Fitness Tips

Why You Should Add Weighted Front Squats to Your Regular Workout Routine

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images
If you're a fan of fitness, you're likely familiar with squats. Some version of the movement appears in many, if not most, workout regimens, and for good reason; squats work out the entirety of your legs, strengthen your core, tighten your booty, and improve your overall mobility. But there is one extra-spicy version you might not yet have met, and it'll fire up your core and quads like no other: the front squat.

What you might think of as a squat is technically an "air squat," or one that uses no weights. A regular squat, then, is actually one in which there is weight added across the back of the shoulders, typically by a barbell. This variation adds a slight twist to that setup in order to work your body a bit differently. "A front squat is a squat variation with the weight loaded on the front shoulders, typically using a barbell," says Matt Ortel, Group Fitness Instructor on Equinox+.

Front squats are "one of the best compound exercises one can do to light up the lower body and posterior chain," according to Mecayla Froerer, Director of Training at iFit. She cautions, however, that there is a certain bar (pun intended) which needs to be met before you attempt this particular exercise. "Because this is such a dynamic movement involving muscle groups and joints throughout the whole body, it’s important to have adequate mobility in your upper back, shoulders, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles in order to efficiently and safely perform this movement," she says.

Intrigued? Find just about any and everything you could possibly need to know about front squats below.

The 7 benefits of front squats

1. They build strength in the lower body

"Front squats work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, which will enable you to build strength and speed," says Missy Berkowitz, NASM Certified Personal Trainer and StrongBoard Balance Certified Trainer and Instructor.

2. They improve core strength

Front squats also do great things for your core, says Berkowitz. "Keeping your torso upright during a front squat takes a lot of core strength as it forces you to engage your abdominal muscles to maintain that position," she says. "We often think of core exercises as crunches, sit-ups, bicycles, etc., and we forget that squatting is a core exercise, too." 

3. They make other exercises easier

Berkowitz notes that front squats are actually a key component in other exercises like squat cleans and thrusters. "Building strength in front squats will translate to performing those other movements more efficiently and being able to progressively go heavier on them," she says. 

4. They can help to prevent injuries

As mentioned, because front squads are a quad-dominant exercise, they build leg strength that leads to power and muscle growth which can be protective. "A runner, for example, who also includes front squats in their strength training will develop those muscles to improve their mobility, speed, and endurance as well as help prevent injuries," says Berkowitz.

5. They may improve posture 

Because the center of resistance in this exercise is at the front of the body, says Froerer, back strength is a big factor in stabilizing the barbell. "During this period of stabilization, muscles of the back including the traps and erector spinae will be activated," she says. "Because these muscles are responsible for holding the spine and shoulders in place, the stronger they become, the higher the likelihood of improved posture."

6. They can enhance athletic performance

"The front squat is a dynamic movement that trains the body how to generate and transfer force throughout the kinetic chain," says Froerer. "As strength is developed and new muscle fibers are created, an individual may notice an increase in speed, power, and jumping ability."

7. They make everyday movement easier 

But squats are just good for your body, whether you're an athlete or not. "Front squats are a functional movement that make doing day to day things easier, like bending down, going up and down stairs," says Berkowitz. "They also require great mobility to maintain proper form, so they're a useful tool to identify weaknesses to work on." 

How to properly execute a front squat

Before attempting this exercise with a barbell, Ortel recommends practicing form first without the added resistance. "Once form is perfected, begin to add weight in small increments," he says.

Step 1. Prepare the squat rack 

"You want it to be about shoulder height," says Berkowitz. "You should never have to get on your tippy toes to reach the bar."

Step 2. Pull the barbell from the rack

Approach the bar from the side where the pins or j-cups are facing outwards—you do not want to take the barbell off the rack from behind it," says Berkowitz. "Place hands underneath the barbell about shoulder-width apart, and slowly take the barbell off the rack in a front rack position. Your elbows should be up and your biceps should be parallel to the ground."

Step 3. Make sure the bar is properly placed 

"The bar should also be in-line with the collar bones and resting lightly on the front of the deltoids," says Froerer.

Step 4. Step back

Berkowitz advises taking two to three steps backwards away from the rack.

Step 5. Position your feet 

Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, says Froerer, and your toes should be pointed just slightly outward.

6. Roll your shoulders down

And "brace your core as if you were about to be punched," says Froerer.

7. Squat

"Sit your hips back as if you were to sit in a chair and aim for a 90-degree angle," says Froerer. Or, if you're going for full squat depth, aim for going lower than parallel to the ground, says Berkowitz.

It's important to make sure your knees are directly in line with your shin bones and feet in this position, says Froerer. "Your knees should not protrude past your toes," she says. You should also maintain a tall torso and keep your eyes on the horizon, Froerer adds.

Ortel also points out that your elbow positioning is critical. "Keep your elbows up and forward to safely sit into your hips so the weight doesn’t pull you forward," he says. "Also be mindful of how far you hinge before bending the knees. With the weight being in front, too big a hinge or too much weight will pull you forward."

8. Stand up

Once you've squatted down, it's time to slowly stand back up. "Think of driving your midfoot into the ground while squeezing your glutes on the way up," says Froerer.

9. Repeat

You can do any number of reps that makes sense for you.

Common mistakes people make while doing front squats

They forget to breathe

"Be sure to take a deep inhale at the top of the squat, maintain that breath and tight core throughout the squat, and exhale once you stand back up," says Berkowitz. "Keeping a tight core, especially at the bottom position, can make or break the movement. If you exhale at the bottom or let your core relax, that will make standing up much harder and can cause injury to your back and spine by putting them into an unsafe position."

They don't align their knees properly

"Be sure to drive knees out and not let them cave in at all during the entire front squat," says Berkowitz. Think of pushing the knees outward to ensure they're aligned with the ankle, advises Froerer.

If you find that your knees are still caving in, Forerer recommends ditching the barbell in favor of banded squats (aka squats using resistance bands). "That will activate your glutes more and force you to drive those knees out," she says. "Building that strength and memory for how to perform a squat will be a great way to correct when doing a front squat."

Their elbows point downward instead of up

Letting elbows droop is a common blunder in this position, say both Berkowitz and Froerer. "Many people will find their forearms perpendicular to the ground, with elbows close to the body and pointed downward," says Froerer. "When the elbows are pointed downward, the palms naturally will be more upright as well which could lead to the bar slipping out and muscle compensations."

And when the elbows point downward, says Berkowitz, the entire torso tends to lean forward. This makes it difficult and unsafe to stand back up. "Often when we fail in a front squat, it is at the bottom because we are not driving the elbows up," she says.

They focus on the weight being lifted instead of proper form and depth

It can be tempting to lift as much as possible, but Berkowitz recommends staying light to focus on proper technique and getting full depth in your squat. "I always tell my clients that no matter what squat they are doing or how many they are doing, each rep should look exactly the same," she says. "When our muscles get fatigued or we get tired, there is a tendency to sacrifice form or depth to just get them done faster." However, she says, it's important to prioritize quality before speed. "Whether you are front squatting 50 pounds or 200 pounds, your form and depth should look the same," she says.

They let the upper spine round

When the body is front-loaded with weight, it's natural to lean forward, say both Froerer and Cottrel. "To avoid a hunched posture, think of rolling the shoulders down and back before dropping down into a squat stance," Froerer says. "Maintaining a proud 'Superman' chest and upright torso will minimize strain on the lumbar spine, and will better activate the posterior chain."

They fail to drive their heels into the ground

It's also common to want to lean forward onto the toes during a front squat, says Froerer. "Think about lowering down into a chair to help distribute weight throughout the foot," she says. "Power in the front squat is generated when driving the midfoot into the ground."

Front squat variations to try

Goblet Squat

For a goblet squat, you can use a dumbbell or a kettlebell, says Berkowitz. "You can cradle by the head of the dumbbell or the base of the kettlebell, with the handle pointing down," she says.

Step-by-step instructions from Froerer:

1. Closely hug both sides of the kettlebell handles (or dumbbell) so it’s up against the chest.
2. With feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward, engage your core and look straight ahead.
3. Inhale as you push your hips back, lower toward the ground, and maintain a tall, upright chest.
4. Pay close attention to the knees, pushing slightly outward if necessary, to make sure they stay in line with the toes.
5. At the bottom of the squat, think of having the elbows brush against the inner thighs/knees.
6. With an exhale, drive up through the midfoot while squeezing the glutes.
7. Repeat motion.

Dumbbell Squat

"Dumbbell Front Squats mimic a barbell front squat in that you want to maintain that same front rack position," says Berkowitz. "Focus on keeping elbows up as that helps keep the torso upright and avoid your chest coming down."

Step-by-step instructions from Froerer:

1. Hold dumbbells upright next to the shoulders with palms neutral, facing away, or facing toward you.
2. With feet hip-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward, engage your core and look straight ahead.
3. Inhale as you push your hips back, lower toward the ground, and maintain a tall, upright chest.
4. Pay close attention to the knees, pushing slightly outward if necessary, to make sure they stay in line with toes.
5. With an exhale, drive up through the midfoot while squeezing the glutes.
6. Repeat motion.

Split Squat

Step-by-step instructions from Froerer:

1. Fasten eyes on the horizon, brace the core, and maintain a tall, upright chest.
2. Step one foot back to create a 90-degree angle at each knee joint. Your front thigh should be parallel to the ground and your back thigh should be perpendicular.
3. Perform a quick lower body to check to make sure the front foot is pointing forward and your front knee is stacked in-line directly above the ankle.
4. Inhale and pulse up and down while maintaining a soft bend in the knee joint at the top.

Bulgarian Split Squat

"This is the same exercise as a split squat, but the back foot is elevated on a step or bench," says Froerer. "Alignment remains the same."

Step Ups

Step-by-step instructions from Froerer:

1. Hold dumbbells upright next to the shoulders with palms neutral, facing away, or facing toward you.
2. Fasten eyes on the horizon, brace the core, and maintain a tall upright chest.
3. Step up with the right foot while using the heel to drive upward to straighten the leg.
4. Bring the left leg up to meet the right leg.
5. Bend the right knee again and step back down with the left foot.
6. Alternate sides.

Cross-Arm Front Squat

According to Froerer, this is a great front squat alternative for those who have minimal wrist mobility. Here's how it's done:

1. Prepare the squat rack so the bar is just below shoulder height.
2. While keeping arms parallel to the floor, walk up under the bar until the barbell is touching the clavicles and resting on the front of the shoulders.
3. Cross your arms while grabbing the barbell for stabilization.
4. Push up into the bar using your hips to un-rack the barbell.
5. Step back from the squat rack with feet positioned shoulder-width apart and slightly pointed outward.
6. Keep elbows pointed upward at all times.
7. Roll your shoulders down and back and brace the core as if you were about to be punched.
8. Sit your hips back as if you were to sit in a chair and aim for a 90-degree angle.
9. Take a look at your knees and make sure they are directly in-line with the shin bones and feet. Your knees should not protrude past your toes.
10. Maintain a tall torso, proud chest, and keep your eyes on the horizon.
11. Once in a proper squat stance, think of driving your midfoot into the ground while squeezing your glutes on the way up.
12. Lower back down while following the above steps and repeat.

Dumbbell front squat

If you don’t have access to barbells or are uncomfortable using a barbell, Ortel notes that you can switch it out for dumbbells. "With a set of dumbbells, a front rack will give you a similar core challenge with the same emphasis on the quads," he says. "Hold a dumbbell in each hand, level with your ears, palms facing the middle. Just like a barbell squat, keep the elbows forward and up in line with your shoulders."

With a single dumbbell, he adds, a goblet squat should be your go-to.

How to build up to a front squat

Not everyone can or should jump (or, sit?) right into a front squat. "If someone is new to squatting or recovering from an injury, begin with basic air squats—no weight," says Berkowitz. "Focus on form and getting full range of motion to progressively get below parallel unless, of course, there are injuries—only go as low as appropriate."

Loading More Posts...