Squats should form a staple part of any gym goers workout routine. With multiple squat variations, confusion exists regarding the correct one to perform and why. I’ve compared two of the most popular variations below, the front and back squat, while offering some programming considerations.
Quick Answer: Differences in barbell position slightly change the movement pattern and therefore degree of activation in different muscle groups. Back squats work your hamstrings and glutes more while front squats primarily work your quads and core muscles. Front and back squats are excellent compound exercises that can be used as part of a well-organized periodization program.
A squat is a compound strength exercise requiring multiple muscles and joints to work together in order to perform the movement correctly. Many of the upper and lower body muscles involved in a squat help with daily movement patterns which include climbing stairs, bending down, walking, and carrying heavy loads.
Performing squats regularly may help to improve performance, increase mobility, and improve physical markers including strength, endurance, and coordination. With this, multiple squat variations exist which differ slightly in their movement pattern, muscles worked, and training applications.
To clear up any confusion, I’ve compared the barbell front squat vs back squat below and explored the different training applications below. Let’s take a look at each movement in more detail.
The Back Squat
A back squat is a compound strength-based exercise that uses a traditional movement pattern as the bar rests on your trapezius and posterior deltoids.
Performing the movement correctly requires a coordinated effort from your upper and lower body muscles. Multiple squat variations exist which I’ll talk about more below.
The Front Squat
A front squat is also a compound strength-based exercise. It has the same traditional movement pattern as a back squat but the barbell sits on your upper chest and anterior deltoids. Like the back squat, multiple movement variations exist.
5 Key Differences Between the Back Squat and the Front Squat
Whilst both squats use the same movement pattern, they have some key differences which change the suitable training applications.
1. Muscles Worked
The different barbell and torso positions used in the back and front squats encourage slightly different muscle activation patterns throughout the movements.
Back squats target the posterior chain which consists of the muscles at the back of your body – the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Your quads and calves are also engaged as secondary movers with your core working to keep the correct body position.
Front squats target the anterior chain which comprises the muscles at the front of your body – mainly your quadriceps and core. Your hamstrings, glutes, and calves work as secondary movers throughout.
During a 2015 study by Yavuz et al, researchers compared the kinematic and EMG activity during back squat and front squat movements under maximum loads. Results showed increased quadriceps activation during the front squat and increased hamstring and glute activation when using the back squat.
2. Body Position
Due to the difference in barbell position, your initial setup and posture throughout the lifts will look quite different. When setting up for a front squat, the barbell should be set on a lower hook to assume the correct position. During the front squat movement, your torso also tends to be more naturally upright.’
Foot positioning can vary for both lifts and may depend on lifter preference, biomechanics, and workout goals. Whilst a front squat has one barbell position, a back squat can be performed as a low bar or high bar squat which changes the degree of lower back activation.
3. Barbell Position
During a front squat, the barbell sits high on your upper chest and shoulders towards the front of your body. Protracting your scapula allows you to create a gap between your shoulders and neck where the barbell can rest on your upper chest.
During a back squat, the barbell rests on your trapezius and posterior deltoids. The high bar back squat places the bar on your trapezius whilst the low back squat requires you to form more of a shelf using your rear delts for the bar to sit against.
4. Lower Back Load
Multiple factors influence the amount of lower back stress during a lift including biomechanics, previous injuries, workout routine, and type.
Front squats tend to place less stress on the lumbar spine area compared to back squats due to the more upright torso position. This creates a smaller movement arm when lifting therefore reducing the amount of stress.
Back squats use a barbell position that can naturally cause you to lean forward more, with any deviations from a neutral spine causing all the load to be transferred onto the lumbar spine region and increasing the risk of injury.
If you’re looking to build muscle, both are classed as compound movements meaning they are great overall muscle builders.
However, due to the different bar placement and movement patterns I’ve described above, the back and front squats work different muscles and therefore have different uses for hypertrophy.
If you’re looking for quad growth, front squats would definitely be your best bet. If you’re wanting to target your posterior chain, more specifically your hamstrings, then back squats are superior.
4 Key Similarities Between the Back Squat and Front Squat
With both movements essentially being squat variations, they share some similarities which I’ll explain more about below.
1. Muscle Growth
Both the back squat and front squat are classed as compound movements meaning they require several muscle groups to work together to perform the correct technique.
Working more muscle groups in one movement provides a bigger growth stimulus and therefore increased muscle growth. This makes both movements great when used as part of a muscle-building routine with a suitable rep and set scheme.
2. Strength Improvement
Both squat types are great for overall strength development when using proper form. Whilst you’re able to move far more weight in the back squat, both recruit a large number of muscle groups and improve strength when programmed as part of a well-organized, periodized gym routine.
3. Functional Movements
Even with regular training, mobility can become an issue due to not performing functional movement patterns often enough. It may also mean that you have an underlying injury or issue that hasn’t been dealt with.
Performing both squats regularly can improve mobility and overall functionality as your body adapts to the movement pattern. Daily tasks such as picking things up off the floor or carrying your children around on your shoulders become easier.
4. Knee Dominant Exercises
Squats primarily use knee-dominant movement patterns, with the knees flexing and extending to lower the barbell down and bring it back to the starting rack position.
Even with the different starting positions and movement patterns, the degree of knee movement stays fairly similar.
Which One Should You Do ?
Designing a training program isn’t always straightforward. It needs to be customized to your individual needs with considerations that include your goals, biomechanics, experience, and injury history.
Decide your main goal before working out which squat should become your main focus. It’s worth noting that both squats can be done together or individually for a number of the goals below but should be planned accordingly if you’re looking to work efficiently.
As I mentioned earlier, both squat variations can be used successfully for muscle growth. Differences in movement patterns change the degree of muscle activation meaning that the most suitable programming depends on what muscle you are wanting to grow.
If you want to grow your quad muscles and work on your core strength more, use front squats as the base of your lower body program. If you want to work your hamstrings and glutes more, go with back squats as your main movement.
For most people, focusing on both movements as part of a periodized training program tends to be the best approach.
One thing to note about programming both squat types is to manage volume appropriately. Programming the front squat alongside other quad-dominant exercises such as hack squats and Bulgarian split squats may be too much volume. The same applies to back squats alongside hamstring-dominant exercises such as Romanian deadlifts and lying leg curls.
When controlling for confounding variables, back squats and front squats can be equally effective at building strength in their corresponding prime movers. It all comes down to individual preference and which muscles you want to strengthen.
Saying this, lifters tend to be able to handle significantly more weight with the back squat. It’s also one of the big three lifts used in powerlifting competitions which makes it better suited if you’re looking to compete in powerlifting or just simply squat as much weight as possible.
Just because powerlifting uses the back squat as one of the main lifts doesn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t program front squats alongside them. Incorporating front squats into a powerlifting program can help to improve flexibility, mobility, and quadriceps strength – all things that can help to improve powerlifting performance.
However, make sure you use them at the right time. The final training stages should focus on perfecting the back squat technique and peaking at the correct moment prior to a meet.
CrossFit athletes and Olympic lifters tend to program front squats more frequently due to the direct applications they have in improving the clean and jerk and snatch movements.
This doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t program back squats if you fall into one of these categories. It just means that you should shift your main focus to front squats, with back squats forming part of your training routine.
When performed correctly and safely, both squats can be excellent ways to improve mobility and strength which leads to a lower chance of injury.
The more upright trunk position used in a front squat makes it better suited to people experiencing lower back pain or other related injuries around the lumbar spine region.
Coaching Points and Squat Variations
Now that I’ve explained the differences and similarities between both movements, it’s helpful to know how to perform each one correctly and possible variations that you can add to your training program.
I’ll also briefly go through some common mistakes and how to fix them.
How to do a Back Squat
- Make sure the barbell is racked safely at around shoulder height. You want to be able to unrack it whilst keeping a tight body position and without overextending your legs.
- Depending on the back squat variation, the barbell should sit on your trapezius and/or posterior delt muscles. For the low bar squat, retract your shoulder blades so that your elbows try to meet behind your upper back. This forms a shelf allowing you to ‘pin the barbell’ correctly.
- Make sure to have your feet shoulder width apart with them placed out at a slight angle.
- With the barbell pinned against your posterior delts, maintain a tight core and back whilst you unrack.
- Walk back a couple of steps and reestablish a solid foot foundation. Make sure your core is still braced and your back is neutral before starting the squat movement.
- Drop your hips down and sit your knees back slightly almost like you’re about to sit into a chair. Briefly pause at the correct depth.
- Drive back up maintaining the same body position throughout. Once you’ve returned to the starting position, take another breath and repeat.
Back Squat Variations
Different back squat variations allow you to change the difficulty level, work around injuries, or just simply switch up your routine. Here are two of the most popular squat variations:
Instead of a barbell, a hack squat involves an angled machine with a seat that slides up and down a rail. A hack squat works the lower body musculature which includes your glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, are core.
To perform a hack squat correctly, start by stepping into the machine. Assume a shoulder-width stance and place your back and shoulders against the pads. Release re-safety handles and brace your core. Lower down slowly, bending your knees whilst keeping your chest up and head forward. Pause at the bottom and push back to the starting position.
Smith Machine Squat
A smith machine uses a fixed bar path which lowers the squat difficulty by minimizing the amount of balance and stability usually needed in a squat rack. This makes it a great exercise if you’re struggling with normal back squats and want to get used to the movement more.
Smith machine squats should be performed using the same technique as a normal back squat. Instead of un-racking the barbell, twist the barbell out of the J hooks while lifting the weight slightly.
How to do a Front Squat
- Start by performing some suitable wrist and shoulder mobility exercises to make the barbell hand position more comfortable.
- Set the barbell up on a squat rack so that it’s about level with your armpits.
- Position the barbell between your neck and shoulders. Flip your elbows up and forward to create a ‘shelf’ for the barbell to sit on.
- If possible grasp the barbell with your full hands. If not, fingers are okay. This is the starting front squat form.
- Brace your core and unrack the bar, taking 2-3 steps back. Assume a shoulder-width squat stance with your feet flared out slightly.
- Lower down into a squat position by sitting your knees back and dropping your hips down.
- Once you reach parallel, pause briefly before driving back up. Make sure to keep an vertical torso position with your chest out and elbows up.
Front Squat Variations
Just like the back squat, multiple front squat variations exist that can be added with or instead of them depending on your program design.
A goblet squat works many of the same muscles as a front squat but the movements are quite different. Just like you would hold out a goblet in front of you, goblet squats involve holding out a dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands.
As you squat down with the weight in front of you, allow your elbows to go between your knees with the dumbbell following. Goblet squats target the quads and glutes just like front squats but take some of the tension off your lumbar spine region.
This makes them a great movement if you need to work around lower back pain or need an alternative exercise for mobility issues when holding the barbell in the front squat position.
Do you want to learn more about dumbbell goblet squat benefits read our article.
Similar to a goblet squat, a belt squat works your quad and glute muscles with less loading on your lumbar spine. Instead of the weight sitting on a barbell, belt squats use a platform with the weight stack underneath.
A pulley cable comes through the floor and attaches to a belt that sits around your waist. Simply pull the safety hook out and perform a normal squat to initiate the movement.
Belt squats are great at improving squat mobility and stability making them a good exercise for sport-specific training.
5 Common Squat Mistakes
When performing the back and front squat technique, make sure to consider these common mistakes to get the most from the movements.
1. Hitting Squat Depth – Whilst there may be a time and place for half reps, doing a deeper squat to parallel is important. Adding weight for progressive overload is great if you’re looking to progress but don’t let your form suffer as a result.
2. Incorrect Bracing Technique – Being able to maintain intra-abdominal pressure when squatting is a huge part of squatting big numbers.
Tension should be maintained throughout the squat movement, with a brief pause at the top. Before squatting, take a deep breath in and expand your stomach.
3. Knees Caving – A problem commonly observed in both squat types is your knees caving inwards. Typically this is caused by your inner thigh muscles (hip adductors) overpowering your weaker hip abductors (gluteus minimus and medius).
Incorporating hip abductor strengthening exercises into your weekly routine can help them to catch up. Placing a band around your knees when squatting may also help to stop it whilst you work on the underlying issue.
4. Heels Lifting – If your heels are coming off the ground when squatting, this is usually a result of tight ankles. Before squatting, spend some time warming up your ankle joints.
When squatting, make sure to sit back into the squat whilst keeping the weight on your heels.
5. Ego Lifting – Adding weight before perfecting your squat form is a quick way to get injured. If you notice a breakdown in your squat form, lower the weight back down and build the right strength first.
With this, sometimes you do need to grind a lift out which may involve deviating away from the normal body position slightly.
Conclusion – Which One Should You Do?
Just like most things in training and sport, the answer to which barbell squat to use is ‘it depends’. The different barbell placement slightly changes the movement pattern and therefore muscles worked and training applications.
Back squats primarily target the posterior chain and should form a large part of your leg training if you want to grow your hamstrings and glutes or compete in a powerlifting competition. Due to the forward barbell position, front squats target your body’s anterior muscles, more specifically your quads and core more than back squats. They also place less load on the lumbar spine region making them a great choice if you’re working around a lower back injury.
Do you want to know the best quad exercises read are article.
Is the back squat or front squat harder to perform?
Due to the front barbell position, front squats tend to be harder for most lifters. The mobility required for a back squat is far less compared to a front squat.
A front squat is harder in terms of mobility whilst a back squat allows you to load up more weight. Decide which is best according to your goals.
Which squat is better for you?
Both squat types are fantastic compound exercises that can help you to achieve a wide range of exercise goals when programmed correctly. In terms of which one is better, it depends on your specific goals, exercise history, and phase of training.
With this, there isn’t really a winner. Each squat type has situation specific applications that make it better than the other for that use.
When should I add weight?
Before adding weight, make sure you can perform the current weight with the correct form. Check the coaching points I’ve listed above and go up in small increments once you feel confident enough.
Sometimes its necessary to grind a rep out, with forced reps and training to failure both having training applications, This majority of your training however should be performed using the correct form.