Squatting is an activity that we all perform daily from sitting to a chair to pick something from the floor or as a training tool.
For clients who have limited experience of exercising, the body weight squat is a good place to start and there are many ways to progress this. Is it often seen with dumbbells or a barbell held across the back of the shoulders (Back squat) and generally this allows an easy progress without too much additional coaching to make quick gains in strength(4). But is there a better or different way of doing this?
The front squat grip seen in the images below offer a different way in which load can be added to the body that will aid in reaching strength gains whilst promoting a different technique. There are just a few reasons below why this may be more beneficial.
Firstly, what is the Front Squat Grip?
It is a way of holding the bar across the chest rather than a rear hold. The bar rests across the collarbone and if this causes the bar to place slight pressure on the throat in a deep squat then you have the right technique. You can perhaps imagine that this isn’t a technique to teach everyone!
The hands can be placed around the bar in many ways.
Firstly, the arms can be raised out in front so the shoulder is flexed to just over 90 degrees. As the bar rests on the front in the valley formed between the clavicle and deltoid, it should be snugly held without falling forward off the arms.
One must be careful to keep the chest raised upwards and maintain this posture with the arms raised to prevent the bar from falling forward.
A second option is to rest the bar on the collarbone and fold the arms over the bar and across each other so the palms rest over the opposite shoulders. The elbows and chest remain as high as possible so the bar will be safely snuggled on the shoulder. This is a slightly easier and safer way than described in the first description.
You can perhaps imagine that this isn’t a technique to teach everyone!
Another and more challenging way to grip the bar on the front of the shoulders is to rest the bar again across the clavicles and then grip the bar in a ‘clean’ position. For this, the hands will need to be slightly wider than the shoulders, the shoulders should be flexed to at least 90 degrees and externally rotated. The elbows to remain as high as possible and as close together as possible.
This requires a significant level of shoulder, elbow, Radio-ulnar joint and wrist movement in addition to the mobility in the Thoracic spine and strength supporting these joints. FYI, if elbows are allowed to drift apart, this also allows slumping in the Thoracic spine and subsequent dropping of the arms. This is very technical and might not be the first option for a newcomer to the front squat exercise.
Even if this is coached correctly, perfect technique may not be immediately possible and a progressive method should be followed that start using an easier grip and perhaps quarter squats before progressing to a more advanced grip and deeper squats. For an exercise professional to coach this, progression should be based on a sound justification that you have observed them performing the movement correctly and safely.
But does this mean that the front squat is always the better exercise?
It is for this reason that it may not be the exercise of choice for a client who is looking for quick gains in the strength department, or someone who has no interest in investing their time in developing ‘perfect technique’. Of course, the outcome is also influenced by how well you sell the exercise to the client.
What are the benefits?
Firstly, the standing posture improves immediately. A 2003 article in the Journal of strength and conditioning research found that back squat grip (Posterior loading) causes the body to adopt a forward bend to act as a counterbalance for the change in center of mass (4). This will perhaps include a ‘breaking’ movement of the hips or a slumping of the torso. If it is the hips that become flexed then full hip drive into extension is never realized without a change in spinal posture. In this, the weight can also be placed too much through the heels as the hips sink back, or weight too much through the forefoot if the torso leans excessively forward.
The effect of this is excessive load and compressive force on the back, knee as well as increased risk of injury to the Achilles tendon from a greater peak load (1,3). However, there is no evidence to suggest any difference in muscle recruitment in the lower leg or spine as measured by EMG (1), Interestingly, Gullett et al also found there to be reduced loading on the muscles of the lower limb during eccentric movement compared to concentric which adds further to the debate that eccentric loading isn’t actually the exercise of choice for maximally loading a tendon, but may actually be a way to gently begin loading a recovering client (1).
With a front loaded bar, the hips must extend fully which develops proper hip drive during the squat and improves standing/running posture (4). At this point one must be careful not to allow their client to sink back into a ‘sway-back’ posture, which is done by cueing them to ‘keep the elbows and chest high’. This way, spinal extension will occur at the thoracic spine encouraging appropriate use of the abdominals and paraspinals to control the movement between the thorax and hips.
As the spine and hips align correctly, you will also see a great improvement in knee position for any client who repeatedly locks their hypermobile knees into extension (4,5).
I have often wondered how this translates into performance or tasks of daily living? Whether it be standing posture, running technique, sitting posture!
there aren’t many exercises that develop full body strength as well as mobilizing the posterior capsule, Rhomboid and Levator Scapular
But does this mean that the front squat is always the better exercise?
Braidot et al 2007 observed in the knee a better development of energy with the front bar, allowing a better muscular exercise with the same load. However, the mean power absorbed by the hip with the back squat was considerably greater, associated to the speed of the gesture.
Yetter and Moir (2008) recruited men and women who were fit and well trained to take part in a 40 meter sprint. Some performed a heavy back squat (HBS) before the sprint, some performed a heavy front squat (HFS) before the sprint and some were part of a control group who just cycled before the sprint. Both HBS and HFS produced quicker speed in the first 30 metres than the control. In the remaining 10 metres the HBS produced quicker speeds than the HFS. This study did only have 10 subjects though and any difference between the performances could be just because one subject was quicker than another.
For the upper limb, there is no evidence to support either front or back squat. So I’ll just ad-lib and shout out about why I like the front squat.
The ROM, stability and strength developed during an activity with Front Squat (clean) Grip make it a great addition to upper limb programmes.
Aside from the joint movements required during a front squat grip, it also requires fascial mobility of the deep posterior arm line. This encompasses part of the triceps, infraspinatus, rhomboids and levator scap and there aren’t many exercises that develop full body strength as well as mobilizing the posterior capsule, rhomboid and levator scap. So this is NOT an exercise limited to clients with lower limb problems.
The lat dorsi is also mobilized in the Front Squat Grip, as the shoulder has to remain flexed (parallel to the ground) and externally rotated while the pelvis posteriorly tilts in the squat position.
The anterior shoulder muscles are developed in addition with the load that must be held. If the bar is not properly set across the clavicles, this will become more of an anterior delt or long head of biceps work-out so make sure you have the correct technique before progressing load on the bar, or deeper into a squat.
This load on the front of the shoulder requires strength and posture in the thoracic spine, shoulders, and scapula which is in a great position to activate the traps and serratus.
All these upper limb challenges and benefits are increased as the body moves through a squat, reverse lunge, side squat or side lunge movements. So exercise caution when instructing clients on progressions and safe practice. Remember, you are the professional who is prescribing, coaching and progressing the exercise.
1. Gullett. J.C, Tillman M.D, Gutierrez G.M, Chow J.W. 2009. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squat in healthy trained individuals. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 23(1): 284 – 292.
2. Schoenfeld.BJ. 2010 Squatting Kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 24(12):3497 – 3506
3. Sinclair J, Edmundson C, Atkins S, Taylor P.J, Vincent H. 2015 The effect of front and back squat techniques on peak loads experienced by the achilles tendon
4. Fry A.C, Smith J.C, Schilling B.K. Effect of knee position on hip torques during the barbell squat. The Journal of strength and conditioning research. November 2003:17(4):629 – 633.
5. Braidot A. A, Brusa M. H, Lestussi F. E, Parera G. P. 2007 Biomechanics of front and back squat exercises. Journal of Physics. Conference series. Volume 90.
6. Yetter M, Moir G.L. 2008. The acute effects of heavy back and front squats o speed during forty-meter sprint trials. Journal of strength & conditioning research. Jan 2008: 22(1):159 – 165.