Front Squat

The squat that almost all people are most familiar with is the Back Squat. This is squatting method used by most Powerlifters. It is an exceptional way to develop the coordinated strength of all leg and trunk muscles to not only extend the ankles, knees and hips but also to control their flexion and increase the range of motion for both. In short, a lot of bang for the buck! It’s one of the heaviest exercises one can use (sometimes lifters can pull more in the deadlift), and heavy means more muscle is recruited, which means stronger faster. It’s a simple exercise that doesn’t require a lot of equipment. One could improve greatly in Judo if one did nothing but the squat for 90% of their time in the gym. But is it the best exercise?

The Back Squat has been decried for years by ‘gym rats’ as a dangerous exercise, with the risk of knee or back problems associated with this exercise becoming common knowledge. Well, those beliefs are just wrong, and most likely founded upon the experience of those who did not take the time to learn the exercise correctly. A front squat would be no different, it must be performed correctly.

What’s the difference? I’m sure some of you wise guys are saying that one the weight is in front, and one in back. Well duh. But look more closely. What happens to body alignment when the force of gravity is changed only slightly? It forces the upper body to remain upright. Take a look at the videos again. Now imagine if you tried to do O Goshi or Ippon Seoi Nage from the bottom position of the back squat. It wouldn’t get you very far, would it? So, why not strength train in a similar movement pattern to the one in which you are going to have to express that strength?

Most people have a terrible time when they first try to do front squats. There are all kinds of obstacles. First there are the hands. More appropriately the wrists. Well, the shoulders too. In order to ‘rack’ the weight correctly, you may have to practice the hand position with an unweighted bar a bit. In fact, throughout the learning process, it is best to use an unweighted bar, just to get the form right. One trick to accommodate tight wrists that wont flex back is to use lifting straps. You may notice in some pictures of front squatters, that the fingers are extended, and the bar is just barely touched by the fingertips. You don’t have to squeeze the life out of the bar, you just need to keep a finger there to make sure that it’s not going anywhere. It will rest in the little valley created by your shoulders being so flexed. Right on top of the anterior delts is the ideal place to rest the bar. If you are familiar with other exercises that require you to flex at the hips under weight (Romanian Deadlift or Good Morning), that sensation of locking your back in an arched upright position is just what you want. (if you are not familiar with any of these exercises, get to my website right away! Or look over EXRX.net, a great webpage!) Most people believe that you cannot front squat anywhere near the amount of weight that you can back squat. I believe that with proper coaching, and a strong core, one can advance quickly to front squatting a weight roughly 85-90% of the equivalent back squat. The key here is the fact that your stomach and back muscles are doing a lot of work to hold your upper body upright. This is very fatiguing at first, but once you begin to get stronger in this particular lift, you are strengthening your core musculature almost as much your legs. Most ‘gym rats’ don’t really have that kind of core strength, but most martial artists often do, at least relative to their appendicular strengths.

The reason that the Front Squat is superior to the back squat is the specificity. It’s more like what we do on the mat. Better still is the extra core stability strength provided by the upright posture, and best of all is the greater flexibility involved. Most Judoka perform their hip throws by squatting with feet together, knees apart and on their toes. These positions are often necessary to descend with an upright back. Not because this is the best technique, but because the person demonstrating this type of technique lacks the flexibility to do all this with their knee and toes pointing forward or their heels on the ground. If the heels where on the ground, the hamstrings and glutes would be more thoroughly recruited to lift you back up. More muscle=more strength. It’s just more efficient. Didn’t Kano once say something about efficiency? It’s impossible to keep your knees in front of you without flexing your ankles more or sticking out your butt (one is dangerous to you, the other would negate the throw), but with some flexibility work you can keep your heels on the ground, hence the front squat. Doing the front squat deeper and deeper should be about all the flexibility work you’ll ever need. If you need more, come see me!

Squat with Perfect Form

You may be asking yourself, “so why isn’t everyone performing squats?” The simple fact is the squat is a difficult exercise to master, and can be intimidating especially for beginning weight lifters or bodybuilders. The squat has also gotten a bad rap, as being bad for your back or knees. The reason for this bad reputation is because many people just don’t learn to perform the squat correctly, and ultimately they get injured as a result. My sole purpose here is to teach you how to perform the squat correctly with perfect form so you can avoid injury and explode your muscle growth.

The first thing you must do before performing a single repetition is to ensure the squat rack is set up to properly fit you. Adjust the squat rack so the bar is at approximately chest height. This will allow you to unrack the weight without having to come up on your tip toes or waste energy by performing too much of a squatting movement. Also, adjust the cross bars, so they are about an inch below the level of the bar at the bottom of your squatting position. This will allow you to bale out at the bottom of your squat if you need to.

Alright, now that we got the squat rack set up it’s time to get down to business. Approach the bar and center yourself underneath it. The bar should rest across your upper trapezius muscle below the level of your seventh cervical vertebrae. Your seventh cervical vertebra is the big bump you feel at the base of your cervical spine when you bend your neck forward. The bar should NEVER rest on your cervical spine. Position your hands on the bar at a comfortable position.

Now, extend your knees and unrack the bar. Before descending, lock in your low back and pull your shoulder blades back. Your low back should have a slight inward curve (lumbar lordosis). This posture should be maintained throughout the squatting movement. When visualizing this position think of a military man or women coming to attention. This is the position you want to be in before starting the squat. Your feet should also be turned slightly outward.

You’re now ready to begin. When you descend think about sitting back into a chair. As you go down, you should be simultaneously bending at your knee and hip joints, but never let your back round over. It is O.K. for your trunk to bend forward, but this should come from flexion of your hip joint and not from bending at your low back. Actually, it is a must that your trunk flex forward to maintain your balance. If you attempted to keep your back perpendicular to the floor you would lose your balance backwards or would have to allow your knees to go past your toes as you descended. The latter, by the way, is a huge no no. You should never allow your knees to go past your toes. If you do, you’re putting tremendous and potentially damaging pressure on your knees. Descend until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Have a training partner watch you from the side, so you can get a feel for where this position is.

Once your thighs are parallel with the floor, press up. You should now be simultaneously extending at your knee and hip joints. A big mistake I see people making is they extend at their knees without coordinated extension at the hip joint, as well. This causes too much forward flexion of the trunk and they inevitable round their back. They compensate by completing the movement through extension of their low back, which increases strain on the low back and could lead to injury. Avoid this by remembering to keep your low back locked in and your shoulder blades back, as you press up.

Another important point to mention is to always keep your eyes straight forward throughout the squatting movement. Don’t attempt to look at the ceiling or down at the floor. Both can have detrimental effects on your form.

Now that you know exactly how to successfully and safely perform the squat it is time to start practicing. I recommend you use just the bar or broomstick to practice with until you have mastered the proper technique. Use a training partner to give you feedback. Once you have mastered the correct form you can begin adding weight. Never sacrifice your form just to lift more weight. I assure you that if you learn the correct form your muscle and strength gains will soon follow. Best of all, you will avoid injury.