Front Vs Back Squats: Understanding How Bar Positions Completely Alters an Exercise

Squats are King

Squats are one of the most important and utilized exercises since it activates the body’s largest and most powerful muscles. The squat does not only prepare athletes for competition but also grandmas for daily task. We are constantly being asked to squat whether it be to sit on the toilet or pick something up off the ground.

Last week I wrote a blog detailing how I like to progress and regress my squats(READ HERE)

Bar Positioning is one of the most popular ways to alter the challenges and goals of a squat. The most common squat variations include front and back loaded sqauts. Both are effective at building strength in the Hips, Legs, and back; however the slight variation in weight placement can alter our movement pattern, muscles targeted and the amount of weight we are able to lift.

Back Squats

Photo by Li Sun on

During a back squat the bar is places across the back on the shoulders. Although theoretically this should increased the required work at the quads, as we are creating a greater moment arm at the knee. In the real would we see people who take a movement pattern that much more resembles that of a hip hinge. This means increased hip flexion, resulting in more strain on the hip and lumbar back musculature. This movement strategy allows for increased ability to lift heavier weights.

Front Squats:

Barbell Front Squats: The Most Effective Leg Exercise That Most People  Aren't Doing

During the front squat, the bar is placed across the chest. During the front squat, our body responds with a movement pattern that has INCREASED knee flexion and DECREASED hip flexion. This movement allows for a more upright torso(to avoid the weight falling forward. Since we are stressing our quad and thoracic musculature compared to the back squat, we are not usually able to lift as much weight.

Muscle Activation:

Bar position did not influence muscle activity

Yavuz HU, Erdağ D, Amca AM, Aritan S. Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. J Sports Sci. 2015;33(10):1058-66. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2014.984240. Epub 2015 Jan 29. PMID: 25630691.

Joint Loading:

The front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments.

Gullett JC, Tillman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):284-92. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb. PMID: 19002072.

When Should You Choose a Back Squat:

  • When we are trying to develop our Glute and Hip musculature
  • Maximal Strength Gains
  • Easier to progress with increasing weight
  • Wrist mobility issues

When Should You Use a Front Squat:

As I talked about with back squats beginning to resemble something that looks more like a hip hinge, if we are already hitting deadlifts hard, we may want to consider front squats a little more. This creates a little bit more movement variability and focuses in on quad development a-little more. I also like these with athletes since it places less compressive load on our joints, and strains our nervous system less. Many times athletes are already loading their body with skill development and sports specific work, that any way we can decrease load on the body can be beneficial. With that here are some of the reason why we may want to choose front squats.

  • Quad Development
  • If you are suffering from low back pain
  • Knee Pain, due to the less compressive forces.(although I would limit anterior translation of our knees)
  • Previous Meniscus Injuries, due to the less compressive forces
  • Shoulder mobility issues

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