Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness the showdown that was always meant to be: back squats vs front squats!
- Round 1: Quad Activation
- Round 2: Posterior Chain Activation
- Round 3: Technical Difficulty
- Round 4: Pain
- Round 5: Flexibility Requirements
- Round 6: Structural Balance
- Round 7: Lumbar Spine Compression
- Round 8: Knee compression
- Round 9: High Reps
- Round 10: Low Reps
- Round 11: Specialty Bars
- Round 12: Bodybuilding Training
- Round 13: Powerlifting Training
- Round 14: Strongman Training
In the blue corner we have the defending champion, the so-called king of all exercises, the most cheated on exercise in the world: the back squat!
And in the red corner we have the challenger, a leaner and meaner squatting variation that knows how to pack a punch: the front squat!
Attention back squat and front squat: I want a good, clean fight. That means no kicks below the belt and no squats above parallel!
This is going to be no ordinary fight. We’re going a solid 14 rounds and victory will not be awarded on technical points.
Instead we’re going to fight until the last squat is left standing!
Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready?
I said, ARE YOU READY?!?!?
Then let’s get ready to RUUUMMMBBBLLLLLEEE!!!
Round 1: Quad Activation
The scientific literature is *very* clear on this one: front squats are clearly better for recruiting the quadriceps muscle!
EMG studies have demonstrated that the front squat is superior to the back squat for recruiting two of these heads: the vastus lateralis and the rectus femoris.
The other two heads are recruited equally between back squats and front squats.
I have argued many times earlier that the effectiveness of an exercise is a function of the number of motor units that it recruits.
This largely explains why (all other things being equal) deadlifts are a superior exercise to back extensions for training the posterior chain, and dips are a superior exercise to tricep kickbacks for training the triceps: they recruit vastly more motor units!
If your goal is to maximally train the quadriceps, then the front squat should be slightly preferred to the back squat.
Some of you may be wondering why this is the case.
The answer is simple: the further forward your center of gravity is on a squat, the more you will push your knees forward over your toes, the more upright your torso will be, and the more you will recruit the quadriceps.
The front squat clearly brings the center of gravity further forward relative to the back squat, and therefore does a better job of recruiting the quadriceps.
Dmitry Klokov as usual gives a picture-perfect front squat demonstration:
The opposite is also true: the further back your center of gravity the less you recruit the quadriceps and the more you recruit the posterior chain.
This is why so many powerlifters squat with a “low bar” position on back squats: it shifts the center of gravity even further back, allowing them to lift more weight in competition!
Regardless of whether you are performing back or front squats it is critical that you squat all the way down if you want to maximally recruit the quadriceps muscle.
As Dante Trudel has pointed out, the muscle that is stretched the most is recruited the most. And the quadriceps are clearly placed under a much greater stretch during full squats.
The bottom line is that, all other things being equal, front squats recruit more of the quadriceps musculature than back squats.
This is not the end of the story though…
Round 2: Posterior Chain Activation
It looks like our defending champion the back squat is ready to fight back after its embarrassing loss in the first round!
And it looks like the back squat is justified here: the back squat does indeed do a superior job of recruiting the posterior chain relative to the front squat!
Of course when I say the posterior chain I am talking about the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. These three muscles work together as a team to extend the hips (such as during the ascent of a back squat).
Although certain exercises may place more emphasis on one of these muscles vs the other, virtually any exercise that includes a hip extension movement pattern will work all three of the posterior chain muscles to some degree.
The back squat is particularly effective in training the glutes, especially if you are doing full squats where your hamstrings muscles completely cover your calves in the bottom position.
This deep squatting position on the back squat places the glutes under an enormous stretch which is awesome for stimulating hypertrophic adaptations!
One of the keys to achieving maximal posterior chain activation on the back squat is to make sure that your butt DOES NOT shoot up faster than your torso during the ascent!
This should be considered cheating as it shifts much of the emphasis away from the quads, hamstrings, and glutes and shifts it onto the spinal erectors.
Besides getting an inferior training stimulus you are increasing the shear forces on your lower back and increasing your risk of injury.
With back squats winning in terms of posterior chain activation we are now tied 1-1!
Who’s going to take the lead after round 3?
Round 3: Technical Difficulty
This round will be decided by whichever exercise (the back squat or the front squat) requires less time to master from a technical standpoint.
The judges have convened and made their final decision: the back squat is the clear winner here!
It is true, the back squat is much, much easier to master than the front squat. There are many reasons for this.
First of all, most trainees learn to execute the back squat long before they learn the front squat, if they ever even try this challenging exercise!
After all, what could be more natural than just placing a barbell on the muscley shelf that is your upper traps and squatting away?
Balancing the barbell on the back squat is also much easier.
Unless you are doing something incredibly stupid in the gym (or lifting seriously heavy weights in a powerlifting meet) it is very difficult to lose your balance during the back squat.
Balancing a barbell on your clavicles during a front squat is much more challenging.
During front squats the barbell always feels like it is about to slide forward off your clavicles or to one side or the other.
It does not matter that I have done an “ass-to-grass” front squat with over double my bodyweight – the front squat remains a technically challenging exercise for me!
The same is true for the vast majority of the weightlifters that I have conversed with.
The bottom line is that the back squat is clearly the easier exercise to master.
Round 4: Pain
I don’t care if you personally are a masochist and enjoy lifting-related pain for the sake of it. Victory in this round will be granted to the squatting variation that is less painful.
Pain is clearly part of the iron game, but there is no reason to put yourself in more pain if you don’t have to.
And victory in round 4 goes to the back squat!
Yes, the back squat can be a very painful exercise.
This is especially true if you are insane enough to do something like the 20-rep “breathing squats” as advocated by DC Training the older Hardgainer training routines.
However, even the pain of 20-rep squats cannot compare to the pain endured during a heavy set of front squats.
First of all, you are resting a barbell with potentially several hundred pounds on your clavicles! The weight is literally sitting right on your collar bones!
This is in stark contrast to the back squat, where the weight just sits on those nice squishy upper traps of yours.
To make things worse you have to push the barbell up against your throat to maintain optimal front squatting technique.
If you feel like the barbell is about to choke you then you know you are on the right track!
Then there’s the issue of breathing during a front squat. Yes, it can be difficult to breathe during a set of higher rep back squats, but this doesn’t even compare to the challenge of breathing during front squats.
I could go on, but the verdict is clear: back squats are far less painful to perform than front squats!
Round 5: Flexibility Requirements
Our challenger the front squat is having a rough time thus far against the defending champion the back squat!.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the front squat is going to be able to turn things around in this round either!
The verdict is clear: the back squat requires far less flexibility to perform than the front squat!
This means that someone with terrible flexibility may be able to progress towards back squatting with good technical form far faster than they can progress towards front squatting with good form.
The front and back squat are require approximately equal amounts of flexibility in the ankles, hips, and knees.
However, things change when we look at the upper body.
Most people will have no problem getting their arms underneath the bar to do back squats on day 1. However, things are radically different with the front squat!
You need to have SUPERIOR flexibility in the shoulder (particularly the external rotators of the rotator cuff) to position your upper arms under the bar and out in front of your body.
This is not all bad news, as the front squat can be a great diagnostic tool. If one of my online coaching clients tells he can’t do front squats then I immediately put him on a flexibility program to address the impairments!
One of the biggest reasons for people not front squatting is tight external rotator muscles (rotator cuff).
There are a variety of ways to quickly address this flexibility issue, including active release therapy and other types of manual massage.
Another option that does not cost you anything is to just practice front squatting with an empty bar. On every rep really try and drive your elbows up and in.
Over time your flexibility will naturally improve and you will feel more comfortable in this position.
This is actually the trick used myself many years ago when I first got serious about front squatting and it worked like a charm!
The bottom line though is that the back squat clearly requires less flexibility than the front squat to perform correctly and is the clear winner in round 5.
Round 6: Structural Balance
Things are looking pretty bleak for our challenger the front squat. Unless it can snag some quick victories in the next few rounds it is going to be lights out!
But wait, what’s this? It looks like the front squat hasn’t run out of steam just yet!
When it comes to both testing for and training for optimal lower body structural balance, the front squat is the clear winner!
In fact the front squat is probably the single greatest tool you can use to assess someone’s lower body structural balance.
The higher someone’s full front squat is, the less likely they are to be injured.
This is true both for strength athletes such as powerlifters and bodybuilders but also american football players, soccer players, sprinters, down hill skiers etc.
Here too the front squat is invaluable! For optimal structural balance your full front squat should be at least 85% of your full back squat.
According to Charles Poliquin 87% might be the most precise number, but if you are hitting at least 85% then you are in good shape.
Many of you reading this article will be nowhere close to achieving this strength ratio! That’s OK – it doesn’t make you a bad person.
It just means that you are neglecting the front squat in your training, your hamstrings are too weak, you are “cheating” in some capacity on your back squats, or any combination of the above factors!
The bottom line though is that the front squat is superior to the back squat for both assessing and improving lower body structural balance.
Round 7: Lumbar Spine Compression
The back squat may still be in the lead but the front squat isn’t letting up at all!
It looks like the front squat is going to snag another victory this round on the topic of lumbar spine compression!
Any barbell squatting variation is going to place some compressive forces on the lumbar spine. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the lower back can adapt to this stress over time.
However, if you want to stay healthy and lift for a long time then it is probably a good idea to look for strategies to train your legs without exposing your lumbar spine to so much stress.
In this respect the front squat really shines. Because the center of gravity is much further forward on front squats you are able to maintain a much more vertical torso.
And by keeping your torso more vertical throughout the movement you are dramatically decreasing the compressive forces the lumbar spine is exposed to!
The shearing forces on the lower back are also reduced.
Another reason the front squat is a little bit more lower-back friendly is that you just can’t use as much weight on this exercise as you can on the back squat!
And less weight on the barbell means less compressive forces on your lumbar spine.
Believe me, I know how frustrating lower back pain can be.
I suffered a nasty lower back injury when I was 18 (playing tennis of all things!) and the pain was so bad I couldn’t even sit down for three months!
To this day I still have flare-ups on the right and left sides of my back right where I originally injured it.
Don’t confuse this with me pissing and moaning though, I plan on achieving my first deadlift world record in the next few years so it’s not like my lower back strength is lacking!
Still, I am always on the lookout for ways to reduce unnecessary lumbar spine stress, from using exercises to decompress the spine to tweaking major exercises.
And the front squat works perfectly for this.
Round 8: Knee Compression
Things are really starting to heat up in this showdown of the century between the defending champion the back squat and its challenger the front squat.
The front squat trails 4-3. Does it have what it takes to tie things up?
Once again the front squat is the clear winners here. Front squats actually place less compressive forces on the knees than back squats!
But don’t just take my word for it – this is the consensus amongst the scientific community.
Of course this does not mean that back squats are “bad” or that they should be avoided. Rather, you just have to be smart about not over-doing them in your long-term programming.
This information is really important to consider if you have bad knees, or if you want to avoid cumulative stress injuries in the future.
Just ask Stan “The White Rhino” Efferding who had to deal with chronic patellar tendinitis throughout all of his 30s and most of his 40s!
Stan finally found a solution to his woes in high-rep banded leg presses, but it is much better to avoid this type of chronic injury in the first place than it is to finally find a solution!
In this interview Stan Talks about how he could barely walk sometimes and pursued every treatment known to man including stem cells!
The bottom line, we all take our health for granted until we have a health problem. The same is true for knees.
Rotate front squats in once in a while to give your knees a break from the compressive forces of back squats. Your knees will thank you!
Round 9: High Reps
The challenger the front squat may have tied things up in round 8, but it looks like the defending champion the back squat is about to take the lead again!
When it comes to performing higher-rep sets, the back squat is the clear favourite. Actually, it’s not even close!
I would go so far as to say that you should NEVER perform high reps on the front squat. When I say high reps, I am talking about more than 6 reps in a single set.
Why would I say this? The reason is simple:
On high-rep front squats your scapular retractors will tap out faster than your legs, preventing you from getting a good leg workout in.
Let me explain.
During a front squat the scapular retractors (specifically middle trap, lower trap, and rhomboids) have to contract isometrically to help maintain an upright posture.
These muscles can do a perfectly fine job when the reps are relatively lower.
However, on higher rep sets these muscles just can’t maintain the isometric position long enough for you to actually fatigue your legs!
I don’t care what your goal is (size, strength, or fat loss): if you want to squat with more than 6 reps per set then you must forego the front squat in favor of the back squat!
Round 10: Low Reps
This round is a little bit less clear-cut than the last round, but the verdict is clear:
The front squat is a better choice when performing sets in the 1-3 rep range.
There are at least 2 very good reasons for this.
First of all, it is much easier to maintain a relatively vertical trunk position on low-rep front squats relative to low-rep back squats.
This is definitely not a good thing!
Some people with superior squatting structures (short legs and a long torso) can max out on squats while still maintaining an upright posture.
However, if you have the opposite structure (long legs and a short torso) then maxing out on back squats may not be the safest or most productive idea.
On front squats this is a completely different story. It is possible to maintain perfect form on maximal singles even for those with less-than-optimal squatting structures.
The second reason is that front squats place less compressive forces on the lower back and knees.
If you are going to be lifting extremely heavy then it makes sense to do so on an exercise that takes a little bit of the pressure off of your joints.
Please don’t take this advice out of context! I can already imagine a horde of angry powerlifters telling me that they have to max out on back squats to get ready for competition etc.
Obviously this would be an exception to the rule, and I recommend powerlifters (and strongman competitors) do what they have to do to best prepare for competition.
However, as a general rule of thumb, going heavy on front squats is a better use of your time than going heavy on back squats.
Round 11: Specialty Bars
There is nothing wrong with the good-old-fashioned barbell when it comes to squatting.
However, there are a variety of specialty bars that offer many advantages if you are a more experienced lifter.
If you are looking to use specialty squatting bars, then the choice is clear: the back squat wins hands-down!
In reality it is very difficult to use any of the specialty bars on front-squats. I believe Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has some specialty bars that he trains the front squat with, but outside of him I have never seen them used.
Here are a handful of awesome specialty bars that you can use on the back squat.
Coincidentally these specialty bars form the foundation of 4x world’s strongest man Brian Shaw’s squat training:
- The safety squat bar
- The buffalo bar
- The cambered bar
- The spider bar
The bottom line is that the back squat is the clear winner when it comes to accommodating the various specialty bars!
Round 12: Bodybuilding Training
This was a very, VERY difficult round to call! Quite frankly the front squat and the back squat both have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to bodybuilding training.
However, there this is a fight to the death! There will be no draws in this long-anticipated match!
With that in mind, victory in this round is awarded to the back squat!
Having trained hundreds of clients I feel pretty confident in saying that the back squat should generally be favored by bodybuilders over the front squat.
However, the reason for this might surprise you!
If there is one body part in the body that responds best to really high-rep sets with lots of time under tension per set it is the quadriceps (okay, this describes the delts as well…).
And good luck doing sets of 20 on the front squat!
This is actually the primary reason. It is just not practical to do sets of 10-20 reps on the front squat as your scapular retractors would tap out too quickly. This is not an issue with the back squat.
The front squat should still be used periodically by bodybuilders, especially when training in relatively lower rep ranges.
However, as a rule of thumb, the back squat is a better bet for building maximum muscle.
Round 13: Powerlifting Training
Chad Wesley Smith is absolutely spot-on when he talks about the importance of training specificity.
The law of training specificity states that if you want to get better at something, then you have to actually practice that something!
Even Westside Barbell disciples such as Matt Wenning have slowly come to the conclusion that you really can get carried away with fancy exercise variations and at the end of the day you have to practice the competition lifts.
With that in mind the back squat is the clear winner here.
Round 14: Strongman Training
This might be the most difficult round of all from a judging standpoint!
Let’s break things down according to events to make things as objective as possible.
Although the specific events of any given strongman competition are always changing, there definitely are some common themes.
The most common types of events are:
- Farmer’s Walk
- Super Yolk
- Atlas Stones
- Overhead Presses
The front squat is clearly the better choice if you are trying to improve your overhead press or your atlas stones, as both of these events involve a load that is held in front of your own center of gravity.
The back squat has better carryover for the super yolk, but to be honest I have never seen the squat to have much carryover to the super yolk for the strongman clients that I work with.
If you want to improve your super yolk then you absolutely must train the super yolk! Seriously, there is no alternative solution here.
The farmer’s walk is pretty similar. The best thing I have found for my clients is to simply train the farmer’s walk.
No amount of front or back squatting is going to improve this lift if you aren’t already practicing it!
Finally this leaves the deadlift. I will leave it to the reader to decide if the front or back squat has more carryover to the deadlift as I am rather undecided on the issue.
The bottom line is that there is no substitute for actually practicing and training with the strongman implements if you want to become a better strongman competitor.
But if I had to choose, I would say the front squat is probably a little more important. But just a little bit!
The Final Verdict
So what’s the final verdict? Who won the back squats vs front squats showdown?
Is the defending champion reigning supreme or has the front squat dethroned the back squat as the king of all exercises?
The final score is: the back squat 8-6 over the front squat!
I hope it has been enlightening for you to see all of the advantages and disadvantages of the back squat and the front squat clearly laid out for you.
The bottom line is that both of these exercise variations have a place in your training.
You will reach your goals faster if you understand how to cycle through different types of squats, such as the front and back squat, in your own short-term and long-term programming.
It is so incredibly important to me that you succeed that I will be providing you two sample training programs that you can start using today to build bigger, stronger legs!
Sample Training Programs
As you may already know I am a huge fan of cycling accumulation and intensification phases.
In my experience this is one of the most effective periodization schemes for the vast majority of trainees.
The quads in particular respond well to the accumulation intensification model, although there are of course endless ways to shock your legs into progress.
A great strategy would be to perform a higher-rep accumulation phase focused on building muscle with the back squat, followed by a lower-rep intensification phase focused on building strength with the front squat.
Note: please read this article if you have any difficulty reading the routines below. It will answer all of your questions 🙂
Sample accumulation workout
- A1: Back squat (heels narrow / flat), 4 x 8, 10, 12, 15, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Standing unilateral leg curl, 3/0/10, 4 x 8, 90 seconds rest
- B1: Peterson leg press, 3 x 20, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Seated leg extension, 3 x 20, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B3: 90 degree back extension (barbell held w/ snatch grip), 4 x 12, 2/0/1/1, 10 seconds rest
- B4: 45 degree back extension (DB held at chest), 4 x 15, 2/0/1/1, 120 seconds rest
Talk about a brutal workout!
Don’t be surprised if you have trouble sitting down on the toilet the next day!
I recommend that you use this routine for 3-6 consecutive lower body workouts before moving on to the sample intensification workout below.
I would also recommend you train each body part once every 3-7 days, depending on your recovery ability.
Sample intensification workout
- A1: Front squat x 5/3/2/5/3/2**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Lying leg curl bilateral x 5/3/2/5/3/2**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: Standing good morning, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/2/0, 75 seconds rest
**Performed as a 5/3/2 wave loading protocol. This is an awesome way to train for both strength and functional hypertrophy. Click here to learn more about 5/3/2 wave loading!
This routine features quite a bit less volume compared to the sample accumulation workout.
This is a good thing, as you will certainly be needing a reduction in your overall training volume after the first routine!
In all seriousness though, this is an AWESOME routine for boosting your strength in the front squat.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you easily crush your previous best front squat after using each of these 2 routines in order for 3-6 workouts per routine!
The back squats vs front squats showdown has not disappointed!
The defending champion the back squat may have retained the title of the king of all exercises, but the front squat is a very close second.
In reality I think your best bet is to perform both front squats and back squats at different times in your long-term training program.
I am quite confident that you will be able to reach new personal bests in strength and size for your lower body if you understand and apply the information presented in this article!
Of course you can always reach out to me directly for help if you are looking for a more customized training program or if you want to reach your goals in record time.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training endeavors!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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