Replace back squats with front squats? Just do both!
February 20th 2019
I have been strength training for over 6 years now and a question that always comes up is this, should you replace back squats with front squats? I have done many years of consistent back squatting and front squatting. My current PRs for both are a 245 pound for 3 reps, front squat and a 350 pound for 1 rep, back squat.
Back squats and front squats will always support each other in the strength development world. You cannot simply just replace back squats with front squats and expect a monstrous back squat PR. If you are a beginner in strength training, practicing both front squats and back squats is an ideal situation.
Do front squats work on your quads more than back squats?
One study found that front squats are just as effective as back squats in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with less compression force and extensor moments. Meaning that there are less stress and pressure on the knee. The study suggests that front squats may be advantageous compared to back squats for people who have knee problems and for long term joint health.
So, to all the internet advice out there, there is research done to show that you WILL NOT get more quad development. Doing squats is an excellent way to work on your quads, whether they are front squats or back squats.
Is there any front squat to back squat carryover?
Let’s put this out there first - the BEST way to have a back squat carryover is to…
Are you ready? DO BACK SQUATS!
For you to be efficient and effective with your time, this is what you should be doing in your training. This is an ideal situation. As you may know, the reality is much much different. Lifters must manage a lot of other training variables in order to improve on their back squat max.
So, while it is ideal to do as many heavy back squats as you can, you are likely to not be able to recover to do the same workout on the next session. So, as a result, we must adapt to this. We figure out different ways of managing volume and intensity so that we can increase our back squat max. One of these strategies is by incorporating accessory exercises to do. And what is one of the most common leg accessories for the back squat? You guessed it. It is the front squat.
Is there any carryover if you do front squats rather than back squats? I was curious about this and decided to dive into the topic. I found that people generally opt to do both and do not depend on one specific exercise to carryover massively.
So, if you are doing exclusively back squats, lifters will expect to improve their back squats. Similarly, lifters that do exclusively front squats expect to improve on their front squats. Sure, there are some instances of carryover as you handle heavier weights and more volume.
For example, I felt that once I include front squats into my programming, I am able to hit more PRs within a few weeks. However, there are many reasons to explain why this happened but I will get into two:
1. It is a lighter load
If you are front squatting, you will generally use less weight than if you were back squatting. As a result, this gives your body a break to recover from all the heavy back squats you use to do. And once your body has adapted, you feel a surge of improved performance as you continue on your program. Talk about successful events!
2. Exercise variability
If you are have been doing something for a long time, it gets pretty stale and routine. If you add in something new, you will be prompted to adapt quickly. A similar concept applies here.
If you have been doing only back squats for months or even years, adding front squats to your routine will be a breath of fresh air. Your body will be forced to adapt and you will experience rapid growth for a short period of time.
How can I get a bigger front squat?
If you think about it, what is the best exercise to build a stronger front squat? Do you see where I am going with this?
In order to build a bigger front squat, you need to do more front squats. This should be the bread and butter of your programming. However, I understand. It is easier said than done. So, let us go over several tactics lifters can use to build a bigger and better front squat.
1. Work on your rack mobility
Knowing where to place the bar on your shoulders is one thing. Front squats should never be intensely discomfort. Another key component to work on is your wrist mobility. Getting into a proper front squat position will allow you to establish more confidence and strength.
Ankle mobility is very key for front squatting. Since you are squatting downward and not back, you are forced to make sure your entire feet is engaged during the entire lift. Making sure that you maintain at least three points of contact with your feet while front squatting.
3. Engage your core
Front squats powerfully work on your abs. Think about it. If you do not stay upright, what happens? Your chest and abs collapse and you will dump the bar forward. Working on your core and establishing good form actively help your front squat numbers soar.
4. Stick with the basics - training heavy, sleeping and eating
But of course, even if you do the first three, what is the point if you are not sleeping, eating and training heavy? Making sure you do these three things will give you at least 80% of the results. Focusing on the big macro-level strategies will be the most efficient use of your time. After all, who really wants to waste more time at the gym?
Why are front squats so hard?
So, you have decided that front squats may be up your alley to support your goal. Great. There is only one issue, they are hard to do!
As listed above as strategies to improve your front squats, they could also be banes. For example, not maintaining a proper front squat rack position will make front squats extremely uncomfortable. This involves proper wrist mobility, forearm flexibility, biceps mobility, shoulder mobility, and pecs flexibility. The front squat rack position will let you know immediately if you are able to get into a proper position or not.
Or you can use an alternative grip with your arms crossed over the bar. I am personally not a fan of this method as you are covering up obvious weaknesses in your lifting. Would you rather address your glaring concerns now or later when you are injured?
In addition to upper body flexibility, maintaining sufficient lower body flexibility is difficult for some lifters. Many lifters need to use elevated shoes in order to do front squats since they lack the necessary ankle mobility. It makes it easy for lifters to do front squats if the shoes help them maintain a stable position.
These are two of the most common complaints you may face. So, what can you do? Address them right away! Start small and chip away at your issues. Though solutions may not be instant, you will be surprised at how quickly your body is willing to adapt.
What if I front squat more than I back squat?
I was also curious about this squat ratio and decided to do some research. While answers were varied across the different platforms and internet figures, a balanced athlete should be able to front squat 75%-90% of their back squat.
So, what does it mean if you front squat more weight than you back squat? It could be one of these two reasons:
One, you have not trained back squats enough. For a while, this was my situation. When I first started to strength train, I did predominantly front squats for the entire year before I started to back squat. As a result, my back squat and front squat numbers were around the same. It was not until I started doing more back squats that my numbers begin to soar. Now, they fit a similar range as stated above.
And I hope that it makes sense too. Back squats engage way more muscles in the posterior chain that allow you to lift more weights. The squat is not limited to how strong your core is or how mobile you are.
Second, you are doing back squats incorrectly. This also falls under not doing enough back squats often. Maybe you are not following proper technique or have some muscular imbalance that is causing you to be in a compromised position. Fix your form and you will see immediate progress.
Which should you do?
Many blogs and articles will advocate you doing front squats because it helps emphasize quad development. Based on the current research, this is simply not true. Rather, it does not tell the entire story.
Front squats are great. Back squats are great. But which should you do really depends on what your goals are.
Are you looking to gain strength? Thinking about joining a powerlifting competition? Definitely, include back squats in your program with a personal choice to add front squats as a leg accessory.
Are you looking to just stay healthy? Looking to get a bit stronger for a sport or lose some weight? Including both back squats and front squats would be optimal for anybody looking to accomplish any of the related goals stated. These effective compound exercises have proven to many lifters to achieve results.