I think we can all agree that Squats rule. Long gone are the days when we thought Squats were bad for our knees or that lifting heavy weight would make us slow, lumbering and un-athletic. And good riddance, because we’ve discovered that Squats help us get stronger, jump higher and run faster.
Athletes used to ask, “Are Squats bad for my knees?” Now, I often hear athletes pose the question, “Which are better, Front Squats or Back Squats?” The answer, not surprisingly, is “it depends.”
When evaluating the relative risks and benefits of Front Squats vs. Back Squats, you have to take into account the athlete’s sport, strengths, weaknesses and goals. Each lift has pros and cons. To determine which is best for you, keep reading.
Front Squat vs. Back Squat
How to Squat
We could dedicate thousands of words and hours of video to teaching the Squat, and we already have, so check out the videos above to get the low-down on getting down low.
Most importantly, an athlete’s mobility will determine which lift is better suited to him or her. If you can safely perform one lift and not the other, the choice is clear. Before loading up the bar, a qualified coach should screen the athlete to determine if he or she has the proper mobility at the shoulder, upper and lower back, hips, knees and ankles.
Front Squats requires significantly more mobility than Back Squats. You need excellent thoracic spine (upper back) mobility to keep your chest up, outstanding wrist flexibility and shoulder mobility to rack the bar, superb hip and groin mobility to squat low with your knees in line with your toes, and fantastic ankle mobility to keep your lower back from rounding.
Very few athletes move well enough to execute a textbook Front Squat from the get-go. That’s a blessing and a curse. The positive: it forces you to improve your mobility and flexibility, which may prevent injury in the long run. The negative: you won’t be able to lift as heavy right off the bat, which will delay strength gains.
Back Squats require less mobility in the shoulders, hips and ankles, so you can jump into them sooner. That’s great for strength gains, but be careful–don’t sweep your poor mobility under the rug at the expense of lifting heavier weight. That’s a recipe for injury.
Start with the exercise you can perform with better form. If you’ve got the mobility of the Tin Man and you’re not ready for either exercise, start with a simpler variation, like a Goblet Squat.
Front Squats and Back Squats work different muscles in different ways because the placement of the bar causes slight changes in motion of the spine, hips, knees and ankles.
Quite simply, Front Squats zone in on the quads and upper back, while Back Squats focus more on the hips, glutes and lower back. Both lifts recruit all these muscles together, but the emphasis shifts from one lift to the other.
Muscle groups might matter to bodybuilders, but athletes should care more about movements, not muscles. That’s why getting bull strong in the Front Squat or Back Squat can ramp up your on-the-field performance.
The Battle for Athletic Performance
Now for the real reason athletes lift weights: to get better at their sport. We know Squatting in general builds powerful muscles that increase speed, power and quickness. But which version of the Squat reigns supreme? Let’s put them to the test:
Hip Extension: Squats build tremendous strength in the muscles that extend the hip, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. These muscles provide the horsepower for sprinting and jumping. Back Squats load up the hips more than Front Squats, because you can “sit back” into them more. So if you want more powerful hips, get the bar on your back. Winner: Back Squats
Jump Power: Studies show that improving squat strength is closely linked with improvements in vertical jump height. That’s because if you can extend your hips with more force, you can propel yourself higher into the air. Studies show no clear difference in jump improvements between Back Squats and Front Squats. Winner: Tie
Sprint Speed: Studies also show that squatting more weight can lead to improvements in sprinting speed. Simply, the more force you can apply to the ground, the faster you can move. But just like jumping, both lifts work. Winner: Tie
Overall Strength: Back Squats let you lift more weight than Front Squats, period. Front Squats are limited by how much weight you can hold on the front of your shoulders. Back Squats let you support much heavier loads across your upper back. There’s a reason why the world record in the Back Squat is over 1,000 pounds; it’s better suited for massive weights. And with more weight comes greater potential for strength gains. Winner: Back Squats
Shoulder Health: Many athletes, especially overhead athletes like baseball, lacrosse and volleyball players, deal with cranky shoulders that can get irritated by Back Squats. Luckily, Front Squats avoid that pain by placing the shoulders and elbows in a safer position. If you’re an overhead athlete, Front Squat with a clean grip or cross grip for greater safety. Winner: Front Squats
Knee Health: Controlling the movements of the knee is crucial for reducing injuries such as ACL and meniscus tears. Squats can help limit the likelihood of knee injuries by strengthening the muscles that stabilize the knee, specifically the vastus medialis oblique (i.e., your inner quad). Front Squats hit this muscle a bit harder than Back Squats, plus they teach you how to push your knees “out” to avoid the dreaded knock-kneed valgus collapse, which mimics the exact mechanism for an ACL tear. That said, sometimes the deep knee flexion of Front Squats can bug an athlete’s knee, and Back Squats (particularly Box Squats or squatting with a wider stance) can avoid this nuisance by placing more load on the hips than the knees. Winner: Tie
Cleans and Snatches: The most glaring difference between Front Squats and Back Squats is the carryover to Olympic lifts, the Clean and the Snatch. Back Squats let you lift more weight, but the execution of the Front Squat closely mimics the motion of rising from the bottom position after catching a Clean or Snatch. Olympic lifts are widely respected for their ability to improve explosiveness, so if you want to get better at the Clean and Snatch, Front Squats work better. Winner: Front Squats
Best of Both Worlds
As you can see, when you break down Back Squat and Front Squat benefits, there’s no clear winner. So why not do both?
Unless you’re an overhead athlete or have a lower-body injury, there’s no reason not to include Front Squats and Back Squats in a lifting program, especially if you’re training your lower body twice a week. Here’s how: