Squats are one of the most powerful parts of your weight training routine. Whether you are a novice gym-goer or competitive pro lifter, keeping up with your squat game is a must to develop a strong lower body. But many lifters are constantly asking, “What’s better, front or back squats?”
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simply one way or the other. While many people find that they prefer one method over the other, it’s important to know the benefits of each so you can get the most out of your workout.
This guide will take you through the ups and downs of squatting, literally. We talk about the different ways they target your muscles as well as the benefits of each. We’ll cover which one is tougher, the different methods to perform each, and how you can modify them to meet your needs or equipment on hand.
With this information, you’ll know exactly which squat to use for your specific goals. Plus, you’ll know how to properly perform each and select the proper weight and number of reps. So let’s get started so you can start forming that killer lower body.
Before we dive into the differences between front and back squats, let’s first talk about why squats are so important. It might seem like a simple exercise. However, it might just be the most important one to work into your routine.
Squats Work the Whole Body
Squats are incredible because they work the whole body. Sure, most of the burn is felt in your lower body as your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves get a great workout. However, this dynamic motion also works other super important areas as well.
Performing squats also help you improve your balance by honing in on vital core strength. When squatting, your core should be engaged, helping it build muscle. As you bend and lift, stabilizing your body is a great whole-body workout. Your abdominals, back, and even your shoulder muscles can benefit from squats.
Squats for Joint Health
Squats are also a good exercise for joint health. Regularly performing both front and back squats lead to stronger leg muscles overall. And this strength does a lot to stabilize and protect lower body joints that typically take a beating from other exercises.
Everything from your hip to ankle joints can see increased support and range of motion from a regular squat routine. Your knees will also see more stability, decreasing your risk of nagging pain and common injuries. By doing squats, you strengthen the ligaments and tendons in your legs, so they can better brace the joints and offer improved protection.
Improving Performance with Squats
Adding or increasing squats in your routine can enhance your performance in a wide range of activities. Your lower body is the foundation of how well you perform. Strengthening it allows you to be much more dynamic in other areas.
Squats can be one of the most important exercises for increasing speed and endurance for runners. The allows for longer strides, more power on inclines, and raw speed on flat terrain. It can also greatly enhance the performance of everyone from competitive cyclists to avid soccer and basketball players.
Now that you know why you need to be performing squats, it’s time to figure out which is better for you, front or back squats. Maybe a combination of the two is your best bet. Knowing your goals and how these exercises can get you there can help you decide.
With front squats, you place the bar on your shoulders and squat under the weight. This puts the majority of the weight centered over your abs instead of your back.
Using your selected grip, which we’ll go over later, you brace the weight and hinge your hips and knees, lowering to the ground focusing on downward movement. Get a deep squat low to the ground, then drive up from your legs to standing.
Front squats are killers for focusing on quad activation. The shift of the weight to the front allows for a greater range of motion and the development of quad muscles. However, they also work the entire muscle group throughout the whole lower body.
Putting the weight at the front of your body also benefits upper body muscles. As you work to stabilize the weight and brace your core, your lats, deltoids, and abs will all benefit.
Front squats have a few benefits over back squats that have caused them to increase in popularity in recent years. They can be easier on the knees, ideal for those that suffer knee pain and issues. They also focus on the quad muscle, ideal for stabilizing and protecting knee joints.
They are also easier on the low back, as it keeps the body upright rather than slightly leaned forward like on back squats. That said, to maintain the upright position, you do need good core strength.
The front squat also allows for a greater variety of grip options. It’s a more flexible option allowing for more athletes to benefit from them. By being more easily modified they can be adjusted depending on the needs and preferences of more individuals.
Back squats are the more traditional, old school style squat that’s been around for ages. Here, you rest the bar on your traps and shoulder.
You then dip with control towards the floor, hinging with your hips and knees like sitting back into a chair. The weight resting on your back centers it more in the middle of your foot and forces you to perform a more backward as opposed to straight down motion.
While back squats work all of the muscles of the leg, they encourage a more backward movement that engages your glutes and hamstrings at the posterior of your legs. The weight is stabilizing by resting on your shoulders, putting the majority of the effort on your upper legs.
This movement also works your calf muscles, especially in the upward movement. You should also engage your core to stabilize the movement, building muscle in your abs and the hard to target lower back.
There’s a reason back squats have been around forever, they are a fantastic lower body workout. The barbell resting on your back is a much simpler movement to perform, especially for beginners or those with decreased mobility.
Back squats also typically allow you to lift more weight comfortably as well. This is especially true if there are shoulder or wrists issues to address. The higher weight range also gives you the opportunity for heavier lifting to quickly increase muscle mass and power.
Now that you understand the basics and benefits, it’s time to talk about proper form. This is essential for getting the most out of your workout and preventing injury.
How Much Weight Should I Lift for Front Squats?
First, you’ll need to prep your bar. But how much weight should you load on? This can be a tough guess if you have never attempted a front squat before. However, your typical back squat load can be a good clue.
Remember when we said that you can lift heavier with back squats? Well, that’s true and helpful knowledge. Take about 15 to 20% off of your normal number for back squatting.
Remember you can always add more weight after your first set. However, it’s important to increase gradually to preserve your form. Take the time to get your form down before you jump up adding plates.
What is the Proper Front Squat Form?
As with any weighted movement, a proper front squat form is super important. Make sure to be diligent in slowly nailing it down. A mirror is helpful in making sure your alignment and movement are spot on.
Tips for Front Squat Success
There are a few tips and tricks that you can keep in mind to ensure you are getting the most from your front squats.
Other ways to do front squats without barbells:
If you don't have a barbell, you can easily do front squats with dumbbells or kettlebells. You can even do them with resistance bands!
Related: Resistance Band Leg Exercises
Is front squat better for knees?
The downward movement and where the weight is placed may be more comfortable for those with knee pain and injury. Keeping your knees in line with your toes is essential to protecting them while squatting.
Font squats encourage muscle growth in the anterior part of the leg, especially the quads. This can actually work to improve more supported and stable knee joints.
Related: Exercises for Knee Stability & Pain
Is front squat better for lower back?
For the same reason that it’s better for the knee joints, the answer is yes! The shift of the weight to the front of the body engages the core, but mainly the abdominal muscles. It also allows a more back-friendly downward movement, rather than hinging as much at the hip.
How do I front squat without wrist pain?
This is all about the grip. Try the strap grip method, which we are about to discuss. It can make it possible to still get the awesome workout of front squats, even with wrist pain or injury.
One of the big benefits of front squats is the ability to customize them to your fitness level and comfort. You can try out different grips to figure out which you prefer.
Clean Grip Front Squat Grip
This is exactly what it sounds like. Here, you grip the bar with your elbows pointing forward and your palms facing up, fingers pointing behind you. You can use your entire hand to grip the bar or just a few fingers. Over time, you’ll discover your own personal preference.
Keep your upper arms level with your shoulders and your arms parallel with each other as you perform the movement. There are a few things to consider when attempting clean grip front squats:
Cross Grip Front Squat
This is probably one of the easiest and safest ways to perform front squats, especially if you are new to the exercise. Like a back squat, the bar also rests on your shoulders. But this time, the front of your shoulders is the stabilizer.
Cross your forearms in front of you to hold the bar into place. Raise your upper arms to as close to shoulder level as possible to keep the bar securely pressed against your shoulders. The benefits of the crossbar grip are:
Front Squat Strap Grip
This technique sort of combines the two grips, allowing for open arms without mobility concerns.
It’s easier on the shoulders and wrists, allowing those with pain or injury in those areas to still reap the benefits of the front squat.
For this, you’ll secure two weightlifting straps about shoulder-width apart on the bar. Then, move it into position by grasping the strap and wrapping them around your hands. Reach under the bar to grip the straps from the top, palms facing each other. Then, lift the bar to collarbone level and elbows at nearly shoulder height, facing slightly outward. The reasons you might love this grip are:
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Back squats have the potential to cause injury when performed incorrectly. Take your time and get your form down before you are tempted to load up the weights.
What is the Proper Back Squat Form?
Tips for Back Squat Success
Here are some great tips to help you back squat safely so you can prevent injury and add weight to build some serious muscle mass.
There are two variations of barbell back squats - low bar and high bar.
High bar rests the barbell on your traps, whereas low bar rests it a few inches lower at about rear delt level.
While it comes down to personal preference for which you do, there are some mechanical differences.
High bar emphasizes the quads, engaging less of your posterior chain, as your torso will be more upright like it is with front squats. Another thing to note is that high bar requires more core stability, as it is easier for your back to round in this position, which you don't want. Moreover, high bar squats call for good ankle and hip mobility. If you are lacking in either, high bar squats will be difficult.
Related: Hip Mobility Exercises for Squats
Related: Ankle Mobility Exercises
Low bar squats emphasize the glutes and hamstrings, but they also target the quads well. With low bar squats, there is more stress on the hips, but less on the knees.
Because of the points above, most people can lift heavier on low bar squats than they can on high bar. Do what feels comfortable for you, but it's best to be able to do both.
Note: If you do high bar back squats, then be sure to do hamstring focused exercises as well (stiff legged deadlifts, hip thrusts), and if you are a low bar squat guy or gal, do some quad focused exercises on your leg day as well (front squats, leg press, high bar squats).
Now that you understand the basics of this fundamental exercise, there are a few things we should discuss regarding your specific situation.
Are back squats bad for your back?
Back squats can wreak havoc on spine injuries or the sore back muscles that they depend on to support the bar. Even with proper form, you might still find them painful. You can either try front squats instead or use a Smith machine for back squats to reduce the strain on your back.
Related: Exercises for Low Back Pain
Are back squats bad for your knees?
While front squats might be more comfortable for those with knee issues, back squats can also help build up the stabilizing muscles that help protect vulnerable joints. Proper form is the key to protecting the knee while squatting.
Make sure to keep your knees in line with your toes to protect them and maintain proper alignment. Only squat as deeply as you feel comfortable, remembering to move backward as well as downward. It might be beneficial to avoid your knees passing the tips of your toes.
How many back squats should I do?
This is a very individual question. Remember to balance rest and working out consistently enough to see real benefit and progress. About two times a week is typically a good place to start.
Your goals can determine how many back squats you should be trying to get in. If you are looking to increase your max lifting weight, you’ll want to do lower reps with higher weight. If your priorities are aesthetic or weight loss, more reps at lighter weight can help you burn calories and build lean muscle.
Can I back squat with dumbbells?
Don’t let lack of equipment prevent you from getting a stellar workout. Dumbbells can be used to get the same movement and muscle-building benefits from back squats.
To do this, simply choose dumbbells of adequate weight and rest them across your shoulders. Use the same form and movement as you would for a barbell back squat. You can even add an arm press as you stand for a great full-body workout.
The answer is, that’s totally up to you and your goals and situation to decide between front vs back squats.
Most people choose one or the other, but very proactive people do both. In our opinion, doing both is the best option. You can switch it up each week or leg session or even do both on the same day!
This table sums up all that we’ve covered and can help you decide which type is best to work into your exercise routine.
Focuses on the quads more
Focuses on the glutes and hamstrings more
Flexible grip options
Can allow for heavier lifting
Easier on the upper back and knees
Improve hip strength
Great for beginners
Essential for competitive lifting
To add these to your routine, a little trial and error are necessary. Mixing them up and alternating between the two can also give you the best of both worlds.
Remember, to use the proper squat form, watch your breathing, and resist piling on the weight too quickly. Adding squats to your workout will benefit your lower body as well as your core. It can even enhance your performance in other athletic activities. Discover your individual squat preferences so you can start building better muscle and looking and feeling great.
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