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Strength Training Programs: Front vs. Back Squats

Written on May 12, 2009 at 7:05 pm, by Eric Cressey

A topic of interest that seems to get thrown around quite a bit nowadays is whether front squats are a “safer” exercise than back squats.  We don’t do much back squatting at Cressey Performance, so a lot of people automatically assume that I’m against the idea of back squatting.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, as my answer to the question “which is safer?” is a resounding “IT DEPENDS!”

At last check, 74% of the Cressey Performance clientele is baseball players.  The majority of these athletes have acquired actual structural changes to their shoulders that make the back squat set-up more of an at-risk position than in non-overhead-throwing athletes.  To make a long story short, in this externally rotated, abducted position of the shoulder girdle, the biceps tendon pulls awkwardly on the superior labrum.  This peel-back mechanism is exacerbated in the presence of a glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) and scapular instability – two features extremely common in baseball players.  So, for these folks, the front squat is a much safer alternative.  We also use giant cambered bar and safety squat bar squat and lunge variations.

Conversely, take an athlete with either traumatic or chronic acromioclavicular joint problems, and the front squat will really irritate his shoulder because of the bar’s position atop the shoulder girdle.  Move this bar to the upper back, and the pain is avoided altogether.  So, for AC joint pain suffers, the back squat is a safer bet.

Let’s be honest, though; the entire front vs. back squat argument is about lumbar spine health.  So, we’ll attack it from that perspective. To kick things off, I’ve got a little announcement that may surprise you: I haven’t back squatted in almost two years, and my back squat form isn’t very good.

I know what you’re thinking: “You’re a strength coach, Cressey; you must really suck at what you do if you can’t even back squat.”

Well, I guess that would depend who you ask.  I regularly squat well over 400 pounds with the giant cambered bar. Front squatting isn’t a problem, and I can use the safety squat bar, too.

The issue for me with back squats is a bum shoulder from back in my high school tennis days – similar to what I outlined earlier.  Because my shoulder doesn’t like the externally rotated, abducted position, the only way I can get under a bar pain-free is to use an ultra-wide grip – which means my scapulae are winged out and my upper back is rounded over.  My shoulder range-of-motion is just fine, but the structural flaws I have (partial thickness tear, bone spurring, and likely labral fraying) means that if I want to back squat pain-free, I have to do so like someone who lacks external rotation.

Who lacks external rotation?  Well, just about everyone who sits at a computer all day, and every athlete who has spent too much time bench-pressing.    Combine this with poor scapular stability and a lack of thoracic spine extension, and you realize that a large chunk of the weight-training population simply can’t effectively put a bar on the upper back, let alone actually stabilize it.

Let’s be honest: if you have poor hip and/or ankle mobility, both your front and back squats are going to look pretty ugly.  You’ll go into lumbar flexion or come up on your toes to get your range of motion, in most cases.  You’d think that one potentially protective factor would be that in the back squat, the lifter can better utilize the latissimus dorsi  (in a more shortened position) to help stabilize the spine.

The main problem with the back squat, in my eyes, is that not everyone has sufficient upper body mobility to position and stabilize the bar properly.  As a result, it can “roll forward” on people – and that’s where more of the forward lean problems come about.  More forward lean equates to more shear stress, and an increased risk of going into 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.

So, with all that in mind, while it may be a bit of a bold statement, I’d say that for individuals with excellent whole-body mobility and no upper extremity pain, a back squat is no more dangerous than a front squat. While the extra stabilization contribution from lats may reduce some of this risk, the simple fact that one can move more weight with a back squat probably “cancels out” this advantage in this comparison.

All that said, regardless of whether you front or back squat, I’d encourage you to regularly get video of yourself lifting – or find an experienced coach – to give you feedback on your technique.

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11 Responses to “Strength Training Programs: Front vs. Back Squats”

  1. Sam Says:

    So I’d gather from this that you probobly think the increase torque (stress) at the SI joint (with back squats) isn’t anything to fuss about? You’re saying there’s bigger more important issues?

  2. Mario Says:

    Sick front squat of your athlete. Beautiful.

  3. jamie Says:

    Hi Eric

    you raise some excellent points, particularly the last paragraph

  4. Tom McNaughton Says:

    Eric,

    Thanks much for the insightful article. Only rarely do trainers address the shoulder problems inherent in squatting. The hardest part often isn’t lifting the bar, but rather holding the bar.

    I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    Tom McNaughton, J.D.
    Toledo

    Deads, squats, benches, rows, chins, dips — the rest are just extras

  5. Bob Parr Says:

    Excellent points, Eric. Since many of the issues you list apply to me, I guess that means I really need to stick to back squatting! I suppose that also rules out the Good Morning, right? (Maybe substitute deadlift variations and cable pull-throughs?)

  6. Bob Parr Says:

    Correction – I meant to write “stick to FRONT squatting.”

  7. Brad Leshinske Says:

    Good stuff definitly some good points. There are progressions to everything and we must understand everyone is differant.

  8. zach Says:

    Hi Eric, awesome info. I was wondering what your personal thoughts are on frequency of overhead movements used for overhead athletes such as baseball players in season. Light load, heavy with low volume, not at all, etc. Thoughts?

  9. Dan Davis Says:

    Great info as always Eric.

    With a strained AC joint in my shoulder, do you think single leg exercises would be better for general fitness and the fact that I am now 44? Thanks again.

  10. BobN Says:

    Eric – Thank you for your insights on the front vs. back squat. Since my son is a 15 year old ball player and needs to do some serious weight work this upcoming off-season, this was very helpful.

  11. pepe Says:

    my fs sucks compared to bs. why is it so much harder to fs???help

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