Front Squat Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked

The front squat is a uniquely challenging and highly beneficial squat movement that differs drastically from back and overhead squatting. Front squatting is essential to improving weightlifting performance in the clean, can help build strength and mass in the quadriceps, and has application to many sports and life activities.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about how, why, and who should do front squats:

  • Front Squat Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Front Squat
  • Muscles Worked by the Front Squat
  • Who Should Do the Front Squat
  • Front Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Front Squat Variations and Alternatives

How to Perform the Front Squat: Step-By-Step Guide

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the front squat using a barbell set up. Further below we will discuss a wide variety of variations and front squat alternatives.

Step 1. Proper Front Rack Positioning

Assume a proper front rack position by placing the barbell high up onto the anterior aspect of the shoulders, making sure the bar is supported with the shoulders and upper chest (above the sternum). The posture should be tall with the elbows up and core tight.

Work to maintain a full grip on the barbell, rather than allowing the fingers and wrists to bend backwards (hyperextend). In the event you cannot perform this with a full grip you can refer to the below modifications section.

Step 2. Descend into the Squat

With the barbell resting in the front rack position, descend into a squat keeping the pelvis neutral and the chest up.

Minimize forward lean of the torso, which will force greater loading on the quadriceps.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure to sit down rather than pushing the hips back.

Step 3. Stand Up

Once you have hit the bottom position in the front squat, push through the full foot and stand up, making sure to maintain an upright toros, chest, and elbow positioning.

Keep the knees out and forward over the toes, allowing the torso to sit downwards in a vertical manner rather than allowing the hips to push backwards excessively. This will help keep the torso vertical and the quadriceps engaged.

Coach’s Tip: Elbows and chest up…and fight!

3 Benefits of the Front Squat

Below are three (3) reasons why the front squat is a great movement for all fitness levels and goals.

1. Increased Quadriceps Growth

This movement can add quality amounts of lean muscle mass to the quadriceps and enhance overall leg development and performance, especially if athletes find their hips become the primary mover in most squats. The front squat can then be used to increase quadriceps development and strength as it limits the capacity to squat with a more horizontal back angle.

2. Greater Knee Joint Stability and Joint Movement

Lack of quadriceps strength and control can impede knee flexion and mobility, creating a cascade of countering movement imbalances throughout the hips, spine, and ankles.

3. Application to Sport-Specific Movements

The front squat has high transferability to movements found in Olympic weightlifting, functional fitness competitions and training, combat based sports, and manual labor. By integrating this front-loaded squat into training programs, you can develop the necessary strength for more demanding tasks and help to promote sound movement mechanics to decrease injury and improve overall performance.

Muscles Worked – Front Squat

The front squat differs slightly from the back squat due to the barbell placement in the front rack position. By doing so, the load is displaced in front of midline, requiring a stronger upper back and quadriceps to ensure an upright torso and positioning.

  • Quadriceps
  • Upper Back
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Abdominals

Who Should Perform Front Squats?

Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from including front squats within training programs.

Strength and Power Athletes

Front squats have high application to Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit movements (pistol squats, wall balls, cleans), and powerlifting. Increasing the front squat often corresponds with an increase in the back squat and overall leg and back strength; making it a necessary strength (weightlifting) and accessory (CrossFit, functional fitness, and powerlifting) exercise for most athletes.

Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes

As discussed above, the front squat can increase strength specific to movements like the clean, back squat, and competitive fitness movements. Lack of front squat training will often result in poor back, core, and quadriceps development and detrimental movement patterning in wall balls, pistol squats, back squats, and the Olympic lifts.

Sports Athletes

In addition to the back squat, the front squat can be used to increase leg strength and muscle mass while limiting lower back stress (when compared with a less vertical back angle in the back squat). Some athletes, such as pitchers, rely on an upright torso and leg strength to perform; making this a good squatting variation for some athletes.

General Fitness and Desk Bound Individuals

The front squat can be difficult for many deskbound individuals to perform. Often, many beginners will start with back squats (which are also beneficial) yet end up performing a squat that place high amounts of loafing on the hips and lower back.

Using the front squat, coaches and trainers can force proper positions while also building core strength and muscular developer of the quadriceps and glutes.

Front Squat Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are three (3) primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the front squat specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The front squat can be done with in higher training volumes to build muscle mass and core strength. Incorporating more advanced time under tension training protocols can further the hypertrophic effects of front squat training.

  • 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads
  • Tempos, pauses, and eccentrics can be done throughout the range of motion to induce additional muscular damage and hypertrophy.

Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

For developing leg and back strength, the front squat can be used by most athletes and lifters.

  • 4-6 sets of 1-5 repetitions with challenging loads.
  • The front squat can be trained at high loads and with low rep ranges if the goal is maximal strength. It is important to adhere to proper front squat technique under heavy loads.

Muscle Endurance– Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The front squat can be a great way to build muscular endurance in the back, quadriceps, and core muscles. Note, many lifters may be limited by upper back and core strength during higher rep front squat training. If the goal is quadriceps development and endurance, lifters may want to swap to other less limiting exercises that can more sufficiently overload the quadriceps without being limited by upper back and core endurance.

  • 2-4 sets 15-20 repetitions
  • Often the limiting factor during higher repetition-based front squats is upper back and core strength and endurance.

How to Modify the Front Squat

Not everyone who does front squats is doing it to transition to clean & jerks. Many athletes will benefit immensely from front-loaded barbell squats, however grips and front rack positioning may vary depending on the individual.

While the “gold standard” is the full grip, some athletes may have limited wrist and/or shoulder mobility that may impede them from squatting with a full grip.

In such cases, lifting straps can be used, as well as the “arms crossed” to allow for front-loaded racks to still occur, as the benefits of the front squat far outweigh someone not taking the full front rack grip. If a lifter does opt out of taking the “gold standard” grip, he/she should be aware of the failure to do so suggests mobility issues, which could be a larger issue and should be addressed, regardless of sport.

3 Front Squat Variations

Below are three (3) front squat variations to build strength, hypertrophy, and improve squatting performance.

1. Zombie Front Squat

The Zombie front squat is essentially a front squat with no hands. To do this, the lifter places their hands out in front of them, like a Zombie, with the bar balanced on the anterior deltoids. This is a great variation to reinforce an active upper body and torso positioning (vertical) for lifters who may lean excessively forward in the front squat and/or rely too much on their arms and wrists to support the load.

2. Pause Front Squat

The pause squat is performed similarly to most pause movements, with the lifter performing a full front squat and pausing at the bottom of the front squat briefly maintain proper positioning and core tension.

This is a great variation for lifters who struggle to maintain positioning in the bottom of the front squat and/or those who have limited leg strength to stand up from the bottom of the squat.

3. 1 ¼ Front Squat

The 1 ¼ front squat is a variation that increases training volume of the squat, often at the weakest range of motion. To perform this, the lifter descends into a full front squat, stands up a few inches, drops back down, and then fully comes up into the standing position. This combination of a full front squat and an additional ¼ front squat (bottom of the squat) increases loading on the quadriceps.

3 Front Squat Alternatives

Below are three (3) front squat alternatives that can be used to improve leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and posture.

1. Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a regressed version of the barbell front squat that can be done to help beginners develop proper positioning in the front-loaded squat. Additionally, this exercise can be used with heavy loads to increase back, core, and quadriceps strength; similar to the front squat.

2. Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat is similar to a front squat in that it challenges postural strength, core stability, and shifts loading to the anterior aspect of the body. In this movement, the lifter places the barbell in the crook of the elbows rather than on the front rack.

3. Split Squat

The split squat, while not traditionally done with a front rack position (however it can be) is a great unilateral exercise to develop quadriceps strength and muscle mass. This exercise can be used as an accessory movement to increase front squat and lower body performance.

More Squat Training Articles

Here are a few more articles you can read to develop leg strength and hypertrophy specific to squats, Olympic lifts, and more!

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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