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Front Squat Progression: Simple and Effective

front squat

Let’s talk front squats.

I think we’d all agree squats are the king of all exercises. But when you hear the word “squat”  you’re probably thinking back squat. Fair enough. The back squat is the most popular squat around.

It’s a staple in nearly every program from the Power Primer for athletic performance to many fat loss plans.  It’s a competitive lift in powerlifting and lets you lift gargantuan weights.

So why on earth would I not roll out the red carpet on a back squat progression?

Because the front squat is superior for building an athletic, injury resilient, and jacked body.

And no, I’m not some anti-powerlifting recluse. The front squat is just that epic. When the goal is to improve performance, build legs the size of tree trunks, and improve your cubicle dwelling posture … the front squat is at the pinnacle of exercise selection. We put together a full guide and front squat specialization program to coincide with this article. Download them both here.

In fact, my much smarter (and better looking) colleague Dr. John Rusin had this to say about the front squat:

For a majority of athletes and lifters the front squat is my preferred squat pattern variation due to its total body requisite. From packing the shoulders to owning a more upright spinal position, the front squat maximizes sports performance transfer and reinforces optimal movement patterns.

john rusin, Front Squat Progression, front squat
Confused?

The upright position reduces stress on your back and the movement more closely mimics the movements needed in to be an exceptional athlete.

Now comes the Real Battle: Progressing to a Front Squat

The biggest reason people avoid big challenges is because they’re hard. It’s a cliche, but everything worth having takes sacrifice and hard work. Refining front squat technique is no different.

The Biggest Problems Most Lifters Face in the Front Squat Progression

  1. Poor Thoracic Mobility

Poor thoracic mobility is per for the course these days. Almost all of us are excessively interiorly rotated from sitting at a desk 8-12 hours per day. The shoulder blades tend to get “stuck” on the back of the rib cage. The shoulders roll forward, and the head drops protrudes forward like a turtle peekin’ out of his shell.

The front squat can improve posture, but you must first be able to get into position. Joel Seedman, PhD and owner of Advanced Human Performance has this to say about the importance of thoracic mobility in the front squat.

The front squat teaches the lifter how to find the ideal balance between spinal extension and anterior core activation. Because of the unique loading parameters, front squats force the lifter to achieve significant thoracic extension while simultaneously engaging the anterior core at a high intensity.

In turn this grooves the proper recruitment patterns needed for producing neutral spinal alignment not only for squats but for other movements as well.

With that said, how can we get into proper position to optimize movement patterns? Active thoracic mobility training.

Drills to improve thoracic mobility:

Bench T-Spine Extension Mobilization: 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps Daily

Why: By improving t-spine mobility and targeting the lats, serratus anterior, and traps you’ll improve the shoulders ability to stay in position and transfer force.

How to: Start by kneeling and facing a bench while holding a dowel or PCV pipe in your hands with your elbows on the bench. Holding onto the PVC pipe, rock your hips back, dropping your head until it’s even with your arms and extending through your upper back.

Floor Slide: 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps daily

Why: The floor slide actives muscles of the mid and upper back, namely the mid-lower trap to fire, helping combat poor posture to improve overhead work.

How to: While supine, keep the lower back flat with the arms extended overhead. Without arching, drive the elbows down towards your sides, squeezing through your mid back. Work to keep the ribcage down through the full range of motion.

Stop your range of motion if you start to arch your lower back, or elevate the rib cage (as seen at end range in the video.) Gradually increase your range of motion.

 

2. Poor Strength in the “Rack Position”

By hammering thoracic spine mobility, you should be able to get into the rack position.  The rack position is when the bar is situated on the front of the shoulders with the arms parallel to the floor.

To get stronger in this position, you’ll need a dose of goblet holds and positions to strengthen the anterior core, rhomboids, and traps.

As Coach Bob Thompson puts it:

The goblet squat makes the transition to front squat smooth and easy because you’re already familiarized you holding the rack position while keeping an upright torso. Once a barbell is added, the body is already familiar with the pattern that it performs it effortlessly.

3. Front Squat Grip

Gripping the bar on the front squat is a common issue that comes down to technique and mobility. There are numerous grips covered in my Complete Guide to the Front Squat eBook.

Just fill out the form at the end of this article and I’ll send my Front Squat eBook to you for free …  instantly. 

 

front squat, front squat progression

Front Squat Progression:

So far, I’ve touched on improving mobility and strength to hold thoracic extension. Now, let’s put it all together. After all, you can’t just jump from “no front squats” without the prerequisite stability and mobility.

Further, it’s never a good idea to load an exercise without establishing stability through an acceptable range of motion and  good technique. To learn how to front squat you need a progression. Here it is.

The Third World Squat:

Ever wonder what people did before chairs….or toilets?

Sitting on the ground wasn’t the only option– they had what’s now termed the third-world squat.  As coach and former special ops operative Craig Weller says,

“In third-world countries, there will be a lot of situations where people are hanging out or working, and rather than sitting or kneeling down, they squat. They can sit like this comfortably for hours. It seems like a simple thing and can be easily overlooked, but try it some time. The average North American adult can’t even get into this position, let alone stay there for any length of time.”

3rd world squat, Front Squat Progression

I could spend all day discussing third world squat position, but Craig did a killer job of this here on T-Nation.

To cut to the chase:

Add 20 full squats to the end of every warm-up.

Once or twice per day, drop into the lowest squat position you can handle for 30 – 60 seconds and hold position.  Keep your heels down and chest up.

Over time, this will improve total body mobility and posture to optimize front squat technique.

Goblet Squat:

Brought to the forefront by Dan John, goblet squats are the ultimate teaching tool for squatting. Like a front squat, the anterior load engages the core, keeping the spine more vertical. With this increased engagement, you’re more easily able to sink the hips between the knees without posterior pelvic tilt-butt wink, as shown below by the Glute Guy Bret Contreras.

bret contreras, bret contreras squat
Goblet squats are idiot proof a the easiest way to groove squat technique in all of five minutes.  Grip a kettlebell or dumbbell underneath one end (or the horns) and hold at chest height. Keeping the chest tall and abs braced descend by breaking at the hip and knee until the proper depth is achieved. Extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Goblet Squat With Pause:

Grip a kettlebell or dumbbell underneath one end and hold at chest height. While keeping the chest tall and abs braced descend by breaking at the hip and knee until proper depth is achieved, pause while staying tight, and extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Incorporating this pause reinforces your mobility by pouring concrete on the movement foundation. This builds stability from head to toe.

2 KB Front Squat:

Using two kettlebells greatly increases the demands on your rhomboids to maintain thoracic extension and strength. Since most lifters miss front squats by the elbows dropping and weight shifting forward, this variation improves strength in the rhomboids to prevent that problem before it gets started.

Holding one kettlebell in each hand at chest height stand tall and brace the core. Keep the kettlebells “up” by driving the elbows high, then breaking at the hips and knees simultaneously until the proper depth is achieved and pausing without losing tension. Extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Frankenstein Front Squat:

After chatting about the Frankenstein front squat on Travis Pollen’s podcast, I asked PhD Student Marc Lewis to chat about his favorite progression, the Frankenstein Front Squat.

After the goblet squat has been utilized, and loads have been progressively increased, the barbell loaded front squat would be the next logical progression.

However, before transitioning directly into a “normal” front squat (i.e. clean grip, strap grip, arm crossover grip, etc.), it’s critical to learn proper bar placement and body position with a barbell located anteriorly.

Therefore, the Frankenstein front squat is the ideal exercise to reinforce proper bar position, while teaching the athlete/client how to complete the movement with proper technique throughout the entire range of motion.

  1. The unloaded barbell should be unracked and placed on the on the flexed anterior deltoid. This teaches the athlete/client to create the “shelf,” which is vital to the set-up of the front squat as well as for maintaining the correct torso position.
  2. Elbows should remain at or above the bar level at all times, which will reinforce the cue of “elbows” not “hands” when using the clean grip.
  3. When driving out of the hole, this variation assists the athlete/client with maintaining a vertical torso and driving through the heels. Remember, if they start rounding at the thoracic spine or shifting their weight forward, the barbell will fall.
  4. Finally, this front squat variation will assist in teaching the athlete/client to brace their core and the proper breathing pattern with a barbell placed anteriorly.

Many athletes/clients will appreciate this part as it’s uncomfortable to breathe properly with a barbell snug against your throat.

Front Squat with a Pause:

Using a clean grip (2 fingers only if necessary) break at the hips and knees simultaneously, keeping the abs braced and elbows up as you descend to depth. Pause while maintaining a “rigid” core, then stand up by fully extending the hip and knee.

Focus on driving the elbows high throughout the lift to keep the elbows parallel to the ground and spine vertical.

Front Squat Progression

There are many ways to “skin the cat” when it comes to squat progressions, but this technique has worked best for me when teaching my clients how to front squat.

First, mobilize the movements and tissues needed for movement.

Then, reinforce the movement foundation with rock-solid stability to hold position. Crush each rep with intent!

Finally, keep your ego at bay. With this progression, you’ll be piling on plates in no time.

Like this article?

Then you’ll love our Front Squat progression checklist and Front Squat Specialization workout. Get them free by clicking here.

High Performance Exercises You Should be Doing: Goblet Squat

athletic d

Walk into typical gym and a few things stand out: The bro in a cut off t-shirt, the old dude wearing bikers spandex stretching spread eagle on the mat, and the same cardio queens snappin’ Instagram selfies on the elliptical.

Even more perplexing is the same people doing the same exercises day after day, week after week and not making jack-squat (pun-intended) for progress. While there are staple movements that make up the brunt of great programs variation is important both for progression and to minimize imbalances.

Case in point, the goblet squat.

The goblet squat is a movement most everyone (injuries non-withstanding) should perform. Still, all I see are barbell squats and front squats, often with hips shooting up early, poor depth and varus/valgus issues at the knee. Despite being a natural movement squatting with sound technique has somehow become a lost art.

Between sedentary jobs and inactive lifestyles basic movement quality sucks for most clients. Among most exercises what’s supposed to be a squat ends up looking like a quasi-modo twerking with a steel bar on his back. As you’d imagine, it ain’t pretty. Squats are a great tool, but like anything else, how you use the tool is most important. A hammer is great when hitting a nail, as long as you strike the nail instead of exploding your thumb.

As it is, the goblet squat is my preferred exercise when introducing the squat to new clients. Whether I’m working with an inexperienced athlete or a desk jockey with the mobility of a screwdriver, the goblet squat is an idiot-proof way to teach body awareness and squat mechanics.

The squat is a common screening tool with clients who come to train. Most times I’ll start with a bodyweight squat with the arms at shoulder width, progressing to an overhead squat to see how thoracic mobility limitations are playing a role in limiting movement. Most often clients’ knees begin shaking, the heels leave the floor, and all hell breaks loose. More than common mobility restrictions like poor dorsiflexion or tight hips my concern lies with the lack of stability during the movement. The fact that so many athletes run around in the chaotic nature of sport with major instabilities sets off the alarms faster than deadlifts at Planet Fitness.

That in mind, the last thing I want to do is stick someone with mobility/stability issues abound under a bar and squat the living daylights out of them. Instead, I’ll opt for goblet squats as my initial mode of lower body training.

Besides a wicked awesome name that conveys images of Lil Jon and his Crunk Juice goblet, the goblet squat offers a multitude of benefits.

high performance, goblet squat
Photocredit: http://www.uglyducklinghouse.com/pimptastic-if-i-do-say-so-myself/

 

Goblet Squats for Muscle Building:

Few exercises stimulate total body hypertrophy like squats. Problem is, most people suck at them. Piling volume-on-top of dysfunction is a huge no-no, and squats are a frequent perpetrator. You won’t be able to load goblet squats heavy like barbell squats, but you maintain great form and not snap your spine in half during longer duration sets.

Sound like a win? It is.

Aim for 3-5 sets of 10-20 rep goblet squats. Add pauses, mid-rep holds, and load these bad-boys up 100+ pounds if you’re able. This creates tons of muscular damage and metabolic stress from the accumulation of metabolic by-products from hard-work—setting you up for legs #gains.

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Practice Squat Technique:

Those with poor coordination are better candidates for the goblet squat. Since the compact weight is held in front of the athlete it’s much easier to stabilize than a long, unstable barbell. Add in the fact that goblet squats strengthen the anterior core, upper back, and create tension with lighter loads you have a winner.

Increase anterior core engagement:

Anterior bar placement keeps the torso vertical, preventing the hips from going into an excessive tilt, and requiring greater oblique and rectus abdominus involvement to prevent flexion. This change in the position is similar to front squats as it alters the center of mass and places a greater emphasis on the quadriceps, upper back, and supporting muscles of the trunk. The spine stays more vertical, lengthens the lats, reduces shear stress on the spine and requires extra core involvement to keep you vertical.

goblet squat, high performance
Photocredit: superiortrainingshc.blogspot.com

 

Vertical Spine position and less shear stress on the spine:

Per the increase in anterior core engagement, the spine stays vertical, lengthens the lats, reduces shear stress on the spine. Altogether, this requires extra core involvement to keep you upright. During de-load periods heavy goblet squats opposed to back squats deload the spine and nervous system.

Want to Simplify your Fitness and start making progress today? Click Here.

 Minimal Equipment or Space Needed:

If you’re traveling or don’t have any room to squat because some hair-gelled douche is curling in the squat rack then goblet squats are an awesome substitution to hammer your legs. In all seriousness, exercise doesn’t need to be complicated, it just has to be effective. Find out more on Exercise Minimalism in my three-part series here, here, and here.

Teach upper-back tightness during lower body exercises:

Too many novice lifters don’t realize the importance of keeping the upper back tight because they don’t lift enough weight to get stapled forward. With even moderate weights, the goblet squatter feels his upper back and must retract the shoulders to hold the ideal position.

Teach tightness in the hole without significant loading:

Many young athletes and inexperienced lifters lose lumbar stability in the bottom of the squat, bounce out of the hole, and lose spinal integrity.

No Bueno.

To engrain tightness and technique in the bottom of a squat, goblet squats with a pause are perfect. The anterior load forces anterior core engagement and abdominal bracing when the lower back is most prone to injury– the bottom of a squat. Adding a pause allows time to check alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle to prevent pronation/supination of the foot and valgus/varus stress on the knee.

How to Goblet Squat:

Enough about epic gainz you’ll get from goblet squats, here’s how to do them.

Hold a dumbbell (or kettlebell) with both hands underneath the “bell” at chest level, and set your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards (a). Push your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair and descend until your elbows reach the inside of your knees. (b). Keeping your heels flat, pressing into the floor, pause at the bottom of the squat, and return to a full standing position. If your heels rise push your hips further back and work on partial ranges of motion until mobility and form improve (c). Repeat for three to four sets of 8-10 reps.

Here’s a video of my beastly client Raven hitting some goblet squats. Despite the fact that he hits 700lb squats for fun it’s still important to ingrain movement skills to limit potential weaknesses and deficiencies.


 

Goblet Squat Coaching Cues:

          Think tall chest with the shoulders squeezed down and together

          Brace the trunk like you’re taking a punch rather than arching the low back

          Push the knees out to open the hips

          Keep the knees in alignment with the shins to prevent valgus/varus in the knees

          Descend to your deepest depth without losing lumbar integrity (a.k.a. buttwink. Which is not about the Hamstrings, a must read by Dean Somerset)

          Reverse directions, driving the feet evenly into the ground and returning to a stall standing position. Squeeze the glutes at the top, rinse, and repeat.

Sample Goblet Squat Progression:

The bodyweight squat and overhead squat are two tests used for assessments for good reason: they show coordination and movement in a basic movement pattern.

I prefer this progression as it reinforces movement quality in a limited range of motion (ROM) and gradually increases ROM and difficulty as the trainee advances.

Bodyweight Squats to Box>Bodyweight Squats with Pause> Goblet Squat to High Box>Goblet Squat to Lower Box>Goblet Squat with Pause>Goblet Squat

From here, you can take your goblet squat to a front squat or back squat with a more refined movement pattern and better total body stability.

Wrap Up

By now you’re well versed in the goblet squat. The goblet squat is great for teaching technique to beginners, re-inforcing correct mechanics, and a deceptively awesome tool for hypertrophy. Yea, it’s not ideal for maximum strength and power development, but lets be real—more trainees would benefit from building sound mechanics of a goblet squat before piling weight on a faulty foundation. Whether you’re new to squats or can’t squat due to hair-gelled curl in the squat rack guy the the goblet squat is a high-performance training tool you should be doing.

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