Front Squats vs Back Squats
What are the differences between them and what are the advantages of each?
There is a major bio-mechanical different between front and back squats. The load distribution changes from the descending line of gravitational force during a back squat to anteriorly during a front squat. The change in the location of the load requires a compensation just a few inches anterior, but makes all the difference on the back and pelvis.
What does this really mean for you?
The spine is designed to handle a certain amount of compressive force from gravity and other basic lifting, pulling and pushing forces. The position of the vertebrae and the 2 curves of the spine are also designed to manage vertical forces. The question isn’t really about which is worse or better, but how they challenge your body in different ways.
Simply put, a bar placed in front of the central line of gravity will challenge the anterior muscle group chain while a bar on the upper back activates more of the posterior chain of muscles. However, the muscles working in each movement are not mutually exclusive. Practically all the same muscles are contracting, but this occurs at different points in each segment of the movement, and to a different degree.
Deciding which you should work on
The easiest way to decide what to focus on is to figure out your weakness and work on that. Can’t tell which is worse? Work on the lift that you prefer less! What feels easier both in terms of strength and mobility is probably your stronger suit. Since we know that we are only as strong as our weakest link… Always work on your weaknesses!
Another way of deciding which lift to spend more time with is by figuring out which you need for your other activities. Are you a skater? Back squats are great to improve glute and hamstring strength, and can improve your take off position!
Biggest advantages of back squats
The posterior chain includes the extensor muscles of the upper and lower back, glutes maximus and medius, hamstrings, and calf muscles. These muscles are what keep us upright, and are the primary workers in a back squat. Back squats are considered the most useful and efficient full-body exercise. The quads and abs are also working hard during a back squat, but aren’t considered the primary movers.
Use back squats in your workout regime to improve posture of your back and to better activate your glutes. Weak glutes are a very common occurrence in the sedentary north American population, made worse by a lifestyle with constant sitting.
You can emphasize the posterior chain by doing low-bar back squats. The barbell is set lower down on the trap muscles, along the shoulder blades. This puts the weight further posterior to the central line of gravity. These are commonly used for training powerlifters, who have a big interest in developing strength in the posterior chain.
Biggest advantages of front squats
Front squats, with hands in in a “front rack” position require more mobility than back squats. The shoulders and lats are challenged with the elbows forward and up, with upper arms parallel to the floor.
Here, the quads and core take a big chunk of the load. The abs must work extra hard to keep the bar in the most vertical plane possible to prevent the bar from weighing the person forward.
This is a great exercise choice for people in jumping and kicking sports, like basketball or soccer. The quads and hip flexors and abs are trained in a functional chain, unlike you might achieve from a leg press and leg extension machine!
Many high level athletes alternate between back and front squats because it allows them to work the core and leg muscle groups without reaching fatigue or over-training. The stimulus is enough to see improvements but the movements are diverse enough from each other to practice them several times per week.