Squatting is one of the primary movement patterns we use in fitness. The benefits of squatting are numerous. From hormonal function to bone density to muscle strength, stability, coordination etc etc. The squat is definitely one of the most loved exercises, but there are so many variations of them it can be confusing to know which ones you should be using and which you shouldn’t. Today we are going to focus on the differences between the front squat and back squat.
Front squatting and back squatting use the same muscles, but the emphasis on which muscle group is used changes. Both types of squats will work your quads, glutes, hamstrings, abdominals, spinal erectors, upper back, and shoulders. Front squatting will put an emphasis on the muscles on the anterior (front) side of your body – your quads and abdominals as well as your upper back. This is because in both the front squat and the back squat, the bar has to sit over the middle of the foot for you to stay balanced. To do so in the front squat, you have to maintain a more upright position, shifting load and force toward the knee. The muscles that extend the knee are your quads. The back squat is the exact opposite, putting emphasis on your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors). To maintain proper technique you have to lean forward a bit to keep the bar in the right position, shifting load and force toward the hip joint which extend primarily via the glutes and hamstrings.
*For more on the biomechanics of each lift, check out this article from squat university about levers in the squat and how it affects you and the lift.
The squat you you choose may depend on mobility restrictions. The most common being the front rack position for the front squat. If you can’t let the bar sit on your shoulders, with your elbows pointing forward while you squat it is going to be very hard to move enough weight to get a good stimulus. Most of the time, the restriction is in your wrists. However sometimes we see clients with an external rotation, lat, or elbow flexion restriction. If it is uncomfortable to hold the front rack position, identify which restriction you have and work on it. In the meantime, utilize the back squat. You may also find you struggle to get into a good back rack position for the back squat. Often clients shoulders do not move well enough to achieve a good position here. You can either try going slightly wider with your hands, or switch to a front squat in this case while you work on external rotation.
As far as mobility of the squat itself, the biggest issue that might change which squat you choose comes from the ankles. Since you have to sit more upright, your knees have to be able to track over your toes more in the front squat than in the back squat. If your ankles aren’t moving well a back squat or a box back squat might be a better option for you.
*note that there are tons of single leg variations as well, but we are specifically talking about 2 legged squats today.
Working around pain
Because front squatting stresses the knee more than the hip, and back squatting does the opposite, we can use that knowledge to help you continue squatting if something hurts. For example, if at the end range of motion your knee bothers you in a front squat, it might not in a box squat because the load is shifted back toward the hip. You may even choose a low bar back squat to shift even more load toward the hip. If you have pain in your hip back squatting, it might feel fine performing front squats as load is shifted toward the knee.
Again, there are plenty of single leg variations that might be better than both of these depending on the person!
The last point to make is about different sports. Powerlifters will have to primarily back squat because they have to do it for the sport. Weightlifters (snatch and clean & jerk) can do both, but definitely need to be able to front squat in order to receive a clean. For other sports it doesn’t matter too much. Most strength coaches will actually use single leg variations for their field sport athletes because they typically are doing things on 1 leg while playing their sport and because it’s a simpler, safer option to quickly teach them. The front squat and back squat are powerful tools if you can master them, but it takes time!
The squat you choose should be the one that best fits your goals and your mobility/pain restrictions. If you have no restrictions, mix em up just like we do in classes!
If you are having pain or are limited in a front or back squat, let a coach know so we begin helping you solve that problem.