Certified Personal TrainerNewsletterSports Performance

Front Squat or Back Squat—Which Should You Choose?

performance enhancementBy Brian Sutton MS, MA, NASM-CPT, CES, PES

Which is better, the front squat or the back squat? The answer to this ongoing debate depends heavily on the client.

Both the front and back squat movements require hip flexion, knee flexion and dorsiflexion during the eccentric phase and hip extension, knee extension and plantar flexion during the concentric phase. As such both front squats and back squats work the same muscle groups; prime movers include gluteals and quadriceps; synergists include the hamstrings; and stabilizers include the deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis).

EMG activity in each muscle group (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals) between the two lifts is nearly identical (1). Because of the inherent change in the position of the center of mass of the bar between the front and back squat lifts, the back squat results in decreased back extensor muscle activity (erector spinae) (1). Back squats also create greater compressive (downward) forces at the knees. However, shear (side to side) forces at the knee are identical in both lifts (very minimal) (1).

The primary difference between the two lifts is actually upper body mechanics. Individuals who lack shoulder external rotation may have a difficult time performing a back squat. These individuals are hard pressed to get the bar racked and held in the proper position across the upper back due to poor shoulder and thoracic spine mobility. These individuals usually display an upper crossed syndrome (rounded shoulders and forward head), typically seen in those who spend a lot of time driving or working on the computer.

The front squat does not require external rotation at the glenohumeral joint. However, some individuals find the position of the bar across the shoulders uncomfortable; especially if they have acromioclavicular joint (AC) joint dysfunction.

There is anecdotal evidence that front squats are safer on a client’s lower back, but this has not been proven definitively in research. Conversely, clients tend to be able to lift heavier loads with back squats.

The bottom line, both exercises help target the musculature of the lower extremities and can be beneficial developing muscular growth, strength and power. The exercise you choose should depend on the client’s posture / technique and the client’s preference. It is doubtful you’ll notice significant performance abilities by choosing one lift over the other.  Remember, all training is cumulative.

Reference:

  1. Gullett JC, Tillman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009 Jan;23(1):284-92.

 

Previous post

Boosting Brain Fitness – Understanding the Brain-Exercise Connection

Next post

NASM Trainers’ National Recognition Inspires Others

The Author

National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

Since 1987 the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has been the global leader in delivering evidence-based certifications and advanced specializations to health and fitness professionals. Our products and services are scientifically and clinically proven. They are revered and utilized by leading brands and programs around the world and have launched thousands of successful careers.

  • Bob Ligget

    This is interesting as to the difference I’ve seen in EMG activity vs. personal experience. While anecdotal, it’s still quite real. In my case I feel the front squat much more in the quads, less in the glutes and hamstrings, and significantly less spinal compression and subsequent lower back pain. Bodybuilders routinely choose front squats to emphasize the quads and lessen hip, glute, and abs involvement. EMG studies would suggest that’s a myth, yet personal results often bear it out. Might some of it be due to structural differences in individuals and relative torso vs. leg length? Still lots to consider here, good to read.

  • I don’t teach my clients the front squat unless they just really want to do it. As mentioned in the article, back squat lets you hold more weight. You are limited by the weight across the shoulders, and the point of the squat is to overload hip extension movement. I stick with whatever lets you move the most weight as a strength trainer. Front squat is fine if you want to add accessory exercises for volume. I would like to see your take on squat vs deadlift, as they both are also hip extension movements. I teach both personally for different reasons.
    Joey Gochnour, BS, BS, MEd, RDN, LD, NASM-CPT
    nutritionandfitnesspro.com

  • I use both for my clients as I have found they get better depth with the front squat and can do heavier loads with back squats. Plus the variety keeps things fresh.

  • Lauren Convery

    Front squats and back squats, depending on the client, require different weights. As long is the spine stays “neutral” and there is no lumbosacral flexion at the end of the squat (end of eccentric phase and initiation of concentric phase), the client should be okay. As long as we, as personal trainers, have our clients demonstrate spine-saving strategies through appropriate lumbosacral, thoracospinal, cervicothoracic, and even glenohumeral and patellofemoral alignment (which is different for everyone), we will avoid potential injury and maintain clientele. Injury prevention is my focus.

  • Pingback: Diving Deeper into the Squat: Common Misconceptions()

  • Pingback: Research in Review: Does foam rolling decrease DOMS and aid performance? - NASM Blog()