If the squat is king of all exercises, then consider the front and back squat the four legs it sits upon.
There tends to be an ongoing debate between which style of squat is better. What if I told you there isn’t one clear answer, but multiple? How? Well, both of these squat styles have major benefits for a strength athlete in different scenarios.
An athlete’s goals, needs, and sport requirements will help determine which style squat will help benefit them most in the moment. Notice I said moment, that’s because strength training is made up of multiple moments – each having different requirements for an athlete’s continual growth.
I’m not here to give you a definitive answer as to which squat is best, I don’t know your needs, nor programming. I’m here to lay out the facts, so you can choose which squat is best for you in the moment.
What The EMG Says
Electromyography (EMG) is one method we can use to help determine which squat would be best in our programming. If you’re new to what EMG is, it’s a tool researchers use to document electrical activity within muscle tissue. This then helps them see what muscle is firing when at different points of the movements.
For example, if an EMG is firing higher in the biceps femoris (part of hamstring) during the eccentric portion (downward phase) of a squat, as opposed to the concentric portion (upward phase), then the rationalization would be there’s more hamstring activity during the lowering phase.
This knowledge then allows an athlete or coach to manipulate the movement to specifically target hamstring growth (think increased eccentric tempos or added resistance).
A study published in 2015 titled, “Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads,” documented EMG for during maximal isometric contraction and both the descending and ascending portions of the back and front squat.
*This study’s back squat was performed with high bar back squat position. A low-bar back squat could alter possible EMG findings.*
The study looked at seven muscles primarily used during squats and these include…
- Rectus femoris (quad)
- Vastus medialis (quad)
- Vastus lateralis (quad)
- Erector spinae (lower back)
- Gluteus maximus (glutes)
- Biceps femoris (hamstring)
- Semitendinosus (hamstring)
First, authors found EMG recordings during a maximal isometric muscle contraction, and then the descending and ascending portions of the squat. From their observations, the study authors documented a few differences.
Isometric Contractions EMG
1. During maximal isometric contractions the seven muscles fired generally the same during both the front and back squat.
2. The one exception was the vastus medialis (teardrop muscle on your quad), which fired more during the front squat.
Ascending and Descending EMG
1. All muscles recorded were more active during the ascending portion of the front squat compared to the descending.
2. The glueus maximus, biceps femoris, and semitendenosis were documented to be significantly higher during the ascending portion of the back squat.
3. The vastus medialis was significantly higher during the ascending portion of the front squat.
4. The semitendinosis was also significantly higher during the ascending portion of the back squat.
What This Study Suggests
It should be noted that these numbers were relative to the weight lifted. An individual can lift more with a back squat compared to a front squat, yet numbers were still eerily similar for both styles. Although, there were a few significant differences between muscle fire rates during the ascending portions. In conclusion, it was suggested the quads are more active during the front squat, while the hamstrings/hips are more active during the back squat (we knew this).
While there were a few differences, for the most part a majority of the EMG recordings compared were very similar. Both styles of squats will offer benefits to multiple muscles on the leg. When programming one or the other, try to be honest with what aspects of your leg may be lagging, or what your end goal is.
Both squats will build the legs, back, and core, that is without question. Yet, if you’re training for a sport specific movement, then there needs be an added emphasis on one or the other.
For example, an Olympic lifter will benefit more from spending a majority of their time front squatting. A powerlifter will benefit more from back squatting. This is due to strengthening of mechanics and movement patterns. It’s important though to not fully neglect one or the other, as they can both benefit a lifter.
A front squat can help improve a powerlifter’s flexbility, upper back, and quads. The back squat can help improve an Olympic lifter’s total leg and hip strength.
How To Choose
1. Sport specifics. If there’s no sport specific focus, program both throughout your periodized training cycles. This can help build the legs, back, and core evenly, while possibly highlighting weaknesses.
2. Possible limitations. Example, if you don’t have the flexibility to front squat, but need to train legs, then back squat and work on flexibility on the side. Make a special emphasis to work on mobility with extra time.
3. Safety. In general, both squats are safe to perform when there’s proper movement mechanics. A squat becomes unsafe when either programmed poorly or form is lacking.
4. Total leg strength. If your goal is to squat the absolute most your body can handle, then the back squat will be predominantly your squat of choice.
5. Mobility. For mobility goals, the utilization of all squat styles will benefit the body when increasing ranges of motion.