Picture this. It’s leg day, and the squat rack at your gym is finally free. But what if your quads have been feeling deflated lately, or your low back has been bugging you, or you’re trying to build leg muscle and you want to get the most bang for your buck. Should you front squat or back squat?
Your first instinct might be to dismiss the front squat altogether since the back squat has all the star power in the gym. However, unless you’re in a very specific training block or recovery program, the best thing for your training may well be to incorporate both back and front squats.
The question then becomes one of prioritization. Which lift should be your go-to squat variation when you’re trying to gain muscle mass or increase overall strength? This article will walk you through the differences between back and front squats, and will help you understand when to deploy them both for maximum gains.
Differences Between the Back and Front Squat
Building strong legs means squatting — period. Any kind of barbell squat is going to help get you stronger if you’re doing them right. Depending on your body and precise goals, the type of squat you choose to prioritize might differ.
Specific Muscle Activation
Front and back squats both emphasize knee flexion. But the position of the barbell — and your torso — is going to encourage slightly different muscle activation patterns throughout the movements.
According to a 2015 study, the quadriceps muscle is more activated by front squats than back squats. The same study observed that parts of the hamstrings were more stimulated by the back squat. Front squats may also be more likely to challenge your core more directly, given the anterior position of the barbell. (1)
If you’re looking to emphasize hypertrophy in your quads, leveling up your front squat game will likely give you the most bang for your buck. But if you want to specifically target your hamstrings for growth, the back squat may have an advantage, though it still pales in comparison to posterior chain classics.
Another major key to muscle growth involves managing your volume. If your lower body hypertrophy program features a lot of isolation exercises, make sure you’re recovering adequately. Performing back and front squats in tandem is a lot of training stimulus overall. If you’re including both, make sure you’re starting your day with the back squat. And make sure your recovery game is on point.
Low Back Pain
Different moves will always impact people differently, depending on injury history, limb length, how warmed up they are before lifting, and countless other factors. But according to the 2015 study discussed above, front squats may place less pressure on the lumbar spine.
The cause is likely attributed to a more upright torso posture, which creates less of a moment arm between your midline and your lower back. So if heavy back squats seem to antagonize your low back, front squats might be a better alternative.
Similarities Between the Back and Front Squat
If you’re looking to get your lower body as strong as you can, both front and back squats will help you get there. Both versions are knee-dominant movements that have a place in any powerful lower body training program.
Squatting with proper form is a sure-fire way to get a whole lot stronger. Sure, your back squat max is pretty much always going to crush your front squat max, but don’t let anyone tell you that the front squat won’t get you strong.
A 2009 study found that the front squat is just as effective at recruiting muscles overall as the back squat, and that front squats specifically might be better for strength development if suffering from knee pain. (2)
The more sustainably you can lift, the stronger you can get over time. Whether with the back squat or front squat, the most important thing about developing true strength is consistency and patience — the lift you choose is simply the vehicle that takes you there.
When you’re designing a program to strengthen your entire body, lower body training often serves as your base. To build that base up properly, you’ll need both lower body pull and lower body push movements — think deadlifts and squats.
Deadlifts are fundamentally hip hinges, while squats are primarily knee-dominant movement patterns. Both front and back squats are going to provide that knee-dominant lower body push component to your programming — and make you a lot stronger in the process.
Back Vs. Front Squat Technique
In the front and back squat, the bar rests in different places on the body. Even though they’re fundamentally the same movement pattern, there are some distinctions in technique. Primarily because of the different bar position, you’ll need to hone your squat technique accordingly.
Both the high bar and low bar back squats will involve placing the bar on your upper back. With the high bar squat, you’ll be placing the bar on your traps. The low bar squat will require you to form a “shelf” with your rear delts for the bar to be pinned against.
With the front squat, you’ll place the bar in the front rack position high on your shoulders, above your chest. By protracting your scapula, you can create a nook between your shoulders and neck for the barbell to rest in.
Positioning and Posture
Because of the difference in barbell location, your front and back squat setup will look pretty different. For instance, your torso is more naturally upright during the front squat.
You may also want to set the barbell on a lower peg for front squats, as you generally have to squat down a little more to unrack it than you would for back squats.
The different positions of the barbell on the body will dictate the posture of your torso. While you should be able to stand perfectly upright in the front squat or high bar back squat, expect to lean forward somewhat while preparing to perform a low bar squat.
How to Do the Back Squat
This section will specifically take you through the set up for a low bar back squat — though it should be noted that the execution is largely the same for a high bar back squat.
Set up your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Pull your shoulder blades back and down, like your elbows are trying to meet behind your back. This will create a shelf for you to “pin” the bar to on your posterior delts. Step under the bar and pin it to that shelf. Maintain that tension in your upper back and brace your core.
Unrack the bar by standing up and walking it back. Reestablish your foot position and make sure your core is still solid. Descend into your squat by dropping your hips straight down and pushing the knees out slightly. Once you’ve hit depth, drive through the ground and return to standing. Repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid the “good morning” squat by breaking at the hips and knees at the same time during the descent.
Benefits of the Back Squat
- Build major full-body strength.
- Seriously increase strength and hypertrophy potential in your lower body.
Back Squat Variations
It’s totally understandable to love back squatting — it’s not called the king of lifts for nothing. But when your program needs some variety, there are plenty of back squat variations to keep your leg day powerful.
High Bar Back Squat
The squat variation described above is the low bar back squat — but the high bar squat is an excellent option, too. This version of the squat will strengthen your quads and glutes as well, and is the mainstay exercise for Olympic weightlifters.
This squat may feel like a combination of the front squat and back squat. The bar is on your back, but it’s resting high so your torso will naturally be able to stay more upright than with the low bar squat, increasing your core activation.
This back squat variation can help you bust through squat plateaus by increasing your time under tension and dialing in technique. Pause squats won’t see you lifting the same amount of weight as regularly-paced back squats — but you won’t need to.
How to Do the Front Squat
Unrack the barbell by placing it between your neck and shoulders and “flipping” your elbows up and forward, pointing directly ahead of you if possible. If your mobility permits, grasp the barbell with your full hand, but using just fingers is okay too.
Brace your core, complete your walk out, and descend into your squat while making an effort to remain as upright as possible. After breaking parallel, drive through the ground and press yourself back up to standing. Rinse and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Try to maintain your elbow posture throughout the entire range of motion to help keep the chest up tall.
Benefits of the Front Squat
- Increase total-body strength, with an emphasis on your quads and core.
- Stimulate hypertrophy while going relatively easy on your low back and knees.
Front Squat Variations
You don’t necessarily need a barbell to reap a lot of the benefits of front squats. If you want to work your legs and core at the same time, you can front rack dumbbells or kettlebells, too.
No barbell? No problem. Front rack a heavy dumbbell and bang out some goblet squats. Even though you won’t be able to lift the same weight as you can with a barbell, goblet squats will help you build muscle and improve your squat form all at once.
You might opt to incorporate light to moderate goblet squats into your lower body warm ups. Or, you might choose to move through a training cycle while putting goblet squats as your primary squat accessory. The goblet squat is versatile, flexible, and gets the job done.
Front Rack Split Squat
Traditionally, you might see split squats performed with weights held at a lifter’s sides. There is nothing wrong with that version of this move — it’ll still elicit a load of hypertrophy, fight imbalances, and build strength.
The Back Vs. Front Squat — When to Use Each
When you’re designing a training program, it’s essential to make it customized to your own body, goals, and experiences. Still recovering from an old knee injury or have low back pain? Want to maximize your hamstring strength? Prepping for your first powerlifting meet? You’ll need to know which squat version suits your goals.
All things being equal, front squats are just as effective at overall muscle activation as back squats. (1)(2) Back squats are not automatically superior to front squats at improving strength, judging by their effectiveness at muscle activation. That said, because lifters can handle significantly more weight with back squats, strength might still improve more effectively with back squats.
However, front squats may help some lifters avoid low back or knee pain. And the more pain-free you stay, the more consistently you can lift. So if you’re the type of lifter that feels better after front squatting than back squatting, front squats may be a better option to make you stronger.
For Muscle Growth
Even though both squat versions are similarly effective overall, the literature seems to agree that back squats are a bit better at recruiting your hamstrings than front squats. Conversely, front squats should activate your quads a bit more.
So, if you’re trying to pack on quad size, consider emphasizing front squats. When you want to get a bit of extra-credit hamstring work in, back squats might be more appropriate in your program.
For Sports Performance
Powerlifters need to focus on back squats as it is a competition lift. That doesn’t mean that front squats have no place in a powerlifter’s programming, though. As long as you’re not in the final stages of training before competition, incorporating front squats can help improve flexibility, upper back dexterity, and quad strength.
On the other hand, Olympic lifters and CrossFitters have more interest in front squats. Though it’s not actually a competition lift, the front squat is directly translatable into improving the clean and jerk and the snatch. That said, Olympic lifters definitely don’t shy away from their back squats either.
Back squats can do amazing things for a person’s overall strength — and when your body is stronger, your resilience to additional stress tends to improve as well. However, the lower weights used and more natural trunk posture tend to make the front squat a better option if you’re taking it easy in the gym or working around an injury.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the front squat is likely easier to learn than the high or low bar back squat if you’re new to the gym. By placing the resistance in front of the midline, the weight acts as a counterbalance, helping you learn how to drop down low without stumbling or falling.
If you lack the requisite mobility to do front squats, the goblet squat is a phenomenal lifting tool. Once the basics are engrained, the techniques of the high bar or low bar back squats should come along naturally with some dedicated practice.
The Bottom Line
As with most things in strength sports, there is no single answer to which lift is “better” than another. Front squats challenge your core, upper back, and quads. Back squats let you really load up the plates and stimulate your legs, glutes, and hamstrings to some degree as well.
Both back squats and front squats have their advantages. Both will get you strong, and both will help you build muscle. The rest of your squat programming choices really depend on your body and your goals.
- Yavuz HU, Erdağ D, Amca AM, Aritan S. (2015) Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(10):1058-66.
- Gullett, Jonathan C, Tillman, Mark D, Gutierrez, Gregory M, Chow, John W A. (2009) Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (23)1, 284-292.
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