Originally published on June 22, 2011
The front squat exercise gets a lot more love than it used to. It’s really about time. True, the back squat is still called the King by many but the front squat has come into its own. However, for an exercise that is purported to have so many benefits over the back squat, It’s a daunting thing to master. It is uncomfortable at first and just so downright weird for those used to the back squat. Heck, throw the overhead squat into the mix and it’s like a whole new world.
One benefit of the front squat is just as good as the back squat as a mass builder and, in fact, though I cannot prove it, I tend to think it is better. Well, lest you shout sacrilege let me remind you that mass is not my “specialty.”
The commonly held virtues of the front squat are that it lets the body stay upright, therefore, diminishing shear and bending compressive stress on the spine, making it more manageable for those with some kinds of back injury and pain. It can be a great alternative to the traditional back squat or a good addition to a trainee’s program. However, as I mentioned, this exercise can be very daunting to master. The barbell tends to be very painful on the shoulders, etc.
Then there is the thing which is most often discussed regarding the lift. The clean grip, which is the preferred grip, is hard to get used to because it requires good wrist, triceps, and shoulder flexibility. But those with the patience to see it through and get used to the exercise tend to be converts, quick to enthusiastically recommend the lift. Unfortunately, as is usually the case in strength training, a number of myths and fallacies have popped up about supposed benefits of the lift.
Front Squat is Easier on the Back for All Trainees?
Since lighter weights tend to be used and the body stays more upright than in the back squat this lift, as stated above, can be easier for the back of some trainees. Let me remind you that there is a fallacy inherent in this as well. The front squat is compared to the back squat, on a trainee to trainee basis, in regards to the relative weights used. The front squat uses lighter weight! Less compression! Okay, so let’s think about this for a moment. We are saying that a trainee who back squats 230 or so will have less back troubles with a front squat using 150 to 175lbs. Does this mean the front squat becomes dangerous when that trainee progresses to 230lbs on it? Flawed thinking even to the simple minded people like me.
However, the front squat now tends to be blindly recommended for everyone with back pain. The fact is, for some people, the lift will cause more back discomfort and no lift should be universally recommended to be always appropriate for a certain condition or injury. The front squat causes a very high degree of erector spinae activity and this actually induces its own compression on the spine. For sensitive trainees, it can be just as problematic as the back squat is for others.
It’s Easier to Dump the Bar in Case of Failure
A front squat benefit that is often stated is that it is easier to dump the bar in the case of a failed lifting attempt. The heavy back squat, without using spotters or safety pins, can be downright dangerous as a lifter can become stuck under the bar. Terrible accidents have occurred with careless trainees. The front squat, on the other hand, is easily dumped. The bar can simply be dumped off the front of the shoulders, in front of the trainee. Thus, the lift is inherently safer for those who work out alone.
However, many have taken this to mean that the front squat cannot be performed incorrectly. The idea is that if you mess up and lean too far forward, you’ll have to dump the bar and therefore the lift has a built-in safety mechanism against back injuries. In reality, a heavy bar will not just conveniently pop off of your shoulders and place itself neatly on the floor in front of you and it is quite possible for a lifter to get plenty of forward torso lean at the bottom of the squat, causing the bar to roll forward off the shoulders, thereby causing more leaning. The bar has to be purposefully dumped at this point but many lifters will just go ahead and perform the lift this way, which risks a back strain or more serious injury. The front squat is a safer lift but this does not mean that it cannot be done incorrectly.
You Can’t do the Clean Grip?
Not all front squat myths have negative results, some have a more positive outcome. A belief has been propagated, by some well-meaning experts, that many lifters will never be able to achieve the clean grip position because of a structural lack of wrist flexibility. This claim is not true at all. In truth, most lifters can and will be able to do the clean grip if they don’t give up too early and are willing to endure a bit of discomfort while developing the required flexibility. Those with previous wrist injury may have to use the crossover or Cossack grip or straps on the bar for handles, but the majority can achieve a clean grip, given several weeks of patient work. This will make the lift much easier and comfortable in the long run and, therefore, more successful. Still, this problem with gripping the bar make the front squat a less attractive option than the back squat, not to mention the pain in the shoulders from resting heavy bars on the deltoids.
So, I am saying the front squat is very awesome, but not magic. It is not the answer to everyone’s back pain and it will not just enable the bar to lift itself while the trainee sublimely rides underneath it enjoying the healthful benefits of the bountiful lift. Sarcasm aside, it takes work, can be problematic, but has gotten a bum steer by certain people who simply give up too easy. Perspective attained.