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!