If you really want to find out how strong someone’s hips, legs and glutes are, have him or her do a maximum front squat. Many will argue that lifters can always handle more weight on back squats. While that is certainly true, the two lifts are very different and the biggest difference is that you must go very deep on front squats. There is no way to cut them off. It only makes them harder to do—whereas all it takes for a back squat to be considered valid and legal is for you to break parallel. That’s a lot of disparity.
Until powerlifting became an official AAU sport in the ’60s, nearly all aspiring bodybuilders and competitive Olympic lifters did front squats regularly and with heavy weights. The Olympic lifters, naturally, did them so that they could recover from heavy cleans, while the bodybuilders used them to improve strength, size and shape in their lower bodies. This was during the time when all top-level bodybuilders also competed in Olympic-lifting meets in order to gain valuable athletic points for the major physique shows. When Joe Weider assumed control of competitive bodybuilding, the points were eliminated and many who were interested in building their physiques began using leg machines exclusively. Those who did do squats always did the back version—never front squats. Why?
Back squats are much easier to do than front squats. Almost anyone with any athletic skills at all can learn to do back squats correctly in a single session. That’s not the case with front squats because very few people have the necessary flexibility in their shoulders and elbows to be able to rack the bar across their front deltoids properly. It takes a fair amount of time and lots and lots of stretching before those joints are loose enough for you to be able to secure a solid rack, and the rack has to be solid if you want to handle any amount of weight.
Currently, the only athletes doing front squats regularly are Olympic lifters. That’s too bad since they are extremely beneficial for anyone who participates in a sport that involves jumping, and there are many of those: basketball, volleyball, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, football, all running and jumping events—plus a long list of field events, including pole vault, shot put, discus, hammer throw and javelin.
Front squats are seldom taught in scholastic and collegiate strength programs, primarily because coaches do not know how to teach them—which means that any program that does include front squats is being put together by someone who knows the Olympic lifts.
They are worth the effort to learn because they build strength in the hips, glutes and upper and lower legs in a way that no other exercise can.
The very first step is to gain the necessary flexibility in your shoulders, elbows and wrists so that you can rack the weight solidly across your shoulders. This process cannot be hurried. Try to push it, and you’ll end up stressing one of those joints. Ease into the stretching, and slowly improve it.
Tape your wrists. Until you gain the needed flexibility in your shoulders and elbows, your wrists take the brunt of the stress. Use trainer’s tape. Learn how to wrap your wrists yourself. The tape should not be so tight that it cuts off circulation and not so loose that you don’t get the desired support.
Now fix a bar in a power rack so that it cannot move. It should be at shoulder height. If a power rack isn’t available, use a staircase rack and just load up a bar with more weight than you can move. Start out doing one hand and arm at a time, mimicking the elbows-up front-squat position. Grip the bar firmly and while keeping your upper body perfectly straight, lift your elbow just as high as you can and hold the topmost position for five to six seconds. Then do the other hand and arm. Do a few sets until you feel your elbows and shoulders getting loose.
Now do both sides at the same time. The best way to do it is to have a training mate in front of you and push up against your triceps because he will be able to elevate them higher than you can on your own. When he has lifted your arms as high as they will go, have him continue to apply pressure for another five to six seconds.
Do these stretches at every workout, even if you’re not front-squatting that day. Also, stretch out your shoulders, elbows and wrists several times during the day just by pushing on them with your own power. I used to do this whenever I got stuck in a long checkout line. I got odd looks, but I’m used to those.
Once you increase the flexibility in your shoulders and elbows, you will be able to rack the bar across your front delts without any discomfort. The best way to do it is simply to shrug your traps and lift your entire shoulder girdle upward. That will keep you from placing the weight on your clavicles, which is quite painful. Your front deltoids will provide a solid ledge of muscle on which to lock in the bar.
Your elbows should be up so that your triceps are parallel to the floor. Grip the bar firmly, and make sure your torso stays erect throughout the movement. If you lean forward, even slightly, it makes it much harder to maintain a solid rack—and the rack is critical.
Your feet should be at shoulder width with toes pointed outward. Take a deep breath and pull yourself down into a deep squat. You must stay extremely tight and continue to concentrate on the rack throughout your descent. Once at the bottom, forcefully guild yourself up. When you just lower yourself slowly, you will not stay nearly as tight as you will if you forcefully guide yourself from the bottom.
While learning this exercise, pause for a brief moment at the bottom. That will keep you from rebounding out of the hole. Rebounding on any form of squat can be most troublesome to the knees, so never do it. The initial move out of the bottom is quite different from what it is for the back squat. On back squats, when the weight runs forward, many are able to pull it back in line enough to complete the lift. Not so on front squats. Should it move forward, even a bit, you’re toast and will most likely have to dump the bar.
Start out with five reps, but once you start moving heavier poundages, switch to triples. The reason for the switch is that the bar will slip out of the solid rack just a tad on every rep, no matter how hard you try to keep it in place. Threes will allow you to maintain the rack, and for some who have trouble with slippage, I prescribe doubles. When you want to boost your workload, just add more sets.
Give front squats a try, if for no other reason than to add some variety to your hip and leg program. As your front squat improves, you will find that your performance in other physical activities does as well.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.