Every day, more and more people are realizing the power of the barbell front squat.
It’s one of the all-time best lower-body exercises, it strengthens your core and back and improves your mobility, and it’s much easier to learn than it appears.
Many casual gymgoers avoid the front squat, though, because to them, it looks like a painfully awkward way to strangle yourself with a barbell.
The front squat does feel awkward and even a little painful at first, and you’re likely to question the wisdom of holding a heavy barbell against your gullet.
Learn how to front squat with proper form, though, and you’ll soon find that the exercise isn’t nearly as dangerous or intimidating as it might seem.
If you know what you’re doing and put in enough reps, the bar, arm, and wrist positions become comfortable and the movement becomes simple and smooth—and you’ll reap the benefits.
This article is going to help get you there.
The front squat is unique in that it trains almost every major muscle group in your lower body.
Specifically, the muscles worked by the front squat include . . .
Here’s what these muscle groups look like on your body:
Basically, it trains all of the same muscles as the barbell back squat, despite feeling quite different. And although the front squat may not seem like a great booty builder, research shows that the squat—including the front squat—is one of the most effective glute exercises you can do.
Like all good compound exercises, the front squat also trains smaller “accessory” muscles like the abdominals, serratus anterior, and even your shoulders.
Full-body exercises like the front squat deliver maximum muscle- and strength-building bang for your buck, but they also require good technique or they can become dangerous.
So, let’s go through the three steps of proper front squat form.
First, position the bar one to two inches below where it will be when you’re standing tall, or around the top of your breastbone, like this:
Next, grip the bar.
You have a few options in terms of how you go about this, but the two most common methods are wrapping all four fingers of each hand around the bar (full grip) and wrapping one, two, or three fingers around the bar (partial grip).
Here’s what the full grip looks like:
And here’s what the partial grip looks like:
Which one you choose really boils down to personal preference. If you have the wrist mobility to make the full grip work, go for it, but the partial grip is perfectly fine, too.
This may seem unsafe, but when performed correctly, the full weight of the bar will be resting on your shoulders during the front squat. Your fingers just keep it from slipping off your shoulders.
In both cases, you’re going to first grip the bar with a pronated (palms facing down) grip, just as you would during a barbell back squat.
Then, instead of keeping your elbows slightly behind or under the bar, you push them up and out in front of the bar, like this:
For most people this will put the bar right at the base of the throat (it should almost feel like it’s choking you—almost).
Then stand up, take one step back with both feet, and position your feet just outside of shoulder-width with your toes pointed outward at about 45-degrees.
Here’s what you should look like:
Take a deep breath of air, fix your gaze on a spot about 10 feet in front of you, and sit straight down, like this:
The biggest mistake people make during the descent is letting their elbows drop. This causes the bar to slide forward on your shoulders, causing your upper back to round, and making it much more difficult to ascend.
The second biggest mistake people make is letting their knees cave in toward one another. To avoid this, think about pushing the floor apart as you descend.
Keep descending until the crease of your hip (the point where your thigh meets your pelvis) is one to two inches below the tops of your knees.
Now you’re ready to ascend.
The ascent of the front squat is a mirror image of the descent.
Keeping your elbows up and back straight, push the bar toward the ceiling and bring your hips forward.
Once again, the biggest mistake people make during the ascent is relaxing one part of their body, like their upper back, core, or shoulders.
Thus, the most important thing you need to remember during the ascent is to keep everything tight. Don’t relax your upper back, shoulders, or hands.
It’s also common for many people to let their upper back tilt forward right as they begin to ascend, forcing them onto their tippy-toes and wasting energy. A good cue for countering this is to think about “pushing off your heels.” This helps keep the bar centered over your midfoot throughout the ascent.
Neither exercise is clearly better or worse than the other. Although both exercises feel quite different, you can use them interchangeably in your workouts.
For example, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Florida found that when 22-year old men performed front and back squats with 70% of their one-rep max, muscle activation was the same for both exercises. That is, both exercises showed about the same overall muscle-building potential.
The researchers did discover an interesting wrinkle, though: the front squat placed slightly less pressure on the knee joint, leading the researchers to conclude that “. . . front squats may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.”
In other words, the front squat might be a better option than the back squat if you have knee pain.
Anecdotally, many people with low-back pain also find the front squat to be more comfortable because the spine doesn’t have to flex as much as with the back squat.
Thus, neither exercise is necessarily better or worse. Instead, look at them as complementary.
If you experience pain or discomfort back squatting, try front squats, and vice versa. Personally, I like to rotate between front and back squats every two to four months to avoid repetitive stress injuries and inject some variety into my workouts.
The barbell front squat is always performed with a barbell resting on your shoulders and both feet about shoulder-width apart, but there are several front squat variations worth knowing:
- Dumbbell front squat
- Kettlebell front squat
- Goblet squat
- Zercher squat
- Crossed-arms front squat
The dumbbell front squat involves holding one dumbbell in each hand and resting one end of each dumbbell on your shoulders. Here’s what it looks like:
The dumbbell front squat works well if you don’t have a barbell (as during home workouts), but you’ll generally get more mileage out of the barbell variation.
The kettlebell front squat is exactly the same as the dumbbell front squat, except you hold a kettlebell in each hand instead of a dumbbell. Since the handles are oriented differently, the kettlebells will also lie across the backs of your forearms. Here’s what it looks like:
You can think of the dumbbell and kettlebell front squat as interchangeable—do whatever one you have equipment for.
The goblet squat is an easier variation of the dumbbell front squat that involves holding one dumbbell in both hands directly in front of your chest. Here’s what it looks like:
The goblet squat is easier to learn and perform than the dumbbell front squat, but it’s also harder to keep adding weight as you’re only using one dumbbell instead of two.
The Zercher squat is a front squat variation that involves holding the barbell in the crook of your elbows instead of across your shoulders.
This exercise works well for people who can’t perform the conventional front squat due to poor wrist or shoulder mobility. Unfortunately, you also can’t use as much weight with the Zercher squat as you can with the front squat, which makes the exercise less effective for gaining muscle and strength.
The crossed-arms front squat is exactly the same as the conventional front squat except you cross your arms and place your fingers on top of the bar instead of under it. Here’s what it looks like:
Many people find this front squat variation more comfortable, but it’s also less stable, and thus limits how much weight you can lift.
- Use a partial grip
First, most people find that the awkward wrist-position used in the front squat becomes much more comfortable after their first four or five workouts. This isn’t because the tendons are “lengthening” or the nerves as “deadending” or any other such piffle—you’re just getting used to a new and unfamiliar sensation.
The same thing is true if you find it painful to rest the barbell on your shoulders. While this is uncomfortable at first, you quickly get used to it.
Second, I highly recommend you use a partial grip instead of a full grip if you experience wrist pain or discomfort. This takes much of the stress of your wrists, makes it easier to maintain proper technique throughout every rep, and is just as secure as a full grip.
If you want to learn more about the best exercises for building a strong, powerful lower body, check out these articles:
+ Scientific References
- Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
- Barbalho, M., Coswig, V., Souza, D., Serrão, J. C., Hebling Campos, M., & Gentil, P. (2020). Back Squat vsHip Thrust Resistance-training Programs in Well-trained Women. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(5), 306–310. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1082-1126
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