The front squat is an exercise used very commonly in training weightlifters, but besides that is unfortunately not used all that much. I personally admit to not programming this incredibly effective tool as often as I would like for my general fitness members, but that is changing now.
I like the exercise because the front loaded nature of it demands a greater level of technical proficiency in the athlete. Because of that it allows for better movement and a more balanced athlete in the end. If you have an athlete who struggles with the back squat, a great deal of their issues will be mended rather quickly by incorporating more front squats in their program. Here's why I like it:
Forces the athlete into a more upright position
Force-recruits the muscles of the core
Allows for greater depth increasing lower-body joint function and strength
Demands greater mobility and control of the shoulders, arms and wrists
Does not overload the body allowing greater balance in strength gains
There are still plenty of things that can go wrong with this lift, just like any lift. So here are five cues I like to use with all my athletes to help them improve on their front squat.
1. Hold The Bar High
I coach that the front squat is an attempted back squat but the neck and head are in the way. This means that your goal is to get the bar as close to your back as you possible can. The higher on your shoulders the bar is, the easier it will be to establish the most efficient mechanics. You should feel the bar literally resting on your shoulders and physically pushing against your neck. The second the bar begins to slide away from your neck and down your shoulders you will tend to be pulled forward, making the squat WAY more difficult.
This can be uncomfortable, so be sure to practice this with an empty bar so that you can adapt to the feeling. It's never fun to rack off a crazy heavyweight and feel like you're being choked out.
2. Engage Your Arms
Something that is incredibly common for most front squats is people forget to engage their upper body pre-lift. Squatting trains your legs, sure; but you need your entire body involved if you expect to get the most out of it. This especially holds true for the front squat. If you soften up your upper body, you'll let the bar pull you forward and just like the first point, you won't be squatting with very efficient mechanics. Take a big breath, poof out your chest, tense up your shoulders, and drive your elbows UP. These tensions will fire up all the muscles in your upper body, and also right down your midline helping to keep your entire body engaged throughout the lift.
3. Balance Your Decent
It's common to cue driving your butt back on a squat. This makes sense to me in that it forces athletes to recruit their glutes as the main mover of a large leg exercise. You would obviously want your glutes and hamstrings to be very, very involved in any form of squat. The issue with this cue on a front squat is that the second you drive your butt back, you allow for a forward inclination of your torso, allowing the bar to pull you forward, and leading to the issues that the first two points generally have. The goal is to stay upright. To do so you simply drop straight down to perform this front squat. Don't push the butt back like crazy, don't slide the knees forward. Simply break the crease of the hip and knees simultaneously and think about dropping your butt directly down to the floor.
I use the seemingly contradicting cues of "butt back" and "chest up" together all the time. This actually allows for a more active body throughout the entire lift. If you stay completely upright and try to push your butt back as you squat, you will be very engaged throughout. But you must perform both, that is VERY important.
4. Use The Bottom
This is something you see with weightlifters all the time and something that is actually kind of challenging if you don't know how to do it. But, once you learn, this is an incredible tool to use to understand power into hip extension (something that EVERY athlete and human should truly understand if they expect to function well).
The idea is that you aggressively hit the very bottom of your squat (yes, I am assuming you actually reach the full bottom of the squat, you will not be able to use the bottom unless you actually hit it) and then drive up with the intensity of a max effort vertical jump. Many people call this "bouncing" out of the bottom. I don't like using that word as it tends to imply, well, bouncing (all I can visualize right now is someone sitting on a stability ball and bouncing up and down). This always seems to lead to a disengagement of the body at the bottom and I see athletes lose tension like crazy as they attempt to drive out of the most challenging position of the squat. Stay on tension! If you can keep tension, then rebound out of that bottom position like you're superman about to leap over a tall building in a single bound!
Oh, and my favorite cue of coming out of the bottom is: drive your elbows up like your elbowing someone in the face with both elbows!
5. Finish Strong
Simple, do not come out of tension until you have completed the lift. For some reason people tend to relax their upper body a fraction of a second before they fully extend. Or worse yet, they begin lean to rack the bar as they come up from their last rep. Stop rushing and releasing tension! Stand up in control, stand there in tension for a second, then either take a breath and hit your next rep, or under control rack the bar back up. Train your body to be in control of every second of this awesome lift!
There are many forms of squatting, and I personally think the front squat is universally the most effective to promote better movement in the entire body. Find a way to incorporate it in your program, even if it's an accessory lift once a week. It may not be the most comfortable of lifts, but it sure as hell will help you out a ton!
Never Stop, GET FIT.
Josh is a former professional baseball player turned certified personal trainer, sports conditioning specialist, CrossFit level 1 coach, CrossFit Kids coach, and TRX instructor. With a special interest in coaching teens and children, Josh has become a highly educated and well-respected leader in the Crossfit community and designs and implements programming for two gyms; one in Belmont, California and another in Washington, D.C. You can follow Josh on Twitter or check out more of his musings on his very own blog, here.