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How to Front Squat: Everything You Need to Know

Written on December 4, 2012 at 7:09 am, by Eric Cressey

The squat is one of the most revered strength training exercises of all time, and the front squat is a popular variation on this compound lift.  However, like many lifts, it's often performed incorrectly, and in many cases used by folks for whom it isn't a good fit.  To that end, I thought I'd devote this article to outlining everything you need to know to be successful with the front squat.

What Makes the Front Squat Different?

A few primary factors differentiate a front squat from a traditional back squat.

First, the bar is positioned on the front of the shoulder girdle rather than on the upper back.  In the process, an athlete is given a counterbalance to allow for a better posterior weight shift, which improves squat depth.  If you need proof, check out your body weight squat, and then retest it while holding a ten-pound plate out at arm's length; most of you will improve substantially.

Second, because the arms are elevated (flexed humeri), the lats are lengthened.  This is in contrast to the back squat, where the lats can be used to aggressively pull the bar down into the upper back and help create core stability.  I firmly believe the lack of lat involvement is what accounts for the significant differences in loads one can handle in the front squat as compared to the back squat.  However, "quieting down" the lats on the front squat is likely why athletes with such dramatic lordotic posture can often squat much deeper/cleaner with the front squat.  Of course, if they have an excessive lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt, you may not want to squat them in the first place!

Third, the positioning of the bar in the front makes the front squat much more shoulder friendly than the back squat, assuming we aren't dealing with an acromioclavicular joint injury, which would be irritated by direct pressure of the bar.  In the back squat, the externally rotated "rack" position poses problems for athletes with poor upper body mobility, and it actually reproduces injury mechanisms at the shoulder and elbow in overhead athletes like baseball players, tennis players, volleyball players, and swimmers.

Fourth, the upright torso angle of the front squat reduces shear stress on the spine. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, as the resistance is moved further away from the axis of rotation; just think of a see-saw where your lower back is the middle point and you'll catch my drift. Moving the load further out also increases risk of going into excessive lumbar flexion under compressive load. The front squat – even under heavier loads – keeps a lifter more upright, or else he’ll simply dump the bar; it's somewhat of a self-limiting strength exercise.

Fifth, because the load is positioned further forward than in a back squat, there isn't as much of a pre-stretch for the posterior chain, so the front squat will be more quad dominant than the back squat, which will engage more glutes and hamstrings.  Of course, you can use front box squats to shuffle things up and get some variety, but we won't deviate from the point too much here.

Sixth, in the overwhelming majority of lifters, because of the upright torso angle and increased recruitment of quads relative to posterior chain, most lifters will use significantly less weight on the front squat than the back squat. All things considered, if you can achieve a comparable training effect with less external loading, you're dealing with what would generally be considered a safer exercise.

Contraindications

Some individuals simply aren't cut out for any kind of squatting, so before we even talk technique, it's important to start by separating these lifters out.  Some common contraindications for squatting include poor tolerance to compressive loading (e.g., symptomatic lumbar spine disc injuries) and femoroacetabular impingement (this bony block at the hips makes it virtually impossible to squat without developing issues acutely and chronically).

Specific to front squatting, poor hip mobility, ankle mobility, core stability can be problematic, but perhaps nothing is as big of a buzzkill for front squatting as a kyphotic posture.  As I demonstrate with my Quasimodo impression in this photo, it's impossible to get the elbows up when you're rounded over like a scared cat.

 

These are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential contraindications, but they serve as examples of how we need to fit the exercise to the lifter and not vice versa. With that out of the way, let's talk…

Technique!

We'll start with the hand positioning, as it's the most hotly contested portion of the front squat technique debate.  Only a video will do it justice:

When it comes time to unrack the bar, I cue the athlete to push the elbows up high and take air into the belly as they stand up the weight.  This combination of "elbows up" (shoulder flexion) and "air in" prevents the bar from rolling – either because the arms are angled down or because the torso goes to mush as the rib cage comes down.

After the weight is walked out, the athlete should take a slightly outside hip width stance, with the toes angled slightly out.  One of the biggest mistakes I see is that athletes go too wide with their stance, and the end result is that the knees have nowhere to go but in:

To piggyback on the "feet in, knees out" cue, I encourage athletes to think of "squatting between the knees, not over them."  This seems to get folks to the right balance of "sit back" and "sit down," as an (Olympic) front squat will have more "sit down" than a back squat or box squat variation. Additionally, a regular back squat will be slightly wider in stance than a front squat for most folks, and a box squat will certainly be even wider.

"Elbows up" is a cue that resounds throughout the movement, and it's especially important in the bottom position, when the bar will want to roll the most.  Regardless of the hand position you select, make sure the elbows are at or above the level of the bar at all times.  One great drill for practicing is to simply unrack the bar hands-free and gradually build up loads.  If you can get comfortable with this set-up, you'll always remember to think "elbows" and not "hands."

As you come out of the hole and accelerate toward lockout, make sure you don't get lazy as you enter the easy portion of the strength curve.  This is where front squatting with chains can be very helpful; it educates you on how to accelerate right up to lockout, where the hips and knees extend fully simultaneously.  If you don't have chains, try loading the last ten pounds of weight as 2.5-pound weights (two on each side). Position the clamp about an inch further out than it would normally be so that they can "clank" a bit.  Your goal is to make the 2.5-pound plates rattle at the top of each rep.  Finish with the glutes as you stand tall, and reset your breath before descending for subsequent reps.

Speaking of reps, stay away from doing high-rep front squats.   Sets of six should be the maximum you do, as muscles involved in maintaining the "rack" position may fatigue early and compromise the safety of the exercise.

Equipment Considerations

There are three important equipment considers to take into account.

First, your shoes should have a subtle heel lift.  It doesn't have to be an Olympic lifting shoe, but something that is totally flat to the ground won't work for the majority of folks.  It'll take some tremendous ankle mobility to squat deep without a little lift – even if it's only a few millimeters.  Front squatting (assuming an upright, Olympic stance) barefoot is probably not a great idea; I can count on one hand the number of people I've seen do it in good technique in the past 4-5 years since the barefoot craze took off.  Minimalist shoes are fantastic, but not necessarily for deep, Olympic-style squatting. If you're rocking a Minimalist sneaker, you can always slide a five-pound plate under the heel.

NewBalance-20v3low

Second, be careful with shirts made of "wicking" fabric.  While they may be super comfortable, they do tend to allow the bar to slide a bit too much, especially if you're using a bar that doesn't have much knurling.  A quick solution to this is to spread some lifting chalk around the collar and chest to help the bar grab the shirt a bit more – or you could just wear a different shirt.

Third, many front squat newbies will really struggle with the discomfort of the bar position as they're learning to the bar-in-front technique.  While everyone ultimately adjusts to this discomfort (especially if they add some muscle mass to the area), one strategy to help athletes get by in the short-term is to just have them wear two shirts while they front squat.  This extra layer of padding is subtle and won't change the technique of the exercise, but will make it more tolerable during the learning phase.  You can taper an athlete off of it shortly thereafter.

Closing Thoughts

Squats aren't for everyone, but if you are going to squat, the front squat is one great option. Put these coaching cues and strategies into action, and you'll be front squatting safely and moving big weights in no time.

Looking for more detailed training tutorials like this, and a program in which front squatting is incorporated? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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  • Sandro

    Hi,
    Thank you for you observations about Front Squats Eric. I have a kyphotic posture since teenage, and so I never was able to try the front squat without think that it seemed too risky to me, even thinking I am able to maintain my elbows up, because the excessive tension that I identify in my upper back. I never had problems with back squats because this anyway, ( I train there are 10 years) adjusting the position of the bar. However, I always thought that it was some problem with my technique in Front Squats. Your post clear my doubts.

    I think that the same risks applies to barbell overhead press (the dumbbell version seems more friendly to kyphotic people) and to even to power clean and push press, don’t you think?

  • Mario

    Can I just use a trap bar if I have problems with reegular squating?

  • Magalita

    Hi Eric
    what an amazing post. I only wish I’d read it before starting show and go. Do you have a similar tutorial on the overhead squat?

    I am interested in the Elite Training Mentorship 30-day trial for just a buck, but I don’t see that promotion anywhere on the site. Am I blind?

    Thanks again for all your great work.

  • Donovan

    Great article Eric! How do I prevent the bar from slipping off my shoulder as well as keeping my elbows up as the weight increases? As my front squat weight increases, these two things seem to go real bad, and has caused some unsightly dry skin/skin peeling along the shoulder area. There is no problem with squatting that weight, the problem is with handling it. Could you please advise on what could be done? Thanks!

  • Mike

    Eric,
    Thanks for the very helpful post.
    I have two quick questions/comments:
    1)In the top video where you are free squatting, it looks like your bottom tucks a little beneath your hips at the very bottom of your range of motion. I have read in some places that this puts a lot of stress on your disks. I do the same thing when I go deep in a front squat. Is this a problem, or is your tuck slight enough that it doesn’t matter (or I am wrong that you are even tucking at all).
    2) I am recouperating from an AC joint injury and am not front squatting right now b/c of it. When I am fully recovered, do you think it is OK to return to front squatting or is that just too hard on the joint. Any insigts about how you handle this with your clients would be much appreciated.
    Thanks!

  • Anjuli

    Thanks for this article!! It is perfect timing :)
    What would be a good weight to start with? Is there a correlation between weights for Back & front squat – if you back squat X lbs then, you can, start with roughly Y lb front squat. I understand it will be relative to the person. I am currently back squatting 155 lb 5 rep. And, I am 5’1″ and not a newbie to front squat…just haven’t done them for a while. Getting mentally tired of doing back squat every workout & want to switch it up a bit. Thanks!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Donovan,

    Start with sets of 2-3 reps at 50% of your estimated 1-rep max and make them ABSOLUTELY PERFECT technique-wise. Add a few pounds each week. In 6-8 weeks, you should have great technique.

  • Constantine

    I have a few thoughts about Donovan’s comment and grip in general too!

    Donovan,

    What sort of grip do you use? Have you tried all of them and identified the one which is most comfortable for you based on the criteria Eric outlined? I’m just mentioning it because when I started front squatting I blindly went with the crossed face grip because it ‘looked’ more stable without comparing it with the clean grip. I eventually got used to it but it was always pretty awkward for me. I could do it, but I would occasionally have trouble keeping my elbows up as the weight got really heavy.

    As I got into olympic lifting, I started doing cleans and I started to consider the clean grip more seriously. First of all, the clean grip actually felt way more natural for me. I liked the more symmetrical position and it just felt really stable. Another thing I learned from cleans was that I didn’t really know what a solid racking position for the front squat felt like. When I first started doing cleans the bar would hit my collar bone a lot to the point I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep cleans as part of my workouts—I thought the bar might be hitting my collar bone so much because of a big bump I have in my actual collar bone. A few months of experimentation later (and maybe after putting on some more meat in the shoulder area) I stopped hitting my collar bone doing cleans and I feel tremendously more solid with the bar racked in front squat position. I have trouble quantifying exactly what I was doing wrong–maybe the bar wasn’t far enough back on my shoulders, my elbows weren’t up enough, I wasn’t engaging shoulders/lats enough to create a proper shelf for the bar, but the clean/clean grip progressions really helped me get more comfortable with my front squats.

    Good luck!

  • Courtney

    Eric, at a recent seminar for S & C for football, the instructors were strict on performing lifts with toes forward. I had always used a ‘toes slightly out approach’ or what felt comfortable. I noticed your toes to be slightly out. What do you teach on foot position and how significant is foot position?

  • http://www.EpicFitnessTraining.com Kyle Brayer

    Well done– thanks for sending this out.

  • http://CarlosMendezLeo(Facebook) Carlos Mendez Leo

    Great idea on devoting an article to this great exercise and very interesting thoughts about the “lats” making the big difference on the amount of weight that can be used on back squatting vs. front squatting.

  • Jake

    Eric,

    As you recommended front squatting with an elevated heal, wouldn’t this also increase the shear stress on the knees as a trade off?

    How would one determine if barefoot squatting is “ok” for them? (I have very cranky knees). What are the risks that one takes by barefoot squatting if they do not have adequate mobility?

  • http://N/A Kieran

    I don’t agree, I think you should squat with flat shoes. Since you should drive through your heels. A shoe with a heal raise will surely add pressure to the knee joint?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Anjuli,

    I’d start with just the bar and gradually work your way up. You’ll find that the difference between the front and back squat is very individual, and depends a lot on how much of each variation you do.

  • J.R. Holder

    Eric,

    Great article. When you wrote about contraindications, you mentioned people with symptomatic lumbar disc injuries. I occasionally suffer from the dreaded L4-L5 flare up. Would you suggest staying away from front squats altogether, or just when a person when symptoms are present? If staying away is the answer, would you recommend unilateral work as an alternative?

    Thanks!

  • Sam

    Eric,
    How much should you “sit back” on a front squat? Should it be strictly “sitting down” or should you initiate with a bit of a hip hinge?
    Thanks,
    Sam

  • Donovan

    Hey Constantine! With regards to the grip, I actually started off with a clean grip. As the weights got heavier, I switched to the cross-face grip as my wrists started giving me problems. And then, the bar started rolling. I sometimes wonder if it is because I do not “choke” myself with the bar when setting up. With the amount of dry, scaly skin appearing around my shoulders due to the front squatting, I am wondering if I should wear thicker shirts…

  • Chris

    Great article. I was wondering if somehow did have femoroacetabular impingement, what alternate exercises would you recommend for quad/glute development?

  • Nick

    Hi Eric,

    Great article, and what uncanny timing because I just started front squatting again! The more I do it, the more I love it.

    I was a bit disappointed to see that the pelvis wasn’t discussed at all. Back when I was a novice lifter, I would just hyperextend the spine and throw some anterior pelvic tilt just because that’s what I thought was right. Well, ffwd past some nagging low back issues, I’ve recently begun engaging a bit of posterior pelvic tilt to engage the core better (boy, are the abs sore!) and maintain neutral spine. This obviously emphasizes how important that thoracic extension is!

    Could you discuss/comment on the proper hip/pelvic positioning for a front squat? (Which muscles to engage, which muscle oppose each other, what are some helpful coaching cues, etc.?)

    Thanks!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Chris,

    Most folks can handle deadlifting variations, barbell supine bridges, single-leg work, and sled pushing/pulling just fine. Really depends on how much labral involvement there is, though.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Sam,

    You still sit back a bit, but it’s MUCH more subtle than in back squat variations.

  • James

    Nice little tip re: the two shirts – I’ve seen way too many new lifters, as well as trainers, abandon the Front Squat due to the discomfort of it. Hopefully this helps a few people pursue it for a while longer before deciding to give up on it.

  • Drew

    Great article on a great exercise. Do you feel aside from the hand placement and “high elbows”, that the Goblet squat (I have to give Dan John his credit) is a good lead in exercise to teaching the front squat technique? I have found that this has helped our athletes with “torso between knees” position you mention in the article. Nice job mentioning the lats as core stabilizers in the back squat. Is this because of the connection to the contralateral glute via the thoracolumbar fascia and its attachment to the t-spine?

  • Ed C

    Great article!
    I was wondering about the recommended heel lift. I have read and heard Charlie Weingroff speak against olympic lifting shoes for the non-competing population. Do you think front squatting with Minimus or barefoot is something we should strive for?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Ed,

    I agree with Charlie: Olympic lifting shoes are largely for non-Olympic lifters. And, being able to squat in a pair of Minimus or barefoot is certainly a noble goal for most lifters (excluding those with structurally stiff feet/ankles). You won’t see many people who can do it, though.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Drew,

    Yes! We use goblet squats as a regression from front squats in our teaching progression, and do them quite a bit in our younger athletes. I also like TRX overhead squats.

    Lats are very powerful in their ability to pull an athlete into a gross extension pattern, as they run all the way from the thoracolumbar fascia all the way up to the humerus – and grab the scapula and rib cage along the way.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Thanks, James!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Nick,

    The cue I give folks is to simply lock the rib cage to the pelvis in the standing position, and then maintain that distance between the two as you go through the squat.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    J.R.,

    That’s a tough call, as over 80% of Americans have disc bulges/herniations in spite of the fact that they are asymptomatic. If you have regular flare-ups, I probably wouldn’t be squatting. If it was me, I’d be using more axially loaded single-leg stuff (e.g., reverse lunge w/front squat grip).

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kieran,

    I disagree. The individual will counteract the lack of ankle mobility and tendency toward anterior weight bearing with an aggressive posterior weight shift. That will move the bar further away from the axis of rotation and increase shear stress as well as the likelihood of the lifter rounding over under load.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Jake,

    See my respopnse to Kieran.

    If you can squat barefoot in clean technique (perfect maintenance of neutral spine), then feel free.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Hi Courtney,

    We teach about 10-20 degrees of “out-toeing.” We only use toes straight ahead for assessment purposes. There really isn’t one correct way to do it, as everyone has individual differences in hip retroversion.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. Response:

    1. Didn’t see a tuck, but I was crazy sore from a lower body training session the day before, so that might have impacted technique!

    2. I think you should be okay to do it, but I’d wait at least six months to try.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Mario,

    Yes, trap bar deadlifts are a good alternative.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Magalita,

    I don’t have one on the overhead squat; good idea for a future article, though!

    The promotion is right on the main page; it’s all set. Just go HERE.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Sandro,

    Yes, I agree!

  • Nick

    Wow, that is really helpful. I use a similar cue for rotation thanks to Dr. McGill but never thought to apply it to flexion/extension.

    Thank you,
    Nick

  • Andrew Zomberg

    Awesome post, Eric!

  • Derrick Blanton

    Interesting theory about the degree of lat involvement being the primary cause of back squat and front squat load discrepancies. I would have surmised that it was increased hamstring activation/leverage on the BSQ as the reason. I tend to view the FSQ as glutes and quads, but the BSQ with more forward lean really puts the hamstrings (and adductors) in a powerful position to extend the hips.

    Recently Jim Wendler in his “Virtual Squat Seminar” stated that he does not personally believe in pulling the bar down across the back, and conversely, actually pushes UP on the bar when he squats to avoid “dissipation”, which I took to mean CNS confusion, or mixed signals…i.e. pulling down while trying to go up. In fairness, even if you are pushing up on the bar, the lats are still highly activated isometrically.

    Anyway, I’m a long time “bend the bar over the back” squatter, but I tried it Wendler’s way, and I have to say I like it. Different cues work for different folks, that’s for sure.

    Great article, EC.

  • http://www.fitnesspainfree.com Dan Pope

    Great discussion. I wonder if all of the popularity of this article is coming from dare I say it, crossfit…

    I think one overlooked aspect of the front squat is that it takes a ton of shoulder external rotation to get into a good front rack position (not just wrist flexibility). Lots of front squatting(along with lots of cleans) can be irritating on the shoulders.

  • Derrick Blanton

    To Dan, #40. Well, you could always take the “no hands” approach. Elbows and wrists removed from the equation altogether; excessive shoulder rotation eliminated.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoQgCpEmMK0

    Side benefit: This is a highly effective way to train T-spine extension, as well as core and hip stability. You will quickly dump the bar if these variables are lacking!

    Just for the record, I do think the clean grip is worth achieving. It’s the gold standard in my view.

  • Kieran

    I know this is an old article (and a brilliant one – thanks!) but I have to ask really quickly…just started front squats and love them but am unsure of where the bar should rest.

    My mobility is pretty good so I can drive my elbows pretty far up. This means that the bar sits touching my throat which I’ve read is correct but it also puts the bar just BEHIND the meat of my deltoids and on my acromion. I know you said there will be discomfort but is this still correct? Many thanks

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kieran,

    I can’t tell from your post; are you actually having discomfort?

  • Kieran

    Yeah, sort of bar-on-bone bruising that’s really restricting the weights I put on my shoulders. The only reason I ask is that I’ve only tried it a few times so I’m not sure if I should just stick it out and expect it to get easier (like calluses make gripping easier) or dip my elbows down and rest it on my delts more. Problem is the more I practise the more it aches and it’s all
    I can focus on during the lift.

    The high elbows definitely help with my posture so I think that must be good but it just brings the bar back so far. Hard to describe I guess.

  • pepe

    the bar should touch adams apple????

  • http://www.asylumstrength.co.uk EliteWL

    One thing of note to mention, is that, due the insertion into the humerus, means that getting the elbows up in front squat is often due to tight lats… increased flexibility leads to a better rack position, making 4 fingers and normal grip on the bar relatively easy in time

  • http://cavestrong.net Frank DiMeo

    Thanks for the very informative article!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Thanks, Frank!


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