The Front Squat vs. Back Squat Debate: Part 1

Posted on by Ben Bruno

Jim Reeves, wrote an excellent article comparing the front squat and the back squat for Strengthcoach.com in response to a forum thread that really took off and got a lot of great discussion. He really went above and beyond in the article, so much so that we decided to make it free to everyone so we can share it. It is quite long so it’ll be released in four installments over the coming weeks. Here is the first part.

Jim is a Certified Athletic Therapist and S&C coach at Mind to Muscle in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. S&C coach for the St. Michael’s Majors Hockey Club in the OHL and for many local professional and amateur athletes in the Toronto area.

The Front Squat/Back Squat Debate: Part 1
By: Jim Reeves

Leave it to Mike Boyle to get people’s juices flowing. It’s not enough for him to come out and confront the industry with the stance that strongman and power lifting techniques do not make for great sports performance training options. Or that running athletes have a real disconnect with their sport and injury patterns. Next, the guy blows the top off the sports training world saying that he’s taking all squats entirely out of his programming. Shocking statements at the time for some, but not without merit for Mike. His “Death of Squatting” stance certainly caused quite an uproar and has obviously progressed in the time since as Mike continues to search for the most effective way to train his athletes.

On Strengthcoach.com, a discussion developed about the safety of performing double leg loading exercises and Mike Boyle was very front and center in his belief that front squats are a safer option than back squats. As the discussion progressed, many points were raised to support the performance of both lifts by other contributors and the discussion really morphed into a debate over which lift was better to incorporate into a strength training program.

There were passionate contributions on both sides of the debate and it really struck me that the issue of choosing back versus front squats within a program was a confusing collection of thoughts coming from a number of different directions. The issue had many people with distinct perspectives bringing their opinion into the discussion and that this was part of the problem in and of itself.

So to clarify the issue as well as streamline the debate to a very narrow and purposeful focus I decided to put together a couple of articles which looked at double leg loading within a strength training program and give the reader my perspective on how I have come to the decision of safely loading the athletes in the facility where I work.

Before we look about the squat itself, I think it is important to define what correct technique parameters I evaluate the motion. These parameters, regardless of the bar loading position are:

• Maintenance of leg and foot alignment (prevent valgus position at knees, maintaining a neutral/non-internally rotated femur, no rotation of foot) throughout the motion.

• Posterior displacement of the hip joint relative to the feet throughout the lift.

• A 1:1 ratio of head to pelvis vertical displacement in the squat motion.

• Maintaining extension through the lumbar and thoracic regions of the spine and neutral cervical positioning. In other words, not allowing the back to flex or the neck to hyperextend at any point in the movement.

• The upper thighs (femur) must achieve a parallel to the floor orientation at the bottom position of the motion.

To give some perspective on my arguments, I, along with eleven other staff, train athletes in a facility that has a high volume of athletes attending every day (120+), all year long. The facility attracts athletes from many different team and individual sports and these clients range in age from 10 years old up to full grown adults. We have a number of long term clients who have been with our program for five or more years, but the majority of our athletes have been training with us for less than three years.

Most of the athletes we work with are seen at our facility in group situations. Very rarely do we get any time with less than 6 athletes in a group and most of our programs run back to back throughout the day or evening. Due to these time and staffing restrictions, we do not have the luxury of extended time periods working exclusively with one athlete on very technical components within a program on a consistent basis.

Also, athletes attend our facility usually for limited time periods throughout the year, such as an off-season program or an in-season team training situation. We have very few athletes who train with us year round due to the demands of their in-season sport schedules.

Of the thousands of athletes that our facility works with each year, no athlete attends our program to solely improve their performance in the weightroom. Not one. Every athlete is in attendance to improve their performance in the sport where they participate in on a competitive basis, in a sport where they earn a paycheque based on their performance or to improve their health and daily functioning.

This discussion point is one of the key areas where the squat debate really seemed to show the different points of view for everyone who contributed in the forum. Many times contributors to the discussion seemed to be relaying their own personal training experience or relayed that their scope of practice is with training clients who workout only. These contributors were referencing clients who do not play sports at a provincial, state, national or professional level.

For athletes who play at these levels, training is a means to an end, not the end goal itself. We do not have athletes in our facility whose primary sport is weight training, so the measuring stick for success is found on the field of play, not in the poundage lifted. Specific exercises for our athletes are just the pathway that each person will travel upon in their pursuit of their sport specific goals.

Married to the Exercise

Many times I have referred to various types of trainers that will work with athletes in our industry during our staff training sessions. One of the examples I give is the “Married to the Exercise” trainer that many people will no doubt have experience with. “Married to the Exercise” trainer is simply someone who is unconditionally devoted to the performance of a specific exercise.

Obviously in our debate on the subject of double leg loading, there were many opinions given where the arguments had their roots in a ‘Married to the Exercise” mindset. No matter what is said to the contrary, the person offering the comments has an unwavering devotion to an exercise and I definitely saw this tendency in comments about people’s preference for front versus back bar loading.

With this in mind, one pet peeve of I have as a strength coach is another coach who does not keep an open mind about the use of various exercises within their programming. I am a firm believer in the ability to match the exercise to an individual athlete’s ability or situation. Whatever the situation, I hate to hear when someone expresses their opinion and backs it up with “because that’s what you do when you are have a (insert genre here) background”, or “I do it that way because (insert guru’s name) does it”, or “because that’s what I’ve always done, and it works just fine”.

I hate when people blindly follow a philosophy, style of lifting or a specific coach, using exercises that are clearly contraindicated. It just bugs me. I really have a hard time respecting the opinion of anyone who doesn’t clearly think for themselves.

Classifying Exercises

I do agree with the intention of comments that were made in the discussion on-line that there is no “bad” exercise, but I think there has to be some clarification on that point. Not all exercises are bad, but are not all are created equal either. Some exercises are common but not the best available. Just because an exercise is used commonly, does not justify its application if the athlete cannot perform it with the best of technique.

This point I need to be clear on. Let perfect technique dictate the prescription of exercises. A complicated exercise performed badly is not justification for it continuing to be prescribed. Exercises need to be performed with strict technique guidelines and movement patterns in order to obtain the desired results.

I find exercises fall into a designation of first, second or third degree. Exercises categorized as first degree are those exercises that I will use all the time with most athletes. An example of a first degree exercise would be a push-up. For most athletes, the push-up is a safe and effective exercise to include in my programming.

Second degree exercises (not to demean or demote the exercise) are simply exercises which have a limited scope or use within my programming. An example of this type of exercise would be the “Y” of the shoulder and scapular stability exercises “T/Y/J/W’s”. It’s an exercise that too often is butchered by the athlete and needs too much teaching time to be an effective exercise choice in our program.

Remember, limitations such as staff availability or maintaining the regular flow of athletes through our programming can restrict the time and opportunity our staff has to work with an athlete on an exercise. I need to identify the goal of the exercise, scapular stability and find a better, faster and easier to teach variation to give our athletes. I’m not knocking the “Y” exercise, it just isn’t a good fit. So, you will not find it in my programming unless I see a specific need for the use of it with a targeted athlete.

Third degree exercises are exercises which I feel have a high risk of injury or promote adaptation in the athlete which is not consistent with my philosophy of training. A perfect example of this type of exercise is the Seated Medicine Ball Russian Twist. This classic exercise has the athlete seated on the floor, upper body leaning back, a flexed lumbar position, feet elevated off the ground and the athlete swinging the medicine ball from one side of their body to the other.

In performing the exercise, the Seated Medicine Ball Russian Twist promotes rotation of the athlete’s lumbar spine while under load in a flexed position. Knowing what I do about the anatomy and biomechanics of the back, loaded rotation in a flexed position places undo stress upon specific structures within the back that these structures are not designed to handle. Injury to these structures is very likely. This is an example of an exercise which is a non-starter for me. This exercise has no modifications that I can work with and so has no place in my training program.

The goal of any sports performance program should be to produce the greatest physical gains in an athlete with the least likelihood of injury during the program, as well as in the athlete’s return to their sport situation. I need to include as many first degree exercises as possible for my athletes and their training programs. I firmly believe I must always try to find ways to load the athlete with the least physical cost or toll on their body, yet still produce maximal gains and results in the programs they participate in.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series where we will look at a direct comparison of the front and back squats when it is performed by the same athlete.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for the next part soon.

  • Dai

    Well that’s just downright sneaky! I’m clearly going to have to join Strengthcoach.com now if that’s the kind of article on there. Very, very sneaky indeed. Great read though thanks.

    • Ben Bruno

      You should definitely join and check it out. There’s a 2 week trial if you’re not sure about too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Lopez/100002803796336 Steve Lopez

    Great stuff Ben, cant wait for the next parts.

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks Steve- The upcoming parts are the best in my opinion.

  • Cassandra Forsythe

    Thanks for sharing this. I let my SC membership go, and miss these types of articles. Will have to come back :)

    • Ben Bruno

      Cass! How’s it going? Hope all is well.

  • Jim

    Why is “A 1:1 ratio of head to pelvis vertical displacement in the squat motion.” a requirement?
    When I do back squats I sit back and have a fair amount of forward lean. I have actually measured the vertical displacement of the bar and at just below parallel it is about the same as the vertical displacement as ATG front squats for me. Obviously the pelvis displacement is not equal in these two movements. I know I have a short torso and long legs, but that shouldn’t matter that much?

    Jim

  • Rappkim

    Where the hell is Front vs. Back Squat?

  • http://www.anthonyjyeung.com/ Anthony J. Yeung

    “The front squat is better for building functional strength because the load is more naturally distributed throughout the body and exerts less compressive forces on the knees and spine… Front squats require the lifer to maintain a rigid upright body position emphasizing leg drive rather than back extension in the concentric phase.”
    - Strength and Conditioning Journal

    When I began training, I started off with back squats. And although I loved the exercise, every now and again it would affect my lower back. Now, since I don’t plan on competing in powerlifting, I emphasize fronts squats over back squats in my own training.

    Looking forward to the rest!

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