One of the most polarizing debates in the fitness world lately is the front squat vs. the back squat. Ten years ago, there was absolutely no disputing which variation reigned supreme. That’s because a decade ago, the entire industry was strongly influenced by the powerlifting culture. Thus, almost every trainer, coach, and author was passionately recommending the back squat without even considering the front squat as a viable alternative.
But the recent resurgence of Olympic lifting has given the front squat some newfound respect. In fact, there are now a slew of coaches who recommend the front squat over the once-hallowed back squat. This has generated a lot of friction in the fitness industry.
If you’ve been caught in the crossfire of this debate, you’re probably confused because both sides seem to make valid points. In this post, we will investigate both perspectives and rationally put an end to this debate once and for all. We will focus on both the training effect and the safety of each lift. Let’s tackle the “training effect” issue first.
Back Squat Advantages
- More effective at stimulating gains in muscular weight
- Allows trainee to handle heavier loads, thus pushing maximal strength gains
- Trainee can sit back on heels easier, creating less stress on the knees
- Engages the hamstrings and glutes more than the front squat
- Allows more hip drive
Front Squat Advantages
- Works the quadriceps more effectively
- Has better carry over to the Olympic lifts
- Requires a more upright posture, thus disallowing flexion in the lumbar spine and increasing core stabilization to a greater degree
- Doesn’t require a rack. Lifter can just “clean” the bar into position, allowing for more training flexibility
So is there a clear-cut winner? No! They both have advantages over the other. Based strictly on training effect, both types of squats should be utilized. The ratio that each variation should be programmed is simply dependent on a trainee’s personal goals.
Now let’s move on to the safety issue. Front squat proponents’ big claim is that the back squat puts more compressive and sheer stress on the lumbar spine. Actually, this is only half true. Their argument goes something like this:
If you go into lumbar flexion and/or excessive forward leaning with a back squat, you can significantly increase lumbar stress, but you can still perform the lift. However, if you even considered those positions with a front squat, you would realistically have to dump the weight on the ground. In other words, the nature of the front squat makes these faulty movement patterns impossible. Therefore, the front squat is safer than the back squat.
This may be true, but it does NOT prove that the back squat is more dangerous to the lumbar spine. It simply means that crappy form on a back squat is dangerous. If the back squat is performed with good technique and appropriate weights, this will not be an issue. So this particular “safety issue” argument isn’t really valid.
There is, however, a REAL safety issue with these two lifts, and it has to do with the upper body. Let me explain.
The back squat requires the bar to rest on the upper back/traps. This requires the shoulders to be externally rotated and abducted. A healthy shoulder doesn’t have an issue with this position. However, a shoulder with damage to the labrum and/or rotator cuff may experience discomfort in this position.
Alternatively, the front squat requires the bar to sit on the front of the deltoids. Again, a healthy shoulder doesn’t mind this position, but a shoulder with AC joint separation or impingement syndrome could get irritated. Also, the front squat puts the elbows in full flexion and the wrists in full extension. If there are pre-existing injuries in either of those joints, front squats can exacerbate these problems.
Thus, the “safety” of each lift is actually dependent upon your specific joint health status. A truly healthy body should be able to perform both squat variations safely.
After reviewing the facts, it’s safe to say that there is no clear-cut, universal winner to this debate. The real answer is, “It depends.”
Whichever variation is better for you, just make sure that you are training some kind of squat pattern. After all, the action of squatting is critical to having a healthy, strong, and functional body. How you decide to load it is really a secondary consideration.