A Primer To One Of The Most Underutilized Leg Exercises
Conventional wisdom is that the back squat is the king of all strength and mass building exercise. Or is it the deadlift? Certainly both movements should be included in your programming for active engagement of a huge portion of your body in movements that translate to every day sport and life (picking up heavy stuff, jumping over tall buildings). But few exercises match the high performance benefits of the front squat. So before you decide to load up 4-5 plates on each side and make the bar bend across your traps, try leaving your ego at the door and focus on your weak areas. If you don’t front squat I bet you have some significant weakness that you’re hiding from the rest of the world.
Before we get started let’s look at what a proper ass to ground (ATG for future reference) front squat (FS) look like from our infamous master trainer Cotton, one of the founding members of Team Molon Labe.
If you know a little of anatomy, centers of gravity, and have a little common sense, you will see why this version of the squat is more difficulty. You can’t use at much weight as the BS. But there are some distinct advantages of anterior bar placement despite the lessening of the load:
- Increased depth means increase glute activation
- A vertical torso improves core strength by requiring greater oblique and rectus abdominis involvement (can you say “eff the crunches”?! )
- Deeper knee flexion leads to greater quadriceps activation. Larger range of motion (distance) is better because work is equal to force time distance (W=FxD). It’s simple physics man, surely you’re not joking Mr. Feynman 😉
- Less stress on the lumbar spine and knees. There is significantly lower compressive forces at the knee when compared to back squats. Essential knowledge for anyone with knee problems from meniscal injuries to PFPS.
- Development of a stable front rack position. The front rack is how you will hold the bar. Don’t do that bodybuilding BS with your arms crossed under the bar. Developing the Front Rack is essential for almost all the Olympic lifts and Olympic lifts you will NEED TO LEARN if you want the most from your body’s performance.
- Increase your thoracic extension and build a stronger upper back. FS does require significant force in scapula and clavicle elevation as well as upper rotation to keep the elbows up and the bar in a strong and stable position (also engaging the traps, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, rhombois, and lats)
- Improved total body stability. Because the FS requires significant mobility and stability in the hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders it is a great exercise to “shake off” the deleterious effects of our “sitting” culture. If you are an office hound, you need to start front squatting.
- Improved total body strength gains. The muscle activation experienced in the FS will super charge your next round of overall strength gains if utilized consistently.
- Increased metabolic load. More engagement of the core and back will lead to more energy utilized to perform the movement, increasing metabolic load, cardiorespiratory endurance, and the ability to challenge the body crossfit style.
The EOD 130 workout (see video) took Schreck and I about 45 minutes to complete. The metabolic load engendered in that workout was HUGE – and it all started with the Front Squat. If you want to see some pretty classic mistakes in FS form….just watch the video (we did raise about $1,000 for the EOD Memorial Foundation though).
- Doing front squats rechallenge your neuromuscular connection, your mind body link, and keep your ego in check, showing the world that you are adaptable, anti-dogmatic, and fearless
So how much weight should use?
If you are new to the FS definitely start out with just the 45 pound bar for men, probably a 25 pound bar for women. Work on perfecting your front rack position and getting perfect form for 3 sets of 10 reps before adding weight. When you are well-seasoned, your FS weight should be about 70% of you BS weight.
Gullet, et al, in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, found that the FS and BS had very similar muscle activation at this 70% differential in loading. But the BS had more compression on the spine and knees with greater torque in the knees. Thus, overall muscle activation was the same with a lighter load but with a safer biomechanical profile.
Have fun, branch out, and do some new shit – the right way.