June 03, 2020 10 min read
The squat is one of the best-known exercises in the weightlifting world, for its fantastic health benefits and muscle building potential. There are numerous different variations of the squat designed to train and strengthen different areas, targeting different muscle groups. Popular squat variations you might already know include the goblet squat, the Zercher squat, and the front and back squat. The front squat and the back squat are two of the most valuable squat exercises in a weightlifter's arsenal, but which one is better for your workout?
These two similar exercises work out a lot of the same muscles, so how different can they really be? We’re here to tell you about several vital differences between the front squat and the back squat, and the impact they make on your workout routine. From differences in muscle activation to potential back pain benefits, we’ll explain all the alterations between a front and back squat. Read on to discover the most important information you need to make a decision when planning your next leg day workout.
First, we’ll outline the primary differences in movement and technique between a front and back squat. Although the two exercises can appear similar, a few small changes have a huge impact on the effects of each exercise. The back squat is probably better known out of the two, this exercise has weightlifters place a barbell across the back of their shoulders to increase resistance while performing squats. The weight rests across the trapezius and rear deltoid muscles loaded securely on the back side of your body.
During front squats, your center of gravity shifts forwards. The barbel is held using your fingertips across the front deltoids, essentially sitting across your collarbone. Because this brings your center of mass forward, the weight forces lifters to maintain a more upright position during front squats. If you were to lean forward, the barbell could slip from its position and fall to the floor, so upright posture is a huge difference between front squats and back squats.
Next, we’ll share a quick how-to for each the front squat and the back squat, so you can see the similarities and differences in movement. This will allow you to better visualize where the exercises vary and understand the impact of these workout’s characteristics. Here’s a simplified breakdown of how to do a front squat:
For much more detail on every step, check out our fantastic article on how to front squat like a pro. Now, in comparison, here’s a quick guide on how to do a back squat:
Visually, the most obvious difference between front and back squats is the degree of your hips and knees. The back squat requires a less sharp angle and allows you to lean forward into the movement. Conversely, the front squat requires a greater bend in the hip and knee in order to keep your back straight. This causes differences in muscle activation between the two exercises, which is the next difference between front squats and back squats we’ll discuss. Just make sure you got your trusty Ultimate Shred Stack supplement pack before getting started.
While all squat variations activate similar muscle groups, the primary activation of your largest muscles differs between the front squat and the back squat. In a front squat, your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, abdominals, spinal erectors (lower back), upper back, shoulders, and lats are all used. During back squats, all of the same muscles power the movement. However, because your center of gravity is different, these two squat variations activate muscles in different ways.
Because of the sharper angle of your hip and knee joints in a front squat, your anterior muscles are more important. While both exercises are incredibly quad-heavy, the front squat activates your quads to a greater degree. When ascending from the lowest part of a front squat, your quad muscles are pushed to their limit to re-extend your knees. This gives the front squat a much higher degree of quad activation and takes some pressure away from the glutes.
On the other hand, the back squat is a much more hip-dominant movement. It activates your posterior chain more than the front squat, meaning the muscles along the back of your body get more of a workout. The barbell's position on your back allows you to lean forward during the exercise, taking more of the weight on your back. The front squat is more challenging in this area as to balance the more upright posture, far more engagement of core muscles is needed. That’s why the front squat is a better exercise for your anterior chain (front of the body including abs), whereas the back squat puts more emphasis on the glutes and hips.
Most squats are first and foremost a lower body workout, but the front squat offers some muscle training to your upper body too. To secure the barbel in place during front squats, you’ll need to use your arm muscles which makes the front squat a deltoid and shoulder workout as well. The back squat is a heavy lower-body exercise, like our kettlebell leg workout, while the front squat transfers some attention to other areas of the body.
One aspect that many fitness fans might find important is the muscle building abilities of the front and back squat. This can help you make a decision on which exercise is best for you, as depending on your goals when working out, one or the other might offer more benefits. Both exercises offer huge potential for growing your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. The strength gained into this muscle translates to increased speed and power.
Because the front squat achieves better activation of the quad muscles, this exercise has a higher potential for growing your quadriceps. On the other hand, while the front squat builds size, the back squat can help you increase your overall power, building up your whole posterior chain at the same time. When it comes to the numerical weight you can lift with each exercise, front squats could be lower.
Back squats focus a lot of pressure on the back during the exercise, which means you can lift a lot of weight. Front squats ease this pressure on the spine, which can be much better for lower back pain. However, this does mean you’ll probably lift less in a front squat, so it’s less adept at building pure power than a back squat. This does mean the front squat is an excellent choice if your focus is building thigh muscle.
Joint mobility doesn’t always have huge importance when it comes to weightlifting, but it’s a vital aspect when discussing the differences between a front and back squat. That’s because the front squat requires much higher mobility levels if you want to complete the exercise with perfect form. The front squat requires you to hinge at the hip and knee until your hip joint actually dips below the parallel of your knee.
You can still complete front squats if your flexibility levels are low, by just squatting down as low as is comfortable. While this still allows you to train your muscles, you won’t get the superior activation of quadriceps muscles that makes the front squat so effective. The back squat doesn’t require you to have as much flexibility in your hips, knees, and ankles, so it could be an easier exercise to perform. However, over time the back squat can cause pain in these joints, whereas the front squat is considered a joint-healthy exercise.
During back squats, all the weight of the barbell is loaded on your posterior chain. This exercise puts a lot of pressure on your back, which could pose an issue for some lifters. This feature means you can usually lift more weight, and increase the weight you lift at a faster rate when completing front squats. However, this benefit is balanced by the additional strain on your spine, leading over time to lower back problems.
The front squat is all about upright posture and perfect form. While this can make it more challenging initially, the front squat variation is very beneficial overtime when it comes to back pain. By ensuring you remain in perfect posture during the lift, front squats will build better posture and help strengthen the muscles which keep your back straight. Additionally, the shifting of the barbell from the back to the chest in front squats reduces spinal compression.
One important difference you might not think of between the front and back squat are the common mistakes in each. By learning these difficulties, you’ll be able to better assess which exercise is right for you. In both the front and back squat, one huge common problem is knees caving inward. It’s vital to push your knees outward as you squat, keeping them in line with your toes. If your knees cave inward at all during any weighted squat, the pressure on your knee joint is greatly increased. This can lead to joint pain and even injury, so knee placement during front or back squatting is vital.
Reaching the complete range of motion is something lifters struggle with in both squats too. In the back squat, your thighs should reach a point where they are parallel to the ground, otherwise, you won’t reap the full benefits of the exercise. The front squat is even more difficult as it requires excellent mobility in the knees, hips, and ankles, to complete the range of motion. If you aren’t flexible enough to properly complete such an exercise, at least make sure you maintain perfect form to the point that you can. Completing half a range of motion well is much better than struggling through with bad form.
In the back squat, you must keep your shoulders rolled down and back throughout. If you relax these muscles, your chest could drop, disengaging your posterior chain. Activation of posterior muscles is key in a back squat, so avoid this mistake if you want to benefit from the exercise. When completing front squats, it’s the elbows you need to watch out for. Elbows need to be pushed up and forward to keep your spine properly aligned. Allowing them to drop can also dislodge the barbel from its position, so there’s all the more reason to make sure you point your elbows high.
In front squats, you also need to watch out for the rounding of the upper back. You might need a spotting partner for this one, as carrying the weight at the front can easily bend your upper back without you realizing it. Make sure your spine stays properly aligned throughout the movement to minimize injury and maximize results.
Most bodybuilders and coaches believe you should be able to lift 90% of the weight you back squat, in a front squat. This is a handy guide to use, however, these numbers won’t be the same for every lifter. Front squatting is generally harder because of the shift in load, but this doesn’t apply to every single person. You can choose which squat to use based on your personal fitness goals, or aim to perfect both for the best balance of muscles.
If you want to increase the weight that you’re squatting, first ensure that you’re completing the full range of motion with perfect form. If you can do three sets of twelve reps of either the front or back squat, then you’re ready to increase the weight for a harder challenge. You can generally increase the weight at a faster rate for back squats, promoting more strength and power. On the other hand, front squats take longer but are better for muscle development, especially if your focus is the quads.
For the everyday weight lifter, both the front squat and the back squat are highly efficient in building your legs, back, and core. However, if you’re training for a specific sport or event, then one exercise may be more useful than the other. Olympic weightlifters would better spend their time front squatting, as it builds flexibility and will help with overall leg and hip strength. On the other hand, powerlifters and bodybuilders might prefer back squatting, for the increase in pure power which could benefit in other areas.
There’s no correct answer to which squat is best, as both front squats and back squats have so many benefits. Both will help build muscle and increase strength, as long as you focus on proper form. If you struggle with lower back pain, want to work on the visual appearance of your quads, or do Olympic lifting, the front squat could be better for you. If you want to lift the heaviest weight that you can and work on pure strength and power, then back squats could be the perfect exercise. With both squat variations, always focus on keeping an upright torso, and make sure you start with the correct bar placement.