You don’t need a catalogue of research studies to understand that the squat needs to be a key piece of any well-rounded strength program. When done right, squats recruit nearly every muscle in your legs. And when done with a barbell, they challenge your entire upper body, demanding core strength and stability and even challenging your shoulder and back strength, too.
The big question: Where do you actually put that bar? Plenty of lifters wonder, and for good reason. There are two main ways of squatting with a barbell: the front squat and the back squat. Each has a place in your routine but learning how and when to use each move is the key to building the perfect leg program for your goals — and the key to learning and properly progressing the squat.
In my 11 years as a trainer, I’ve heard plenty of takes on how and when to use these squats, based on myths and Instagram folklore. So which squat should you be doing? Truth be told, neither move is superior to the other; each squat has strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, you want to be capable of doing both squats, but, depending on your goals, you may want to prioritize one over the other. Here’s a breakdown:
The Squat Breakdown
The barbell squat you’ll see most guys doing (or attempting to do, in some cases) in your local gym is the back squat. To do a back squat, the bar is loaded at the top of your traps (think of them as human barbell pads), near the base of your neck. Then you simply squat down, bending at the knees and hips, working to not let your knees track too far in front of your feet.
The front squat is a move on the rise, most recently popularized by Crossfit. To do a front squat, you load the bar on the meaty parts of your shoulders, in line with your collarbone. You either cross your hands over the bar in an “X” to keep it stable (as bodybuilder do), or you slide your hands under the bar, in line with your shoulders, as Olympic lifters and Crossfitters do. From there, you squat down, just as you do during back squats.
Yes, the moves seem similar. But the few-inch difference that comes with loading the bar behind can make a huge difference in the focus of the exercise.
Back Squat for Power and the Posterior Chain
If you’re training to build raw strength and power, this is the squat you want to do, for a variety of reasons. First off, you can place more weight on the bar when you back squat than you can with the front squat, and when you’re chasing pure power and strength, you need to move as much weight as you can.
The back squat also stresses the body in a different manner. When the bar is at the traps, the weight forces your torso to lean forward slightly. That places greater stress on the glutes and hamstrings, as well as your mid and upper back muscles for stability. If you don’t feel comfortable with this you may struggle to get full squat depth (which means getting your hips below your knees). If you can get comfortable with this, though, the back squat is your best option for building serious size and strength along your posterior chain.
Front Squat for Aesthetics and the Quads of the Gods
To build the carefully crafted legs you see on bodybuilders, you want to take your leg muscles through a full range of motion at both the hip and knee joints as often as possible, stretching and strengthening them with every rep. And you’re going to be able to do that best with front squats.
The frontal load of the weight forces the body to sit upright — as does all fear of falling flat on your face. If your abs and lower back extensors aren’t firing, and you aren’t focused on sitting back aggressively, you could fall flat on your face. This means you have to stay focused on the move that much more closely and tightly.
Because you’re sitting back and more likely to keep your tibia (lower leg) vertical, you’re going to get a better stretch on the quadriceps, and you’ll have to use these more aggressively to stand back up. So if you want the teardrop muscles that bodybuilders have, you want to prioritize front squats in your routine.
Back Squat to Go Heavy
If you’re looking to load up the bar with as much weight as possible, the back squat is your go-to move. You get to place the bar on a larger, more solid shelf of stability (those upper traps), and you’re also engaging the hamstrings and glutes to drive the lift. Those two posterior chain muscle groups are larger and more powerful than the quads and can help you power through large loads.
Because you can load it so much, you’re going to drive a more aggressive hormone response, and fuel plenty of metabolic response too. Translation: The back squat is your best option to drive total-body muscle growth (even though the front squat isn’t too far behind in this department, either).
Front Squat for Core Strength
All that fear of falling on your face when front squatting has another benefit: It’ll give you ripped abs. The only way to guarantee that you’ll definitely not fall on your face is if you sit upright. That tall posture forces your core to step into its natural role of protecting your spine.
It’ll do so organically, too, so you won’t have to think about flexing your abs or anything like that. Back squats should test your core as well — and they can. But the positioning of the bar means that you don’t have to tax your core muscles as aggressively as you do during front squats.
Don’t Forget Goblet Squats
Both front squats and back squats deliver plenty of challenge, and, truth be told, they’re pretty advanced moves if you don’t have a ton of experience in the gym. That’s why a variant of the front squat, the goblet squat, has become popular in recent years. And to me, it’s the best way for you to start squatting, period.
To do goblet squat, you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest, close to your torso. Simply having the weight here, much like the barbell front squat, forces you to keep your torso upright. From there, you bend at the knees and hips, squatting down. This is a friendly move that’s still plenty challenging; it’s great for beginners, but plenty of training veterans do goblet squats, too. You’ll get a great, safe workout out of goblet squats, and they’ll help clean up your squatting form so you can attack your front and back squats more aggressively.
No matter the variation, make time to squat sometime in your routine — even if you’re simply doing bodyweight squats. Any squat will help you burn plenty of calories, and all squats give you a chance to activate your leg muscles, which are some of the largest muscles in your body. You want that in your routine somewhere.
By David Otey