“To front squat or back squat, that is the question.” – Shakespeare

Squatting is perhaps one of the most fundamental and functional exercises we do as humans.  I mean, we do it every day.  If you disagree then you try pooping standing up and let me know what happens.  (Actually, please don’t let me know what happens)

But when we are training the squat at the gym there are so many options to choose from.  You have bodyweight squats, goblet squats, back squats, front squats, box squats, over head squats, and the list goes on.  You also have your choice of equipment from barbells, to dumbbells, to kettlebells, to safety bars, to sandbags.

Everybody has their preference for which style to train with and train their clients with and across the board there is quite a bit of differences.  One thing it seems that most coaches agree upon is that until a client can properly squat to depth without a load (not talking about pooping) they should not be adding resistance to their squats.

So what happens when your client (or yourself) masters the bodyweight squat and is able to advance to resistance training?  Do you load them in the front or in the back?  Or even both?

With all of the empirical data that exists and current research on spinal compression during exercise stating that front squats are safer which one do you choose?

I know this is going to come as a shock to all of my readers but I am going to sound like a broken record on this one and say it depends.  It depends on things like what your goals are, how long have you been training, are you an athlete, do you have any disfunction, can you perform the exercise properly, your anatomy (femur length ratio), and for some people the size of your arms/delts.

Different strokes for different folks.  I have heard this phrase tossed around in the strength and conditioning world a few times so I am going with it.  What it means is that everyone is different and there is little research that states that there is a “right” or a “wrong” way for everyone.

That said, here are my opinions for whom should be using which squat style and why.  I am also going to throw in a few progressions and variations and jazz that up with some of my rationale as well.

Those who can’t squat to depth.

These are the people who should not be using resistance and should focus on corrective work.  This is where a qualified strength coach or personal trainer who understands corrective methods and biomechanics comes into play.

Without turning this into a post on corrective exercises to fix the squat I will give you two simple tests to figure out why you can’t get down.

  1. Lie flat on your back and bring your knees to your chest as if you were doing a horizontal squat.  If you are able to it may not be a mobility or flexibility problem but rather a core problem.  If this is the case, strengthen the glutes and train your core.
  2. If you are not able to bring your knees up it may be a mobility issue.  I can’t stress this enough: FOAM ROLL EVERYTHING.  Or even better yet, see a qualified manual therapist.  Combine that with a great mobility program before going any further.

The average beginner client or “newbie”.

So lets say that you or your client is able to squat to depth or “almost” to depth but still have a few things to clean up as far as technique.  In my experience, most people starting out are anterior or “quad” dominant.  This is where proper progression and good coaching comes into play.

Don't use the board

  1. To teach proper depth, I begin with box squats.  I believe that most people “should” be able to squat ass to grass but most people can’t and some people shouldn’t.  I wrote a post on that you can check out here -> Squatting, So Easy a Caveman Can Do It.  The box for most individuals should be about 12” in height but that depends on several factors.  Here is a post I wrote on the Box Squat.
  2. To train the posterior chain as well as proper squat form I begin my clients with the goblet squat.  It is apples and oranges whether you use a kettlebell or a dumbbell as long as the form is correct and you can get to depth.  Here is a great article by the man, the myth, the legend coach Dan John on T-Nation titled Goblet Squats 101.

The intermediate client or “weekend warrior”.

I believe that this may be your broadest category when it comes to the optimal squat since there are so many variations.  Keep in mind that this crowd is able to squat to depth and has mastered the basic goblet squat.

Note where I said “to depth” because a lot of what I see some guys doing in the gym after loading a bar up with 300+ pounds is NOT “to depth”.  Here is one of my favorite videos that illustrates this:

So now that you are able to squat properly where should you load the bar?  This is the big question that brought about the big squat debate of 2009.  There is data that points to the front squat as being safer, but for whom?

Personally, I rotate many of the progressions in each client’s program as well as my own but generally I begin with the front squat.  I believe that this works the posterior chain as well as the core more efficiently than the back squat for “most” people.  I also believe that there is more research that states this is a safer lift.

Do I teach them to back squat as well?  Of course I do.  This may be one of the most controversial topics in strength and conditioning but I see no harm in back squatting with my clients.  The main reason being is that they are NOT athletes and chances are they will never reach the loads that some athletes will.

I do not believe that the loads that the average/intermediate person will achieve are deleterious to their health in any way.

Nia Shanks rocking the Zercher sandbag squat

This is the crowd  that I will have back squat, front squat, Zercher Squat, overhead squat, safety bar squat, box squat, single leg squat, etc.  As long as the form is good and it is to depth, train it.

The main reason: they are training to have fun, have a well rounded physique, and learn about exercise as well as their own body.

The athlete.

This is another big “it depends”.  But here it not only depends on their abilities, experience and body but what sport they are competing in as well.

Before I comment, I want to state that I myself work in a high end commercial gym and I train my clients similar to athletes but mainly in the form of injury prevention and strength training.  Some play golf and other play in recreational leagues such as soccer, softball and hockey but they are NOT professional athletes.

That said, I believe that athletes should train their squat with the form that has the most carryover to their sport AND is the safest for their body in the long run.  In this case, the front squat may reign supreme  for most sports requiring high strength output since athletes back squat it a 25%-33% greater load than a back squat which means greater compression on the spine.

Can an athlete get strong front squatting with lighter loads rather than back squatting?  You better believe it.  Another thing to consider is the other type of work they are doing in their program as well such as deadlifts and explosive work such as cleans but that is a post for another day. Here is a video of strength coach Jaime Rodriguez doing work on 300lb front squats for a set of 4 with great form. Talk about strong.

This is simply a case of which one is better for the athletes performance, injury prevention, and  longevity.  The data definitely points towards front squats as being safer as the loads increase but proper form, progression, and the athlete’s body type definitely play a role.

Now, the type of sport plays a huge role in the equation as well.  Sports like powerlifting where part of the competition is the back squat will definitely require some back squat training.  I myself am getting into the sport and found out after my first meet that I need to do more back squat training.

Does this mean that I will train my back squat year round?  And to you good sir, I say nay.  In my own training I prefer front squats and overhead squats for the bulk of much of my training but I do train the back squat when I am training for competition.  Needless to say I am better in the deadlifting category.

In conclusion:

  1. I don’t think that there is one right way to train.
  2. Training heavy back squats year round may not be the best idea.
  3. You can and will get strong in the front squat with lighter loads compared to the back squat.
  4. Not everyone should front or back squat.
  5. Progression is key.
  6. Variety for most people is a good strategy.
  7. Proper form and technique is necessary for ANY lift.
  8. Athletes should train sports-specific movements.
  9. You should find where you fit in and start squatting.
  10. Safety first!

Thanks for listening and please comment below with any questions, concerns or input.  Hell, if you want to completely bitch me out and tell me I’m wrong, do that too.  Learning I’m wrong will only make me a better coach.

Written by Steve