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Background

I've noticed that my front squats are seriously lagging behind. I know that most people have a weaker front squat than back squat, but mine is about 50-60% behind in terms of 5-8RM.

I suspect that among all the muscle groups that are worked by both variations, there is a subset of muscles that are holding me back.

Question

Which muscle groups are more central to the front squat than the back squat? What accessory exercises would assist me in developing a stronger front squat?

How I do them

In terms of stance, I have a semi-wide stance, feet pointing only slightly outward. Akin to riding a horse.

I cross my arms over the bar, rather than the backward wrist bend. I find I have no problem keeping the bar on my shoulders as I raise my elbows in front so that they are always parallel to the ground.

I place the bar just inside the front delt, so the bar is very close to my neck, and since the front delt is flexed by raising the elbow, the bar has additional support which prevents it from going anywhere.

  • There is more than one way to do a front squat (eg. bar placement, arms, hand grip). Can you describe your method? – rrirower May 23 '16 at 19:45
  • @rrirower - Good point! Edited into the question. – Alec May 24 '16 at 5:41
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One obvious difference in the muscles engaged from the two exercises is your quads. The back squat will use more hips and back (although it still uses the quads quite a bit), whereas because of the vertical position of your torso in a front squat, your quadriceps are engaged considerably more, as well as your core. To improve your front squat performance, there are a few things I suggest, keep in mind I'm not an expert but these have worked for me and I can front squat around 405 for sets of 3-5 depending on my energy for the day.

First, you must utilize exercise priority. Simply put, if you want your front squats to get better, just do them... do them FIRST in the workout and do them OFTEN.

Second, add in some quad specific work, i.e high bar squats, leg press, lunges (maybe even leg extension although there are better exercises).

Third, work on your ankle mobility. Look at getting some olympic lifting shoes, these have elevated heels and allow for much more comfort and therefore strength in the long term. If this isn't an option, get some 2.5lbs or 5lbs plates, and place them under your heels when you do front squats.

Fourth, work on core strength. This really goes without saying, as your core is fundamental to any compound movement that you do, but I'll mention it anyway.

And last, just practice, practice, repeat. Eat BIG on the days you're gonna front squat, do them first, and do them with intensity. Look up some youtube videos (the one by Mark Rippetoe is very good) on proper form, and get at it.

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Two major issues for me were core and flexibility in my Lats.

I would say that you should focus on more core work which have a variety of different exercises that can help.

First I would foam roll lats before attempting any front squats. Not sure what you're currently doing, but a huge reason why my front squat was lagging so much.

Usually as I got the weight heavier, the stress on my arms in the hole would be too much mixed with a weak core and as I went to get up out of the hole, my elbows would drop from traditional front rack position and the weight would be too much to support on my arms forcing me to bail.

Push your elbows up on the way up to make sure the weight stays front racked. Loosening up your lats will help with this.

Just keep working in that rep range and keep front squatting. Add core work in the form of hanging leg raises, knees to elbows, sit-ups, planks, etc.

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    I second this advice, and I'll also add working on ankle flexibility; specifically dorsiflexion. Front squats demand a more upright posture than back squats, and it all starts with ankle flexion. Also, to answer the question, front squats engage the anterior part of the leg more than back squats, namely your quadriceps. – Remo Williams May 23 '16 at 20:03
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Have you tried doing them with straps? I had similar issue, given my limited flexibility - I also was doing them with crossed arms in front. Then I found out that doing them with straps drastically improved my form - and the amount of weight I can lift. This way I can comfortably do front-squats with around 25% less weight compared to back squats. Here is a video that explains the technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVTkbggmxR0

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One of the main issues I've had with front squats in the past is that of thoracic mobility and mid / upper back strength, particularly when it comes to moving out of the hole (the bottom of the squat position).

If you have poor thoracic mobility, or a weak mid / upper back, then you tend to curl forward as you try and push out of the bottom of the squat. I always use a clean grip (backward wrist bend) to do front squats, and since I have less range of motion around the shoulder in a clean grip than I do with a crossed grip, the issue of thoracic mobility becomes more pronounced.

In simpler terms, it could be that you're actually leaning forward too much but compensating by lifting your elbows higher, which is a lot easier with a cross handed grip (as an experiment, sit up straight assume a clean grip on an imaginary bar, and push your elbows as high as you can, then assume a cross handed grip on an imaginary bar and see how high you can get your elbows. My guess is a fair bit higher).

As others have mentioned, mobility in the hips and ankles could also be something to look at.

As to how to fix it and improve your front squats, I'd say first off work on your thoracic, ankle and hip mobility daily. It doesn't have to take a long time, something like the counter stretch is easy enough to do a few times a day and has helped my a lot.

More weight related, train your front squat first in your workout, and you can try doing supramaximal holds in the front squat position, something like 3 sets of 30 seconds at 110% of your 1RM.

Another thing is to make sure you really are racking the bar close enough to your neck. I was told by an oly lifting coach that if you can breath comfortably, then you're not doing them right :)

There are a lot of good suggestions here, though they do assume a clean grip front squat.

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