Squats are incredible. This is NOT a topic up for debate. Squats are a foundational cog in the human movement machine and are a key element in any athlete's developmental toolbox. Squat properly across the range of squatting movements (i.e. back squats, split squats, etc.), and you will see increases in stability, mobility, strength, and power. No ifs, ands, or butts about it (see what I did there??). But while the back squat gets credited as the King of All Exercises, I believe there's a dark horse of squatting variations that deserves some recognition... the FRONT SQUAT.
While not as mind-numbingly frustrating as overhead squats, front squats exist solely to crush your ego and remind you of how little the world cares about your mobility issues. Any novice lifter who decides to put the bar into the front rack position for the first time will understand quickly that front squats aren't friendly to newcomers. Yet, no matter how much they feel like they are slowly choking you at the bottom of the squat, they are actually increasing your efficiency in movement, your precision in motor control, and the ability of your body to stay in a safe position. Here are a few reasons why you should embrace front squats.
1. Front Squats Can Fix Your Ugly Posture
We all know we have bad posture. It's pretty rife within our society. Taking into consideration how much time we spend sitting at desks, hunched over with a disgustingly internally-rotated shoulder position and cervical extension. It's no wonder so many of us struggle with mobility issues. This is why the front squat may be one of the most important movements you're not doing. Performing a front squat actively works to counteract many of the poor postural positions to which our bodies are accustomed. Even just putting the bar into the front rack trains an athlete to actively externally rotate at the shoulders, recruit the upper back the help stabilize scapular positioning, and pack the neck to place the head into a better position. And the front rack is going to feel different depending on the athlete. Levels of wrist, shoulder and thoracic mobility will vary. The less mobile you are, the more of a challenge it will be. In the bottom position of the front squat, the bar will naturally try to pull the athlete forward. This should be counteracted by the active engagement and support from the front rack, strength and stability from the upper back, and increased recruitment of the spinal erectors to keep the low back safe and strong. This concurrent recruitment of muscle groups is one big injury prevention training tool. And it is worth pointing out that when performing front squats, you need to pay special attention to the position of the upper back. If the upper back rounds excessively, we cease to develop the beneficial adaptations we're looking for and only reinforce bad positioning. Bad positions mean less stability. Less stability means poor performance and busted athletes. And nobody likes busted athletes.
2. Front Squats Prioritize Good Technique
When training back squats, there is some room for technical freedom and many athletes can get away with one or more small flaws in form. But the importance of technique is paramount to a successful front squat. Squatting with the bar in the front rack requires more precision in order to move in proper motor patterns while maintaining appropriate tension. If the lifter shoots the hips back on the drive from the bottom, chances are high that they'll lose the bar out front. For beginners, starting slow is always best (and really, this goes for any lift). Learning where the mobility demands are greatest and how to maintain proper alignment of the upper back will set a base for better performance later on. Once that balance is developed slowly, the lifter can begin adding some speed to their front squats, and really start improving their ability to move with dynamic mobility.
The technique of positioning the bar in the front rack is worth pointing out as well. If the bar is too shallow (too far forward on the shoulders), it will be harder to keep the back stable. Instead, it's best to keep the bar deeper in the front rack and near the point of discomfort (with enough room to breathe -- please don't put yourself in a sleeper hold!). This will allow more room for the elbows to travel forward and increase the recruitment of the muscles of the upper back to to stabilize the upper torso. Commonly, athletes will attempt to "death-grip" the bar, either from discomfort or just plain inexperience with the front rack. Don't do that. The grip should be loose, with the hands merely there to support the bar either with an open grip or with as few as two fingers underneath. The grip can be awkward at first, but it will absolutely help keep the back stable and even help develop wrist mobility. If an athlete flat out cannot achieve the conventional front rack position, the crossed arm variation is a quick fix that allows a bit more comfort, but places a higher demand on the torso to be as upright as possible. Crossing the arms out front alleviates pressure on the wrists and allows the athlete to front squat in spite of constricting shoulder mobility issues. You can try and blame your poor front rack on your biceps being too big, but chances are I won't believe you and we will immediately start flexing at each other (NOTE: This is how most disputes are solved at VOLT HQ).
3. Front Squats Can Help Improve the Hang Clean
Building proficiency in the front rack position and the vertical drive from the bottom of the front squat will transfer well to both hang clean and hang power clean performance. Developing a good front rack position will help athletes learn to catch cleans in better positions with more upper back stability. Likewise, experience in the bottom position of the front squat will increase confidence and ability to receive hang cleans in a deeper catch position - thus enabling a heavier clean (and more potential to express power). The movement patterns of simply descending into the bottom of the squat and driving upward while maintaining a good position mimic what is occurring in the reception and recovery of a clean. So, it's no surprise that athletes that have better front squat technique will have better clean technique as well.
If after reading this point you are still not inspired to go set a new front squat PR, that's fine -- make sure you check out Part 2 on why front squats are fantastic for turning yourself in a mobile, agile, and posturally-proficient athletic machine!
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