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 Minimalist Muscle Blitz 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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.”
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 the position. Keep your heels down and chest up.
Over time, this will improve total body mobility and posture to optimize front squat technique.
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.
Goblet squats are idiot-proof and 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 the 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 Progression:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Wrap Up
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.