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After years of dedicated powerlifting training and back squatting, I read an article by one of my strength training mentors, Brad Gillingham. In this article he mentioned that he front squatted a lot in the off-season, so I figured I’d give it a shot as well.
I was squirrelly under the bar, my thighs were burning, and my core was crushed for three days straight as a result.
The front squat is an amazing exercise, and one that’s well worth your time and attention to master. One of the biggest benefits you’ll receive from front squatting regularly is improving (or at least maintaining) your mobility through all the key joints: The ankles, , knees, hips, shoulders and elbows.
Too often people assume that if they want to be mobile, they have to do extensive mobility or stretching routines day-in and day-out forever. Instead, what it often requires is a block or period of time that’s dedicated to improving mobility, and then maintaining that mobility going forward. Front squatting can help you build the mobility, and by regularly including them in your programming they will keep you mobile for years to come.
This area is typically very weak and underdeveloped, so front squatting can be a great tool to bring this up to snuff.
Let’s be honest – quads get a bad rap, and if your goal is to get flat-out huge quads, I could think of worse ways to go about developing them. Last but not least, if you have any dreams or aspirations of Olympic lifting in the future, you need to learn how to front squat. Initiate the set-up by grabbing the bar with the hands at approximately shoulder width apart. Once the hands are set at the appropriate width, you’re going to walk in underneath the bar, spinning your hands and elbows underneath, pointing them at the wall in front of you.
The biggest issue I see here is that new trainees are unwilling to sell out and get the bar set where it needs to go. Too often, the elbows start low when setting up, and this only gets worse when actually performing the lift.
If you do this correctly, you should feel pressure throughout your entire mid-section, not just your lower back.
If you’re rock solid and stable, all you have to do is drive your feet into the floor and extend the knees. What I don’t want to have happen is where you make this all one motion – you drive your feet into the floor and them immediately start stepping back to set-up. Instead, take a breath, stand up with the bar, let it settle for a moment, and then start walking back into your set-up. Again, it’s easy to get sloppy on lighter warm-up sets, but getting in bad habits now we’ll cause a ton of issues when you get super strong and handle serious weights. You may have to make some minor adjustments with regards to your foot position or where your center of gravity is, but this set-up is not only super efficient, but it’s effective as well. Stance width will be discussed in depth below, but suffice it to say I like the feet to be between hip and shoulder width when front squatting. Stance width when front squatting is relatively narrow (when compared to most powerlifting-style back squats), and as such, you won’t need a ton of toe flare here.
The best way to describe this is to have just enough toe flare such that the foot, knees and hips are in a straight line when set-up. At the very least, make sure that your weight is directly over your midfoot, if not shifted back towards the heels slightly. Setting up for a big squat can be challenging, and a lot of little things can go wrong along the way. Before actually uncorking that monster front squat, take a quick moment to readjust and make sure everything is dialed in and perfect. On the other side of the spectrum, this isn’t a powerlifting-style back squat, either. The nice thing about front squatting is that it’s far harder to screw up than a back squat. You should squat as deep as you can comfortably, while still allowing for good mechanics through the ankles, knees, hips and spine.
This obviously isn’t a good thing, as blasting off a rounded spine in the bottom of a squat is a sure-fire way to long-term low back injuries.
Instead, I prefer to have someone squat slowly early-on, making sure to keep their spine in a neutral position throughout. When you cue someone to stick their chest up, what ends up happening is they slam their back into lumbar extension and allow the lower portion of their rib cage to flare up. This causes a whole host of issues – poor stability through the core and lumbar spine, a lengthening of the glutes and hamstrings, and crappy biomechanics all around.
What I’ve found to be far more effective is to cue someone to drive their elbows up as they squat deeper and deeper.
If you cue someone to drive their elbows up, they naturally get their chest and back into a better position.
Whenever I coach a lower body lift (squat, deadlift, lunge, etc.) I like to maintain a neutral position between the foot, knee and hip. In other words, the foot, knee and hip should always be tracking and in-line with each other. If you want to squat with heavy weights for an extended period of time, keep the foot, knee and hip in alignment as much as humanly possible. Holding your breath will make sure you maintain all of your intra-abdominal pressure, which should help you move the most weight possible. And there’s a reason you rarely, if ever, see someone performing them in your local commercial gym. When it comes to front squatting, there are a handful of different grips to choose from, and which one you choose really depends on your long-term needs and goals. On the other hand, some of the bigger guys who have been throwing around heavy iron for decades may never get into a great position using an Olympic-style grip.
Regardless, there is an option out there for you if you want to start implementing the front squat in your program. The traditional grip is my preferred choice whenever possible because it gives you the most control over the bar. You’ll do this again on the opposite side, placing your left arm on your right shoulder (again, covering the bar).
The benefit here is simple: You need far less mobility through the upper body to get into position, and almost anyone can front squat using this grip. Last but not least, we have a hybrid version that I first saw used by powerlifting legend Brad Gillingham. Brad is a monster of a man, and even if he wanted to get into a traditional grip he may be unable to due to the sheer amount of muscle mass he’s carrying. To use this variation, you’re going to take a set of lifting straps and cinch them tight around the bar.
Other than your hand placement, setting up with the strap-assisted variation is essentially the same as with the traditional grip.
Walk your throat into the bar and grab the loose end of the strap as close to the bar as comfort and mobility will allow. If that’s the case, here are some alternatives that all bring unique benefits to the table. The safety squat bar (SSB) front squat is a great alternative if you want the loading of a traditional front squat, without some of the discomfort of using a standard barbell. On the other hand with a SSB front squat you have a much wider contact surface, which greatly reduces pressure. Last but not least, if you want to minimize injury risk to the upper body but don’t like the strap-assisted set-up, this version fits the bill. Popularized by the infamous strength coach Dan John, a goblet squat is the ideal teaching tool to help someone front squat safely and effectively.
Even in a room with 15-20 trainees in it, you can have everyone goblet squatting with darn good technique in a matter of minutes. The last big benefit of the goblet squat is that it’s easy to camp out and get comfortable in the bottom position. If you think a goblet squat hits the anterior core hard, wait until you try this variation! Set-up and performance of the lift are identical to a goblet squat, with the exception being that in the bottom position you’re going to extend the elbows and push the weight out in front of your body. Not only will you need less weight with this variation, but you’ll often feel it more.
If you don’t have access to a barbell, or you simply love kettlebells and feel the need to use them incessantly in your programming, try the kettlebell front squat.
In this case, grab two kettlebells and set them against your chest with your elbows dug into your sides for support. From this position, you’re going to bring the hands together, extend the fingers of both hands and interlock them to set the upper body.

For instance if you pick up a kettlebell and rack it with your right hand resting on your right shoulder, the natural tendency is for your body to bend to the right. So far we’ve covered how to front squat, the different ways you can grip the bar, and a bunch of variations you can use to keep your training fresh. As a general rule, I love having clients (both online and offline) videotape their lifting sessions.
If you don’t do this, the bar will have a tendency to roll and drift out in front of you. But I’d argue that perhaps even more important than performance of the lift is the set-up. If your chest starts caved over or your elbows are down, this is easy – think about pushing the elbows up before you start your descent. Even more importantly, cue them to continue driving the elbows up as they squat lower and lower.
Doing this not only puts a ton of wear-and-tear on your lumbar spine and discs, but it will also limit your long-term performance as well. If you have a tendency to offset one foot from the other front to back, have someone qualified assess you to make sure you don’t have any big issues. If the assessment looks good, throw a piece of tape on the ground to make sure you’re setting up more squarely. Last but not least (and this may sound easy), but make sure your toes are turned out equally. As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal and notes either a lack of body awareness, or a major asymmetry that needs to be addressed. Someone with weak glutes and hamstrings, or someone that simply doesn’t know how to squat, will have a tendency to drop straight down and really drive the knees forward. If it’s really bad, they will go so far forward their heels will raise off the floor.
To fix this, make sure the body weight is centered over the midfoot (or back a smidge), and cue yourself to break with the hips. This makes a huge difference and helps ensure you maintain good body position throughout the lift.
Whenever I ask a question about front squatting, this question isn’t just the most popular question, but it blows every other question out of the water! Let’s break this down once and for all so you can see not only why this is such a common issue, but how to improve it as well.
Is it any wonder, then, that we might struggle to get into a good starting position when front squatting?
Most people are horribly stiff through the pecs, lats, triceps, etc., so static stretching should improve stretch tolerance. That should get you started, but again, we have to think big picture to really fix this problem. The key is to simultaneously remove (or back off) on the offending exercises, while cranking up the exercises and movements that will improve posture, mobility and alignment.
Often, people assume they’re going to get all four fingers underneath the bar during a front squat. Every session I would front squat with those two fingers on the bar, until eventually it got easier and easier.
It’s not necessarily rocket science, but a slow and steady approach is necessary to remedy the problem. If core and torso strength are the limiting factors in your front squat, you may have to take one step back to take two (or three) steps forward. I’ll answer this in more depth in the FAQ section below, but the key lies in building more anterior core, while simultaneously re-grooving technique with lighter weights.
If total-body mobility is an issue, it’s hard for me to give one static answer that helps everyone reading. If I’m evaluating a client either online or offline, my goal is to find the most pressing movement limitation and attack that first. What I find more often is that people don’t realize they should still sit back when front squatting! When people front squat, you either see them sit way back (like they would in a back squat) or just plop straight down. If you struggle to do this while front squatting, I will typically move you to a goblet squat instead. Often, all it takes is a few weeks of dedicated goblet squat training and your knee cave problem is fixed. Missing in the hole is a common problem, and there are a handful of reasons this may happen. Pause squats (where you hold for 1-5 seconds in the bottom position) force you to stay tight and in good posture throughout. Often, you’ll see someone in great position going down, but then as they bounce or come out of the hole, the elbows immediately drop and the hips shoot up in the air.
You can do this in a back squat, but it doesn’t work quite as well when front squatting!
Coaching and cuing are part of the solution, as well as continuing to work on mobility and flexibility.
Another possible issue is that you don’t have the anterior core strength to stay in a good position, so you try to make this look and feel like a back squat. If that describes you, use the exercises I outline here in my core training article, along with dropping the weight a bit on your front squats until technique cleans up. Now that we’ve covered all the possible reasons you might miss on a front squat, let’s talk about some of the gear and accessories you might employ to show everyone what a gym beast you are! You may not use as much gear as your would in a back squat (especially if you’re into the sport of powerlifting), but there are still some items out there that could be useful for you. A belt is good for providing not only external feedback to the core and lumbar spine, but it helps increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) as well. In this case, if you compete in a powerlifting federation that allows gear, it only makes sense to train with or use knee wraps in competition. On the other hand, Olympic lifters often spend more time on the front squat than the back squat. All kidding aside, compressive gear is great because it keeps the joints warm, especially if you’re waiting long periods of time between sets. When it comes to squatting, one of the biggest questions we get nowadays is what type of shoe is best. The bad news with Chucks is that there’s virtually no heel control or lateral stability. But the high top seemed to restrict dorsiflexion through my ankle, so I wasn’t a huge fan of these for front squats.
Last but not least I went through my minimalist shoe phase, but like Chuck Taylors, they don’t give me, personally, enough support. At the end of the day, there are no black and white answers when it comes to squatting footwear. In my original Squat post, I gave you a simplified routine that I used for years to build my squat. This program was responsible for me taking my squat from 407 pounds to 530 pounds in competition, so I can tell you from experience it works.
Anything above three reps and it feels like my forearms are going to explode, so triples are the foundation of this program. Run this program back-to-back for a couple of months and I guarantee you’ll see some serious progress on your front squats!
And while I do my best to answer them in all of the above sections, there are always a few that slip through the cracks. Here are the questions you might have, and if you can think of anything else, please ask them below and I’ll do my best to help! I get tons of questions on stance width differences between front and back squatting, so let’s address that briefly here.
And while I don’t coach a ton of competitive Olympic lifters, this makes sense to me philosophically. Most powerlifters are going to back squat with a bit wider stance and more toe flare so they can sit back into their hips. Find a position that puts you in a strong biomechanical position, but even more importantly, make sure you’re comfortable in your technique.
This is a great question, and other than mobility, one of the biggest limiting factors when front squatting. Ground-Based Core Training gives you a ton of options to help build a stronger anterior core. When you work on the weakness (anterior core), while simultaneously rebuilding a superior movement pattern (clean volume) you have a full-proof approach to fixing your underlying issues and setting the foundation for future strength gains. Whether it’s developing the mobility necessary to do it right, working tirelessly on technique or pushing yourself in the gym, the front squat can tax you like no other lift.

But on the flip side, you also have a lift that’s virtually guaranteed to help you maintain great mobility, builds critical areas of your body, and can fast track your progress in and out of the gym. You mentioned that if you have to flare your toes out much during front squats you should get your hip internal rotation checked. My question is, are there any specific hip stretches I could be doing or muscles I should be focusing on to help with my hip rotation?
Try this test: Stand on a towel (or slippery floor) where your feet can slide, and squat to the floor. Certainly, you can try to mobilize this through internal rotation and glue med exercise, band distractions, etc., but at some point, your hips are your hips, and you must work with, not against, your bony anatomy. In this article, I will take you step-by-step through the process, to help you learn everything possible about the front squat. If you want big quads, training with an angled tibia and upright torso (like you do when front squatting) is a sure-fire way to look like Quadzilla come next Halloween.
When you combine that with the mobility you can develop as well, you have a first-class exercise you should be using routinely in your programming. Failure to catch a big clean in the bottom position will force you to either power clean every rep of every set, or simply find a new sport to pursue.
Set the bar at the base of the throat, and then lift the neck slightly to set it as low on your throat as possible (without setting it on your windpipe). This may not be an issue when you’re handling baby weights, but as the intensity cranks up, a great starting position is more and more important. Drive the elbows up, making it a goal to have them pointing straight ahead towards the wall in front of you.
We’ll talk more about bracing below, but think of this as a 3-D hoop that’s locked in and stable. I prefer a 3-step approach, but it really amounts to one step and then two re-positions to seal the deal.
As mobility improves and the core becomes more stable, squat depth should naturally improve with time.
Squatting in this fashion puts a ton of stress on the lateral compartment of the knees, as well as the antero-medial portion of the hip.
If you can hone and dial-in your front squat technique, I guarantee you’ll fast track your progress on numerous other lifts as well.
If you are a coach or trainer and want to learn from people such as myself and Eric Cressey, definitely check out the ETM for continuing education content that’s updated every month. And while it should go without saying, if you have any hopes, dreams or aspirations of Olympic lifting in the future, you might as well start building the mobility to get into this position ASAP. Next, you’re going to lift your right arm in front of your body and place it on your left shoulder (covering the bar). I use it with some of baseball and basketball players, again, to to take stress off  the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Not only does this help improve hip mobility, but gets someone comfortable and confident in the bottom position of the squat. I like this exercise because it allows you to work on strength imbalances, asymmetries, and it overloads the core as well.
This way we can both review technique and performance from session-to-session to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. Not only does this make the lift infinitely more awkward, but it increases the likelihood of your upper body getting injured as well. If you set-up in a bad position from the start, it’s virtually impossible to recover later on.
I like to cue my clients to have their elbows pointing directly at the wall in front of them. If you do it correctly you should feel air not only go into your abdomen, but to the sides of your core and even into your back as well. If your feet are in a bad position from the start, everything else is going to feel awkward throughout. We actually have mats with lines on them at IFAST, so that helps ensure we’re putting our feet where we want them. If all goes well you’ll move both the hips and knees simultaneously, putting you in a great position to perform the lift.
I’m not going to blow the program up and take someone back to square one if I can fix an issue by making them aware of it. Instead, it can typically be fixed in a handful of sessions or about one month of focused training. The bottom line is if you allow the chest to cave and elbows to drop, this shifts your entire center of gravity forward and you put yourself in a really precarious position to finish the lift.
It does essentially the same thing, but you can try both to see which one works best for you. With regards to mobility, I like to progress from more general, big-picture exercises to drills that are ever more specific. When I got started I could barely get two fingers under the bar, but it was a starting point. Often if you address the issue closest to the core, the other issues that you see within your assessment clean up without much direct work. It will cover a lot of the big-bang issues that people have, and it may just be enough to get you moving and feeling the way you want. You don’t want to sit back too far, because that puts the torso (and thus the bar) in a horrible position.
It’s just that first bit of initiating the movement that seems to do the trick for myself and my athletes. Just as I cue someone to keep the elbows up in the bottom, you need to cue them to keep the elbows up when coming back up as well. This is actually a really good time to use single-leg exercises like lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats.
When done properly, you should not only have pressure on the front of the belt, but on the sides and back as well.
I think this comes down more to the difference between powerlifters and Olympic lifters than anything else, though. Furthermore, improving performance of the back squat is necessary since it’s the actual competitive lift they perform. Whenever I squat or deadlift, I love having something that’s not only somewhat tight and form-fitting, but that shows off my sexy physique, too. I think this is due in part to constantly learning and evolving, having different athletic goals, etc.
And I don’t know about you, but I hate doing front squats for anything more than a set of three. Get really strong and comfortable with your feet in one position and build everything from there. Comparatively when going to front squat, the feet are going to be a bit narrower relative to the back squat, and you’re going to have a bit less toe flare. If you learned one thing from the post, please take a moment to share it with your friends on Facebook, tweet it out to your Twitter followers, or just e-mail it to a friend.
I love writing these big pieces, as I feel as though they’re a great way to give a ton of value and show what RTS is all about.
I am one of these people and have had my hips examined and was told that I have terrible rotation. However, as wrist, elbow and shoulder mobility improves, you should be able to get more and more fingers on the bar. I could ill afford to have any injuries to the wrist, elbow or shoulder, so this option worked great for us. There was a bit of a heel built in, and there was definitely more heel control than the Chucks ever afforded me. Instead, work to develop the mobility and movement capacity while simultaneously building a better squatting pattern. The goal is to get strong in that one position so you can be as successful as possible in the gym and on the competitive platform. Although I’m a little offended that you bypassed the goblet squat video that I previously made for you haha.
If you lock the foot against the ground into a degree of internal rotation that the hip cannot flex and achieve, it will not end well for your knees and ankles.

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