Front Squats vs Back Squats

Among athletes and strength coaches there is much debate over which is better for athletes who need to get stronger, front squats or back squats. This debate is rather silly. Why does one have to be better? They are just different exercises. Both are good. However, when it comes to which squat to base a lifting program around, there is a clear correct choice to this question and no need for further discussion.

The first thing to point out is that any given athlete is capable of lifting more weight in a back squat than in a front squat. That is a universal truth. Go ahead and test it. Typically people who are good at both squats will be able to front squat 75-80% of their max back squat. It is possible that with strictly front squat experience, someone could have a higher front squat. But even then, some practice of back squat will result in that movement being stronger. Of course lifting for athletes should often focus on speed rather than heavy weight. Along with being stronger, the back squat is also faster than a front squat at a given weight. This is the case for two reasons. First, for most athletes front squat strength is limited by the upper body. I just want to make clear that does not indicate a problem with the athlete. A front squat places the bar on the shoulder girdle (shoulder blades and clavicles) in a position where the supporting upper body muscles are at a severe mechanical disadvantage compared to the bar placement of a back squat. It is extremely challenging to support a lot of weight in front of the neck and simply not possible to transfer the same force into the bar as in a back squat. A front squat should be limited by upper body strength. If it is not, it is more likely a testament to a lack of leg strength than anything else. Second, even if supporting the weight with the arms is not an issue, the position of a front squat is not as strong as a back squat biomechanically. The front squat requires a more upright torso and more forward knee movement, and thus further knee flexion to get down to parallel when compared to the back squat. The result is a greater demand on the quadriceps muscles and knees and some of the stress being taken off the glute muscles and hips. Since the hips are easily the stronger and more powerful joint, taking load off them and putting it on the knees results in a weaker movement.

Given that the back squat is stronger and faster, centering training around the front squat instead would require some other very convincing reasons. The primary argument looks at the posture of the two movements. The  
Bad Back Squat
front squat uses a torso position close to vertical. Proponents of the front squat state that this is safer for the lower back and promotes good postural strength. Basically it prevents the most prevalent problem that people experience with back squats, which is the torso getting bent over too far. The key thing to understand here is that the problem with back squats is not actually a problem with the movement but a problem with the style of squat used or the execution by the lifter. I am not advocating the style of squat shown in the picture. Front squats also have a lot of potential to cause back injury when performed poorly. See the image of a bad front squat. Note the flexion in the thoracic portion of the spine. (The picture was actually taken from a front squat instructional, believe it or not.) The image may not be as familiar simply because most people do not do front squats. But the truth is, as is the case with
Bad Front Squat
back squats, many people are unable to perform front squats properly. Squatting is just a hard thing to be good at. In comparing the two squat movements, it is only reasonable to look at proper execution of each. Now back to the posture discussion. Yes, a front squat uses a more upright position. But the position of a back squat should also be perfectly safe. The style that I recommend for athletes allows the spine to stay above a 45-degree angle. A powerlifting squat may get near or just below that mark, which is why a low bar placement is used to reduced torque on the spine. Either way, a properly executed back squat is perfectly safe. As for postural strength, the back squat provides a great strengthening stimulus for the spinal extensors, particularly in the lumbar region. It does not do much to train the strength of the upper back muscles like the rhomboids and trapezius that control the shoulder girdle. Front squat does demand a lot from these muscles. Proponents of the front squat site this as a reason to use it. They say something along the lines of, "When most athletes try to front squat, they can't hold the bar up in the proper position with a lot of weight, because their upper back strength is not developed. So we want to use the front squat to help develop upper back strength." They admit that the front squat is limited by upper body strength, and then cite that as a reason to use the front squat. This is just foolish. That's exactly why you do not use it. Why would you ever want to limit squats with upper back strength? What is the purpose of squatting? Is it to get a stronger shoulder girdle? Absolutely not. The purpose is to get stronger legs and hips. Taking the primary lower body strength exercise and limiting it with upper back strength is just a mistake. If you need a stronger upper back, do upper back exercises. This is common sense.

Another proposed reason to use front squats is to target the quads more. The first issue with this is whether or not targeting the quads is a good thing. Quad dominance (as opposed to glute dominance) is a common problem, particularly among inflexible athletes and inexperienced lifters. For a quad-dominant athlete, choosing a more quad-dominant squat is the wrong decision. But let's say quad development is the goal. A
Olympic Back Squat
back squat can also be done with an upright torso and greater focus on the quads. It's called an olympic-style back squat. This version is almost as quad dominant as a front squat. And it provides a stronger strengthening stimulus on the quads because, as discussed earlier, it allows more weight to be lifted. Posture and quad development are the two main alleged "advantages" of front squats. Neither comes close to justifying the use of front squats instead of back squats.

There is one more argument to be addressed. There are claims that back squats cause tight hip flexors and a butt-out, belly-out posture (see picture). The theory is that back squats involve an over-arching of the lower back to deal with the torque on the spine when the torso is leaning forward. Along with the arch in the back comes anterior pelvic tilt and shortened hip flexors. This posture is really only used in powerlifting squats. It does not apply to squats on the olympic end of the spectrum. However, it is used in deadlift and clean and snatch from the hang position, so the argument should be addressed. First consider the lower back
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
extensors. Yes, they do have to contract strongly during a back squat, deadlift, and a lot of other lifts. But the idea that contracting a muscle a lot means it has to be tight is just false. Just stretch it. It's that simple. Now consider the hip flexors. Yes, these muscles are shortened when the pelvis is tilted forward during a lower back arch. Yes, these muscles shorten very thoroughly during the descent of a squat. But unlike the lower back muscles, they do not contract with much strength because they are not loaded. Hip flexion during a squat or deadlift is driven by gravity, not by contraction of the hip flexors. There will be very low tension in the hip flexors, because they are antagonist muscles to the prime movers that extend the hip. Claiming that a movement makes the prime movers (agonists) tight is one thing, but the antagonists? That's just ridiculous. It's like saying tricep extensions cause tight biceps. Get real. This argument against back squats is completely invalid.

It may seem like I have completely trashed front squats. I want to make clear that there is absolutely nothing bad about the exercise. For people who just want to be fit or just want to have good mobility and functionality or even athletes who do not need to be stronger, it is perfectly fine to use front squats instead of back squats. In fact, those people can take it a step further and just use overhead squats exclusively. They use an upright torso and a focus on the quads just like front squats. And they also demand even more in terms of hip mobility and correct posture. All the same arguments and then some can be made for using overhead squats instead of back squats. So why not do it? Because they don't allow you to lift a lot of weight. That's the key point. For athletes and lifters who need to be as strong as possible, lifting should be centered around the back squat. That does not mean front squats cannot be used, but they should be considered an assistance exercise to the back squat.

Another thing to address is the fact that there are a lot of elite lifters who use front squats. Most of them are olympic lifters. They have to front squat to finish the clean, so they have to be good at it. The fact that they can front squat extremely heavy weight does not mean that is what made them strong. They still use back squats because back squats develop a higher level of strength. It's very easy to see a video of an elite olympic lifter front squatting 250 kg and think that front squats are the key to getting strong. I believe this is where front squats get a lot of their credibility. It's important to realize that the same lifter who front squats 250 kg probably back squats over 300 kg. So which is going to make that lifter stronger? The answer is obvious. Are there lifters who have reached a high level of strength just using front squats? Yes. But consider the thousands of squats done to gain that strength. What if each rep was done with 20% more weight? How strong would the person be then? It's not that front squats can't make you strong. It's just that back squats will make you stronger. And that is why athletes should choose back squats.