Friday, 13 April 2012

Front Squat vs Back Squat

Front Squat VS Back Squat -Which Camp are you in?

By Sabina Skala

After my last blog on strength training I have been asked why I favoured Front Squat over Back Squat (Front Squat was mentioned by me as one of the fundamental exercises I use to develop strength, I didn’t include Back Squat in those). The answer is - I do favour using Front Squat with my athletes and clients for several reasons, however I do not think that Front Squat is better than Back Squat and vice versa. Am I contradicting myself here? ... Not really and here is why...

Imagine you walk into a commercial gym. How many people do you actually see squatting? I am guessing - none or few. The few you see squatting are usually doing Back Squats either using a Smiths machine or if they are using free weights their Back Squat looks more like a very poor version of Good Morning. But hey... they will stack more weight on the bar and smash those squats and work on slipping a few discs in their back as well - why not kill 2 birds with one stone. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard from new coming clients that they do not want to squat as they have hurt their back or knees squatting, squat is evil!. My answer always was, is and will be - it is not the squat that is bad - it was your technique!

Both Front and Back squat are complex movements that require flexibility and great core control. Flexibility is not something people would work on much, especially back flexibility seems to be a forgotten area. We would love to jump onto heavy lifting straight away.
We need to remember though - even a building build out of the best materials will fall if the foundations are poor. Your body structure has to be solid before you attempt a heavy load.
Back squat is a great lift and hits your hamstrings and glutes more than Front Squat (which is quad dominant), also the latter is always going to be lower than your max back squat. So why on earth do I teach front squats and overhead squats before even starting talking about back squat.

The key word is in the previous paragraph - and it is STRUCTURE. All my clients so far (and I mean ALL - no exceptions) had some sort of tightness/mobility issues with their back when I started training them. It can be easily assesed with wall squats (wall squat pictures can be found by the end of this article - click HERE

Wall squat is a great back mobility exercise, which I include in most of my warm ups and it is a fantastic tool to find out where the tightness in the back is. It also teaches the correct position that should be adapted whilst squatting.

From a coaching perspective, I find teaching the Front Squat first is easier than the Back Squat. I can get someone to squat deep, with an upright spine, much faster than I can get them to do this with a Back Squat. In my experience - cheating the Front Squat is nearly impossible. If you start leaning too far forward, you will drop the bar. People are more likely to learn how to "feel" the correct position when they front squat. Once their Front Squat is sound then I can assure you 100% - you will have no problem of them leaning too far forward when they start working on the Back Squat. The body awareness they build when learning and working on Front Squats transferrs to correct Back Squat techinque and your clients engaging their core and upper back muscles more. I do not even talk about, yet teach Back Squats until my people have an excellent Front Squat Technique. Period.

Another advantage of Front Squat is that it is easier for the people to get into the deep bottom position than with a Back Squat. Glutes and hamstrings get worked most in the deepest portion of the squat, when the top of the tighs is below parallel. I see so many "Back Squat depth cutters" in the gym on daily basis. Not only they are not getting any stronger, but they fool themselves that they can go heavy. Their squat depth gets progressively worse as the load on the bar increases. I wish they dropped the weight, give Front Squat a go and work more on their body structure as they squat. I can assure you they would get a few inches lower!

If you look at all the goodness Front Squat offers, you may think why did I say at the beginning of the article that I didnt think Front Squat is better than Back Squat. Here is why....

Both of the above lifts are great for athletic development providing they are performed with excellent techinque (I hope that the above paragraphs explain why I initially tend to focus on Front Squat when working with clients). Back Squat is often called The King of the Lifts - to me both Back And Front Squats deserve this name. They both hit the quads, the glutes, the hamstrings, the spinal erectors, the lower back, and even the upper back, lats, shoulders, and arms if you squeeze them hard enough and put in enough work.
True is - they both hit the muscles slightly differently.

Back squat is still considered better hamstring and glutes builder than front squat (which is superior quad builder comparing to the Back squat). However I came accross this study: study “A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals” by Gullett, et al. that states: “The front squat was shown to be just as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with signi´Čücantly less compressive forces on the knee". Agree or is something to think about.

The Back Squat is also highly “loadable”, which is a great advantage. You can add a lot of weight to it rather easily providing the correct form is maintained. Your back squat 1RM will always be higher than your Front Squat 1 RM which is important in terms of strength gains etc, again - providing the technique is perfect.

Summarizing - both back squat and front squat are great, compound exercises, both are fantastic tools you can use in strength development. However when you select which tool is better for your athlete, always make sure that you find the right balance between the exercises that are general enough to hit the body as a unit and allow the appropriate loading, with exercises that attack a specific athletes weaknesses in a way that solves the problem and allows the athlete to progress. Front Squat will ruthlessly show if there are any mobility/technique problems, that prevent your athlete from getting stronger. Therefore unless you train power lifters, or your athletes show great back mobility - use Front Squats first and complement them with Romanian Deadlifts (to supplement hamstrings and glutes work) and / or hip thursts. Once Front Squat technique is perfect, back squats can be included in the training program.



Toby, doing P90X said...

Hi Sabina,
Great post on the importance of good form when doing squats. Very important - After all, who really wants a slipped disc!? If you get preacher curls wrong, you just won't develop nice long biceps, but you'll still be able to walk and use your arms.

I think the trouble with public gyms is the trainers only really give a very basic introduction course to their new members. I think that both front and back squats should be demonstrated to customers in their induction as a matter of "law". Sadly, this is not the case.

Health and Fitness said...

The Picture takes all.

Sabina Skala said...

thanks Toby, glad you enjoyed it