Front Squat vs Back Squat: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 6, 2023

Though the conventional squat is widely considered to be the king of lower body exercises, several of its variations are capable of achieving results that are far more difficult with the simple barbell back squat.

Among these variations is perhaps the most direct competitor to the back squat; the front squat, a variation where the lifter will instead place the barbell atop their chest shelf, as opposed to the back of their shoulders, hence the name.

The differences between the front squat and back squat primarily revolve around execution and maximal loading capacity, as they nonetheless will recruit the same muscle groups - just at different levels of intensity.

What is the Front Squat?

The front squat is a free weight compound exercise of considerable complexity and intensity, usually performed with a barbell and weight plates. A rack may be useful, but is not entirely necessary due to the relatively low weight of the exercise. 

barbell front squat

It is often included into leg training sessions as the primary compound movement of the workout, or as a secondary compound movement as an accessory to heavier exercises like the back squat and deadlift.

The front squat may feel unfamiliar to individuals more used to the conventional back squat, as it involves placing the bar along the front of the torso, along the clavicular ridge and chest shelf. 

This shifts the center of the body’s gravity, resulting in several changes relating to muscular recruitment intensity and potential injury risk.

How-to Perform a Front Squat

To perform a front squat repetition, the lifter will place the barbell atop their chest shelf and anterior deltoids, securing it therein with their fingertips. 

The elbows must remain pointing forward and held as rigidly as possible, as this is the main mechanism with which the barbell remains stable atop the chest shelf.

front squat

Then, contracting the core and maintaining a neutral spinal curvature, they will bend at the hips and knees until reaching a parallel or below-parallel depth. Keep in mind that upper back rounding is a major factor in the front squat, unlike in other squat variations.

From the bottom of the repetition, the lifter will then push through their heels and return to a fully standing position, thereby having completed the repetition.

Common Mistakes When Front Squatting

The most common mistakes seen during front squat performance are rounding of the upper back due to the chest collapsing, or the barbell becoming unstable (and even slipping from the torso) due to poor elbow positioning.

What is the Back Squat?

The barbell back squat is a heavy compound movement used for targeting the musculature of the legs and lower back, usually with a straight barbell and multiple weight plates. At the higher levels, it can become difficult to perform the back squat without the use of a barbell rack.

low bar squat muscles

The back squat is arguably one of the most common primary compound movements seen in lower body workout sessions, and is almost always used as the main source of leg muscle training stimulus therein. 

It is considered to be an extremely effective tool for building strength, muscle mass and explosiveness in lifters of all levels - hence the nickname of “king of exercises”. 

However, like many other intense compound movements, the back squat must be performed with appropriate workout programming and execution, as it can also come with a serious injury risk if done incorrectly.

How-to Back Squat

To perform the barbell back squat, the lifter will place the barbell atop their trapezius or the back of their shoulders, and step into the clear space of the rack.

barbell full squat

Then, pushing the chest out, contracting the core and ensuring the spine is maintained at a neutral curvature - they will then bend at the hips and knees simultaneously, pointing the feet and knees somewhat outwards as they do so.

Once reaching a parallel depth, the lifter will then push through their heels and extend the joints of the lower body, returning to their original standing position and thereby completing the repetition.

Common Mistakes When Back Squatting

Due to the technical complexity of the barbell back squat, there are quite a number of possible errors that can be made. 

Among the most common are a caving inwards of the knees - known as knee valgus - collapsing of the chest, failure to brace the core or failing to keep the heels in-contact with the ground throughout the movement pattern of the exercise.

squat incorrect knees

Keep in mind that not all mistakes are obvious or will immediately cause discomfort, and the surest way to perfect your squat execution (or any other exercise, for that matter) is to seek out the advice of a professional athletic coach with experience in resistance training.

Muscles Worked by the Front Squat and Back Squat

Both the front squat and the back squat will target the same muscle groups, only in varying levels of intensity. This is because of the similarity in biomechanical usage and general loading distribution among the muscles of the lower body.

Among these muscles are those of the quadriceps femoris, gluteus muscles, hamstrings, erector spinae and hip flexors - all of which are contracted in a dynamic fashion throughout the movements of either exercise.

Furthermore, both exercises will also contract the muscles of the core and calves in a static capacity, improving their stability and endurance without significant movement in either group of muscles.

Muscular Activation Differences

While the front squat and back squat both recruit much of the same muscle groups, the front squat will target the quadriceps femoris to a greater extent due to the shifted center of gravity, thereby reducing load distribution to the posterior chain.

Furthermore, the front squat will recruit the muscles of the core to a somewhat higher intensity due to the barbell being placed atop the chest shelf, subsequently also recruiting the upper back and deltoids in a stabilizing capacity as well.

Conversely, the back squat will train the muscles of the posterior chain to a greater degree than the front squat, resulting in greater gluteus, hamstring and lower back development.

Execution Differences of the Front Squat and Back Squat

Though the relative “core” of each movement is similar, the front squat and the back squat are executed with slightly different form cues and ranges of motion so as to maximize development accrued from either exercise.

The back squat is performed with the feet set shoulder-width apart and the toes pointing somewhat outwards, in-line with the femur. During the front squat, the legs are set somewhat closer together. With the feet pointing at a neutral angle forwards.

Furthermore, the chest and shoulder blades are meant to be held more tightly during the front squat, exaggerating the standard upper back curvature in comparison to the conventional back squat. This is simply due to the need for greater barbell security as it is held atop the torso, whereas the back squat can allow for a slightly more relaxed upper torso position.

In short, the front squat will involve a tighter upper body whereas the barbell back squat will be far more stable due to a wider base and greater usage of large stabilizer muscle groups.

Maximal Loading Capacity of the Front Squat and the Back Squat

Due to the positioning of the barbell in either squat variation, a marked difference in maximum possible weight lifted can be experienced - usually with the lifter’s maximal front squat repetition being far lighter than their maximal back squat repetition.

While the relative intensity and exertion experienced by the lifter can be quite similar, this lower amount of resistance may make the front squat less suitable for individuals who wish to greatly improve their lower body strength capacity, as well as for athletes that participate in strength sports.

That is, unless they wish to specifically load the quadriceps to a high level, as it is these muscles that will bear the majority of the weight during a front squat repetition. In these particular circumstances, the front squat is arguably better than the back squat for use as a progression tool.

Conversely, the lower amount of weight but similar level of intensity also means that the front squat will place far less stress on the lower back, resulting in a somewhat safer exercise for individuals with a history of injury therein.

Athletic and Powerlifting Carryover of the Front Squat and the Back Squat

Both the front squat and the back squat are considered to be excellent movements for building lower body strength and power. However, their applicability and specificity of training stimulus are not quite equal, especially in regards to the sport of powerlifting or similar strength-based athletic activities.

Due to the inherently lower amount of weight with which the front squat is executed with - as well as the fact that it does not train the posterior chain to the same degree as the back squat - it is less likely to result in significant applicability to exercises that require full lower-body explosiveness, such as strongman training or high jumps.

Furthermore, the back squat is quite literally one of the most vital exercises performed within a powerlifting meet - meaning that powerlifters wishing to improve their competitive edge should clearly perform the movement that is a major portion of their sport.

As such, the back squat is arguably the superior choice for powerlifters or similar kinds of athletic competitors, whereas the front squat may be a better choice for individuals that wish to focus on their quadriceps strength or appearance, such as may be the case for bodybuilders or athletes with a muscular imbalance.

Injury Risk and Form Difficulty of the Front Squat and the Back Squat

While it is vital that any sort of exerciser maintains as much mobility as possible throughout their body, the performance of the back squat is far less demanding in this particular regard than that of the front squat - especially in regards to the upper portion of the torso.

This, in turn, means that the back squat is somewhat less likely to cause injury when an error in form or execution is made. 

However, the form of the back squat is also less compatible, making it a less suitable exercise for individuals with a history of posterior chain or lower back injury, or those with incompatible bodily proportions.

As such, for individuals just starting out in the gym or those returning after a period of inactivity, the back squat may be a better choice due to its inherently lower requirement for joint mobility.

However, for individuals with a weak or previously injured lower back, the reduced pressure placed therein by the front squat will make it the naturally safer choice. So long as they possess the right level of flexibility in their arms and upper back, the front squat should prove to be a comfortable movement to execute.

Form Complexity

Due to the more complex form of the front squat, novice lifters may wish to first begin familiarizing themselves with the basic mechanics of a back squat prior to shifting over to the front squat. 

Doing so will ensure that they understand form cues that are essential to proper execution of all squat variations, such as descending at the hips and knees simultaneously, and correctly bracing the core with each repetition.

In addition, the front squat will require a somewhat greater sense of proprioception than the back squat, as the weight being placed atop the front of the torso can cause unfamiliar lifters to lose their balance as they perform the movement - something that is not as much of a factor with the back squat, with involves a far more neutral angle of resistance relative to the entire body.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is Front Squat Harder than Back Squat?

The term “harder” is rather broad, as the back squat can indeed be more difficult than the front squat by certain definitions within the context of resistance training.

The back squat will generally be performed with a greater amount of weight and a greater focus on the posterior side of the body, whereas the form and complexity of the front squat will require greater mobility and knowledge of basic squat form cues in order to perform safely.

In addition, the front squat’s barbell position will usually cause it to be performed with less weight than the back squat, and will place greater amounts of resistance on the quadriceps femoris muscle group - meaning that, yes, the front squat is indeed harder in terms of complexity and physiological requirements, but is otherwise easier on the soft tissues of the body and the posterior chain muscles.

Is There Any Benefit to Front Squats?

Yes - the front squat is considered to be just as beneficial an exercise as the back squat, though with a more narrow scope. 

It is best known for being an effective alternative to other squat variations in situations that require less strain on the lower back, as well as the fact that it excels in its role as a quadriceps-dominant compound movement.

Are Front Squats Better for Your Back?

Yes - though both the back and front squat are quite safe when performed correctly, the front squat is of particular note for individuals seeking a squat variation that places less load on the thoracic and lumbar portions of the spinal column.

In terms of upper back loading however, the front squat will require the lifter to maintain a far more rigid upper torso than the back squat, making a caveat in its otherwise excellent function as a safer back squat alternative.

In Conclusion

So - in the end, which squat variation should you pick?

The answer lies in your training goals, as the target audience of the front squat is somewhat different than the sort of lifters that may see benefit from the back squat.

While both exercises are nonetheless highly effective lower body training tools, the front squat will be better for more advanced lifters that wish to alleviate stress on the back or otherwise increase the specificity of their workout, whereas the back squat is better as a strength and power builder, especially for powerlifters and strongmen.

In certain cases, it may even be better to choose both exercises, often with the front squat as a secondary compound movement meant to support the back squat. Test both exercises out, and see which one works best for you.

References

1. Gullett JC, Tillman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):284-92. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb. PMID: 19002072.

2. Bautista D, Durke D, Cotter JA, Escobar KA, Schick EE. A Comparison of Muscle Activation Among the Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Back Extension and Plank. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 May 1;13(1):714-722. PMID: 32509107; PMCID: PMC7241624.

3. Coratella G, Tornatore G, Caccavale F, Longo S, Esposito F, Cè E. The Activation of Gluteal, Thigh, and Lower Back Muscles in Different Squat Variations Performed by Competitive Bodybuilders: Implications for Resistance Training. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jan 18;18(2):772. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18020772. PMID: 33477561; PMCID: PMC7831128.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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