If you’re aiming to build serious total-body muscle and strength, then you know you need to have some form of the squat in your training regimen. And very often, that means having a barbell squat in your routine. Including a barbell squat in your training sets the stage for you to lift heavy when you do squats.
And because the load is positioned over your shoulders (either in front of your neck or on the meaty part of your upper back), the barbell squat subjects every muscle in your body to the stress and challenge that leads to gains.
You might classify a bodyweight squat as a “leg exercise,” but a barbell squat challenges legs, abs, mid-back muscles, and shoulders, all of which must stay rigid against the load on your shoulders.
Front Squats Vs. Back Squats: Which Are Better?
But how you position that load matters. There are two main barbell squat variations—the front squat and the back squat—and they are not created equally. Over the course of months and years of training, both squats very likely will have a place in your routine. But each variation has its own benefits and limitations, and understanding these can help you get the most out of both moves.
There are plenty of takes on both moves too, especially in this social media age of light-speed opinions played off as “fact”. But many of those quick takes are either oversimplifications of both moves—or flat-out myths. Truth be told, neither move is actually “superior”, and both exercises can benefit your training.
Your goals will determine how often you use one or the other. Here’s a breakdown:
Breaking Down Back Squats vs. Front Squats
The Back Squat
The barbell squat you’ll see most guys doing (or attempting to do, in some cases) in your local gym is the back squat. To do a back squat, the bar is loaded at the top of your traps (think of them as human barbell pads), near the base of your neck. Then you simply squat down, bending at the knees and hips, working to not let your knees track too far in front of your feet.
How to Back Squat
1. Position yourself properly under the racked barbell, lowering yourself under the bar, then pulling yourself into place, squeezing your lats and mid-back once the bar is resting on your shoulders. Grip the bar tightly, and stand to lift the weight off the rack.
2. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out. This will vary given your anatomy and mobility, so find the most comfortable position for you.
3. Take a deep breath, engage your core, and push your butt back. Keep your gaze straight ahead to keep your neck in a neutral position. Lower down into the squat, reaching a position where your thighs are parallel to the ground (or lower, depending on mobility).
4. Drive your feet though the floor to power back up, squeezing your glutes.
The Front Squat
The front squat is a move on the rise, most recently popularized by CrossFit-style training. To do a front squat, you load the bar on the meaty parts of your shoulders, in line with your collarbone. You either cross your hands over the bar in an “X” to keep it stable (as bodybuilders do), or you slide your hands under the bar, in line with your shoulders, as Olympic lifters and CrossFitters do. From there, you squat down, just as you do during back squats.
How to Front Squat
1. Position yourself under the racked barbell, using either the clean grip or bodybuilder grip. Either way, the bar should be placed on your shoulders, not your neck or collarbone.
2. Lift the bar off the rack and engage your core. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out. This will vary given your anatomy and mobility, so find the most comfortable position for you.
3. Take a deep breath and engage your core. This is even more important than during the back squat—if you lose your core, you'll have a hard time maintaining your posture with the loaded bar. Keep your gaze straight ahead to keep your neck in a neutral position.
4. Push your butt back and lower down into the squat, reaching a position where your thighs are parallel to the ground (or lower, depending on mobility).
5. Drive your feet though the floor to power back up, squeezing your glutes.
Yes, the moves seem similar. But the few-inch difference that comes with loading the bar behind can make a huge difference in the focus of the exercise.
Back Squat Benefits
●Great for Power and the Posterior Chain
If you’re training to build raw strength and power, this is the squat you want to do, for a variety of reasons. First off, you can place more weight on the bar when you back squat than you can with the front squat, and when you’re chasing pure power and strength, you need to move as much weight as you can.
The back squat also stresses the body in a different manner. When the bar is at the traps, the weight forces your torso to lean forward slightly. That places greater stress on the glutes and hamstrings, as well as your mid and upper back muscles for stability. If you don’t feel comfortable with this you may struggle to get full squat depth (which means getting your hips below your knees). If you can get comfortable with this, though, the back squat is your best option for building serious size and strength along your posterior chain.
●Back Squat to Go Heavy
If you’re looking to load up the bar with as much weight as possible, the back squat is your go-to move. You get to place the bar on a larger, more solid shelf of stability (those upper traps), and you’re also engaging the hamstrings and glutes to drive the lift. Those two posterior chain muscle groups are larger and more powerful than the quads and can help you power through large loads.
Because you can load it so much, you’re going to drive a more aggressive hormone response, and fuel plenty of metabolic response too. Translation: The back squat is your best option to drive total-body muscle growth (even though the front squat isn’t too far behind in this department, either).
Front Squat Benefits
●Front Squat for Aesthetics and the Quads of the Gods
To build the carefully crafted legs you see on bodybuilders, you want to take your leg muscles through a full range of motion at both the hip and knee joints as often as possible, stretching and strengthening them with every rep. And you’re going to be able to do that best with front squats.
The frontal load of the weight forces the body to sit upright—as does all fear of falling flat on your face. If your abs and lower back extensors aren’t firing, and you aren’t focused on sitting back aggressively, you could fall flat on your face. This means you have to stay focused on the move that much more closely and tightly.
Because you’re sitting back and more likely to keep your tibia (lower leg) vertical, you’re going to get a better stretch on the quadriceps, and you’ll have to use these more aggressively to stand back up. So if you want the teardrop muscles that bodybuilders have, you want to prioritize front squats in your routine.
●Front Squat for Core Strength
All that fear of falling on your face when front squatting has another benefit: It’ll give you ripped abs. The only way to guarantee that you’ll definitely not fall on your face is if you sit upright. That tall posture forces your core to step into its natural role of protecting your spine.
It’ll do so organically, too, so you won’t have to think about flexing your abs or anything like that. Back squats should test your core as well — and they can. But the positioning of the bar means that you don’t have to tax your core muscles as aggressively as you do during front squats.
Don’t Forget Goblet Squats
Both front squats and back squats deliver plenty of challenge, and, truth be told, they’re pretty advanced moves if you don’t have a ton of experience in the gym. That’s why a variant of the front squat, the goblet squat, has become popular in recent years. And to me, it’s the best way for you to start squatting, period.
To do goblet squat, follow these steps:
1. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest, close to your torso. Simply having the weight here, much like the barbell front squat, forces you to keep your torso upright.
2. Bend at the knees and hips, squatting down to parallel or below parallel depth, depending on your mobility.
3. Press off the ground and squeeze your glutes to stand back up, extending your hips.
This is a friendly move that’s still plenty challenging; it’s great for beginners, but plenty of training veterans do goblet squats, too. You’ll get a great, safe workout out of goblet squats, and they’ll help clean up your squatting form so you can attack your front and back squats more aggressively.
No matter the variation, make time to squat sometime in your routine—even if you’re simply doing bodyweight squats. Any squat will help you burn plenty of calories, and all squats give you a chance to activate your leg muscles, which are some of the largest muscles in your body. You want that in your routine somewhere.