By STEVE KPA
In the first part of this series, we focused on the mechanics of front squats; now let us examine the role of the front squat in a sound strength training program. As stated before, the front squat is often an overlooked tool for the regular gym-goer. If it is not a regular component of your program, you might be missing a key piece of both strength and skill development.
Why are front squats a key part of your program?
1. Develop midline stability.
2. Improve hip/glute strength.
3. Transition weight overhead better.
Front squats condition midline stability, develop hip (glute) strength, and are essential to learning how to transition the barbell from shoulders to overhead. Do any — or all — of these reasons resonate with you? Let’s take a closer look at each of these and their implications for overall training.
The above is a great illustration from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength and conveys the difference in back angle between the three basic variations of the squat. As you can see, the front squat demands much more of an upright torso position throughout the full range of motion (as opposed to the high- and low-bar back squat), which places much less stress on the spine. This is great conditioning for more dynamic exercises such as squat cleans because it develops the rigidity to keep the spine stable when receiving heavy weight in the front rack position.
With the barbell focused in front, the common habit is to descend the hips straight downward so that the weight stays balanced across the clavicles. However, this not only places a large amount of stress on the knees, but it also greatly reduces power. Sitting back on and shifting the resistance to the heels activates the large, powerful gluteals. This is key in moving efficiently and putting up heavier weights, as well as saving those precious knees. Remember that strength in any compound movement such as this is largely dictated by how well the entire chain can communicate.
To ensure that the glutes are activated at the bottom, tempo must be taken into account through the entire range of motion. As Dan John states, “down slow, up fast.” The latter cannot occur optimally without the glutes. So sit back steadily, make sure the knees do not protrude over the feet excessively, and actively keep those elbows raised (i.e., arms parallel to the ground) to help maintain balance of the barbell.
Transitioning weight overhead
Clean and jerk, thrusters, push-press, and push-jerk: all are examples of exercises that require you to drive the barbell overhead from the shoulders utilizing power from the ground/feet. In order to do so, you must be comfortable controlling the barbell in the front rack position. This means that alignment of the wrists and elbows must correlate to optimize power and drive for the given movement. The horizontal angle between the shoulder and elbow required by the front squat vastly conditions both the flexibility and strength of the wrists to cope with these demands. Finally, the midline stability conditioned by the front squat will ultimately allow the body/chain to be aligned properly in the standing position prior to driving the weight upward; proper alignment is key for efficient transfer of power from your feet to hands/extremities.
Addressing front squat weaknesses: Accessory work
In any compound lift, weaknesses in the kinetic chain are often exposed, and the front squat is no exception. Though the movement itself can even everything out if utilized methodically and patiently (“patience” typically being a rare virtue in the weight room), you will most likely need to perform accessory work as part of your programming to optimize proficiency and reap benefits. The following is a list of common weaknesses paired with supplemental exercises and suggestions to fix those problems.
1. Thoracic curvature/weak thoracic rigidity
- Rows (all types!) –> Strengthen those rhomboids, trapezius, and posterior deltoids.
- Pull-ups & pull-overs –> Stronger lats and serratus anterior provide for a solid torso position when loaded.
- Abs/midline/midsection –> Strengthening the entire midsection will help keep that midline tight and stable. Think deadlifts, strict toes-to-bar, and L-sits.
- Mobilize –> Stretch and practice myofacial release on all tight muscles.
2. Inability to sit back due to tight hips and/or tight hamstrings
- Again, mobilize.
- Glute-ham raises + GHD sit-ups –> Taking the hamstrings through a full range of motion both strengthen and stretch them; same goes for the hip flexors.
3. Knees buckling inward at the bottom position due to weak adduction (gluteus medius and IT band)
- All adduction exercises (except for that awkward open/close machine seen at your local gym) –> Lateral band walks, partial single-leg squats on a box, Bulgarian squats, step-ups, and single-leg Romanian deadlifts are all examples of great exercises that will strengthen those medial glutes.
- Tempo and pause front squats mitigate the “stretch reflex” and forces the engagement and strengthening of the hips.
Without a doubt, the front squat should be a regular piece in your strength programming. Does it mitigate the use of the back squat? Of course not. Both are equally important for both overall strength and skill transfer. Just be methodical in setting up your routine around them. Are you a novice? An athlete? Flexible? Inflexible? Coordinated? These are all variables that need to be considered. Whatever your goal, however, the front squat can only make you stronger and perhaps even more athletic. So begin incorporating and improving those front squats today. For those who have not, why are you waiting to get stronger and better than yesterday?