Should I be doing front squats or back squats? Also, more technique and some programming from Erwin Seguia.
Here’s round two of four of my squat series. Today, I’m going to be talking about the difference between front squats and back squats, and briefly touching upon strength programming.
There are plenty of differences between the front and back squat – the bar either goes behind your shoulders and is racked on your traps, or sits in front on top of your clavicle and chokes you while you struggle to lift the weight. Article over, right?
To expand on techniques and mechanics we talked about in the last article, the biggest emphasis during your descent and ascent phase while squatting is going to be the movement of the bar. The farther you deviate from a straight vertical line while descending/ascending is going to cause more work for different muscles. This is why it’s important to maintain a neutral spine or at least make sure your core does not change positions during your lift.
Let’s discuss the front squat and back squat (divided into the high bar and low bar back squats)… and get nerdy. I’ll be coming back to this picture again during the article.
Now, depending on what you want to activate or depending on what your training goals are, you may want to do a certain kind of squat. Your ability to squat can also be limited by prior injuries (lower back) or even being able to put the bar in a certain position (shoulder mobility).
What is being calculated is the force that is generated that has to be fought by the hips of a theoretical 6 cm man based on the position of the bar during a front squat, high bar back squat, and low bar back squat (from left to right) of 100kg in the picture. Even though the proper form can be assumed during the performance of this tiny man’s squat, the force is increased on the hips and lower back during a low bar back squat due to the decreased angle of the back versus the floor. A difference of 15 degrees includes an increase of 3.6 Nm, which may not matter to a younger and athletic individual, but may make a difference to someone with a prior lower back injury.
Front Squat vs. Back Squat
A study done by Gullett et al. 1 including a professor of mine at NYU looked at EMG (or muscle activity) during the performance of a front squat and a back squat in several muscle groups which include the quadriceps, hamstrings, and erector spinae.
What they found was that the back squat had increased average compression forces and extensor moments at the knee during the back squat (take a look at that picture again).
This advice comes into play for people that have prior knee issues or injuries such as osteoarthritis or even meniscal injuries. It is acknowledged in the article and from my experience that most people generally front squat less compared to the back squat, and is also feasible that the decreased weight does not put as much compressive stress on the knees.
Dolan et al. 2 in 1994 looked at lower back muscle activation during stoop lifting and squat lifting and simply put, stooping to lift objects (think stiff leg deadlifts) increases the stress on your lumbar spine and results in increased lower back muscle activation. Duh. This only serves as an emphasis in maintaining a neutral and upright spine position while lifting any object. A picture in the article shows a creepy early nineties guy in his tidy whities lifting a 10 kg disc with poor squat form which can be a limitation in the study not just in creepiness but also in standard of lifting.
Anecdotally, one of the CrossFit coaches I work with has attested to the effectiveness of heavy front squatting and handstand walks which have contributed to increased back squat gains. I can only surmise as to why his gains have gone up. It is possible that due to increased core activation, his body is able to handle an increased weight – what sucks is that I haven’t had any luck perusing PubMed for any articles regarding EMG of core activation in front squats versus back squats. Something for another day, or one of you researchers out there, possibly!
It has been common knowledge (supposedly) that front squatting requires more lower back activation, which in Gullett et al. is surmised to be solely anecdotal and unproven in the literature. It may follow logical thinking that this may be true if you are not kinetically inclined (sorry, not sorry) but it requires good core strength to maintain an upright and neutral trunk while squatting, in my opinion.
So there are plenty of programs that are out there which include Wendler and Westside. These are modified periodization programs which differ in perspective and you can read those on your own – I’m not here to tell you which one is better for you.
However, I’m here to use some evidence to show you what could work for you – and that might be ‘Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise’ or APRE. 3 English, please? This is a modified periodization program which takes daily performance into account versus working off of a 1RM max. What is done every training session includes a pyramid of 4 sets, beginning with high reps and lower weight. The third set is based on a higher percentage of the 1RM but determines how much weight is used in the fourth set. Finally, the fourth set determines what weight is lifted in the next session.
They use a modification of Delorme’s PRE program versus traditional Linear Periodization for the 1RM bench press and squat. What they found showed that APRE was more effective in improving 1RM bench press and squat strength and this APRE protocol can be modified for
strength and power, strength and hypertrophy (for you meatballs out there), and hypertrophy (for you super meatballs out there… or those looking to bulk up.)
This is potentially a good protocol in terms of looking for a short term increase in muscle strength for athletes in their offseasons, and combined with proper nutrition and rest, may be something that can be considered for the lay person with the available equipment.
Prior lower back issues?
A study done in 2008 by Faber et al. 4 looked at low back loading by lifting two loads next to the body versus one in front of the body. That’s pretty much the article title, no lie. For those of you who are also good guessers, you may also have guessed that lifting two loads on both sides of the body will cause less stress on the lower back. They also found that lifting both those weights using proper squat mechanics and split leg squats decreased the stress by 14% and 24% respectively.
(The percentage that I am talking about is a measurement of the activation of the abdominal muscles which is expressed as a percentage of the net extensor moment during the ascent of the squat portion, just in case you were wondering.)
Why does proper squat mechanics decrease the stress on the lower back? Just like moving the weight in a straight line as close to the body as possible, you are not wasting energy in the transverse or horizontal plane. Boom. Physics.
Long story short: use dumb bells if you’re afraid of hurting your back, or trying to get back into the swing of things post injury.
Be smart, lift safe, keep reading!
- 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, 23(1): 284-292.
- Dolan P, Earley M, Adams A. Bending and compressive stresses acting on the lumbar spine during lifting activities. J. Biomechanics. 1994, 27(10): 1237-1248.
- Mann JM, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. The effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Progression on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2010, 24(7): 1718-1723.
- Faber GS, Kingma I, Bakker AJM, van Dieen JH. Low Back Loading in lifting two loads beside the body compared to lifting one load in front of the body. Journal of Biomechanics. 2009: 42; 35-41