How to Do Barbell Front Squats: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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Also Known As: Front squat, barbell squat

Targets: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and hips

Equipment Needed: Barbell

Level: Advanced

The barbell front squat is a compound exercise that may put less force on the knee and shoulder joints than a squat where the barbell is placed on the upper back. Advanced exercisers can benefit from adding the barbell front squat to their lower body strength routine.

Unlike the back squat, front squat form includes placing the bar in front of your head, along your shoulders. Similarly to a back squat, the front squat targets your quads, but to a greater degree than with back squats.

How to Do a Barbell Front Squat

gym - Men doing front squats
MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Performing a barbell front squat with the use of a rack requires four basic steps: preparing the rack, unracking the bar, doing a front squat, and re-racking the bar.

Prepare the Rack

Proper hook placement on your squat rack is important for this exercise. Place the pin of the J-hook at about clavicle height, so the hook is slightly lower than your shoulders. This ensures that you don't have to stand on your tippy-toes to unhook the bar. (If you're between holes, err on the side of the lower placement.)

Also place safety bars on the rack. Safety bars protect you in case you can't lift the weight from the deep squat position. This may happen at the end of your reps, when the legs are fatigued. The safety bars should be placed at the lowest level of your squat. Do a few test squats with no weight to be sure the bars are placed appropriately.

Once your J-hooks and safety bars are in place, load the 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 first starting out. Start with 10-pound plates, or less if necessary.

Unrack the Bar

Proper grip and elbow placement are essential for safety purposes. Set aside at least 15 to 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. Grip the bar so your hands are shoulder-width apart. Place your fingers under and around the bar so that the elbows lift forward, up, and away from the body. Placing all four fingers under the bar requires substantial wrist flexibility. If you can't get all four fingers under the bar, just place two fingers—the forefinger and middle finger—under the bar.
  3. Puff up your pectoral muscles (chest) so 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. Unrack the bar and step back, away from the rack. Place your feet a bit wider than hip distance apart with the toes pointed out slightly.

Front Squat

Keep the spine long and the back tall while in the upright position. The heels stay on the ground and your weight is centered over the middle of your feet. Try not to shift forward onto the balls of the feet or back into the heels.

  1. Lower the body into a deep squat. At the lowest position, your hamstrings will nearly touch the back of the calves. Keep your elbows lifted at bar height (if possible) and chest upright to prevent the bar from rolling forward.
  2. Reverse the squat in a slow, controlled manner with the hips and knees extending simultaneously.
  3. Continue lifting until the body is back at the starting position.

Front Squat vs. Traditional Squat

The front squat will feel different than a traditional squat in a few ways:

  • The back stays almost completely vertical as you descend, unlike a traditional squat where the torso leans slightly forward.
  • The hips stay under the bar rather than floating behind the bar, even as your glutes continue to lower down below knee level.
  • The knees extend further out in front and the ankles flex more.

Re-Rack the Bar

Once you're done with your barbell front squats, it's time to re-rack the bar.

  1. Step forward so that the J-hooks 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-hooks.
  3. Step back and away from the bar.

Benefits of the Barbell Front Squat

The front squat is a compound exercise with several benefits.

Targets Entire Lower Body

This exercise targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and hips. It also works the erector spinae—a group of muscles that extend almost the entire length of the spine—and, to a lesser extent, the rectus abdominus.

Activates Supporting Musculature

The overhead squat helps facilitate the activation of muscles supporting the shoulder complex, scapula and lower back. These muscles are also important for proper posture and for preventing back pain. Research shows that front squats are superior in this activation compared to planks and back extensions.

Helps Build Quad Strength

If your goal is to improve quad strength, the front barbell squat is more effective than the back barbell squat. By keeping the weight forward, you decrease the involvement of the hamstrings, requiring the quads to do more work.

Builds Strength and Athletic Performance

Squats, in general, build strength and can improve athletic performance in healthy, young adults. They have also been shown to provide benefits for older adults who are trying to preserve physical function and lung capacity.

Some experts advise that if the goal is improved performance, you may not want to do this exercise using a Smith machine. This machine keeps the barbell in a straight vertical line (between two metal rails), prohibiting you from gaining the benefits of stabilizing the body in all three planes of motion.

Other experts advise against using a Smith machine because it can put the body in the wrong position, resulting in poor form and increased injury risk.

Other Variations of a Barbell Front Squat

You can modify this exercise in a few different ways to better suit your fitness level, goals, and needs.

Bodybuilder Grip for Reduced Arm Flexibility

If you don't have enough flexibility in your wrists and triceps for traditional hand placement, you can use a bodybuilder grip instead. With this grip, the thumbs are under the bar and fingers on top. This position should help you keep the elbows raised and chest upright while maintaining control of the bar throughout the squat.

Barbell Front Squat With Straps

Straps are often used by advanced weight lifters to achieve a better grip of the barbell, and do the exercise with less flexibility. Straps go around the bar so you can still lift the bar and keep the elbows lifted, but the wrists face in, toward the midline of the body.

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 you can eventually use a traditional or bodybuilder grip.

Barbell Front Squat Without the Rack

A front barbell squat can be performed without a squat rack or 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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Common Mistakes

Avoid these common mistakes to keep your barbell front squats safe, yet effective.

Dropping Elbows Down

If your wrists aren't flexible, you may 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 the chest, which can be a safety hazard.

In addition to doing wrist flexibility exercises, you can also adjust your grip. Use two fingers instead of four under the bar, or use a bodybuilder grip. Another option is to take the hands slightly wider on the bar to give the elbows a bit more room and release some tension from the wrists.

Wearing wicking fibers, polyester materials, or other shiny or slippery workout apparel may also prevent you from keeping the bar safely on your chest. 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.

Using the Wrong Grip

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 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 use the same grip as everyone else in the gym.

Knees Rolling In

Foot and toe placement is 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 without being so wide that the knees roll in when you lower down.

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

Shallow Squat

In a traditional squat, you only lower the hips to about knee level—requiring less hip and ankle flexibility. The barbell front squat requires a much deeper squat that may feel unfamiliar to some. (At the lowest position, your butt is close to the lower leg.)

If you don't perform the full range of motion during this squat variation, you won't gain the entire range of benefits it offers. Practice the movement without weight at first to gain flexibility. Once you're ready, add weight to the bar.

Bouncing at the Bottom

This exercise should be performed in a slow and controlled manner. If you find yourself bouncing at the bottom of the move, you're either going too fast or aren't using enough weight. Try slowing down first. If this feels too easy, increase the weight that you're using.

If you're new to this exercise, practice with an unweighted barbell, a long bar, or a PVC pipe. This allows you to learn the sequence of the movements and proper form without the risk of injury.

Safety and Precautions

Certain exercisers should avoid this move or, at the very least, speak to their healthcare provider before attempting the front barbell squat. This includes those with shoulder injuries and individuals injuries to their spine or discs.

Compared to back squats, front squats may be advantageous for those with knee problems (and for long-term joint health). The front squat is also known to produce less compressive forces than the back squat, which might make it easier for those with back issues.

People with kyphosis—a postural condition with an exaggerated curve in the upper back— may want to work with a qualified trainer or physical therapist before using this exercise. Due to the spinal curvature, the barbell may not rest safely on the chest and have a tendency to roll forward and off the body.

It is not advised to exceed 5 to 6 repetitions of this exercise. If you do too many, you run the risk of leg failure halfway through, placing you in a deep squat with heavy weight on your chest and nowhere to go. Safety bars are exceptionally important in this situation.

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 personal trainer to learn the proper mechanics before adding significant weight to the exercise.

Try It Out

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

8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. American Council on Exercise. I've heard a lot about how smith machines are not good to use. Is this valid as far as planes of motion are concerned?

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By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.