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How to do a Proper Front Squat: 5 Mistakes to Avoid

The front squat is a cornerstone exercise for athletes and fitness enthusiasts aiming to build strength, improve posture, and enhance athletic performance. 

Unlike its counterpart, the traditional back squat, the front squat places a greater emphasis on the quadriceps and the core, offering a unique challenge and a host of benefits. 

Today, I will talk about:

  • Techniques you can use to conduct front squats properly.
  • The front squat uniquely challenges these areas more than the traditional back squat.
  • Proper execution is crucial to avoid ineffective workouts and potential injuries.
  • Front squats are safe with proper form, emphasizing the need for a gradual approach to weight progression.

Now let us talk about it in greater detail.

1. Incorrect Bar Placement

Front Squat - Elbow Position and Grip

Incorrect bar placement in the front squat is a critical error that can significantly impact the exercise’s effectiveness and the athlete’s safety. When the bar is placed too high, close to the neck, it not only creates discomfort but also puts unnecessary pressure on the cervical spine, which can lead to strain or injury over time. 

This high placement can also disrupt the balance, making it harder to maintain a proper upright posture during the squat. Conversely, positioning the bar too low, away from the ‘shelf’ created by the shoulders, increases the likelihood of the bar rolling forward off the shoulders.

This not only compromises the form but also places undue stress on the lower back and wrists as the athlete attempts to compensate for the shifting weight. The ideal bar placement is on the front deltoids, just outside the clavicles.

This position allows the bar to be cradled securely by the muscles of the upper chest and shoulders, creating a stable base from which to squat. To achieve this, the athlete must actively press their shoulders forward, creating a muscular ‘shelf’ for the bar to rest on.

Keeping the elbows high throughout the movement enhances this shelf, providing additional stability and ensuring the bar remains in place even during the bottom of the squat.

Practicing with an empty bar or a PVC pipe can be an invaluable tool for mastering this aspect of the front squat. It allows the athlete to focus on the nuances of bar placement without the added challenge of weight. 

It’s crucial to experiment with slight adjustments in bar position to find the most comfortable and secure resting spot. This process not only helps in identifying the optimal bar placement but also builds muscle memory, making the correct setup second nature when moving to heavier weights.

2. Poor Elbow Positioning

Elbow Positioning

Poor elbow positioning during the front squat can significantly detract from the exercise’s effectiveness, leading to a compromised form, reduced efficiency, and increased risk of injury. 

The elbows’ role in the front squat is to secure the bar in place and assist in maintaining an upright torso, which is essential for proper execution of the movement. When the elbows drop, it often results in the bar moving forward, shifting the lifter’s center of gravity and increasing the strain on the lower back. 

Aspect Description Consequences Correction Strategy
Elbow Drop Elbows fall below bar level. Bar may roll off, causing forward lean and back strain. Drive elbows up; strengthen upper back.
Limited Mobility Shoulders and wrists can’t maintain position. Form is compromised, increasing injury risk. Add mobility exercises for shoulders and wrists.
Weak Upper Back Lack of strength to support the bar. Results in rounded back and bar instability. Target upper back with specific exercises.
Incorrect Grip Non-optimal grip width. Difficult to keep elbows high, affecting stability. Adjust grip width; consider clean grip.
Lack of Practice Not enough focus on elbow position. Inconsistent form and difficulty under load. Practice with light weights focusing on elbows.

3. Lack of Depth in the Squat

Squat Depth - Front Squat

 

Achieving adequate depth in the front squat is not just a matter of form. It’s a critical component for maximizing the exercise’s benefits. Proper depth ensures that the primary muscle groups, including the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, are fully engaged, promoting balanced muscle development and improving overall lower body strength.

However, many individuals fall short of reaching the necessary depth, often due to mobility restrictions or a misunderstanding of how deep they should go.

Importance of Squat Depth

Squatting to an appropriate depth—where the hips drop below the knees—ensures a comprehensive range of motion that activates the entire lower body effectively. This depth is crucial for stimulating muscle growth, enhancing flexibility, and improving functional movements that mimic everyday activities.

Moreover, deep front squats can help improve balance and posture by engaging the core and lower back muscles, which support the spine during the movement.

Common Barriers to Achieving Depth

Limited ankle dorsiflexion, tight hip flexors, and restricted thoracic spine mobility can all hinder the ability to squat deeply. These limitations prevent the body from achieving the necessary positions to descend fully while maintaining an upright torso.

Weakness in the core and lower body muscles, including the glutes and quads, may make it challenging to control the descent and ascent of the squat, leading to a shallower depth. The front-loaded nature of the squat can cause apprehension about tipping forward, causing some to cut their depth short to feel more stable.

Strategies for Improving Squat Depth

Dynamic stretches and mobility drills for the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine can gradually increase the range of motion. Exercises like ankle dorsiflexion stretches, hip flexor stretches, and thoracic rotations can be particularly effective.

Building strength in the core and the muscles involved in the squat will provide the stability and power needed to reach and maintain proper depth. Planks, glute bridges, and leg presses are beneficial for this purpose.

Practicing bodyweight squats with a focus on slow, controlled movements can help improve muscle memory and confidence in reaching greater depths. Using a box or bench to squat down to can ensure consistency in depth and provide a target to aim for.

For those struggling with ankle mobility, placing a small weight plate or board under the heels can help compensate for the lack of dorsiflexion, allowing for a deeper squat without compromising form. Increasing squat depth should be a gradual process.

Starting with a depth that is comfortable and slowly increasing it over time can help prevent injury and ensure continuous improvement.

4. Failing to Maintain a Vertical Torso

Vertical Torso - Front Squats

Maintaining a vertical torso during the front squat is crucial for executing the lift correctly and safely. The upright posture ensures that the load is properly distributed across the lower body and core, minimizing the risk of injury and maximizing the engagement of the intended muscle groups. 

As the weight increases, the challenge of keeping the torso upright becomes more significant. A forward lean not only compromises the effectiveness of the exercise by shifting the emphasis away from the quads and onto the lower back but also puts undue stress on the spine, leading to potential injury.

The Importance of a Vertical Torso

A vertical torso in the front squat allows for a more efficient transfer of force from the lower body to the barbell, facilitating a stronger and more stable lift.

This position aligns the bar over the mid-foot, the body’s center of gravity, which helps in maintaining balance and control throughout the movement.

Furthermore, it ensures the knees track properly over the toes, reducing shear forces on the knee joint and engaging the quads, glutes, and core effectively.

Challenges in Maintaining Upright Posture

Front Squat vs Back Squat - Posture

A weak core can make it difficult to stabilize the spine under load, leading to a forward lean. Limited mobility in the upper back can prevent the lifter from extending the thoracic spine, necessary for an upright posture.

If the quads or glutes are not strong enough to drive the lift, the body may compensate by leaning forward to engage the stronger posterior chain muscles. Lack of proprioception or balance can cause the lifter to lean forward as a way to counterbalance the weight, especially when not accustomed to the front rack position.

Strategies for Improving Torso Uprightness

Exercises that target the entire core, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back, can enhance the ability to maintain an upright torso. Planks, dead bugs, and overhead squats can be particularly effective.

Exercises like foam rolling the upper back, thoracic extensions on a foam roller, and dynamic stretches can increase thoracic spine mobility, aiding in achieving and maintaining an upright posture. Strengthening the quadriceps and glutes will ensure these muscles can effectively bear the load during the squat.

Exercises such as leg presses, lunges, and Bulgarian split squats can be beneficial. Balance exercises, such as single-leg stands, BOSU ball squats, and proprioceptive training, can improve the body’s ability to maintain stability under load.

Focusing on a point straight ahead and imagining a string pulling the body upwards from the crown of the head can help in keeping the torso upright. Additionally, actively thinking about “leading with the chest” on the ascent encourages a vertical spine.

Increasing the weight gradually while focusing on form allows the body to adapt to maintaining an upright torso under heavier loads without compromising technique.

5. Neglecting Upper Body Strength

The front squat is a comprehensive exercise that not only targets the lower body but also heavily involves the upper body for stabilization and support. The demand it places on the upper back, shoulders, and core is significant, yet the importance of upper body strength in performing the front squat effectively is often overlooked. 

A strong upper body is crucial for maintaining the correct posture throughout the lift, preventing the common issue of a rounded back, which not only diminishes the exercise’s benefits but also heightens the risk of injury.

Upper Body Strength in Front Squats

Upper Body Strength

Upper body strength, particularly in the thoracic spine, shoulders, and core, plays a pivotal role in the front squat by:

  • Stabilizing the Torso: A strong upper body keeps the torso upright and stable, allowing for better biomechanics during the squat.
  • Preventing Injury: By maintaining proper alignment, the risk of compensatory movements that can lead to injury is minimized.
  • Enhancing Performance: Stronger upper body muscles contribute to a more powerful and efficient front squat, enabling the lifter to handle heavier loads with better form.

Consequences of Neglecting Upper Body Strength

Neglecting the development of upper body strength can lead to several issues, including:

  • Weakness in the thoracic spine and core can cause the back to round, shifting the load to undesirable areas and increasing the strain on the lower back.
  • Without sufficient upper body strength, maintaining the elbows high and the bar in the correct position becomes challenging, leading to form breakdown.
  • The inability to stabilize the upper body can limit the activation of the target muscle groups, reducing the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

Strategies to Implement

To build the necessary upper body strength for front squats, consider incorporating the following exercises into your training regimen:

  • Front Plank Variations: Planks, side planks, and dynamic plank variations strengthen the core, enhancing the ability to stabilize the torso during the squat.
  • Rows: Barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and cable rows target the muscles of the upper back, improving posture and the ability to keep the chest up and shoulders back.
  • Face Pulls: This exercise specifically strengthens the rear deltoids and upper back, crucial for maintaining high elbows and a secure bar position.
  • Thoracic Mobility Drills: Exercises that increase thoracic spine mobility, such as foam rolling and thoracic extensions, can improve posture and upper body alignment.
  • Shoulder Stability Exercises: Movements like the overhead press, lateral raises, and rotator cuff exercises build shoulder strength and stability, supporting a better front rack position.
  • Direct Core Work: In addition to planks, incorporating exercises like hanging leg raises, ab wheel rollouts, and cable crunches can further strengthen the core, providing a solid foundation for the lift.

Proper Front Squat Technique

The front squat is distinguished from the back squat primarily by the barbell’s placement, which significantly affects the exercise’s biomechanics. Here’s how to set up and execute a front squat with proper technique:

Bar Placement

Begin by setting the barbell at chest height on the squat rack. When you approach the bar, position it so that it rests across the front of your shoulders, just above the clavicles. This is crucial for maintaining balance and ensuring the weight is evenly distributed across your body’s center of gravity.

Grip and Elbow Position

 

 

There are two common grips for the front squat – the clean grip and the cross-arm grip. The clean grip involves holding the bar with your fingers, elbows high, which promotes thoracic extension and a straight back.

The cross-arm grip, or bodybuilder grip, is an alternative for those with limited wrist mobility, where the arms are crossed and hands placed on top of the bar. Regardless of grip, your elbows should remain elevated throughout the movement to prevent the bar from rolling.

Foot Positioning

 

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed outwards. This stance will provide stability and allow for proper depth during the squat.

The Descent

Initiate the squat by breaking at the hips and knees simultaneously, keeping the weight on your heels. Descend as if sitting back into a chair, maintaining an upright torso to keep the bar in place. Aim to lower yourself until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, ensuring your knees track over your toes.

The Ascent

Drive through your heels to return to the starting position, keeping your core engaged and your torso upright. The power should come from your legs and hips as you extend your knees and hips simultaneously.

FAQs

How safe is front squat?

Front squats are generally safe when performed with proper form and technique. They place less stress on the lower back compared to back squats, due to the more upright torso position. 

Why is front squat harder?

Front squats can be harder than back squats for several reasons. The front rack position requires significant upper body flexibility and strength, particularly in the wrists, shoulders, and upper back, to maintain the barbell’s position. 

How many squats a day?

The ideal number of squats per day depends on your fitness goals, experience level, and the intensity of the squats. For general fitness, performing 3 sets of 8-12 squats with proper form a few times a week can be beneficial.

Are squats bad for spine?

When performed correctly, squats are not bad for the spine; in fact, they can strengthen the muscles around the spine, improving posture and stability. However, improper form, such as rounding the back during the squat, can put undue pressure on the spine and lead to injury. 

Summary

The front squat is a highly effective exercise for developing lower body strength and improving overall fitness when performed correctly. 

By paying close attention to technique and avoiding common mistakes, you can ensure that you maximize the benefits of the front squat while minimizing the risk of injury.

Remember, consistency, and patience are key. With practice and dedication, the front squat can become a valuable addition to your strength training arsenal.

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