Here's How Trainers Decide When To Do Front Squats Versus Back Squats

·9 min read

When you think of lower-body strength and booty gains, squats are likely top of mind. They deserve that spot because they work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, calves, back, and core (hello, strong abs!). Front squats and back squats are two of the most effective variations you can try.

Of course, there are tons of squat variations for every fitness level and equipment on hand—goblet squat, box squat, sumo squat, Bulgarian split squat, and more. But, when you're grabbing a set of dumbbells or stepping up to the squat rack, which is better: the front squat or back squat?

Meet the experts: Mike Hamlin, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the founder of Everflex Fitness. Mallory Fry, CPT, is a certified personal trainer and master coach for Row House.

The short answer: Both front squats and back squats rock. But there are some nuances that can help you optimize your routine. The main difference between front and back squats is the placement of the barbell or dumbbells, says Mike Hamlin, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the founder of Everflex Fitness. "In back squats, the weight is placed across the upper back, while in front squats, the weight is placed across the front of the shoulders." The weight you're able to lift is typically lighter in a front squat because it rests on your shoulders and requires more core strength and stability to keep you upright, he adds.

Benefits Of Front Squats Vs. Back Squats

Both squat variations are worth your time because they offer many of the same perks, according to Hamlin.

What's more, the front squat and back squat are both compound movements that force you to use a large amount of your muscle mass during one exercise. “The lower body consists of the biggest muscles in our muscular system, and when performing the squat movement, these muscles are all used simultaneously to recruit a large amount of energy and oxygen rep after rep,” says Mallory Fry, CPT, a certified personal trainer and master coach for Row House. “This causes the body's cardiovascular system to work harder and the muscle fibers to rebuild, gaining strength in both areas.”

Benefits Of Back Squats

  • Build lower-body strength. “If your goal is to put on the most leg muscle mass and strength possible, it's likely that back squats will work best for you,” says Hamlin. “Back squats don't require as much core as front squats, so you can train them with heavier weights, which will help you build more strength over time." Additionally, since your lower body is taking most of the load, you can do more sets and reps. “When repeating this time over time, the muscle fibers will tear apart and rebuild into a stronger muscle to perform more or heavier reps for the next lift,” adds Fry.

  • Improve balance and coordination. “When performing back squats, the body needs to recruit stabilizing muscles to balance the weight of the barbell, and due to this, parts of the body need to perform at the same time,” says Fry. That trains your muscles to work as a team to level up stability.

Benefits Of Front Squats

  • Increase your range of motion. If your hips are uber tight, front squats will help increase your range of motion while still focusing on proper posture. “When the weight is loaded in the front of the body, proper alignment in the spine is a necessity to balance the weight,” says Fry. From there, correct alignment of the body creates an opportunity to perfect squatting technique and allow for the hips to release into a deeper position, she explains.

  • Activate your core. “During a front squat, both your erector spinae (back muscles around the spine) and your rectus abdominus (abs) muscles activate more than in a back squat,” says Hamlin. “Because of this, we create a stronger core with front squats which allows us to generate more power for athletic movements, a healthier more stable low back and midsection, and a stronger set of abs.” Here for the sneaky core workout!

There are some distinct perks that come with front squats vs. back squats, but don't feel like you have to just choose one. Hamlin and Fry agree that incorporating both moves will provide a more well-rounded lower body training program because you’re targeting slightly different muscle groups and doing movement patterns. “Doing back squats can strengthen the legs a bit more without the need to worry about burning your core out, but when you shift into front squats, your legs will be nice and strong and you can focus on core development,” notes Hamlin.

How To Do A Back Squat With Proper Form

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward, with the barbell resting on your upper back (think: traps and shoulders—*not* your neck). Make sure the barbell is centered and not too far left or right.

  2. Grab the barbell with your hands in a comfortable position and not too far away from your shoulders. (Hamlin suggests looking for "pinky rings" which are markings on most barbells to help you find the right place to grab and wrapping your pinky fingers around these markings).

  3. Engage your core and inhale, as you lift the bar off the rack and take one step forward to avoid any obstructions. Make sure your feet are even.

  4. Firmly plant your feet on the floor (this will increase the stability throughout your legs, prevent injuries, and potentially even allow you to lift more weight) as you bend your knees, push the hips back, and lower into a squat.

  5. Keep your chest lifted and back straight and go as low as you can without letting your tailbone round underneath your butt.

  6. Exhale as you push through your feet back up to the starting position. That’s 1 rep. (Option: Hold one or two dumbbells resting on your upper back.)

Pro tip: You can complete a front squat and a back squat using dumbbells. Hold them with your hands and resting in the similar position to the barbell.

How To Do A Front Squat With Proper Form

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward, with the barbell resting on the front of the shoulders (think: just below your collarbone). If you hold your arms out directly in front of you and parallel with the floor, Hamlin points out that there is a little pocket or dip on the front of your shoulder which is where you will rest the bar. Make sure the barbell is centered and not too far left or right.

  2. Once you find this shoulder dip and can hold the bar without discomfort (it shouldn't be overly tender if you find the right spot), cross your arms and grab the bar with your fingers while keeping your elbows high to prevent it from rolling down.

  3. Engage the core and inhale, as you lift the bar off the rack and take one step forward to avoid any obstructions. Make sure your feet are even.

  4. Firmly plant your feet on the floor (this will increase the stability throughout your legs, prevent injuries, and potentially even allow you to lift more weight) as you bend your knees, push the hips back, and lower into a squat.

  5. Keep your chest lifted and back straight and go as low as you can without letting your tailbone round underneath your butt.

  6. Exhale as you keep your elbows high, core engaged, and push through your feet back up to the starting position. That’s 1 rep. (Option: Hold two dumbbells resting on your shoulders in place of the barbell.)

Pro tip: Always recruit a spotter for safety precautions to help in case of muscle failure or loss of control, says Fry. If a workout buddy is not available, most squat racks have squat assistance bars that will go roughly thigh height to catch the bar if needed.

How To Add Front Squats And Back Squats To Your Routine

There are just about as many ways to program squats in your workouts as there are types of squats. As a general guideline, Fry recommends performing back and front squats two to three times a week.

  • For back squats, go for three to five sets of 8 to 12 reps.

  • For front squats, try three to five sets of 5 to 8 reps.

How To Choose Between Front Squats And Back Squats Based On Your Goals

For muscle growth...If you’re looking to pack on muscle, back squats may be more effective because you can lift heavier weight, says Hamlin. As a result, this will build lower body strength and muscle mass faster.

For sports performance...Front squats require major core activation, so they may be better suited for sports performance, Hamlin says. “Most athletes will benefit way more from having a strong core that can transfer the forces from an athletic surface through the legs and core, than by having crazy strong legs with poor ability to transfer force,” he adds.

For weight loss...Both front and back squats can be effective due to their high calorie-burning potential, so you don't have to pick just one if weight loss is your goal. “Front squats may get the heart rate up more because they have a greater full body demand which is great for weight loss,” says Hamlin. “However, with the right back squat program, you can create so much exercise volume in your workout that it will get the heart rate up, build muscle, and help you lose body fat."

For improving strength...Front and back squats are each effective for improving lower body strength and building muscle, so it’s worth committing to both, says Hamlin. “You might get a bit more raw leg strength in back squats, but you will likely get more leg and core strength that can be applied to athletic movements with front squats,” he notes.

Beginner tip: You first want to master bodyweight squats to get comfortable in the movement pattern, according to Hamlin and Fry. Once you get your bodyweight squat form down, you can safely progress to back squats and then front squats. It's a good idea to work on back squats first because the front squat positioning can be harder to nail, according to Hamlin.

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