The barbell front squat is a squat carried out with the barbell positioned in the clean position, the bar resting on the lifters front deltoids. Front squats allow a more upright torso position than barbell back squats and are an excellent alternative or adjunct exercise. This article is meant to be basic technique instruction for the lift, followed by a discussion of the clean grip, which is the preferred grip for the front squat. Then follows many very useful tips and other information.
Although the clean grip is recommended this article assumes that the trainee is using the front squat as a stand-alone exercise and not as part of the development of the Clean or the Clean and Jerk. As such there will be no need to actually clean the bar to the shoulders.
The front squat is primarily a knee-dominant lift with a heavy emphasis on quadriceps strength but both hip and knee extension is involved so the posterior chain, including the gluteals and hamstrings are heavily involved. For many lifters, the front squat, and if possible, the overhead squat, can be the primary squat lifts(s) used with no need to use the back squat for those trainees with back problems, for which the front squat allows less spinal torque and compression. However, some benefits of the front squat over the back squat have been exaggerated.
Setup for the Front Squat
To begin, position the barbell at about armpit height in a squat rack or power cage. The safety catches should be positioned just below the lowest level of the bar when performing the lift. The bar will be positioned on the shoulders by stepping under the barbell and then taking a step back.1
1. With the bar resting on the rack pins, at armpit height in front of you, step forward and grasp the bar in a pronated grip, with your hands just wider than shoulder-width.
2. While grasping the bar, move forward to position your shoulders, hips, and feet directly underneath the bar while raising your elbows so that the bar comes to rest on the front deltoids just behind the clavicle and you are grasping the bar with a clean grip.
- If you lack the wrist flexibility to do this allow the bar to rest on the fingers, using as many fingers as possible to provide stability to the bar while lifting.
- The bar is in the proper position if it is the ‘notch’ created between the anterior deltoid and the clavicle with the bar lightly touching the throat.
- The hands should be on top of the shoulders or just outside them with the elbows in line with the wrists (not jutting out to the side or toward the midline)
- Actively push up the elbows and try to maintain this high elbow position throughout the performance of the lift. This will help you keep the bar on the shoulders and help you to maintain your torso as upright as possible.
3. Being sure that your hips and feet are in line with the bar, remove the bar from the rack by squatting the bar off the rack.
4. Take one step back from the rack and stand erect with the feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward.
5. Keep your neck neutral (chin slightly tuck and neck slightly back), your shoulders back, chest up, and elbows high.
6. Now you are ready to begin squatting.
Performance for Front Squat
1. Begin the lift by flexing the hips and knees and slowly lowering, straight down, under control. Keep your body directly over your feet.
- Squat straight down between your legs. Do not move the hips back.
- Keep your neck neutral and eyes straight ahead and slightly upwards. Do not look down while moving down.
- Do not allow the shoulder to dip forward while descending. keep the torso extended and the lower back in it’s naturally arched position.
- Keep your heels on the floor.
- Remember to allow your body to move straight down between your legs. The knees should not buckle inward but stay out in line with the toes.
2. Continue descending until you can no longer maintain the lower back (lumbar) in its natural arched curve and the torso upright. Stop if:
- Your torso dips forward.
- Your lower back rounds and the hips begin to move underneath the torso (forward).
- Your heels come off the floor.
- Likely, at least two of these will begin to happen.
- Do not worry about going deeper than your mobility allows you to go.
3. Once you are at the bottom, and throughout the descent, continue to address the bar. Keep the body tight, the elbows up and maintain this awareness once you reach your maximum depth. Do not relax in the hole.
- A good way to stay tight and extended throughout the lift is to actively push your shoulder up against the bar at all times. To do this imagine that you are actually stretching and extending your torso and spine upwards INTO the bar. Do this even while you are moving down. You do not need to relax your torso forward to move down, your legs and hips will do that for you.
4. Finish the squat by driving your heels into the floor and extending your hips powerfully. Return to the upright position.
Trouble with the Clean Grip when Front Squatting
Many trainees choose to use a Crossover or “Cossack” grip rather than the clean grip when front squatting because they lack the wrist flexibility to use the clean grip position. For those with previous wrist injuries the clean grip may well be impossible or contraindicated but most trainees simply give up too soon and the problem is a simple lack of wrist mobility. This can be easily overcome by gradually working your way into a full clean grip position. An empty bar or wooden dowel can be used to perform “clean grip stretches” and other wrist mobilization and tricep stretches can be performed. Some discomfort is to be expected but in the absence of severe pain there is no reason to assume you cannot achieve the required mobility.
The Crossover grip is by far an inferior position for performing the front squat. It provides a much less stable platform for the bar and it makes keeping the elbows high much more difficult. Most trainees are very happy when they finally do the work to make the switch from the crossed grip to the clean grip, wondering how they ever did a front squat without it!
With the crossed grip the elbows are not placed in a “upwards” position. They must be forced up and the bar tends to roll forward much more when using this technique, making it very difficult to keep the torso upright. The clean grip places the elbows already in an up position and a better, more stable shelf is created for the bar to rest on.
Sore necks seem to come with using the crossover grip and this may be because the trainee must work so hard to keep the elbows up and the bar from rolling forward that the shoulders shrug and the neck is postured and strained.
Front Squat From the Floor – No Squat Rack
If you don’t have a squat rack, you can still do the front squat or the back squat, but it will limit you eventually and, frankly, you’ll find it a big inconvenience. Most lifters will fairly quickly grow their strength on the squat to a level that makes it very difficult to get the bar onto the shoulders from the floor. Despite what many holistically styled ‘lifters’ say, there is no reason to limit your strength on any lift by an inability to get a bar into position.
First, read more about squatting without a squat rack. Second, if you have the room, consider buying a squat rack. They are more affordable than most people think and will open up your training to places you would otherwise be unable to go! A squat rack aka power rack, together with a barbell and weights, is truly a home multi-gym. See this guide to squat racks or power racks for more help. If you are limited for space, a squat stand may be a good solution. Read more about squat stands here.
Many lifters without access to a squat rack struggle to get the bar into the clean position for the front squat. They tend to resort to flipping the bar up into position by means of a combination of upright row and reverse curl maneuver. This maneuver is known as the “Continental”. The bar is picked up from the floor, briefly rested on the top of the lifting belt or on the thighs, and is flipped up. Assistance from the body may be used on the way up but many lifters “power up” the bar with a strong upright row from the shoulders and bringing the elbows quickly under the bar so that it can be racked. In fact, many trainees mistakenly call this maneuver “cleaning the bar”.
Taken together, these methods are sometimes known as the “Overhead Anyhow” meaning, quite literally, you get the barbell up by any means possible (although you are not lifting it overhead). Using the arms alone to flip the bar up, however, can result in shoulder injury and should be considered very dangerous. The shoulders are relied on alone to power up the bar without adequate assistance from the body extension as is done during the Olympic Clean. If you have no other resort, it would be best to learn and practice a proper Olympic Clean, if for no other purpose than to bring the bar into the clean position for performing your front squats. The video below shows the “Overhead Anyhow” being performed by Jim from BeastSkills.
Modified Clean Grip with Straps or Handles
For those who absolutely cannot use a clean grip, straps can be placed on the bar in order to serve as handles. All you have to do is tie two lifting straps onto the bar with the two ends of the straps left even so they stick out and can held onto. Use these makeshift handles in a hammer grip position when doing the front squat. In the meanwhile, work on getting the clean grip, if possible.
Problems Getting Into Clean Position Under the Bar
It can be very difficult to get into the clean position underneath the bar while one is actively engaged in working up the flexibility needed to use it. Although you may start with having only one finger under the bar, placing both arms into position can be very difficult.
A solution was proposed by Boris of SquatRX. See his great instructional video below. He demonstrates how to get one shoulder at a time under the bar, which begins at around 6:48 in the video. Boris’ squat instruction videos are unparalleled and I use them a lot. I tend to agree with most things Boris says. The only thing I disagree with in this video is the recommendation of using dislocates as an exercise to increase shoulder flexibility in preparation for the clean grip.
The method is to move one shoulder under the bar and place the hand in the clean grip position then rotate the other shoulder into position under the bar. Watch the video to see how this is done.
Some Myths and Pitfalls About the Front Squat
I already discussed some of the myths about the front squat in an article I linked above. Some of them bear repeating here.
- It is said that the front squat cannot be performed incorrectly because if the lifter fails to keep the torso upright the bar will simply drop to the floor. This is wishful thinking. It is quite possible to have the torso dip forward, and even flex the lumbar spine without the bar magically and neatly floating off of the shoulders! The bar may tend to move forward, making it more difficult to maintain the upright position but the lifter will usually have to purposely dump the bar if he or she becomes stuck or unable to complete the lift for any reason. Remember there is plenty of friction between the hard barbell, pressing down on the relatively soft surface of your shoulders to keep it from nicely rolling off your shoulders even when your torso dips forward. The ease and relative safety of aborting a failed front squat gives it an advantage, as stated below, but the lift is not as “self-correcting” as some make it out to be.
- The front squat is often blindly recommended for those with lower back pain. The front squat may increase the activity of the erector spinae and so present difficulties for those with back pain. Despite the reputation of the back squat as a back buster, the back squat may be better suited to some kinds of back pain than the front squat.
- Ancient wisdom has it that a large proportion of lifters will never be able to achieve the clean grip position due to an innate lack of flexibility in the wrists. I have not found this to be the case and it seems a simple case of “giving up too soon”, probably out of fear of injuring the wrists. Most lifters, even very heavily muscled ones, should be able to achieve the clean grip if they dedicate a few months to working up to it with stretching and practice. Pre-existing wrists injuries may preclude the clean grip but other than that it is simply based on how hard you are willing to work at it and endure a bit of discomfort.
Benefits of the Front Squat
- The front squat can be expected to be just as effective for general strength development as the back squat but with less compressive stress on the spine
- The front squat requires an upright position of the torso so this reduces shear stress on the spine
- The front squat challenges the stability of the torso so it is a great “core” lift
- The front squat is a very effective alternative to the back squat for those without a squat rack. It requires less weight so that the barbell can be brought to the shoulders via a clean without the necessity to lift the weight over the head.
- The front squat is easier to abort in case of a failed attempt or other problem during its performance. This makes it slightly safer for those who train alone or who do not have a squat rack with safety pins.
- The front squat is a good assistance exercise for the clean lift and it more closely resembles the actual performance of the Olympic clean.
- The front squat help the overhead press (Military Press) by getting you used to supporting heavy barbells in front with a tight body position.
If I Do Front Squats Do I Still Need to do Back Squats?
This depends on your goals. If your goal is general strength and fitness, and you are comfortable with the front squat, then no you do not need to also do the back squat. The front squat is a great muscle developer as well, and not only for the legs.
The back squat is sometimes argued to be superior because it emphasizes the hip musculature more. This is an argument by degrees as a well-rounded training routine should more than cover the posterior-chain (which comprises the “hip”) and a squat is, whether back squat or front squat, generally a knee-dominant movement.
Common Mistakes Made During Front Squats
- Sit Back: This first mistake is common to squatting in general. Many trainees have been instructed to always “sit back” when squatting. Sitting back in the squat was born out of a need to optimize the effect of the squat suit for geared lifters, which is usually combined with a low bar position and a wide stance. If you attempt to bring your hips back while front squatting you will simply have to dump the bar as the torso dips forward.
The torso should be coming straight down between the hips. So in other words, as in the instructions above, you squat straight down and open the hips.
- Bar Too Far Forward on Shoulders: This is very common. If your bar is placed too far forward on the deltoids it becomes quite impossible to remain upright. It also becomes more uncomfortable. The bar should be placed in the groove between the deltoids and clavicle, almost touching the neck.