What’s better – front squat or back squat? Surprisingly, the answer is clear. If you pit front squats vs back squats, the latter is the winner.
That’s right, the back squat is better. It’s more balanced, it’s more functional, it’s safer, it’s healthier. Two things for which front squats might be better are building big quads (which is debatable) and weightlifting training.
Don’t agree? The rest of the article will convince you.
The phantom benefits of front squat over back squat
First things first.
If you search for benefits of front squat, you’ll find a lot of links to this study done in 2009.
The study concluded that “the front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments”
Does this mean that the front squat is better? No.
Muscle recruitment was measured via electromyography (EMG). However, EMG is not a valid way to measure muscular forces. And a study done in 2012 stated that there’s no way to determine muscle force based on EMG.
Compressive forces during back squat were found to be 11.0 ± 2.3 N * kg-1 during back squat, compared to front squat’s 9.3 ± 1.5 N*kg-1. However, according to this article, we can’t say that compressive forces cause any injury. Not enough research done on that.
Another enduring myth is that front squats are better for your low back. They aren’t. Front squats done wrong are just as bad for your back as back squats done wrong. Conversely, both back and front squats are safe when done correctly.
To sum up, there’s no real proof front squats are safer than back squats. Neither do they provide the same muscle-building benefits. In fact, it’s the opposite, as you’ll find out soon.
Back squats work more muscles compared to front squats
When you front squat, you don’t deliberately bend at the hips. Your torso has to stay vertical, or the barbell will roll forward from your shoulders. As a result, your hips are much closer to your knees in the bottom position of the squat.
When your hips are close to your knees, your hamstrings (muscles at the back of your leg) end up contracted. Since they are already contracted at the bottom, they can’t contribute to getting you up out of the bottom.
As a result, glutes do most of the work getting you out of the bottom position through the initial hip extension. Then quadriceps kick in and do the rest.
Compare this with the back squat. When you back squat, you have to bend at the hips, and even more so if you do low-bar squats. More bend at the hips means more distance between hips and knees in the bottom position.
More distance means the hamstrings are stretched more, and can provide a powerful contraction out of the bottom position. Hamstrings kicking in is one of the reasons you can back squat more than you can front squat.
And that’s not all. Despite working in tandem with hamstrings, your glutes do more work in the back squat. Back squat means a bigger bend at the hips. Extending hips is the job of your glutes, so they end up having to do more work.
To reiterate, front squatting makes glutes do less work and takes hamstrings out of the equation, focusing on quadriceps. Strong quadriceps without strong hamstrings to balance them out is a recipe for knee injury, says this Livestrong article. Or this one.
Finally, hamstrings are used in most athletic movements. This article names hamstrings among the most important muscle group used for sprinting. And this article claims hamstrings are the most powerful muscles involved in jumping.
Of course, back squats aren’t the only way to train hamstrings. Deadlifts and leg curls work them too. But if you do significantly more front squatting than deadlifting, there will still be an imbalance.
Back squats are more functional than front squats
We’ve already established that back squats involve more muscle mass. That’s why you can lift more weight that way. And being able to squat a heavy weight is very, very useful.
You can’t squat without learning how to keep your body stable, rigid and powerful. You have to learn to transfer power from your legs, through your torso, to the loaded barbell on your shoulder.
This takes skill and core strength that can be applied to all other activities. Knowing how to brace for a heavy squat helps when you want to execute a fireman’s carry throw. Being able to keep your body tight lets you run better, according to Runner’s World and other sources.
And, surprisingly, you brace for running the same way you brace for squats, throws or any other activity.
On top of it, all the small, stabilizing muscles in your body get stronger, too. The more weight you have to move, the stronger they get. The stronger they get, the better they can protect you from injuries.
Strong adductors can save you from a groin pull, for example. They help stabilize the front squat too, true. But most people can’t go heavy enough on front squat to get enough benefits. At least until they’ve gained a good level of strength, best developed through back squat.
Past a certain points back squats don’t offer significant functional benefits over front squats, bracing-wise. But back squats still work more muscles than front squats.
Do less muscles worked and muscular imbalances around the knee sound functional to you? Because that’s exactly the difference of front squats vs back squats.
But for some reason, many people consider front squats inherently more functional – a myth worth debunking.
Both front and back squats can be done wrong
The idea that front squat can’t be done wrong is very popular. It stands to reason: as soon as you round your back, you can’t help but drop the bar.
The problem is, you can actually keep the bar throughout the lift despite awful form. This video shows it nicely.
Many people try to do front squats and end up holding the bar (bad for elbows and wrists), rounding their backs (bad for the back, duh), or rolling on the toes (bad for the knees). Often it’s all of those problems in one package.
It’s not just newbies who can do reps and reps of bad front squats, either. If you’re strong enough, you can manage bad form on a heavy front squat, like here.
That guy can finish a very heavy front squat with a bad (but not abysmal) form. A newbie can do sets of dozens of bad front squats, and still think their form is good. After all, if you round your back, you drop the bar, right?
Fact of the matter is, you can injure yourself on any exercise, if you do it with bad form. And you can do any exercise with bad form.
Finally, front squats require you to have more flexibility. If you can’t assume a proper rack position, you won’t do the front squat correctly. If you can’t do the front squat correctly, the inefficiency of your squat will block you from any decent progress.
Front squats and quads
Front squats win vs back squats as far as isolating quadriceps is concerned. Are they better for bodybuilding, then? Debatable.
Most bodybuilding routines call for high-rep schemes. However, front squats don’t lend themselves well for that type of training. Due to bar position, both lower and upper back has to work extra-hard to keep the torso vertical.
To quote Poliquin Group article, “Every expert agrees that doing more than 6 reps in the front squat is a complete waste of time, as the scapulae retractors cannot hold the proper position isometrically for that long”.
Even then, many people won’t be able to do even 6 reps of front squats with good form. They will have to work up to that number gradually, letting their upper back adjust to the load.
If you are a fan of high-rep bodybuilding training, you’ll likely have to do front squats for low reps, and finish with machines. If that’s the case, you might as well do back squats, since you’ll be targeting quads with machines later anyway.
Alternatively, just do back squats. Bodybuilding.com article claims Arnold favored them, and look how it worked for him.
Does all of this mean that you should ditch front squats forever? No. It just means that back squats are a clear winner in the front squat vs back squat battle. You can’t replace back squats with front squats, or even front squats combined with deadlifts.
Front squats have their place in training. For Chinese weightlifters, it’s to reduce workload on legs, as AllThingsGym writes. Powerlifter Dan Green says front squats work great for increasing his back squat.
But don’t replace back squat with front squat just because the Internet told you so.
If you’re new to squatting, start with back squats. Learn to do them properly, make them your bread and butter. In the meantime, work on your mobility. Once you’re flexible enough to do front squats right, add them as an accessory. Back squats are just too useful to drop.