“You’ve gotta squat” can be heard echoing through gyms worldwide. At face value, it’s undoubtedly useful advice. Squatting strengthens the entire lower body and builds muscle in the legs, while also working the core and upper-body stabilizers.
However, squatting isn’t one specific exercise; it’s a general movement pattern. Telling someone to squat is like telling them to eat. It’s well-intentioned but vague. Many lifters assume that the barbell back squat is the default “squat” and other movements are just variations.
While the back squat has plenty of its own advantages, it may not belong on that pedestal. The front squat can easily take the top spot. It offers several benefits the back squat can’t match and just might be a better overall choice for many lifters. Here’s a deep dive into learning which type of squat really belongs in your training program.
Back Squat and Front Squat
Beyond the most visual difference — the barbell’s position — there are several key differences between these two primary squats.
The bar position during a back squat requires lifters to lean forward, somewhat significantly, during the exercise. This froward lean recruits more of the posterior chain — glute, hamstrings, and lower back — to maintain a stable upper body position. The lower back, in particular, is highly activated during back squats.
While lower back involvement can play a role in building overall strength, it can also be a limiting factor for lifters with pre-existing lower back problems.
In contrast, the front squat significantly recruits the anterior chain muscles — abdominals, hips, and quadriceps. (1) Because the barbell is supported across the front of the shoulders, the load remains closer to the body’s center of gravity without causing any drastic forward leaning.
This upright torso position reduces lower back involvement while increasing abdominal activation. The bar position during the front squat also requires more wrist and elbow mobility to hold the bar in place; the back squat typically requires more shoulder mobility to maintain a stable grip on the bar.
Interestingly, lower body muscle recruitment is more closely related to general squat depth than actual bar position. Achieving a deeper position in the bottom of a squat, whether it’s a back squat or front squat, will recruit more hamstring and glute muscle. (2)
Squatting to a relatively higher position — thighs roughly parallel to the ground or higher — will focus muscular stress on the quadriceps. The front squat has also been shown to increase activation in one of the quadriceps muscle heads, but not the entire muscle. (3)
The upright torso position of a front squat may often allow a lifter to achieve a deeper squat with less overall strain, but many lifters are able to reach comparable depths with a back squat.
In terms of overall joint stress, the back squat is often considered to be more stressful to joint structures in both the upper and lower body. (4)
Because the load is supported across the upper back and requires an engaged lumbar spine (lower back) with a forward lean, the low back and hips can be placed under a significant strain.
The shoulder joint may also be stressed while supporting the bar across the back, especially for lifters with excessively tight chest or shoulder muscles, or pre-existing shoulder issues.
Joint stress can often be mitigated with certain adjustments to foot placement, stance width, hand position, and squat depth. However, the back squat generally has more potential to be rougher on the involved joints than the front squat.
That said, the front squat can stress the wrist joints because the bar is held in what’s known as the “rack” position, with the palms facing the ceiling and fingers under the bar near your shoulders.
Again, certain adjustments can be made to accommodate poor wrist mobility. Lifters can adjust their grip, use a crossed arm position, or attach long lifting straps to the bar for an easier grip. But the basic front squat movement and rack position can still potentially strain the wrist joint. The back squat places the wrists in a more stable and less stressful position.
Despite several physical and performance differences, these two primary squat variations share several benefits.
If someone confiscated your barbell and asked you to perform a body weight “front squat” and “back squat,” the movements would look pretty much identical. A squat is a foundational movement pattern; “front” and “back” refer strictly to the position of whatever weight you’re using.
It’s what turn of the century lifters used to call the “deep knee bend” — simply bending your legs to achieve a deep squat position. Whether you’re holding a barbell across your back, supporting a barbell on the front of your shoulders, cradling a sandbag in your elbows, or holding a dumbbell at chest-level, you’re still squatting.
Both the front and back squat use the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes as active muscles to move the weight. The abdominals and lower back are recruited as stabilizers to maintain a safe and strong upper body position. The upper back, shoulders, even the lat muscles to an extent, provide further torso stability.
Either squat variation can be performed with a relatively wider stance or a more narrow stance, depending on the lifter’s goals and individual limb leverages. Both can also be performed to varying depths and different ranges of motion, which will slightly alter the lower body muscle emphasis.
While simply shifting the barbell’s position from the front to the back may not sound like a significant change, it initiates a cascade of differences which will affect technical performance of the lift and, ultimately, the overall results.
The back squat requires the lifter to support the barbell across their upper back and shoulders. To prevent the bar from sliding directly down the lifter’s back, the torso is angled slightly forward and the hands grip the bar on either side. This creates tension throughout the entire upper body, while activating the large back muscles, abdominals, and lower back for stability.
The front squat supports the bar across the front deltoids (front of the shoulder), typically placed close to the collarbones or neck. The rack position requires the lifter to bend their arms and maintain the bar’s position with their hands, or fingers, on the bar.
This front-loaded position requires the shoulders, biceps, and forearms to support the weight. The upper back is also worked isometrically to keep the bar close to the body, and the abdominals are significantly activated to work against the compressive force of the weight.
The angled torso position of the back squat is necessary to counterbalance the load, which puts the lower back into a more active role as a stabilizer. General hip position during the back squat may make it challenging for some lifters to reach a relatively low depth in the bottom position unless they have a high level of hip mobility.
The front squat, due to the more upright torso position, allows lifters to more naturally “sink” into a deeper squat position in the bottom with relatively less strain on their hips, knees, and low back.
The rack position does require significant upper back strength and the lifter must resist the weight pulling their upper back into a rounded position, while the back squat will typically see lifters falling into a rounded lower back position.
Begin with the bar set in a rack at roughly upper-chest level. Dip beneath the bar and place it across your upper back and shoulders. The bar should not rest directly on your neck or spine.
Grab the bar with both hands facing forward. Pinch your shoulder blades together and pull your elbows under the bar to form a stable “shelf” of muscle to support the load. Stand up to unrack the bar, and take one or two small steps backwards.
Step to the side with one foot to set your stance width. Brace your core and push your hips back as you bend your knees. Keep your feet flat throughout the entire repetition. Reach an appropriate depth based on your goals and general mobility. Aiming to have your thighs parallel to the ground is an effective compromise for muscle-building and strength gains. (5)
Form Tip: Squeezing the bar in your hands can contribute to total-body tightness and stability. (6) To ensure a tight upper body and improve power output, grip the barbell hard before unracking and try to crush the bar during each repetition.
- The back squat is the ideal squat variation for building overall strength. The overall body position maximizes leverage and allows significantly heavy weight to be moved.
- This exercise is sport-specific for competitive powerlifters, as it is one of the movements performed in meets.
- Because the back squat allows potentially heavier loads to be used, it can be useful for building size and strength together. (7)
Back Squat Variations
The back squat is, itself, one specific squat variation, but there are several similar variations which offer comparable or unique benefits while reducing potential drawbacks like lower back strain.
High-Bar Back Squat
This subtle adjustment to the back squat shifts the bar position higher on the upper back and traps. The slight change in leverage allows the lifter to maintain a more upright torso, which reduces lower back strain and allows a more natural deep squat in the bottom position.
The vertical torso position also encourages a closer stance, which affects squat depth and lower-body muscle recruitment.
Safety Bar Squat
The safety bar is one of the most unique-looking barbells you’ll find in a gym. The extra-thick padding and angled bar sleeves shifts the barbell’s center of gravity, while the forward-facing handles allow a neutral grip which reduces shoulder strain.
The safety bar squat decreases lower back involvement while increasing activation of the upper back muscles.
Begin with a barbell in a rack slightly below your collarbones. Grab the bar slightly outside shoulder-width, using a palms-down grip. Approach the bar and allow your arms to bend. Your elbows should point forward as the bar rests on the fronts of your shoulders.
Keep your abs fully engaged and maintain a straight back. Straighten your legs to unrack the bar. Take one or two steps backwards and one step to the side to establish your stance width. Flex your core as you stabilize the weight.
Bend your legs and descend as low as possible. Keep your shoulders pulled back and your upper body vertical as you lower into the bottom position.
Form Tip: Don’t allow your elbows to point down. The barbell, and your torso, will follow your elbows — if they drift down, the weight will fall forward and the lift will fail. Keep your elbows aimed as straight-ahead as possible to ensure a strong and stable body position.
- This movement allows intense lower body training with limited stress on the lower back.
- The front squat is sport-specific for many competitive strength athletes, including Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes.
- This exercise is also well-suited for general sports athletes who need a lower body strength-building exercise with limited knee strain. (8)
Front Squat Variations
While the front squat can be performed with several grip variations (basic rack position, cross-arm, or using straps), there are other effective front-loaded squat variations which may be more appropriate for certain lower body workouts, depending on the lifter’s goal.
The goblet squat combines the front-loaded, lower back-sparing benefits of a front squat with the simple versatility of a single dumbbell or kettlebell.
The movement is often used to introduce the squat movement pattern to beginners, improve lower body mobility, or as a warm-up for more experienced lifters. However, with sufficient load, intensity, and volume, the goblet squat can be a serious muscle-builder.
Named after a popular American weightlifter from the 1930s, the Zercher squat is performed with the barbell supported in the crooks of the elbows rather than in the hands. This removes some of the elbow and shoulder mobility requirements of a front squat, but can sometimes be simply uncomfortable due to the pressure of the weight on the elbows.
Because the barbell is even closer to the hips and the body’s center of gravity, you can maintain an extremely rigid and upright torso. This nearly eliminates lower back strain and heavily recruits the abdominal muscles. The Zercher squat has significant carryover to competitive strongmen/strongwomen, who often compete in events while carrying front-loaded odd objects.
Choosing the most effective squat variation will depend primarily on your training goal. Individual mobility restrictions, such as pre-existing back pain or hip or ankle issues, may also influence programming.
While many strength sports require athletes to perform specifically a back squat or specifically a front squat in competition, such as powerlifting Olympic weightlifting, respectively, both movements can be used in a training phase.
Competitive strongmen/strongwomen and CrossFit athletes can benefit from incorporating both movements into their training, since their competitions are more diverse and they may need to perform either (or both) specific movements during a contest.
When it comes to squatting for strength, the back squat reigns supreme. The back squat recruits the most total muscle from head-to-toe (or, more specifically, from feet to traps) and coordinates leverage and technique to allow massive weights to be moved.
That’s why it’s one of the big three powerlifts — because it’s an ideal movement for assessing (and building) strength. For context, the highest back squat of all time is in the ballpark of 1,100 pounds while the heaviest-ever front squat, by comparison, is closer to 800 pounds.
Squatting is considered a foundational exercise for beginners looking to build a base of strength, as well as muscle. It’s also a time-tested staple in bodybuilding leg workouts. As a leg-building exercise, the back squat is more than adequate. It puts multiple body parts, including the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, through muscle-building time under tension. (9)
However, relatively few experienced bodybuilders continue training the standard back squat, and instead fit the front squat or a variety of other squat or deadlift variations into their leg routine to more efficiently target specific muscle groups and emphasize individual body parts.
To make a long story short (too late)… what they say is right — you do gotta squat. But despite what the powerlifting-inspired coaches tell you, you don’t “have to” back squat. And despite what the athletic-based coaches tell you, you don’t “have to” front squat. All you do have to to do make a fully informed programming decision based on your specific goals and your individual capabilities.
- Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of sports sciences, 33(10), 1058–1066. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.984240
- Kubo, K., Ikebukuro, T., & Yata, H. (2019). Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes. European journal of applied physiology, 119(9), 1933–1942. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-019-04181-y
- Coratella, G., Tornatore, G., Caccavale, F., Longo, S., Esposito, F., & Cè, E. (2021). The Activation of Gluteal, Thigh, and Lower Back Muscles in Different Squat Variations Performed by Competitive Bodybuilders: Implications for Resistance Training. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(2), 772. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020772
- Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – p 284-292 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
- Clark, D. R., Lambert, M. I., & Hunter, A. M. (2012). Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(4), 1169–1178. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31822d533d
- Abreu, R., Lopes, A. A., Sousa, A. S., Pereira, S., & Castro, M. P. (2015). Force irradiation effects during upper limb diagonal exercises on contralateral muscle activation. Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 25(2), 292–297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jelekin.2014.12.004
- Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Peterson, Mark D.; Ogborn, Dan; Contreras, Bret; Sonmez, Gul T.. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 10 – p 2954-2963 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958
- Bird, Stephen P. PhD, CSCS1; Casey, Sean BSKin, BSNutr, CSCS2. Exploring the Front Squat. Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2012 – Volume 34 – Issue 2 – p 27-33 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182441b7d
Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J., Hector, A. J., Cashaback, J. G., Gibala, M. J., Potvin, J. R., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of physiology, 590(2), 351–362. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200
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