Bang for your buck
The front squat is one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ exercises that you can do in the gym.
Front squats give you the benefit of building strength and mass in the quadriceps, superior posture, and increased core stability. The front squat has broad application to many sports, including Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and powerlifting, as well as several activities outside of the gym.
However, for the many benefits you get by front squatting, the movement itself is not so simple.
The front squat can have a high barrier to entry given the mobility requirements, as well as the motor control and coordination to hold a barbell on the frontal plane of the body. But never fear, this article will take you through five top tips to help you improve your front squat technique.
Note: This article is not a ‘how to front squat’ tutorial and assumes you already know how to perform the movement. If you need a refresher on how to front squat, I have written a full front squat guide here.
Front Squat Tip #1: Use the Goblet Squat as a Precursor
The goblet squat is a version of the front squat but using a single dumbbell or kettlebell instead of a barbell.
Some coaches teach the goblet squat before progressing lifters to the front squat since it doesn’t require as much mobility through the wrists, elbows, and shoulders when compared with a front squat.
Additionally, if you use the goblet squat as a pre-cursor to the front squat, you can increase your balance and awareness of what it feels like to ‘front load’ the body with weight. In the front squat position, it is much harder to find your balance over the midline of the foot because it will feel like you need to ‘lean back’, which doesn’t come naturally for most people.
While the goblet squat can be used as a natural progression to the front squat, there are several reasons to incorporate a goblet squat into your training program even after you’ve mastered the front squat.
Here are some additional reasons to consider the goblet squat:
1. Use it as a way to experiment with new feet positions
To become a proficient front squatter, you need to fine-tune the smaller details of the movement. This could be things like adjusting your stance width wider or narrower, flaring your toes out more or less, or continuing to find the best way to balance over the mid-part of the foot.
2. Use it as a way to diagnose movement limitations
If you are experiencing any technical issues during the front squat, they will likely be present during the goblet squat as well. Therefore, your aim is to correct any movement limitations on the goblet squat before loading up the front squat with any significant weight.
3. Use it as a way to practice new cues
If you need to practice specific front squat cues (i.e. ‘chest up’, ‘knees out’, etc), the goblet squat is a good exercise to incorporate any such cues prior to increasing intensity on the front squat.
Front Squat Tip #2: Experiment with Your Grip Positioning
If there is any complaint about front squatting, it’s that your wrists can take a beating during the movement.
This is also the number one reason why people give up on front squatting altogether - simply because it’s too painful on the wrists and forearms.
Part of the solution to relieving the pain in your wrists is to improve your overall wrist mobility. This can include certain wrist flexion and extension drills such as the ones outlined in this video:
Wrist mobility is important, but improvements can take several weeks and months. In the short-term, there can be a much quicker solution to lessening the pain in your wrists during front squats.
This solution involves experimenting with your grip position.
When it comes to your front squat grip, you need to consider two factors:
Where is the barbell resting in your hand?
What you want to avoid is resting the barbell in the palm of your hand.
While placing the barbell in the palm of your hand makes sense for many movements in the gym, for the front squat you actually want to have the barbell between your first and second knuckles.
What this should feel like is having the barbell on your ‘fingertips’.
If you can’t keep your fingertips on the barbell, you may need to experiment with how narrow or wide your grip is on the barbell.
Where are your arms in relation to the barbell?
What you want to avoid is having your elbows dropping down.
In an optimal grip, the back of your arm (tricep) should be parallel to the ground. If the elbows start to drop from this position at any point throughout the range of motion, then your wrists will stretch even more, and you’ll increase the likelihood that it causes pain.
If you can’t keep your elbows up during the front squat, then you may need to experiment with either a cross-arm grip or a strap-assisted grip (shown below)
Front Squat Tip #3: Practice Proper Breathing & Bracing
Prior to initiating the front squat, you need to ensure your entire core is braced and ready for the descent.
If your core is not activated prior to squatting, you’ll find it much harder to drive out of the bottom position, and there is the chance your torso angle shifts forward throughout the movement, which puts you at risk of dropping the barbell on the floor.
An engaged core will allow you to transfer force through the ground and up into the barbell more efficiently, as well as maintain an optimal torso position.
The challenge is that while people understand the importance of a strong core, they don’t know how to activate it properly prior to squatting. Most people will try to activate their core while they are already squatting.
However, getting your core tight should happen before squatting.
Here are two steps to ensuring your core is maximally engaged prior to front squatting.
Step 1: Take a big belly breath
When you’re standing in your front squat stance (before squatting down), take a big inhalation drawing the air into your stomach.
Step 2: Pull your belly button in, push your core out, and squeeze hard
After taking your breath, make sure to hold it. Then, pull your belly button in and think about pushing your core out. This should be the same sensation you would get if you flexed your abs prior to someone hypothetically hitting you in the stomach. You want to flex hard to brace for impact.
The best front squatters in the world will repeat these steps at the top of each rep. They won’t rush into the next rep before re-engaging their core. This is especially the case if they’re performing heavy reps.
Front Squat Tip #4: Use a Raised Heel
The front squat requires superior ankle mobility to execute effectively.
If you’ve been front squatting and find your heels coming up off the ground, or alternatively, you find that it’s hard to keep an upright torso, it could be due to your ankles not having the necessary mobility.
If this is the case, you’ll most certainly want to improve your ankle mobility.
Some of my favourite ankle mobilization drills are:
Ankle mobility is important, but improvements can take several weeks and months. In the short-term, there can be a much quicker solution to improving the range of motion of your ankles.
This solution involves front squatting with a raised heel.
To front squat using a raised heel you have two options:
1. Stand on a 2.5 or 5kg plate
The cheapest and easiest way to raise your heel is to stand on a 2.5 or 5kg plate while squatting. You should notice an immediate improvement with your mechanics as now your ankle doesn’t have to travel through as much range of motion over the same squatting distance.
2. Use squat shoes
Of course, the long-term solution is purchasing a pair of squat shoes, which naturally have a raised wooden heel.
Front Squat Tip #5: Improve Your T-Spine Mobility
Prior to front squatting, you want to ensure you have a solid warm-up routine, which should include some thoracic spine mobility (t-spine).
If you lack t-spine mobility, you’ll find that your elbows start to drop down toward the floor, your back will begin to round, and your torso may be more forward-leaning.
Improving your t-spine mobility will help keep your elbows ‘up’ while squatting, maintain a neutral spine, and assume an upright position while squatting.
One of the easiest ways to improve your t-spine mobility is to use a foam roller:
- Place the foam roller on the floor and lie on it with your mid-back
- Breathe out and arch your back over the foam roller with your arms overhead
- Hold this position or 30-60-seconds before flexing your spine and curling forward into a mini-crunch
- Repeat this process 2-3 times.
Additionally, your t-spine mobility might be lacking because of tight lat muscles.
If you still find you’re lacking t-spine mobility after implementing the foam roller exercise, then try the following drill:
Final Thoughts on Front Squat Tips
Mastering the front squat starts with improving your mobility, using specific squat cues, and tweaking certain positions to optimize your leverages.
However, implementing front squats into your training program is well worth it as it can increase overall performance, posture, strength, and muscle growth.