Both are equally torturous movements packed with their own pro's and con's. The question is, which one is best for you and can you reap the most rewards from? We take an indepth look at the science behind both movements.
The front squat and back squat are two of my favourite movements.
Don't get me wrong: I dislike them intensely when I'm performing them. I can't think of many more sadistic ways to inflict gruelling pain upon one's self (in a good way), yet there's no other feeling quite like completing a balls-out set of heavy squats, and the results speak for themselves.
However, a trick dilemma faces by many trainees is: which one is for me?
Both the back squat and front squat have an abundance of benefits, yet each has its own unique benefits. This frequently causes a dilemma for the individual; which one is best for you?
Today, I'm going to present a rationale argument for both movements, and ultimately leave you to choose yourself based upon your personal goals.
Before we begin, many people ask me: why not do both? Any person who squats seriously already knows the answer to this. When you factor in movements like deadlifts, heavy presses and rows, 2 ridiculously heavy variations of squats is simply overkill and too difficult to manage for the overwhelming majority of trainees. Most of us must pick one or the other.
Coach Rippetoe shows the safest and most effective way to squat heavy weights. Back squats are open to manipulation, however; many lifters like a higher bar positioning in order to stimulate for quadriceps involvement.
Pro's: Pro's about the back squat? Where should we start?
In keeping on topic, pro's over front squats include the fact that the movement is more effective at recruiting the posterior chain muscles such as the glutes and hamstrings in particular.
In addition to this, back squats can be progressed on a higher rep range where as front's have to stay relatively low due to the back muscles tiring out and leading to kyphosis (upper back rounding and a breakdown in form).
Overall, the pro's of the front squat are endless. In my opinion, it's the best overall exercise in the gym for all round strength, performance and muscle building.
Con's: The major difference between front's and backs are obviously the directness of which you can stimulate quadriceps involvement on front squats. However, with a high bar position, the difference may be minimal at best, and since back squats can be progressed in higher rep ranges more safely, they may also be a better option for long-term quad development, too.
It's all dependant on your stance and bar positioning in the back squat, and in that context you have a fair amount more flexibility than front squats give you.
The Olympic grip is the most effective way to perform front squats. If you lack the flexibility (as I do), utilise the version with the straps as Coach Thib does in this video.
Pro's: The positives of front squatting is that like any squat, it toasts your whole legs, and puts particular emphasis on the quads due to the bars path.
In addition to the quads being targeted more directly than back squats, the core is also worked slightly harder due to the more intense focus on stabilization. However, this may be compromised due to the back squats additional recruitment of the posterior chain muscles when the bar positioning is lower on the back.
If you're an athlete who needs to be explosive as well as strong, somebody who needs to prioritise quad strength and are eager to build the most muscle in this region, then undoubtedly, the front squat suits you best.
Con's: There are a few limiting factors of front squats that we need to address in comparison to back squats.
Firstly, the movement utilises less of the posterior chain due to the bar positioning, which we sacrifice for extra quad stimulation. However, we may in fact counter this from a hypertrophy perspective as going high on repetitions is not advisable on front squats due to the rhomboids tiring isometrically (small muscles in the upper back).
The reason for this is that the muscles in the upper back work incredibly hard just for stability in the front squat, where as the back squat has a more formidable base of support from additional muscles groups. When these small muscle groups tire, form starts to break down as aforementioned in the back squat passage, which can lead to kyphosis while squatting. It's no surprise you're stronger in a back squat as opposed to front's.
So, while the movement may build better strength in the quads in a lower rep range, a high bar positioned barbell back squat may be more optimal for overall thigh development. This is certainly open to further debate.
It all boils down to this.
If you need more strength and explosiveness in the quads for a particular reason, whether it's for a combat or physical sport, the front squats are likely to have a better carryover effect to improving your performance and results.
If you're looking for the best compound movement to build overall muscle mass, then undoubtedly, back squats are a better alternative and have more potential to be progressively loaded.
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