January 25, 2022
The front squat is a fantastic exercise to build strength and mass in your lower body, particularly your quads, as well as core strength...BUT, it's not an easy exercise to master. The main reason people have trouble with the front squat is that with the bar in front of you, it is awkward to grip and keep in position as you squat, especially when dealing with heavier loads. Other issues with the front squat is keeping your torso upright, but really this comes down to core strength.
In this article, we want to focus on the different ways that you can grip the bar when doing front squats. Which grip you choose really comes down to your limitations (i.e. wrist and shoulder mobility) as well as where you are in your fitness journey (i.e. beginner, intermediate, or advanced). However, there is one grip that we should all strive to achieve with good form, and we will explain how to get there. At the end, we will also provide some good alternatives to the front squat.
Before we get into the different types of grips, let's have a quick Front Squat 101 lesson so you know what a front squat is exactly, the muscles worked and benefits.
Front squats are typically performed with a barbell in the front rack position, meaning that the barbell is resting on the front side of the shoulders and along the collar bone area, while the elbows are elevated and fingers underneath the barbell pushing into your shoulders to maintain the bars position.
The front squat is a stellar exercise to strengthen the lower body and core. However, most find it to be an awkward movement at first. This is because of the bars position on the front side of the body and the greater demand on the core to maintain an upright position. With that, most people will use a significantly lighter weight load when starting out comparing to their barbell back squat.
Another big issue with the front squat is poor wrist and shoulder mobility. A lot of people have trouble keeping their elbows up to parallel with the floor, which is important for maintaining the barbells position. Wrist pain is common too due to a lack of wrist mobility, as the wrist will be bent backwards in the front racked position.
For reference, the front racked position that we just went over is also called a clean position. This is the position used during the clean exercise in Olympic lifting, which is one of the two Olympic lifts.
All in all, the front rack (aka clean) position takes time to learn and be comfortable with, which is why there are different grip alternatives in order to front squat.
The three main grips are:
No matter which grip you use to start, the ultimate goal is to be able to do the rack position grip, as the others are simply workarounds.
A squat, regardless of the variation, is a compound movement, which means it works several different muscle groups and acts on multiple joints at one time. A major player in a front squat in regards to muscles worked are the quads, but what other muscles are also contributing? Let’s take a look...
Primary muscles: In a squat, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings are all hard at work as they power hip and knee flexion and extension. These muscles are the powerhouse behind a strong and functional squatting pattern.
Secondary muscles: Although maybe not discussed as often, these secondary squatting muscles are just as important as the primary ones! Muscle groups like your gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior all have an impact on your ankle mobility and range of motion, while the rectus abdominis and erector spinae help to maintain the proper posture during a front squat (which should have your torso in an upright position). The front squat also recruits the lats, trapezius, deltoids, pecs, and serratus anterior to help stabilize your upper body throughout the movement.
Front squats are a wonderful exercise to incorporate into a lifting routine. Not only do they build muscle, strength, endurance and power throughout the lower body, but they also aid in strengthening the core and subsequent stabilizers.
Here are some of the main benefits of front squats:
You might not think that the grip you use in a front squat is relative - however, it is imperative to find one that works for you, your mobility, and your programming in order to move correctly in a front squat!
Aside from being in the proper position mechanically for the front squat, there are different ways that you can get your grip around the barbell in order to perform a front squat correctly.
The front rack position, which is the proper way to front squat and is necessary for several different exercises (such as any clean variation), can be difficult to get into and maintain when squatting, not to mention, is uncomfortable. Thankfully, there are techniques to learn and master the front rack position.
But, let's say you want to do a front squat while learning the front rack grip. That's where the other grip options for the front squat come into play.
Essentially, you want to first nail down the movement pattern and correct form of the front squat, which means you can use a grip that works for you, and then once you do that (or in the meantime), you can start working on achieving the front rack grip (assuming you are using another grip to start).
As mentioned earlier in the article, the three grips for a front squat are:
We will no cover each of the grips...
With the front rack grip, the barbell is resting above your collarbone and on the front side of your shoulders, while the shoulders are flexed and the elbows high (so your triceps are parallel with the floor). All of this is done while the upper body is tall, and the lower body descends into a squat – needless to say, it can be a difficult movement!
Also know as the clean grip, this is the traditional way to hold onto the barbell for your front squats. While this grip will feel the most secure, which means you can use heavier loads (eventually), it does have its disadvantages – specifically when it comes to mobility within the wrist. It's hard to bend your wrist back while keeping your fingers on the barbell!
The front rack position can be tricky to get into, especially if you’re uncomfortable with loosening your grip on the barbell once weight is added or if your elbows don’t currently go very high due to a lack of mobility. Regardless, you want to be confident in holding the weight in that front rack without losing your core engagement or the high elbow position! A tight, full grip on the barbell can actually cause the elbows to drop down as you squat, so a somewhat open grip on the bar during your front squats and nailing the cues for the movement are essential (driving the elbows up, keeping gaze forward, engage the lats, etc.).
Front Rack Grip Practice: Don't be surprised if you have trouble with the front rack position, it's extremely common. Funnily enough, the best mobility drill for the front rack is the front rack position itself! Start with the empty bar and then add some light weight plates to it and just focus on standing with the bar in the front rack position and keeping your full fingers on the bar with your elbows up. You can even work on the grip and elbow height while the barbell is still racked in the squat rack, then eventually with the barbell unracked. Overall, this will give you a sustainable positional tolerance and mobility. That said, there are also some front rack mobility drills that you can do. Another thing you should be doing is working on upper back strength! That will be your weak link in terms of keeping your torso upright when squatting. This becomes less of an issue however if you keep your elbows up high when in your front rack position.
The cross-grip front squat (aka crossed arm grip or bodybuilder grip) positions the barbell in the same exact spot along your shoulders. However, your arms will cross at the front of your body as you place your hands on the bar at the opposite shoulder.
The cross-grip will easily allow you to keep your elbows up, which ensures your torso can remain upright. There should be no mobility issues here. Nearly all beginners can do this grip, pending no existing shoulder joint issues.
The downside to the cross-grip is the bar will feel less stable, and thus, your potential for heavier loads goes away. Nevertheless, it is still a viable option when starting out.
Using a strap or towel to hold the barbell is a good option for those who want a very stable grip for front squats but have limited wrist mobility. This is a common option for people who care less about learning the front rack position and more about getting the benefits of the front squat itself with heavier loads.
Basically your arm position will be the same as a rack position, but your hands will be holding onto the straps rather than the bar, which eliminates both shoulder and wrist mobility issues. You simply need less range of motion to keep your elbows up this way.
If you still want to utilize front squats in your lifting program (but maybe don’t have a barbell handy), there are other pieces of fitness equipment you can use instead! Granted, the movement itself will look a bit different with the removal of a barbell, but you can still strengthen the quads and glutes and improve core stability tenfold with other implements.
Dumbbells: Front squats with the dumbbells can be done in two ways, goblet squat (one dumbbell held at your front and center near your chest) or two dumbbells (held up at the front of your shoulders in a sort of front rack position). The latter is the hardest variation of the dumbbell squat, but both are great dumbbell exercises for the quads.
Kettlebells: Another awesome equipment variation, kettlebells can be used in the same way as dumbbells - goblet or front rack. However, due to the design of the kettlebell, it should actually be a little more comfortable to maintain a front rack position.
Sandbags: If you are wanting some added resistance to your front squats but don’t have access to traditional gym equipment, a sandbag works just as well! Most sandbags have handles, and these can be used to clean your sandbag up into your front rack. Elbows would still stay high, and the front squat would be performed as stated above. Then when you are finished, drop the bag back to the floor.
If you are working on wrist and shoulder mobility (or maybe just want another alternative to front squats all together), there are plenty of exercises to choose from! These movements will still target leg strength as well as core stability, and can be worked into programming in several different ways.
The following exercises were chosen as front squat alternatives based on the following factors:
What this means is, they can replace the front squat in your programming (we starred** the best options in our opinion).
Related: Best Squat Variations
The front squat is an excellent compound movement for just about any lifting program – and nailing the proper grip is key. Practice makes perfect in regards to what grip you want to use on the barbell…and mobility and flexibility work, particularly in the wrists and upper body, might need to be added to your routine in order to help you really nail the front rack grip that is needed in order for you to achieve your goals. Regardless of whether you use a front rack grip, cross arm grip, or straps, remember that the mechanics of the front squat itself stay the same!
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