Improve Your Front Squat

Shift your squatting focus forward with these programming and technique tips.

Back squats get all the love and most of the publicity, but how’s your front squat? Hopefully you don’t respond to that question with, “Well, I don’t front squat.” Wrong answer. If squatting with a barbell on your back is important to you, putting that bar across the front of your shoulders and descending to thighs parallel or lower should be, too. 

Why? Many reasons. First, from a physique standpoint, front squats emphasize the quads (as opposed to the glutes) more than back squats, making it a must-do move for anyone looking to bring up his or her quads. 

More important, the front squat is a highly functional exercise that enhances core stability while also improving your strength in major lifts such as deadlifts and squat-based Olympic moves. “If I had to pick only one reason why the front squat is awesome, it’s because of its direct translation to other core movements,” says Josh Elmore, a CrossFit-certified strength coach and owner of Conjugate Consulting in Charlotte, N.C.. “This is due in part to the ankle, midline and shoulder mobility the lift requires. That positioning translates clearly across a wide range of other moves.” So the question now becomes: How do you make your front squat better? Elmore offers a few keen pointers:

Use the rack position: The first thing to address is how you hold the bar. In Elmore’s opinion, a proper front squat does not entail crossing your forearms in front of you the way bodybuilders often do. He’s strongly in favor of the “rack position,” the same way you hold the bar at the end of a clean: bar resting on the front delts and supported lightly in the fingers, elbows held high so the upper arms are at least parallel to the floor. This might mean having to lighten the load a bit, but the benefits will be worth it. “If your front squat is limited by your rack position, it’s time to work on all the parts that are hindering you from getting into that position,” says Elmore. “Don’t be lazy and just cross your arms and load up the barbell; you’re going to miss out on some of the translation of the movement and ultimately cheat yourself out of more performance, mobility and movement efficiency.”

Determine your frequency: Your best bet for balanced development is to do both back and front squats on a regular basis. Most people do the former more often than the latter, but Elmore suggests doing the opposite if your front squat is considerably weaker. He offers a simple formula for deciding the best ratio of front to back squat frequency: For every 10 percent lighter that your front squat one-rep max (1RM) is compared to your back squat 1RM, that’s your ratio. For example, if your back squat 1RM is 315 pounds and your front squat max is 90 pounds less, that’s roughly a 30 percent difference, so you’d want to do front squats at a 3:1 ratio to back squats. In other words, for every three workouts in which you do front squats, you’d do back squats once. “I would personally have a four-week cycle in mind when programming for that ratio,” says Elmore, meaning you’d do front squats three of those weeks and back squats in only one. “Then when you get to a 20 percent weight difference, close the gap to 2:1 and so on until you achieve a 1:1 ratio [10 percent weight difference or less]. Remember, this is just a programming approach to catch up the front squat to the back squat, that’s it.”

Bring up your weak areas: If your front squat is lagging, it’s probably due to one or more deficiencies in strength, stability or mobility. “Where are you failing in your lifts?” asks Elmore. “And don’t determine this on an attempt at 95 percent plus of your 1RM, determine it on where things fall apart on a heavy set of five reps. This will help identify what mobility and accessory movements you need to perform to help build your front squat. “If you tend to lose lifts because you round your back due to a collapsing midline, focus on building your midline through accessory work: exercises such as banded good mornings with high reps, GHD sit-ups, weighted planks and hollow rocks,” he suggests. “And if you have to rely on the elevated heel of a weightlifting shoe to complete lifts, then make sure you train ankle mobility on a regular basis.”