Would you believe that a man who has won three IFBB shows, who has been top six at the Mr. Olympia; and who has some of the absolute best quads in pro bodybuilding today has never done a single set of squats in his life? As crazy as it sounds, it’s true in the case of Germany’s Ronny “the Rock” Rockel.
Maybe I should clarify that. Ronny has never in his life done standard squats with a barbell on his back—but he’s done thousands of sets of front squats. At his off-season weight of 240 he hit 450 on them for eight very deep reps. If there is any debate that front squats can be every bit as effective as back squats, look no further than Rockel’s wheels: thick, separated, dense and just plain nasty, with sick outer sweeps and vastus medialis muscles so meaty they hang below his kneecaps.
It’s a little-known fact that the modern era’s Tom Platz, Branch Warren has also done nearly as many sets of front squats as he has back squats for most of his pro career. One of the most memorable moments in Ronnie Coleman’s legendary training video “The Unbelievable” was seeing him rep out with six plates—585 freaking pounds—on front squats. Fronts are an underrated gem for building massive legs. In fact, I could legitimately make an argument for the superiority of front squats in certain circumstances.
Lower-back problems. If you are currently suffering from lower-back pain or have a history of lower-back injuries, squats are a very risky proposition. The degree of spinal compression—plus the risk of rounding your back when the reps get tough to complete—are significant. In contrast, front squats force you to keep a perfectly upright posture. If you lean forward, the bar will roll off you. It’s also true that most people can’t handle anywhere near as much weight on front squats. To those with back problems, that’s perfect. Squatting with 275 pounds doesn’t compress the spine as much as 405 would.
Taller men. Guys with long legs often have a very difficult time maintaining proper form and any semblance of an upright torso on squats. Often they are forced to splay their legs in a wide sumo stance just to stay balanced. Front squats are typically much more suited to bodies with longer limbs because you won’t have the constant impulse to pitch forward.
Those with enormous glutes. Do you already have a pair of bowling balls for glutes, a butt so huge that people wonder if you are part Clydesdale? If so, squats are a double-edged sword for you. You probably move some serious weight up and down, but your quads are always sharing the work with that big old ass. Front squats shift much more of the focus to the quads, where you want it, enabling you to build them up without continuing your butt’s expansion into the next ZIP code.
Anyone burnt out on squats. Any exercise, no matter how basic and productive, will become stale to you at some point. Rather than taking a break from squats and just doing leg presses and hacks, do plenty of front squats instead. The movement can be awkward at first, but after a few workouts you will get the form down right, and they will feel just as natural to you as back squats. Plus, because they are stimulating your quads in a different way, you are bound to see some fresh new growth in your thighs.
Ronny Rockel is living proof that a truly incredible pair of quads can be built purely with front squats. Why not see if you, too, can add to that body of evidence and help front squats get the recognition they rightfully deserve?
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years in the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.