“Ugh, I hate front squats,” a member of The Movement Minneapolis said to me during evening class recently, as she moved around the rack setting up her barbell and plates. “They just don’t feel good.”
What she meant, after further discussion, was not that front squats caused her pain but that they were uncomfortable. Or, to put a finer point on it, annoying. She didn’t like the way her wrists felt when her hands were gripping the bar, and staying upright without falling forward on her ascent out of the hole was a challenge.
Listen, barbell front squats are no joke! They are hard, and they’re an exercise I love to hate (but really do love). Front squats have a lot to offer in the way of strengthening your core, due to the barbell sitting on your shoulders: if you don’t brace your abs hard to stay upright you and the bar would fold over like a taco. They also have one major benefit over backs squats: you can often squat deeper, easier, with a front squat. I reached out to personal trainer and mobility extraordinaire Dean Somerset to ask exactly why and here’s what he had to say:
“Front squats help you maintain a more vertical torso position, which allows you to get into a lower squat before the end of your hip flexion. They also allow you to get into more ankle dorsiflexion with weight on the front of your shoulders.”
In both the front and back squat, your barbell has to stay centered over your mid-foot so you stay well-balanced and don’t tip over. And, as opposed to the increased forward-angled torso of a back squat, your upright front squat torso means you squat lower before you run out of room to move in your hips. Your ankles also flex more and your knees track farther forward than in a back squat, too. This increase in range of motion, and the potential to load heavier weight on the bar as you get stronger, makes barbell front squats a big money-maker for your quads, glutes, core, and upper back.
Because of that, I wanted our member to love-to-hate (but really love) front squats, too. I heard her out and then said, “Can we try a few things? If you still hate it when we’re done we’ll move on to something else.” (Because to be honest, if you really hate to do a certain exercise, there’s almost always a comparable and less hate-able exercise you can do instead.)
She was in and we were off. If you’re into it, here’s how you can get your hands and elbows in a position that works for you so you too can squat low, and feel good while doing it.
First, Get Your Hands Right
(Hot tip alert! If you feel major discomfort in your wrists with front squats, rack your bar and grab a foam roller to hit the deck and foam roll your lats for a few minutes. This can help break up any stickiness limiting your shoulder mobility for front squats. Come back to bar and progress though the grip series below to find the one that feels the best for you.)
There are several different hand positions you can use for barbell front squats:
The Clean Grip
In this position the bar rests on all of your finger tips. Some people feel discomfort in their wrists, however, and they also can’t keep their upper arms parallel to the floor (which is important if you want to avoid that unwelcome taco squat). If this is you, un-hook a couple fingers from under the bar, like this:
If you un-hook a finger or two and your hand/wrist/elbow position remains distractingly uncomfortable, move your hands inside your shoulders and hook your thumbs under the bar, like this:
Lastly, if you’re not there yet, no worries! Grab a pair of lifting straps and thread them around the bar, gripping the straps as close to the bar as your mobility will allow.
For all grip positions—excepting the strap variation—it’s important to remember not to actually grip the bar. Keep your hands open and let the bar rest on the pads of your fingertips. The bar won’t fall, trust me (you could even do a hands-free version with your arms straight in front of you like a robot and you’d be just fine), because keeping the bar in a good position is not about your hands, but your elbows. This brings us to our next two tips:
Next, Stay Nice and Tall In your Front Squat with These Two Cues
Shoot Your Laser Guns
High elbows and upper arms parallel to the floor in your front squats will help you keep your torso upright and avoid rounding in your upper back, making a good-looking front squat easier to execute. Start by taking a deep breath in and hold it, bracing your abs hard. Next shoot (pretend, of course) lasers directly out of your elbows straight ahead into the wall or mirror in front of as you descend as low as you feel stable and in control.
Pretend You’re A Marionette
Pretend you have strings coming out of your elbows and that a puppeteer is pulling your strings upward as you come up out of the hole. Think “pull up!” as you stand up tall and finish strong, exhaling about half-way up.
Because barbell front squats place a high demand on core stability, it follows that you would pull out core-specific exercise reinforcements. Add in three sets of Barbell or Ab Wheel Rollouts, As Many Reps As Pretty, at the tail end of your workout to help shore up your stabilizers and provide a solid foundation for your barbell to rest on for front squats.
If your core and shoulders aren’t quite there yet with rollouts, the RKC plank has you covered. Add in 3-5 sets of RKC Planks, performing one rep for As Long As Pretty per set, at the tail end of your workout.
I hope these help! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. Squat strong!
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