The Front Squat/Back Debate: Part 4

Jun 22, 2022

In the last article we looked at the breakdown in the performance of the back squat and some of the reasons behind its typical technique errors. We also looked specifically at the low back and hip's role in the back squat and the requirements athletes must have for technical mastery of the lift. So, the question then has moved towards who can perform the back squat? In the discussion forum on, it seemed there was a defensive stance taken by some that the purpose for my explanations was to discredit the back squat exercise and its performance. This is just simply not the case. I don't think the back squat controversy is founded within the exercise itself. I think the controversy has roots in the lack of critical thought applied by some in the safe and effective prescription of it as an exercise.

Questions were raised about "other" lifts that similarly were sources of controversy in many performance training circles. In fact, the answer of who can perform the "other" controversial lifts that have become focal points of discussion is found in the same reasoning. These "other" lifts being the traditional deadlift and the Olympic lifts of power clean and power snatches.

Well, taken from a performance coach's perspective, all four of these exercises have a very unique role in their own respective lifting genres, but may not be the best training option within the athletic population that a coach is responsible for. Again, for clarification I am writing this article from the standpoint of performance training for athletes who compete in team or individual sports that are unrelated to weight training.

Within their individual lifting competitions, the back squat, deadlift, power clean and power snatch are very unique skills. I think many times coaches of these lifts who are "married to the exercise" will make the mistake of translating world class athletes results and measurements and transpose these performance expectations onto athletes they are working with. It becomes a square peg / round hole scenario where a coach will force feed these exercises onto the athletes they work with, yet not see the limiting factor for many of these exercises is outside the athlete's control.

Anatomy Predicting Success

At the world class level, there are similarities in physique and body dimensions which allow a person who is performing one of these lifts to have a distinct advantage over other competitors. One observation I have had of people who successfully perform the back squat, deadlift and Olympic lifts at the world class level (and perform them with excellent form) is the presence of a long torso and relatively short femur.

Dr. Stuart McGill at a talk in Toronto in November of 2010 referenced his study of competitive powerlifters and the genetic advantage some people in this sport had whose ancestry was from certain regions within Europe; that advantage being a rather shallow acetabular socket.

Dr. McGill's research and comments reinforced for me that body structure and the relative length of an athlete's torso and appendages will give them a distinct advantage in one sport over another. Hence the commonality in limb and torso proportions within competitive lifters at a world class level.

Conversely, an athlete's anatomy can also be a limiting factor in the performance of specific skills within a sport. How many 5' 5" tall 100m sprint specialists do you see at the Olympics, or 6' 4" gymnasts? Not many 6' 0" tall athletes with short humerus' make it to the NBA. The examples are endless, but the message is clear: structural anatomy can predict success or failure within sporting movements

In many cases, an athlete needs to have the structural (bony) anatomy to perform these lifts properly. Too many of the athletes I work with have structural anatomy which gives them a competitive advantage in their chosen sport, but makes many weight room training exercises very difficult.

A perfect example is a hockey player who is gifted with long humerus and radius/ulna bones within their arms. Great for stick handling and keeping a puck out of the way of an opposing players attempts to get the puck, but terrible anatomy in the catch position of a clean, since the long forearms drive the bar into the throat in a proper catch position. Long femurs or short torso are a back squatters' nightmare. But they are great if you want to be an athlete that sprints or skates fast.

Predictable Process of Squat Performance

Having seen so many athletes attempt the basic squat movement and struggle with its performance, I have developed an understanding of how people squat and the patterns that typically follow as loading in this movement is attempted. I call it the "Predictable Process of Squat Performance" and really it is just the observation of how athletes tend to respond to having load applied to their squat movement when they are relatively new to the experience of weight training.

I outline the predictable process of squat performance in the following list. It is a progression of exercise choice and loading ability, not an absolute quantification of one athlete fitting into a specific category, but more of an average distribution of athletes across a large group that enter into a training environment.

The progression is from body weight squatting, to a Goblet Squat, Trap Bar Deadlift, Front Squat and then Back Squat.

An example is the best way to explain how this progression works. It goes something like this:

Take 20 athletes that are 14 to 18 years of age. Sport doesn't matter. Training age is random with some of the group total beginners, others with some weight room experience, no-one really training longer than 2 years prior. I've listed how many athletes will acquire this squat skill right away versus the time it takes others to develop it as load is applied. Also, I have summarized the time it takes for athletes to become very proficient at the exercise, using loads that are near a repetition maximum value for them.

Body weight squat:

• Within two sessions, 16 of 20 athletes will have adequate technique to begin loading with the goblet squat.

• Beginning athletes will invariable feel every part of legs and low back under stress as their technique fails.

• Most athletes will achieve success in the first workout, they feel their legs working but are not overstressed with the exercise performance.

Goblet squat:

• Within five sessions of beginning loading, 18 of 20 athletes will be able to progress to TB Deadlift or Front Squat, they will have mastered the Goblet Squat.

• Beginning athletes will feel stress through the upper back but more physical work directed towards the legs, feeling loading in the posterior chain and quadriceps as fatigue sets in.

• Some athletes are still not challenged in the lower body by the loads yet, it is too easy for the lower body to perform the exercise, the weight of the DB is the limiting factor for the upper body.

TB Deadlift:

• Some athletes (x2-3) most likely have prior lifting experience and others are just good athletes (x3) and progress very quickly in developing the lift. Total: six athletes who will lift aggressively almost from the beginning.

• Within five sessions of beginning TB Deadlifting, loading will increase based on performance within the lift (beginning of week 3) for an additional eight to ten of the athletes.

• Total: 14 to 16 athletes who are aggressively loading within 3 weeks of beginning program.

• Prior to this, minimal loads and just grooving the pattern will be paramount for most (12 of 18 athletes), but half of these athletes develop the ability to load within the first three weeks.

• Two athletes still struggle with body weight and the goblet progression.

• Athletes are easily coached to produce a posterior weight shift with the hips, though upper body posture is a work in progress for some.

• Beginning athletes will feel equal stress through back musculature and legs.

• As loading progresses, reports of periodic back stress/workload are not uncommon, not painful, just muscular loading and adaptation. Athletes feel entire posterior chain contributing to the lift.

Front Squat:

• If we choose to go with front squat instead of TB Deadlift, two to three of the athletes will be able to begin loading aggressively within three sessions, mostly based on prior experience.

• Three more are just really good athletes and get it very quickly, so loading progresses for those athletes as well.

• Total: six athletes who are aggressively loading within 3 weeks of beginning the program.

• Eight of the athletes struggle with the technique but can begin loading adequately within ten sessions (approximately week 5 of program).

• Four athletes will struggle with the lift and use minimal loading to continue to groove the pattern, use other teaching exercises and supplemental exercises to complement their squat pattern development.

• Two athletes will continue to struggle to squat with any loading bilaterally even though they continue to participate in supplemental and teaching exercises well into the 6th to 8th week of the program.

• Beginning athletes will struggle with supporting the bar positioning, squat depth and foot alignment.

• Athletes will generally understand a posterior weight shift quickly and proprioceptively groove proper upper body and hip motion.

• Fatigue will set in early and technical errors will creep up fast within a set.

• For some really advanced lifters, supporting a heavily weighted bar becomes a problem as well. They are not strong enough in the shoulder girdle or upper back to support what their lower body can lift.

Back Squat:

• If we choose to go with Back Squat instead of TB Deadlift or Front Squat, one of the athletes will be able to begin loading aggressively within three sessions, based entirely on prior experience.

• Three players are really good athletes, but two of them struggle with back positioning at the bottom of the lift. They curl under and lose the lordotic curve. Loading is restrictive for these athletes.

• Total: Two athletes who are aggressively loading within 3 weeks of beginning the program.

• Four of the athletes struggle with the technique initially but can begin loading adequately within ten sessions (approximately week 5 of program).

• Twelve of the athletes will struggle with the lift, technical errors will continue as they work to try and correct the various Back Squat pattern deficiencies.

• Two athletes will continue to struggle to squat with any loading bilaterally even though they continue to participate in supplemental and teaching exercises well into the 6th to 8th week of the program.

• Beginning athletes will have trouble overcoming the tendency of an anterior weight shift and feel considerable loading through the anterior knee structures. Others will have considerable trouble with initiating a posterior weight shift.

• Most technical errors will center around an athlete's ability to sit into a thigh parallel position and maintain a lordotic curve in the lumbar spine. Invariably, whether due to bony contact between the femur and pelvis, a muscular dominance of the hamstrings or an inability of the back musculature to counteract the weight of the bar, the athletes will struggle to maintain proper back positioning throughout the entire range of motion.

Typical progression of athletes who will be aggressively loading in a program:

Goblet squat: 18 of 20 athletes within five sessions, most within the first three sessions.

TB Deadlift: 14 to 16 athletes within three weeks.

Front Squat: 14 athletes within five weeks.

Back Squat: 6 athletes within five weeks.

The predictability of the squat process is a basic summary of the ability of a strength coach to introduce loading to athletes who are relatively new to the process of weight training. The prediction is really the observation of fundamental errors which occur with an alarming rate of consistency, regardless of the age or sport of the athletes involved. So often I have seen the initial loading patterns of athletes and the resultant errors and difficulties these athletes will go through as the movement is practiced and loads are applied.

Coaching is teaching and being taught is a process for the athlete that takes time. The predictability of the process for me has allowed our staff to implement a progression of loading and complimentary exercises to help develop the pattern of squatting. For most athletes the squat needs to be a learned skill with an appropriate progression and distinct levels of achievement to allow the athlete to acquire the skills at an accelerated rate in a safe but effective manner.

Though not a hard and fast rule, the predictability seems to give rise to the observation that athletes cannot skip too many steps in the loading process. Take a beginner and try to force the TB Deadlift on them and you will be fighting a losing battle from the outset. Or put an athlete into the Back Squat who has not established a significant level of proprioception and postural control in a lower level squat motion and you can be sure there will be significant technical errors within this exercise that are very difficult to correct while back squatting with any load.

Just forcing an athlete into a higher level of demand in the squat exercise continuum will not guarantee that athlete will squat aggressively with load in a safe and effective manner within a reasonable amount of time. Certain performance markers, such as a proper initiation of hip motion, femoral alignment, lumbar posture and even something as simple as full range of motion within the hips or ankles can become major limitations to proper squat performance if the loading prevents these markers from being achieved.

Role of the Athlete

One thing that can easily be missed by some strength coaches is based on the choice of exercises in the programs they give to athletes, has the coach been able to garner significant buy-in from the athletes themselves. It is so easy to lose a group of athletes if they do not invest themselves into the exercise program. We have all seen it, a group of athletes who want to lift, to work out aggressively and really feel like they made strides in their development that day. Then you watch as the air goes out of the balloon as the athletes feel the exercises they are performing are well below the intensity they want to work at.

What type of buy-in can you get with the majority of a group of 17 year old athletes who are relegated to corrective exercise to clean up their back squat technique when only a select few of their team mates are able to lift aggressively? Or the level of engagement as athletes attempt back squats with body bars or broom sticks. Not much in my experience.

It is far better to have the majority of the group lifting aggressively in a lower level demand squat exercise where the athlete feels the proper squatting motion and can challenge their muscular system to adapt to the loading. Have those same athletes grab ahold of a reasonably weighted dumbbell and perform a more technically sound Goblet Squat. Or use a reasonably loaded bar and perform a Front Squat, reinforcing the mechanics of a more technically proficient squat motion due to the load placement.

It's not the load that is important here; it's the recognition of load and thus the perceived accomplishment by the athlete that is the valuable tool here for the strength coach. The athlete buys in, and that is a huge step for the strength coach in the program.

The strength coach needs repetitions and ongoing performance of the squat motion to develop the movement pattern and strength levels. The buy-in by the athletes gives the strength coach the time and repetitions to do just that. Using leverage and manipulating an athlete's center of gravity is the trick of the trade that the strength coach is going to use to develop within the athlete a proper squat motion.

The great thing about the predictability of the squat performance model is that it serves as a double leg loading progression. Athletes will have a much higher level of buy-in and a significantly more aggressive workout with exercises and loads that are matched to their ability at that point in time.

Adding to this previous point, a systematic allocation of loading allows the athlete to perform to the best of their ability, with the development of the athlete along this progression being accelerated. Athletes acquire and master a lower level squat motion, add load, then progress onto higher level exercises as technique and their strength levels improve.

To summarize, I feel the time it takes for a lifter to safely load an aggressive weight in the Back Squat is too long and runs a lot more risk than the Front Squat, TB Deadlift or any other squat regression. My job is to get athletes as strong as possible in a short training window each year. Therefore I need to choose exercises which allow me to load aggressively and allow the athlete to develop their strength levels as quickly as possible. For athletes who progress to advanced lifting programs, the Trapbar Deadlift and Front Squat both have significant value within the programming I use with athletes, something I cannot say about the Back Squat.