the athlete’s posture, specifically at the bottom of each lift.
The images are of a professional baseball pitcher; 24 yrs old, 182lbs body weight with 8+ years training experience with myself. The maximum lift for him in the TB Deadlift is a 4RM of 340lbs, giving him a projected 1RM of 372lbs.
This athlete is a decently strong individual, able to lift over double his own body weight in the TB Deadlift and when I took the videos and photos of each lift, I was confident that his experience would allow the comparison of these two bar positions to be as unbiased as possible. Obviously the lift he normally performs would be a more comfortable movement for him to lift heavier in, but the motion of the squat itself was what I was trying to illustrate for our staff, not the amount of weight that he could lift.
The weights used in the photos were 225 lbs for the front squat and 275 lbs for the back squat.
These weights represent an approximate ratio of 82% of front squat to back squat loading. The lifts were not competitive lifts for this athlete, but enough of a load to challenge him on each repetition, most likely around a 6 to 8RM load for each exercise.
Joint Angle/Body Alignment Illustrations
In the first photo, the front squat is illustrated with the angle calculated for the hip and ankle motion measured at the bottom of the squat motion.
The second photo is the same measurements but for the back squat.
The third photo is a measurement of the knee joint flexion at the bottom of the front squat motion.
Fourth is the same measurement but for the back squat.
The fifth image is the alignment of the femur, measuring the true depth of the pelvis into the squat motion based on the angle the femur makes relative to a vertical axis.
The sixth image is the angle of the femur in a back squat relative to a vertical axis.
The seventh image is a comparison of the angle of the posterior chain (from the pelvis to the lower cervical region) to a vertical axis in the front squat.
The eighth photo is a similar measurement of the posterior chain relative to a vertical axis but on an image of the back squat.
Here is a rough outline of the sacrum, lumbar and thoracic vertebrae alignment in the front squat.
Here is the same attempt in the back squat.
Joint Motion / Alignment Front
Hip Flexion 56.1° 43.8°
Ankle Dorsiflexion 69.2° 70.4°
Knee Flexion 63.4° 69.0°
Femur to a
Vertical Axis
89.6° 94.5°
Posterior Chain to
a Vertical Axis
33.9° 52.6°
We can see from the images and the numbers:
• During a front squat the athlete creates more motion from the hip joint than in the knee joint.
• The ankle motion was pretty much the same in both lifts.
• The back squat requires the athlete to move more from the knee joint.
• The athlete is able to sit into a thighs parallel position much easier in the front squat, achieving considerably more range.
• The posterior chain is “pushed” forward over 18° more in the back squat by the load of the bar. Conversely, you could say the front squat forces the lifter to “pull” the upper body back 18° more than the back squat against the resistance of the load on the bar. In either case, the lifter is attempting to keep the weight on the bar overtop of their foot positioning.
One thing to keep in mind: For this athlete, he commented that in the bottom position he felt he had squatted to equal depth in both lifts. Also, he said it felt like he had almost the same torso positioning in both of these lifts that we filmed.
The perception of this athlete was there really was very little proprioceptive difference in feeling the bottom position of each lift, though we can see from the images there is considerable difference in the actual joint angles and body positions achieved when these lifts are analyzed using measurements of the limb positions and the resultant joint motion.
So where are we in this discussion? For me, I see two lifts which have very different starting motions, very distinct patterns of movement into and out of the squat motion and very distinct body positions at the bottom of the lift.
Initiation of Motion
For athletes, the performance of the front squat has a certain guarantee of success right from the beginning of motion. This guarantee is rooted in the beginnings of the movement itself. Just based on the initial bar positioning, the initiation of motion into the squat is to counteract the forward weight of the bar, thus a posterior weight shift of the hip complex is required. So the fundamental movement required for a correct squat motion, posterior translation of the hip complex, is easily assumed by the athlete performing a front squat as the hip complex acts as a counterbalance to the weight of the front bar load.
In contrast, the back loaded position has the load of the bar positioned towards the posterior aspect of the athlete’s base of support, their feet. With the load positioned over the athletes’ heels, any movement of the hip complex posteriorly during the squat must be countered with an anterior shift of the athlete’s weight forward. This lack of posterior options forces the athlete to instead break the straight leg starting position by flexing the knees first before the hips, resulting in a forward shift of body weight as the back loaded squat begins.
If the athlete does not break at the knees first but does attempt a posterior hip shift, the strategy then shifts to an anterior translation of the upper body. This compensation is an attempt to keep the weight of the bar over top of the feet. The anterior tilt of the upper body places a significant load on the ability of the athlete to maintain an extended posture with their back. This additional load on the musculature of the back itself grows substantially as the anterior tilt of the upper body increases.
The initial success of the front squat is not so easy to replicate in the back squat. Where the front squat rewards hip initiated motion, the back squat promotes knee and upper body movement, forcing the athlete to work hard to achieve hip joint based movement. Even in the experienced lifter, the demands of starting a perfect back squat technique are harder to achieve and maintain when significant loads are applied to the athlete.
Thus, the front squat rewards the initial backward translation of the pelvis, keeping the weight overtop of the base of support and the athlete initiating motion in the proper posterior hip shift movement pattern. The back squat does not reward this initiation of movement at all.
Mid-Squat Technique
Now if we look at the movements in the middle of the squat itself, during the front squat if an athlete does mistakenly move into a knee flexion movement pattern, the load of the bar quickly moves anterior of the athlete’s base of support (their forefoot and toes) and they instinctively have to thrust the pelvis posteriorly to correct this improper positioning. Also, if the athlete loses the straight back posture, the bar becomes too heavy for the upper body to support as the bar weight continues forward. The bar drops forward off the shoulders, ending the lift attempt. The front squat ends up being self-correcting just due to the nature of the lift.
For the back squat, too often the tendency of the athlete is to allow the upper body to fall forward during the squat movement. Regardless of your interpretation of the squat motion itself, if the upper body is moving forward, the center of gravity of the athlete is moving forward due to the back loaded position and thus the anterior slide of the knees cannot be prevented within the legs alone. Thus, the resultant excessive knee joint motion, as seen in the photos above, is explained. The self-correcting nature of the front loaded squat is not present in the back loaded movement.
The pattern of motion I usually see in the performance of the back squat is for the athlete to break at the knees first, with the hips tucked under the rib cage and no appreciable posterior shift of the pelvis as the downward movement begins. If there is a posterior hip shift, it is accompanied by a significant anterior tilt of the upper body, whether by way of hip flexion or the lumbar spine flexing.
Either way, most back squats I see in a training situation are simply a back loaded deadlift. The athlete loses the posterior and downward motion of the pelvis and instead allows the head to drop forward towards the floor. Then, the lift up is accomplished more as an upper body deadlift against the resistance of the bar than a true concentric squat movement. These are terrible movement patterns that require more strength and joint motion from the structures of the back than is required from the legs.
In the third article of this series, we will continue examining the front and back squat movements, focusing on the bottom portion of the lifts as well as my interpretation of an athlete’s safety and performance in each of these lifts.


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