How to Do a Barbell Front Squat

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Barbell Front Squat

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Related Terms: Front squat, barbell squat

Targets: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, core

Equipment Needed: Barbell, weight plates, squat stand

Level: Advanced

The barbell front squat is a compound exercise that some advanced exercisers use to target the lower body. The exercise puts less pressure on the spine than a traditional squat where the barbell is placed on the upper back. Moving weight to the front of the body also shifts more of the workload into the quadriceps (front of the thigh) and gluteal muscles and away from the hamstrings.

Because this movement is complex and can be hard to learn, it is important to have a great deal of experience performing a basic squat and also handling barbells, weight plates, and using a squat stand or rack.

You should be familiar with safety features on the rack and practice using them before attempting the move. It's also important to have good ankle and hip flexibility for this move as you'll lower the body deeper than in a traditional squat. Lastly, you should expect to lift less weight than you typically lift on a typical back squat.

Benefits

The squat exercise, in general, provides numerous health benefits. Squats build strength and can improve athletic performance in healthy, young adults. But they have also been shown to provide benefits to older adults who are trying to preserve physical function and lung capacity.

Many advanced exercisers use squat variations to achieve substantial gains at the gym. There are differing opinions about whether the front squat or the back squat is a better way to work the lower body. There has been some (but not a lot) of research comparing the two exercises. Each has its own place in a comprehensive weight training program. But the front squat has a few unique advantages.

Less Weight, Easier on the Knees

If your goal is to improve quad strength, the front barbell squat is more effective and probably safer than the back barbell squat. By keeping the weight forward, you decrease the involvement of the hamstrings, requiring the quads to do more work. Many fans of the front squat exercise report that they can work their quads harder with less weight.

Of course, you could continue to do a back squat and simply add more weight to challenge the quads. But this may put undue pressure on the knees. One study indicated that a back squat results in significantly higher compressive forces and knee extensor moments than the front squat. And other studies have indicated that adding weight during a back squat combined with lowering the body below knee-level leads to large increase in knee loading.

Experts advise caution and close supervision if you attempt this move. Researchers also advise that front squats may be advantageous compared to back squats for those with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.

May Be Easier on the Back

Placing a heavy barbell on the upper back can be problematic for those with spinal injuries or upper back or shoulder soreness. A sore upper back or neck area is not uncommon among those who take part in manual labor and those who sit at a desk and look at a computer all day. It is also hard to maintain proper upright spinal alignment during a loaded back squat.

Proper placement of the barbell during a back squat should not cause additional upper back or neck problems, but rolling the bar even slightly off can be problematic. In addition, it is not uncommon for a back squatter to tilt the pelvis too far forward while performing the move, putting excess pressure on the lumbar spine.

By putting the weight in the front of the body, you eliminate these potential problems. Also, the front squat is known to produce less compressive forces than the back squat, which might make it easier for those with back issues.

Step-By-Step Instructions

While there are many benefits to the exercise, the barbell front squat is an advanced movement that requires the use of many muscle groups and coordinated skills. People who are new to this exercise should work with a qualified coach or trainer to learn the proper mechanics before adding significant weight to the exercise.

Pre-Exercise Preparation

If you don't have access to a trainer, prepare your body for this move by first incorporating front-loaded squats into your routine. The basic squat with dumbbells or the goblet squat with a kettlebell will help you get used to having weight on your front side as you lift and lower the body. These exercises also help to increase ankle flexibility and prepare the quads for more weight.

Once you are ready to try the barbell front squat, practice the move using no weight at all or simply using a long bar or PVC pipe. This allows you to learn the sequence of the movements and proper form without the risk of injury. When you have mastered the mechanics, add weight slowly.

Prepare the Rack

Proper hook placement is important for this exercise. Be sure to place the pin of your J-hook at about clavicle height so the hook is slightly lower than shoulder height. This ensures that you don't have to stand on your tippy-toes to lift and unhook the bar. If you're between holes, err on the side of the lower placement.

You also need to place safety bars on the rack for this exercise. Safety bars protect you in case you can't lift the weight up from the deep squat position. This may happen at the end of your reps when the legs are fatigued. The hooks should be placed at the lowest level of your squat. You'll need to do a few test squats with no weight to be sure the safety bars are placed appropriately.

Once your J-hooks and safety bars are in place, load weight plates and place collars on the bar. While it is common to load the barbell with 45-pound weight plates or more, there is no need to lift that much when you are first starting out. Start with 10-pound plates or even less if necessary.

Unrack the Bar

Proper grip and elbow placement are essential for safety purposes. Set aside at least 15–20 minutes to experiment with different positions and make changes as needed.

  1. Step up to the rack and rest the bar on the meaty part of your upper chest. The bar should be close to your neck, but not touching it.
  2. Now you'll grip the bar. Elbow placement and proper grip are key. Place your fingers under and around the bar, so that the elbows lift forward, up, and away from the body. The hands are placed shoulder-width apart. Try to get your elbows up to bar height throughout this move. If you can, use all four fingers under the bar, but you'll notice that this requires substantial wrist flexibility. If you can't get all four fingers under the bar, just place two fingers (forefinger and middle finger) under the bar.
  3. Puff up your pectoral (chest) muscles so that there is no pressure on your fingers. At no point do your fingers support the bar. With a good upright spinal position and a lifted chest, the chest supports the bar. The fingers simply keep the bar from rolling forward.
  4. Now unrack the bar and step back away from the rack. Place feet a bit wider than hip-distance apart with the toes pointed out slightly.

Front Squat

The front squat will feel different than a traditional squat. Do a few reps with no weight to get a feel for the difference.

  1. Begin to lower the body into a deep squat with the weight descending down between the knees. Keep the spine long and the back tall and upright. You'll notice that the back stays almost completely vertical as you descend, unlike a traditional squat where the torso leans slightly forward.
  2. Your hips stay under the bar (rather than floating behind the bar in a traditional squat) even as your glutes continue to lower down below knee level. You'll also notice that the knees extend further out in front and the ankles flex more than in a traditional squat.
  3. Keep the heels on the ground and your weight centered over the middle of your feet as you continue to descend. Try not to shift forward into the balls of the feet or back into the heels.
  4. At the lowest position your hamstrings will nearly touch the back of the calves. Keep elbows lifted at bar height (if possible) and chest upright to prevent the bar from rolling forward.
  5. Reverse the squat in a slow, controlled manner with the hips and knees extending simultaneously. Continue lifting until the body is back at the starting position.

Re-Rack the Bar

After completing between one to five more reps, you'll need to re-rack the bar.

  1. Step forward so that the J-pins are in line with the shoulders. Keep the elbows up.
  2. Take a deep breath and puff up the chest pushing the bar slightly up and into the J-pins
  3. Step back and away from the bar.

Common Mistakes

Elbows Drop Down

If your wrists are not flexible, you will have a hard time keeping the elbows lifted. But if the elbows drop down during the squat, you run the risk of the bar rolling forward and off of the chest which can be a safety hazard.

Many exercisers do wrist flexibility exercises before attempting the front barbell squat. You can also adjust your grip. You can use two fingers instead of four under the bar or use a bodybuilder grip (described below). Another option is to take the hands slightly wider on the bar which gives the elbows a little bit more room and releases some tension from the wrists.

Using the Wrong Grip

As mentioned, grip and elbow placement are key for proper form and safety. If you work out in a gym, it's easy to assume that the grip used by your fellow gym-mates is the right grip for you. But for this exercise, personalization is important.

Use the grip that works best for your body so that you can keep your elbows elevated and chest lifted. Ultimately, it's far more important to keep the barbell in place as you squat than it is to look like everyone else in the gym.

Knees Roll In

Foot and toe placement is also important to protect your knees. Everyone will have a slightly different position, but in general you want the feet slightly wider than a traditional squat, but not so wide that the knees roll in when you lower the body.

Check your stance without weight before you begin. Place your feet in what feels like a comfortable position. Lower your body into a squat and if the knees drop in naturally, they are too wide.

Shallow Squat

This exercise requires a very deep squat that may feel unfamiliar to some. At the lowest position, your butt is relatively close to the lower leg, but the heels remain in contact with the floor.

In a traditional squat, you only lower the hips to about knee level—requiring less hip and ankle flexibility. If you don't get the full range of motion, you won't gain the full benefits of this squat variation. Practice without weight to gain more flexibility.

Bouncing at the Bottom

This exercise is designed to be performed in a slow and controlled manner. You'll only do a few reps, so there is no need to rush through them. If you find yourself bouncing at the bottom of this move, you're going too fast and may not have enough weight.

Using a Smith Machine

Experts advise that you should never use a Smith machine to do this exercise. A Smith machine keeps the bar in a straight vertical line between two metal rails. It does not allow for the slight horizontal movement needed for the proper front barbell squat and can put the spine in the wrong position.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

There are two modifications that you can use if you don't have the proper wrist and triceps flexibility for the traditional hand placement on the front barbell squat.

Body Builder Grip

One grip variation is called a bodybuilder grip or the clean grip. To use this hand placement, step up to the bar to prepare for the move. Rest the bar on the meaty part of your upper chest and cross the elbows in front of you so that the right hand can grab the bar near the left shoulder and vice versa. The thumbs will be under the bar and the fingers on top of the bar. In this position, you should be able to keep the elbows raised and the chest upright and maintain control of the bar throughout the squat.

Straps

If the bodybuilder variation does not work, consider using straps. Straps are often used by advanced weight lifters to achieve a better grip of the barbell. The are placed around the bar so that you can still lift the bar and keep the elbows lifted, but the wrists face in towards the midline of the body. Less flexibility is needed.

Be advised, however, that straps may become harder to use as the weight increases. If you choose the strap variation, do wrist flexibility exercises as well, so that you can eventually do a traditional or bodybuilder grip.

Up for a Challenge?

The best way to make this exercise harder is to add reps or weight. However, it is not advised that you do more than 5–6 repetitions of this exercise. If you do too many, you run the risk of leg fatigue halfway through the exercise, placing you in a deep squat with heavy weight on your chest and nowhere to go. Safety bars are exceptionally important in this situation.

No Squat Rack?

A front barbell squat can be performed without a squat rack or a power rack. But It requires that you lift the bar first and place it on your upper chest and shoulders. This is essentially a combination of a power clean and a front barbell squat. It should only be attempted by advanced exercisers because there is no place for a safety bar without a rack. Try it with light weight before adding more resistance.

Follow these instructions for the power clean keeping the motion fluid and continuous. Then once you are in the upright position begin your front squat.

  1. Stand tall in front of a barbell with your feet hip-distance apart.
  2. Lower your body into a squat position and grip the bar so that your palms are facing your legs. Hands should be outside of your shins, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Lengthen the spine so that you don't feel hunched over. The back should stay long and strong throughout the entire exercise. Keep your focus forward.
  4. Engage through the core so that your back and midsection feel supported.
  5. Lift the bar as you stand up, keeping the weight close to your body. It should feel like you are pulling the bar up along your shins and above the knees.
  6. Continue lifting until the bar is at your thighs. The back should be straight and the shoulders should be over the hips. Ankles, knees, and hips are fully aligned. Keep the core engaged and the back strong.
  7. Bend the knees slightly and "scoop" the hips forward in a powerful movement in order to pull the bar higher toward the chest. This explosive movement may include lifting to the balls of your feet.
  8. Elevate your shoulders to create power and pull your body under the bar as you continue lifting. Your elbows will snap forward (under the bar) and shoulders will roll forward so that it feels like your shoulder blades are pulling down and back. You'll notice that your hands are now in a front squat barbell position with elbows forward and lifted. The bar rests on the front of the upper chest and shoulders. You are now ready to begin your front squat.

Safety and Precautions

There are several precautions you can take to make sure you stay safe when completing the front barbell squat.

First, learn how to bail out of this exercise before ever attempting it with weight. In the best-case scenario, you'll have a safety bar to catch the weight if your legs give out. But you should still learn how to use them by practicing. Then you'll be prepared if the worst happens.

If you don't have a safety bar, perform this exercise with spotters.

Next, choose your apparel wisely. The type of shirt you wear can impact whether or not you can keep the bar safely on your chest. Try to avoid wicking fibers, polyester materials, or other shiny or slippery textures. Cotton often works well. Some exercisers also wear two shirts when they first learn the barbell front squat because it offers a little bit of padding on the upper chest and shoulders.

Next, consider your shoe choice. Minimalist shoes and weight lifting shoes are usually not the best choices. Instead, consider a shoe with a little bit of support and lift in the heel. This helps to decrease the amount of ankle mobility that is needed at the bottom of the squat.

Certain exercisers should avoid this move or (at the very least) speak to their healthcare provider before attempting the front barbell squat.

Those with shoulder injuries may aggravate their condition by placing a heavy barbell in that area. Be sure to get guidance and work with a trainer if your shoulders are not healthy. Also, those with spine or disc injuries should be especially careful as this exercise may cause problems.

However, if you work with a physical therapist, they may advise this exercise over the traditional squat because it places less load on the spine than a traditional squat with the barbell on the back. Get personalized advice from your healthcare team.

Lastly, those with kyphosis may want to work with a qualified trainer or physical therapist before using this exercise. Kyphosis is a postural condition where there is an exaggerated curve in the upper back. Those with this condition will have a very hard time maintaining a tall upper body through this move. As a result, the barbell won't rest safely on the chest and can have a tendency to roll forward and off the body.

Give It a Try

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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