The front squat is often overlooked. After all, people tend to lift more weight with the back squat and find that holding the bar in the front rack position isn’t easy.
Thus, front squats are often neglected. You’re more likely to see front squats in Olympic weightlifting programs, as it is a staple exercise in the sport, serving as the base for the catch position in the clean.
There is nowhere to hide with the front squat. It reveals weaknesses that the back squat hides, and any imbalances, strength or mobility issues will come to light. But don’t let this deter you from trying the front squat out! It is a great exercise that identifies a number of issues including:
- Hip mobility
- Imbalances in the shoulder girdle
- Lack of flexibility in the ankles
- Overdeveloped pec minor (biceps or triceps that may lead to a hunched forward position)
- Weakness in the glutes and quads
- Problems with thoracic extension (the ability to keep your chest up).
- Weak core
And, of course, it identifies front rack mobility issues. Not only do you need good strength to carry the weight for this exercise, but the mobility to coordinate it through the full range of motion.
Having a well-developed chest, biceps, and shoulders are all well and good but unless it’s balanced out by a well-developed back this could lead to a medial rotation of the upper arms (where the shoulders are hunched forwards and the arms are turned inwards). The front squat addresses this issue, improving your movement and posture.
How to do a front squat
So how do you do a front squat? We’ll break it down below.
The set-up: Start with the bar secure in the squat rack. This should be level with the middle of your chest. Hold the bar with your hands just a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Step close to the bar and lower into a quarter squat so the bar is level and touching the top of your chest and the front of your shoulders.
Bring your elbows forwards and up as high as you can without letting go of the bar. Concentrate on keeping your elbows as high as possible throughout the squat. This will help to keep your body upright and help you hold the bar securely while resting against your chest and shoulders. Then drive up to take the bar out of the rack.
Performing the move: First, take one step backwards. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing ever so slightly diagonally away from each other. Now brace yourself! Take a deep breath and keep your torso strong, and then bend your legs to lower into a squat.
Remember to keep your knees wide apart and your heels down. Lower until your legs are parallel with the floor then drive back up to stand. This is the perfect form, but if you find this is a struggle, we have tips to improve below.
Front squat form tips
Elbows: If your elbows drop, the weight will tip forwards, causing you to lose your balance and putting an end to your set. To solve this, focus on pushing your elbows towards the ceiling throughout the move.
You can also try bringing your hands closer together or further apart. This will help you find a position that keeps your elbows elevated effectively and comfortably.
Hand position: If you’re not used to a front squat, it will take a few attempts to achieve the perfect form because your wrists and forearms may not be flexible enough yet. There is a way to solve this though.
Start by warming your wrists up. Interlock your fingers and rotate your wrists left and right for a couple of minutes. If you find that doesn’t help, get into the position where you’re about to lift the bar out of the rack, but cross your arms and hold the bar against your shoulders.
Keeping your shoulders high is still crucial. Lifting a lot of weight may still be difficult, so knock the weight plates down until you’ve practiced some more and feel comfortable.
Variations of the front squat
Here are some variations of the front squat for you to try out:
Band-resisted front squat: If you feel as though lifting the weight on the bar isn’t enough, you can add a resistance band. Not only does this increase the overall resistance, but concentrates all that resistance towards the top of the move as that’s where the most of the tension in the band will be.
This means there is no extra load on the bottom of the exercise, and while this is risky due to the mobility needed for the exercise, it does make you more powerful and force you to drive all the way up as you stand to counter the band’s increasing resistance.
To perform this variation, attach the resistance band to a racked bar, with the two loops on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, then stand on the resistance band to make it taut. Perform your squat thrust as normal, making sure not to let the extra resistance in the second half of the exercise affect your form.
Elevated heels front squat: Ankle and calf flexibility can be an issue in all squats. However, while improving these you can still front squat by lifting your heels on smaller weight plates. This lets you go deeper and puts more emphasis on your quads to develop them more.
Goblet squat: If you’re apprehensive about taking on a loaded barbell in a front squat, you can work up to it by using a kettlebell or dumbbell initially. Hold the weight against your chest with your arms bent so your hands are above your elbows (like you’re holding a goblet in two hands).
Drop into a squat until your elbows touch the inside of your knees and then drive back up into a standing position. This exercise gets you used to holding a weight in front of your body while squatting, which is a great way to strengthen your legs.
Offset kettlebell front squat: This exercise is a progression from the goblet squat as you build up to the full front squat, and is an excellent workout for your core.
This is because you place more of a load on one side of your body, so your core needs to resist the urge to turn to that side as you squat, enlisting the help of different muscles than would normally be put to work during a straight up-and-down squat.
You can try this variation with either a kettlebell on one shoulder, or with two kettlebells of different weights. Hold the kettlebell in the rack position against your shoulder and drop into a squat until your elbow passes your inner thigh, then push back up, all the while making sure you don’t rotate your torso.
How to fix front squat mobility constraints
Now let’s address the most commonly overlooked front rack mobility constraints and how to fix them. While thoracic extension and shoulder flexion issues often contribute to problems with front squat mobility, wrist, elbow, and transverse plane shoulder mobility often present problems as well.
Wrist extension: To achieve a proper front rack position, you need good wrist extension mobility. But while banded mobilizations for wrist extension are useful, the simplest and most effective way to improve your wrist extension is to look at your other hand. This is the best way to determine what your specific mobility restriction is.
If your wrist extension is limited, it may be because of one of three things. There could be soft tissue restriction in your muscles, joint restrictions in the joint capsule, or bone restriction. Soft tissue restrictions can be treated with physical therapy like soft tissue mobilizations (STM) via strumming, rolfing, tac-and-gp, active release, or instrument-assisted STM.
Joint capsule restrictions can also be treated with physical therapy via joint mobilizations. The proximal row of carpal bones in your hand are the scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum, and pisiform. When you extend your wrist, these bones glide relatively in the palmar direction, towards your palm.
To increase wrist extension, mobilize these bones in the palmar direction, which would be towards the ground when doing a front squat.
Rest your arm on your lap to relax the muscles. Make sure you aren’t mobilizing directly downwards, and that the joint line is angled 10 degrees palmarly (towards your elbow). Drawing a line on your wrist also helps to identify which way you’re mobilizing.
Tricep and lat stretching: Lats are often behind decreased shoulder mobility so its key to address the flexibility of lats. The importance of gaining range in the triceps is also overlooked.
While in the front rack position, your elbows are in a flexed position so the triceps are maximally lengthened distally, meaning they are closer to the elbow. While during the front squat your triceps aren’t in their fully lengthened position proximally (at the shoulder), if you experience restriction in your triceps you may still exhibit limited shoulder flexion range of motion.
It’s important to get your triceps and lats stretched out to achieve optimal front rack mobility!
Increased shoulder external rotation: External rotation at the glenohumeral joint (i.e. the shoulder joint) is crucial for proper front rack mobility for two reasons. Firstly, externally rotating the shoulders lets you bring your hands closer to the bar.
So if your shoulder flexion continues to be limited and your hand is unable to reach the bar, you can achieve extra range by externally rotating your shoulders. Secondly, external rotation in the shoulder joint opens up the subacromial space.
This is the space that is often narrowed in the shoulder joint, so increasing your shoulder external rotation range of motion helps to clear the subacromial space and reduces impingement.
To do this, simply use a dowel or stick. Place the stick behind your elbow and relax your shoulder with your other arm, pulling the bottom of the stick towards midline.
What’s great about this particular stretch too is that you’re increasing range in the exact shoulder position necessary to perform a front squat (greater than 90 degrees of shoulder flexion).
Latissimus dorsi mobility: Your lats are also an important muscle group that needs adequate mobility to ensure your front rack mobility is optimized. The actions performed by your lats include shoulder extension, internal rotation, and depression.
Funnily enough the way to actively stretch this muscle is to do the opposite, and to work on dynamic movements that incorporate shoulder flexion, external rotation and elevation. Shoulder flexion and external rotation are both crucial for decent front rack mobility.
To improve your latissimus dorsi mobility, start in a kneeling position with your feet pointed down and with a foam roller in front of you. Place your wrist on the roller with your thumbs facing up and slightly out.
Let your arms roll forward and your chest drop to the ground. You are able to spread your knees more to lower your chest. Hold that position and repeat. With this exercise you should feel your lat muscles stretching.
To get a better stretch, keep your thumbs up. Lean against a wall with your back flat and your feet out with your knees slightly bent. Then raise both arms as you rotate with your hands out.
Try to get your elbows to touch each other in a slow and controlled motion. You should feel a stretch in your muscles. Keep your back and head flat on the wall, this may feel quite difficult to perform at first and your motion may feel very restricted.
But there’s no need to worry, this is totally normal! As you continue to practice this active motion, the more your mobility will improve.
To get the most out of a front squat and to ensure you’re performing it correctly, front rack mobility is key. From a mobility standpoint, there are a lot of requirements that are needed throughout your body to achieve a successful front squat, including in your triceps and lat muscles.
If you lack motion in one or more of those areas, try out the dynamic mobility exercise we’ve listed above and your front rack mobility will improve in no time.