What Do Front Squats Develop and Why You Need To Do Them
The Front Squat benefits are manifold and the Front Squat does offer a few unique benefits, that you won’t get from the other common squat variations such as the Back Squat or the Overhead Squat.
Especially if you are interested in building strength, increase power, building some solid leg muscles, as well as technical development and motor learning the squat pattern.
The article discusses
- How the Front Squat improves the Squatting Technique
- What muscles do Front Squats work
- How the Front Squat builds Leg Strength
- How the Front Squat helps the Power Clean
- How many reps for Front Squats
- How to do more reps in the Front Squat
- How many sets of Front Squats
- How much weight should I Front Squat
- Front Squat standards: How much should I be able to Front Squat for my bodyweight
- Front Squat vs Back Squat ratio: How much Front Squat compared to Back Squat
How the Front Squat improves the Squatting Technique
Squatting is one of the fundamental movement patterns and the Front Squat helps to develop this movement pattern. Check out the tutorial on the squatting pattern.
For more information check out the article Squatting – are all Squatting exercises created equal?
So, how can the Front Squat help to improve the squat pattern?
The Front Squat benefit of having the bar on the front of your shoulders is, that it forces the body to stay upright throughout the entire movement. If the body leans too far forward, which can happen in a regular Back Squat and you can get away with it, in the Front Squat it will result in losing the bar or holding the bar with your hands, which you will only be able until a certain weight (at some point you will be able to squat much more than you could possibly support with your hands).
We use the Front Squat and the Overhead Squat for our young developmental athletes once they join our program to learn and train the squatting movement.
In fact, they are not allowed to do Back Squats in the first year, especially for the reason I have just outlined. I want to be on the safer side when it comes to learning and acquiring the squatting pattern.
One exercise I use excessively with the younger athletes is the Handsfree Front Squat. Have a look at this video and how the Handsfree Front Squat helps the athlete to maintain a good upright posture, despite the heavy load.
Once the squatting movement is consolidated through training the Handsfree Front Squat and Overhead Squat, I introduce the Back Squat in their training program and I continue to prescribe the training intensities for the Back Squat on the predicted 1 RM of the Front Squat.
Why is that?
The same thought process as before, I don’t want the external weight to lead to sub-optimal squatting mechanics and compensatory mechanisms.
What is a good Front Squat and how do you know, when you can progress to Back Squats?
Check out the Front Squat tutorial (starting from minute 1:10, if you want to skip the intro) that outlines the technical keypoints
Or check the article that outlines the Front Squat technique.
What muscles do Front Squats work
Due to the more upright upper body posture, the Front Squat focusses strongly on the muscles on the anterior side of the thighs, the quads or quadriceps (the quadriceps consists of a group of four muscles, the vastus lateralis, the vastus medialis, the vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris). The main function of the quads is to extend the knee and the hip.
Why does the Front Squat work the anterior side more than Back Squats?
Once the weight gets heavy in the Back Squat, which can be towards the end of the set, when exhaustion increases or when you are approaching maximum weights (1RM, 2RM or 3RM) you can see the athlete leaning forward and allowing the posterior side of the thigh to assist in the movement and consequently taking a bit of load from the anterior side of the thighs. Since the Front Squat doesn’t allow a forward lean, it forces the anterior side of your thigh to work harder.
In addition to the high quad activation, the Front Squat also requires the muscles of the lower back, the erector spinae, to work hard in order to maintain the upright upper body posture and avoid collapsing.
Sitting in this deep squat position your glutes are almost maximally stretched and have to contract hard on the ascent in order to extend the hip.
Have you ever seen someone Front Squatting and you got reminded of a turtle?
It’s not very uncommon, that the upper back rounds during a Front Squat. Consequently, you need to have a strong and mobile upper back to execute the Front Squat correctly.
For more information on the muscular activation of the Front Squat, check out the article Check out the article Front Squat Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked from the Bar Bend.
How the Front Squat builds Leg Strength
Once you dominate the Front Squat technique, you will quickly be able to lift some serious weight in the Front Squat.
Following up on the previous point, the Front Squat technique and the Front Squat muscles worked, the upper body position puts more load on the quads, especially if you descend into a full squat position.
In addition to the movement mechanics of the Front Squat, the Front Squat is also best trained with low repetitions.
Why is that?
Well the elaborate answers follow a bit later in this article, however, in short, the more repetitions you do the bar will either roll down your shoulders and makes it more difficult to hold the bar and/or due to the bar position breathing becomes increasingly difficult, as it starts to choke the throat and pushes the rib cage down.
The ideal Front Squat rep range is somewhere between 1 – 5 reps and popular Front Squat sets and reps are 5 * 3 at 85% 1RM, 3 * 2 at 90% 1RM and 3 * 1 at 95% 1 RM, which are very classical strength building rep and set schemes.
For more details on sets, reps and intensity, check out the article The Holy Grail of Strength Training – Sets and Reps
How the Front Squat helps the Power Clean
The Front Squat is an important exercise when you want to be able to Power Clean more weight. The Front Squat is important in the Catch phase to decelerate and control the weight and in the Recovery Phase to be able to get back up (more about the phases in the article The Ultimate Guide to Power Cleans).
As a rule of thumb, you should be able to do 3 reps Front Squats 105% of your Power Clean max or 1 rep Front Squat with 120% of your Power Clean max.
I have actually one of my athletes in mind who can Power Clean more weight than he can Front Squat. So we are actually working hard on getting him stronger in the Front Squat, which will then lead to a much higher Power Clean number.
Have a look at this video and you can see that her sticking point in the Power Clean / Clean is during the recovery phase (while standing up). Working on your Front Squat strength will help to overcome this issue.
How many reps for Front Squats
Depending on your training goal you chose the repetition and loading scheme. I have written about a basic loading and repetition scheme for different training goals here.
There is an inverse relationship between the number of repetitions you can do and the intensity, the lower the intensity, the more repetitions you can do. That sounds a bit ordinary and elementary, but a word of caution here, the higher the repetitions in the Front Squat, the more difficult it gets to maintain a solid bar position on the front of your shoulders. The bar position makes it difficult to breathe, the elbows will drop slightly, the bar will roll a bit forward and it simply becomes difficult to maintain a good bar position and execute the Front Squat properly.
Even though we have periods in our training where we do 8 to 10 repetitions per set, these sessions are limited to 2 – 3 weeks in the year and the athletes are complaining that they feel they can lift the weight with the lower body, but have difficulties maintaining the bar on the shoulders.
How to do more reps in the Front Squat
As I just outlined, the Front Squat is not a good exercise for multiple repetitions, more than 5 – 6 repetitions will become increasingly difficult. A possible solution we use for this dilemma is to do more sets with lesser repetitions or performing cluster sets.
Lesser repetitions and more sets? What’s that good for?
If you think you would like to do 3 sets of 8 reps, you can as well do 8 sets of 3 reps, the total amount of repetition is 24 in both variations. There might be slightly different adaptations to both variations, in the grand scheme of things it has been proven as a valid and useful alternative. Believe me, in the early days of my career I have broken my head over that question “How can 3 sets of 8 be the same as 8 sets of 3?!?” and had a few sleepless nights, over the years I have come to the realization from practical experience that it is very similar… I will write about that in more detail in the following post.
Cluster sets are a valid and useful alternative and have been very helpful. I strongly believe it’s a method that should mainly be used with more advanced and experienced athletes. Cluster sets work by breaking the intended repetitions up into equal parts and allow a short break in between the parts. Let’s say you want to do 6 reps, you can do
- 3 times 2 reps with 15 – 20 seconds in between rep 2 & 3 and 4 & 5
- 2 times 3 reps with 15 – 20 seconds in between rep 3 & 4
We have actually done an in-house research where we looked at different loading schemes and cluster set variations and compared it to traditional sets (in the Back Squat) and we found that the cluster sets enabled the athletes to maintain a higher strength and power output throughout the set.
Check out, how such a Cluster set could look. In this example we are focussing on maximum strength development, therefore the cluster set is 3 * 1 rep with a 20 – 30 sec intra-serial rest, however, the same principle can be applied for the Clusters I have outlined above.
How many sets of Front Squats
Leaving aside the last paragraph about the difficulty of performing higher repetitions in a set of Front Squats and working around that dilemma by doing more sets of lesser repetitions, there is no magical formula or special consideration about the number of sets to choose for a Front Squat as to any other exercise.
It is difficult to prescribe an exact number of sets since there are many variables to consider. Amongst them, the training goal, where in the season you are (you do fewer sets in the competitive season than in the off-season), the training experience in years and ability to tolerate training.
Check out the chart below, that I have borrowed from the article The Holy Grail of Strength Training – Sets and Reps that shows the relation between reps per set and total reps per session based on the training intensity. This chart can give you a guideline, of how many Front Squat sets and reps you can do.
A special consideration should always be, whether you are choosing to work with RM loads? Then the total amount of sets should be lower because you simply won’t be able to maintain the same amount of repetitions throughout the sets and you will notice a drop in repetitions from one set to the next.
As an example, if you work with a 5 RM load in the Front Squat and you perform all sets with the same weight, the reps could look like this. 1st set 5 reps, 2nd set 4 reps and 3rd set 2 reps.
The decrease over the sets depending on the rest between sets, and how well the individual is able to maintain the reps over the course of the sets. That sounds like a no-brainer, however, the more strength-explosive type athlete tends to experience a more severe drop, whilst the more endurance type athlete tends to be able to maintain reps better.
How much weight should I Front Squat
A very common question athletes have, is ‘How much should I be able to Front Squat?’ and the answer, in my opinion, is ‘As much as possible, with proper technical execution.’
As I discussed in the article about the Power Clean and benefits of the Power Clean, very seldom (actually never) we do an exercise for the sake of doing the exercise. The exercise always serves a purpose. This purpose could be training a movement pattern, training an energy system or training muscular activation.
Unfortunately, I have seen it too often, that training with a flawed movement pattern will result in consolidating a flawed movement pattern. Therefore constantly evaluating technique and striving towards technical mastery is important.
How much should I be able to Front Squat for my bodyweight
Let’s talk about some Front Squat strength standards, as this is often highly debated topic.
As always, there is no one size fits all answer to what are the correct Front Squat strength standards, as strength levels and strength gains are very individual.
It is a sad truth, that not everyone can progress at the same rate and some athletes are made for gaining strength and becoming stronger and others aren’t.
Not everyone is like Track Cyclist Harrie Lavreysen and can Front Squat 190 kg at 85 kg bodyweight
The table shows a general guideline of Front Squat strength standards.
Treat these numbers with care, they are not written in stone and depend on various factors, such as training age, training status, individual differences.
Front Squat vs Back Squat ratio: How much Front Squat compared to Back Squat
It is possible to calculate or predict your Front Squat max from your Back Squat max or Front Squat training weight from your Back Squat training weight.
As a rule of thumb, you are able to do 80 – 90% of your Back Squat in the Front Squat. That means, if you are able to do a 100 kg in the Back Squat for 5 reps, you will be able to do 5 reps in the Front Squat with a weight between 80 kg and 90 kg.
It’s a rule of thumb and has been very useful as a guideline for a lot of my athletes. Important to note, that it is very individual, some athletes are stronger in the Front Squat compared to the Back Squat and have a ratio closer to 90%, others are stronger in the Back Squat compared to the Front Squat and have a ratio closer to 80%, in some cases even below 80%.
Check out the detailed discussion of the Front Squat to Back Squat ratio
Front Squat Conclusions
In my opinion, the Front Squat should be a cornerstone of every strength training program. The Front Squats offer unique benefits, that other squat variations don’t offer.
The Front Squat benefits include
- Learning and re-learning proper squatting movements
- Activating the muscles anterior thigh, glutes, lower back and upper back
- Building strength & size in the legs
- Improving the catch phase and recovery phase of the Power Clean and / or Clean
The Front Squat standards vary from individual to individual, and most athletes are able to Front Squat 80 – 90% of their Back Squat.
If you haven’t included Front Squats in your program yet, I would advise you to do so. And don’t get stressed out, if you don’t master the technique from day one. Put time and effort into it and you will reap the fruit of your labor.