If there’s one exercise that every able bodied person, regardless of age or training level, should have in their routine and be able to perform correctly, it’s the squat. When we mention squats, a lot of people think about a grunting 300lb powerlifter with a fully loaded barbell on their back. This could feel intimidating. The good news is that there are plenty of squat variations to choose from and the reality is, no one variation is better than the other. However, chances are there may be a variation or multiple variations that are best for YOU.
One of the reasons the squat is so important is because it’s a movement that is performed routinely in our daily life. Think of routine tasks like getting in and out of a car; sitting down and standing up from a chair; and crouching down to get eye level with a child. This movement trains most, if not all, of the muscles in the lower half of your body as well as the core. The squat is not only a great exercise but it is also a great assessment tool that most fitness professionals use to gauge a client’s weaknesses and to help expose areas that may lack proper mobility like the shoulders, hips and ankles.
Here are three popular variations and whether or not they should be included in your routine:
Great for: Beginners, mastering squat technique, strengthening your core, upper back and quads, lifting with a cranky low back.
This squat variation can be performed with either a kettlebell or a dumbbell and gets its name from how the weight is held, in a “goblet” position under the chin and against the chest. This variation is the one we most prescribe to beginner lifters once they demonstrate the ability to perform a proper body weight squat. It is slightly easier to perform technique wise compared to other variations and allows us to start with a very light weight, such as a 5lb dumbbell. However, that does not mean that advanced lifters can not get strong from performing this variation with a heavy dumbbell. The limiting factor becomes how much weight you can hold in this position or how heavy of a dumbbell/kettlebell you have access to.
With the weight being held on the front of your body, it is slightly easier to keep your torso upright as opposed to when you are loaded with weight on your back. This means less strain on the lower back and more activation in the core. As the dumbbell gets heavier, the upper back and core are forced to do a lot of work so it helps to build total body strength. This is a great prerequisite exercise to help hammer down squat technique before moving on to barbell squat variations.
Barbell Front Squat
Great for: Intermediate to advanced lifters, athletes, lifters with sub-optimal shoulder mobility, improving posture (thoracic spine extension), strengthening quads, core, upper back
The barbell front squat and goblet squat are similar in the sense that the weight is held on the front of the body as opposed to the back squat, where the weight is back loaded. However, barbell front squats become the more challenging of the two because the barbell can be loaded with much more weight and it becomes much more challenging on your shoulder/upper back mobility and strength to stabilize the bar. This makes it a great upgrade from the goblet squat.
The picture above shows how the torso angle on the front squat is way more upright as compared to the torso angle on the back squat. The more upright torso puts less stress on the low back and places a higher demand on core strength. We have seen this used by many athletic strength coaches because it is actually one part of the barbell clean movement. When performing a hang clean or clean, the athlete must “dive” under the bar and catch the weight in a front rack position which contributes to building explosive power.
For the non-athlete individual, it is a great exercise for helping to improve posture because in order to hold the bar up, you must practice upper back extension, which is the opposite of how you are sitting at your desk right now, rounding forward at your shoulders.
Great for: Intermediate and advanced lifters, lifters with good shoulder and upper back mobility, helps build glute and hip strength.
Back squats are great but they may not be the gold standard variation for you if you’re just getting back into the gym, brand new to strength training or have poor mobility/flexibility. If you spend most of the day in a seated position, it's probably not the best idea to jump right into back squatting.
Believe it or not, very few of our clients actually back squat. When we are loading weight onto our back we are putting certain mobility stressors on our body and we need to take certain regressions first in order to better master these positions. Also, the possibility of aggravating your lower back in not worth it when there are plenty of safer alternatives to training the legs.
Simply reaching back to hold a loaded bar on your back requires a certain level of shoulder mobility (the ability to externally rotate the shoulders). In addition, our upper back or thoracic spine (upper back) must be able to go into extension to get the bar in the proper position, this just means you don’t want to have a rounded “hunchback” posture. When we can’t extend at the upper back, compensation occurs at the low back. Back squats tend to put a little less emphasis on the core and slightly more emphasis on the lower back as compared to front squats. If you’re lower back is often cranky or your weakest link, back squats can lead to discomfort. You may want to hold off and opt for front squats until you can address your lower back and mobility issues.
The benefits of the back squat is that they are the superior squat variation for targeting the hips and glutes. This makes them great for athletic performance to build power and explosiveness for sprinting and jumping. You will always be able to load more weight on a back squat as opposed to a front squat, which may be important for overall strength goals, but none of this matters unless you’re doing it right. If you’re healthy and mobile, back squats are also one of the gold standard exercises to building a better, rounder butt.
While people spend plenty of time arguing over which squat variation is the best… the real answer is, as per usual, IT DEPENDS. No one exercise is right for everyone.
At the end of the day, remember the primary goal of any squat movement is to train the muscles in the legs. It is safe to say, all of the above can do that and do it effectively. If you have a preference for one that feels best for you, do that one and do it well. You can also add in multiple squat variations or change it up periodically to experience the unique benefits of each.