Category Archives: Front Squat
Here’s what you need to know…
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
Aim 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
The 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.
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.
Actually, the answer is “it depends.”
There’s a gulf between the word need and want. They’re two very different things.
For example, do you need to crush beers every weekend? No, but you want to. Do you need to bench press three times per week? No, but you want to. Do you need to DVR the Victoria Secret fashion show and watch it every time your girlfriend leaves the room? Yes, yes you do.
As a strength coach, I say people need to squat, and squat well, period. Depth, on the other hand, is more of a “want” issue; I want people to squat deep, but it’s just not always feasible. So I work with what I can.
Squats are invaluable for building strength, power, and improving athletic performance.
You’d be hard pressed to find another exercise that helps engage the entire body and, as a result, burn more calories, so even for those more concerned with fat loss or aesthetics, squats are an unparalleled exercise.
Furthermore, squats do a fantastic job of offsetting many of the postural imbalances we see from those who spend much of their lives sitting in front of a computer perusing Facebook or playing Angry Birds on their iPhone.
Someone who can perform a proper squat demonstrates that they have the ample ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, hip abduction, t-spine extension, core stiffness, and glenohumeral ROM (among other talents) to do so. This is quite a feat, given many people can’t sit down onto a chair without blowing out their back.
So the real question isn’t, “Does everyone need to squat?” but rather, “Which squat variation (and by extension, depth) is the safest and most effective for any one individual?”
While I’m 100% in favor of people squatting with a full ROM (which for me is when the front surface of the thighs drop below knee level), sometimes it’s just not feasible, and borderline counterproductive.
As an example, encourage someone with chronic anterior knee pain or Femoral Acetabular Impingement (FAI) to squat “ass to grass” and you’re setting him or her up for something bad.
Likewise, having someone with a degenerative disc issue do squats could be bad news, as it could for someone who goes into lumbar flexion (butt wink) when going to a certain depth, or someone who has any number of postural imbalances.
Of course, context must always be considered. Every person has a unique injury history and training experience that may or may not dictate what kind of squat variation is indicated.
Too wishy-washy? I don’t know about you, but my bullshit meter goes into hyper drive whenever I hear anyone use the words everyone, never, or always.
It’s human nature to seek out absolutes, but there really aren’t any in the fitness world, or in the “real” world for that matter.
Listen, I’m not saying that I don’t do it – I certainly have my biases. I feel everyone should deadlift (in one form or another) at least once a week.
Also, if you have a history of shoulder issues – especially dislocations – you should never perform another dip. Like ever.
Those examples aside, I do a pretty bang up job of not leaning too far to the left or right on any given topic. With few exceptions, I feel there’s a time and place for everything – yes, even leg presses (as much as it pains me to admit it), and I’d encourage everyone reading to foster the same approach.
Still, the squat is one hell of an exercise, and I generally lean towards the camp that thinks (most) people should include it – to some capacity – in their programming.
Of course, much of the time it’s simply a matter of placing a premium on coaching someone to squat properly.
- Groove a proper hip-hinge pattern (learn to sit back).
- Coach a more vertical shin angle (especially for those with chronic knee pain), although we can’t forget that there’s going to be some forward translation of the tibia during any squat.
- Teach clients to push their knees out. I can’t even begin to tell you how this simple cue works wonders in helping to clean up squat technique.
- Learn to engage core stiffness (get tight). Each set should begin with taking a big breath and encouraging more apical expansion of the torso. This is something that I’ve recently started to realize that I’ve missed the mark on for many years.
Physical therapist Bill Hartman keyed me in on the notion that it’s unwise to only focus on pushing the belly out (which encourages more anterior pelvic tilt, and places far more stress on the facet joints of the lumbar spine). Along with pushing the belly out, we also need to be cognizant of attaining lateral and posterior (apical) expansion.
- Learn to engage the lats, and as a result, the thoraco-lumbar fascia to provide more stability to the spine.
- Try not to shit a kidney.
While there’s more to it than that, if everyone made it a point to hone in on those key objectives when squatting, we’d undoubtedly see less injuries and (probably) bigger numbers under the bar.
Nevertheless, it can’t be understated: it’s imperative to teach people to squat within a ROM that’s safe for them!
A safe and acceptable depth for one person could be harmful for the next. It’s still possible to reap all the benefits of a squat without necessarily going “ass to grass,” so it behooves everyone to take the time to find out exactly what their “acceptable” range is.
Assessing Squat Depth
A quick aside: assessment is the foundation for any program that I write. It’s a way for me to delve into the bigger picture and construct a program that will allow for the quickest and safest results possible.
More to the point, it’s also a way for someone to prove to me that they move well enough that I’m confident they’re capable of performing the movements or exercises I deem appropriate for their skill level.
It’s important to reiterate that squatting deep is not dangerous or bad. Contrarily, and without getting derailed, squatting deep (whatever that means to you) can be argued to be safer than the alternative, as I noted in this article.
But how do we “assess” the appropriate squat depth for you?
While there are dozens of ways to do so effectively, a great starting point would be a simple drill discussed in the book Deadlift Dynamite, where both Andy Bolton and Pavel quote the godfather of spinal biomechanics, Dr. Stuart McGill:
Check out the video below for a demo:
But even this is a somewhat convoluted or limited way to assess things, as squatting by its nature isn’t performed in a quadruped position (not to mention squatting is a bit more dynamic in nature, especially under load).
At Cressey Performance, part of our initial assessment with every new client is to take a look at their standing overhead squat and ascertain their squatting proficiency.
If you’re curious to play along, here are some simple screens you can perform yourself.
Squat Screen # 1
Assume a shoulder width-apart stance with your toes facing straight ahead and your arms fully extended overhead and then squat down as far as you can go.
What do you notice?
If you’re one of the few who can squat all the way down without any major compensation(s) coming to the forefront (heels coming off the ground, knees caving in, excessive lumbar flexion, excessive forward lean, to name a few), congratulations, you get a gold star!
This is more of an evaluative squat assessment, and isn’t how I’d go about coaching someone to squat, but more on that shortly.
What this demonstrates is that you have ample hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion with very little (if any) ramifications. Granted, we could make a case for hypermobility/laxity, which has it’s own set of drawbacks, but the majority of people reading won’t have this luxury anyway.
More commonly people will have difficulty attaining proper depth performing this particular assessment, which is why I’ll tweak it further.
Squat Screen # 2
Widen your stance, allow for a little “out-toeing,” and perform the exact same drill.
Things tend to clean up significantly with this tweak, namely because you’re giving yourself a wider base of support and the out-toeing provides a bit more stability, which serves to open up the hips more to attain more depth.
This is how I prefer to coach someone to squat, and deem this more of a performance-based screen.
Plenty of coaches and trainers like to teach squatting with the toes pointing straight head – and more power to them, it’s not necessarily wrong – but I argue from a performance standpoint, squatting with a wider base and with some slight out-toeing allows for more weight to be lifted.
That said, if things still look a little dicey, we can move onto the next tweak.
Squat Screen # 3
Perform the exact same protocol as above, but this time, elevate your heels with a 10-pound plate underneath each foot. Most likely you were able to squat much deeper.
Much in the same way why Olympic lifters wear shoes with a high heel lift, it places the body at a mechanical advantage to squat deep(er).
In the likelihood that using a heel lift drastically improves your depth, it may dictate that you have the ankle mobility of the Tin Man and that you need to address it rather than rely on the heel lift as a crutch.
But let’s say that after all those screens you’re still having trouble attaining ample depth without compensating in some fashion. What happens then? Are you forever relegated to endless corrective ankle, hip, and t-spine mobility drills, or worse, those cute exercises on a BOSU ball your local pencil-necked personal trainer would have you believe is “functional training?”
Sadly, for many, this is the route they end up taking, and it’s all because they don’t take the time to dig a little deeper.
Squat Screen #4
Lastly, get rid of the heel lift, grab a 10-pound plate, hold it out in front of you with your arms fully extended, and again squat.
Usually we see a profound improvement not only in squat technique, but also squat depth.
By holding the weight out in front of you as a counterbalance, you’re forced to engage your anterior core musculature, which in turn gives the entire body the stability it needs to allow for more squat depth.
Without performing this last screen, many would automatically assume that the reason they can’t squat to depth is because of a mobility issue, when in fact, as Alwyn Cosgrove has noted on numerous occasions, it’s a stability issue.
Without this differentiation, we can see how many people would be barking up the wrong tree, and doing themselves a massive disservice on the training side of things.
Think what would happen if we omitted or neglected to perform the last squat screen – we’d assume that we have a mobility deficit somewhere and just focus on that one component, rather than address the realissue at hand, namely lack of stability.
So Now What?
Hopefully you understand that using the above screening process can help better determine what would be an appropriate depth for any individual.
And with that information at our disposal, we can also ascertain how to go about addressing some common squatting mishaps.
Like the Tuck Under (Butt Wink)
Some people picked the right parents, have awesome levers, and are able to squat ass-to-grass with no issues at all.
Due to any number of reasons, namely atrocious ankle mobility and lack of core stability, the butt “tucks” underneath the pelvis when attempting to go into deep(er) hip flexion.
As a result, it causes a boatload of compressive load on the lumbar spine, and to a lesser degree, which I can’t prove with any science, drives Dr. McGill bat shit crazy.
Returning to the quadruped rockback test, lets compare a passable test with a god-awful one.
We saw this one earlier:
As you can see, I’m able to get to a decent depth without any major red flags or noticeable compensation patterns rearing their ugly head. My spine stays relatively “neutral” throughout, and my arms look pretty freakin gunny, thank you very much.
But let’s look at what a train wreck looks like:
You should immediately notice a lumbar hinge, and unfortunately, if this were some random person, I’d probably refrain from having them squat past that point of no return.
I mean, if it’s this bad with no spinal loading, can you imagine how much of a walking ball of fail this hypothetical person would be if I placed a barbell on his back?
How Can We Fix It?
Fixing a majority of problems with the squat isn’t complicated. While everyone is different and I don’t like making general recommendations, I’ve found a few universal themes that generally work wonders for most:
It’s no one’s favorite, it’s admittedly not sexy or exciting, and I’m sure many are rolling their eyes as they read this, but just do your foam rolling. Staying on top of tissue quality is important, and foam rolling is one of the easiest ways to do so.
Hammer Ankle Mobility
Specifically hammer ankle dorsiflexion. We need roughly 15-20 degrees of dorsiflexion in order to perform a “clean” squat pattern. Unfortunately, most people live in plantar flexion.
To that end, getting out of any shoe with a heel lift and into one that encourages more of a “minimal” approach – say, the New Balance Minimus – would bode well in your favor.
Likewise, including more ankle mobility drills (knee break ankle mobilizations, wall ankle mobilizations, rocking ankle mobilizations) into your warm-up or as part of a filler to do in between sets of major compound movements would also be wise.
Hammer Anterior Core Strength
If I had to choose one component to serve as the umbrella or main area to spend, this would be it.
As I noted above, lack of core stability/strength is a major monkey wrench in what prevents many people from squatting to a safe depth without something funky happening.
If you’re tucking under when you squat it’s probably a relative stiffness issue, and it stands to reason that your anterior core is weak or unable to stabilize the pelvis.
There are a number of articles on this site that will provide ample core exercises to choose from, but my favorites in this context would be Pallof presses, various chops and lifts, and plank variations like “stir the pot.”
Squat to a Successful Depth
Even if someone elicits faulty squatting patterns, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t squat.
Instead, squat to a depth that prevents him or her from going into lumbar flexion and allows them some success.
Enter the box squat and squat to box, both superb training tools to teach proper squatting technique and allowing people the luxury of still attaining a killer training effect. Check out the tutorial below.
I know it may give some people a bad taste in their mouth, but if I have to resort to having a client squat to a 16-inch box, so be it. I can always progress them lower, and at the same time not feed into any dysfunction or cause anymore harm.
And I’m Out!
It seems everyone on the Internet can squat 500 pounds ass to the floor without so much as putting a crease in their Under Armor shirt. These same posters, however, are curiously absent when asked to post videos of their awesome “squat so low you leave a wet spot on the floor” technique, especially using superhuman poundages. Pity.
Hey, it’s the Internet, where the curtain of anonymity allows chest thumping and bravado to supersede logic and reasoning.
So don’t be discouraged. Use the test above to figure out your own personal “best squat depth” while incorporating the drills to help improve it.
And above all else, keep squatting. At least that’s something everyone online can agree with!
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!
5 Great Lessons
I’m a big Dan John fan.
I’ve been one for many years. I read Dan’s first book, From the Ground Up, and his second, Never Let Go, long before we finally met. I’ve also read many of his published articles at T NATION along the way.
Recently, I started listening to the audio recording of his Intervention seminar and my appreciation for what Dan John brings to the strength and conditioning table has grown even more. He inspires while he educates, and it’s that inspiration that prompted me to write this article.
Dan John gets it. He’s walked the walk as an athlete and as a coach for nearly 30 years. And it shows.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom that I’ve taken from Dan’s books and seminars. The key to being a great coach is to never think that you’re too good to learn and change. As you’ll see, there’s no one better to learn from than Dan John.
1. If It’s Important, do It Every Day. Reading Dan John is a funny thing. Sometimes it takes a while to get the meaning behind what he’s talking about. When I first read this concept I thought, “Man, Dan is losing it! You can’t squat every day!”
As I continued to read, I realized that we’re talking patterns, not lifts. The message was “if a pattern is important, practice it every time you train.” I took this to heart and now ensure that my clients’ programming includes some type of single-leg knee dominant exercise and single-leg hip dominant movement every day.
In Dan’s words, we do a squat and a hinge every day. For us, it might mean that on an upper body training day we split squat or lunge and do reaching one-leg straight leg deadlifts as a warm-up. The take home point is, we make sure we’re doing legs and core work every day.
2. Loaded Carries. I had Dan as a guest speaker for our annual Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning Winter Seminar this year. The big thing I took from Dan that day was the importance of loaded carries. Stuart McGill had already convinced me that carries were just moving planks, but even though I liked the idea, we hadn’t really incorporated them. When Dan was done, I’d officially drank the loaded carry Kool Aid.
This year we added suitcase carries and farmers walks in as a “rest” between our sets of sled pushes. Was it the perfect place to put them? I’m not sure, but we had our athletes out on a long length of turf and it made sense. This was a case of simply looking at another great coach’s program, comparing it to ours, and correcting an obvious weakness.
3. Goblet Squats. I doubt that Dan invented the goblet squat or even the term “goblet squat.” I only know that he was the first person who exposed me to – and sold me on – the idea.
One weakness in Dan’s early writings was a lack of video or pictures. Back then Dan would go on and on about goblet squats and I’d look at the page thinking, “I have no flippin’ idea what he’s talking about.” Keep in mind, youngsters, that this was before message boards, YouTube, even TNation.
I remember finally getting around to trying goblet squats in my business in the summer of 2010 after years of hearing Dan go on ad nauseum about their supposed greatness. I went into our facility and instructed our coaches to switch the worst squatters from whatever type of squat we had them attempting to goblet squats. Some were trying to learn to front squat, others were simply bodyweight squatting.
The addition of the dumbbell in the goblet position was nothing short of a miracle. Every single athlete, all chosen for his or her lack of squatting technique, improved dramatically. I was sold – so sold that we decided the first loading position for any athlete in any squatting movement would be the goblet position.
4. Standards. I’m a numbers kind of guy, so I love the idea of standards. This was another gem that I’d taken from Dan’s talk at our winter seminar that was reignited in my mind as I listened to the Interventiontape during my drive in to work.
Dan has a way with words. In Intervention, he uses the line “My Standard Standard.” I thought it was funny. I also thought it was brilliant. Dan’s “standard standard” is simple:
Many readers will take issue with this, but if you train athletes this couldn’t be truer. The reality is that if you can bench press 300 pounds, you can also front squat it and clean it. If you can’t, the reason is simple. You aren’t trying hard enough.
Dan goes on to provide a standard for high school football:
Bench press: 205 pounds
Squat: 255 pounds
Clean + Jerk: 165 pounds
While not overly impressive numbers, they do add up to a good athlete who’s spent some time in the weight room doing the right things.
Dan went on to describe one more standard in the loaded carry category. If you can farmer’s walk your bodyweight (split between two dumbbells) for 50 yards, you’re pretty strong.
Standards. You can argue them till you’re blue in the face, but the fact is, they make sense. I also have a standard with my Boston University hockey players, although slightly different.
If my guys can do that, I know they’re working hard in all areas. If they’re exceeding the bench in the hang clean and RFESS, all the better. I always tell my guys, “If you are going to suck at one lift, suck at the bench. It’s the least important.”
Our last standard?
The chin-up is the combination of bodyweight plus the weight on the dip belt. If you can do this, you’re unlikely to get a shoulder injury and are also quite strong. Our average player will do 1 chin-up in a test situation with 90-120 pounds attached.
5. Reps. The last bit of Dan John wisdom relates to the idea of reps. Dan has what he calls The Rule of 10.
In Dan’s world, the Rule of 10 applies primarily to the deadlift, clean, and snatch. According to Dan, a good workout in these total body lifts calls for 10 reps. It could be 5-3-2 or 2×5, but the total is 10 reps.
Dan goes on to say that in what he calls “half body lifts” (bench press for example) you can do up to 25 reps, but to me the rule of ten can apply to every lift. In an 80-20 world, 80 percent of the workouts should have sets adding up to 10 reps. 20 percent of the time could be higher or lower.
Dan notes that most classic workouts tend to total about 25 reps. However, my feeling is that after warm-ups most good workouts still come down to about 10 good quality reps.
The Big Takeaway
There are lot of books and reading you can be reading, whether it’s business, self help, or even boring old strength and conditioning. My advice is to read some Dan John. There’s plenty there far beyond the iron and dumbbells to make you a better lifter, coach, and person overall. After all, thirty years of experience is one heck of a deep well to draw from.
Fix Your Front Squat
Why Should I Be Doing Front Squats?
- Increase depth achieved
- Improve core strength
- Activate glutes
Why You Suck At Front Squats
Your Abs Aren’t Strong Enough
Ab wheel rollouts OR Blast Strap fallouts
Suitcase deadlift OR Paloff press
Your Elbows Won’t Stay High Enough
Seated dumbbell external rotation
You Can’t Stand Tall
- PNF intercostal stretch
- Foam roller extensions
- Trap – 3 raises
Getting a Grip
- Keep the toes pointed slightly outwards, and make sure knees track in the direction the toes point
- Keep the chest up proud
- Elbows high at all times
- Hinge from the hips, and let the glutes fire to come back up
- Press through the full foot, keeping the heel on the ground
- Breathe deep on the eccentric, and hold full of air at the bottom to increase intra-abdominal pressure
- Don’t panic – the legs have loads of fight – or – flight in them. You’ll get out of the hole!
Lifters Who Should Be All Over Front Squats
Getting Out of The “Embarrassing” Category
Front squat workout
|B||Ab wheel rollout||12|
|–||Foam roller extensions||*|
|F||Trap-3 raises||12 per arm|
|–||PNF intercostal stretch|
|H||DB external rotations||12 per arm|
† see video below – be sure not to allow the feet to do anything but hang straight down to get full stimulation of the abdominals. It should look like you’re trying to pull yourself to horizontal.
‡ at a 3010 tempo