Updated: Apr 4
I've given a lot of love to single leg squats and back squats in my blog, but I'd like to highlight the front squat.
The front squat is a great lift. It is especially good for athletes, olympic lifters, and people who lack the mobility to do back squat but still like to squat heavy. It is more quad dominant than traditional high bar back squat. Having the bar in the "front rack" position changes the center of gravity of your body and forces you to have a more upright torso for the lift which can help with thoracic spine, ankle, knee, and hip mobility.
The front squat has a ton of carry over for strength training for sport. A key for my programming athletes is olympic lifting to teach explosiveness, neurological development, and coordination. The "catch" position of the clean is basically the bottom of a front squat. The stronger you can get your front squat, the more you'll be able to "catch" in the olympic lift.... If I can only front squat 135, but then I try to get my body to "catch" 225 in a clean, do you think the brain/body would be able to handle that?
Here are a couple front squats from some clients. The first is Megan, she is a relatively novice lifter, but really wants to do olympic lifting and explosive movements. The second is Chad, he's pretty experienced in lifting. Can you spot the differences in these lifts?
Really, I don't see a difference here. Megan and Chad are lifting loads relative to their respective strength. Megan has a little trouble driving out of the hole, but Chad would too if his weight was heavier. But the mobility needs are the same. Lots of ankle dorsiflexion. Hip mobility to get into the bottom of the squat. And thoracic mobility to keep the elbows and shoulder blades high. Lat mobility to keep the elbows high.
This lift is also very demanding on the front of the trunk (aka, abs). The tendency for the weight is to dump forward, so your abs have to work overtime to brace UP into your rib cage. Your upper back is mainly getting stretched by the position of your arms. The weight pressing down on the ribs and the abs bracing makes it difficult to get a full breath. To mitigate you almost need to punch your legs up at the end of the lift to get the bar "weightless" and you can snag a quick breath.
For carryover to sport, the front squat is great for quad and trunk strength. Think of a line backer sinking low to make a tackle. He'll have a lot of load on the front part of his body and will need to drive through his quads to stand the player up. So the front squat will help his torso understand how to stay braced and make his legs strong enough to pancake a poor wide receiver!
The quads are also a huge part knee health and jumping. Having a strong front squat will help your knees absorb force when jumping, landing, sprinting, and cutting.
As far as programming goes, I like having front squats on my deadlift days to help balance the muscles used. Deadlift is so glute and hamstring dominant, that I can still get some good drive and recruitment from my quads on a deadlift day. The back squat smokes all of the legs, that programming in front squats can sometimes be too much to really get a benefit.
For the athlete, I would have these programmed in once a week (in addition to the front squats an athlete would get from catching cleans and snatches). The rep and set scheme is totally dependent on where we are in the sport season and in the cycle of our programming. For my athletes, I'd probably pair these with an explosive movement, like a plyometric or vertical jump to help carryover the drive developed in the lift to an explosive recruitment of the same muscles.
If you'd like to give them a try, I'd suggest doing 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps. Use the first 2-3 sets to find a weight that is challenging for you to keep your elbows up and torso upright and then do one more set beyond that.
In general, I don't program the front squat for my general population client, mainly because the goblet squat can accomplish very similar goals. I can go up to 70 pounds on goblet squats and that is a really solid weight especially for people who haven't lifted in a few years. The goblet squat puts the same demands on the trunk, and forces the same mobility adaptations as the front squat. Should my general population clients grow beyond the 70# kettlebell I've got, I'd gladly take them to the barbell!