When it comes to building a Herculean lower body, squats should be a key part of any routine. In fact, if lifters aren’t including multiple squat variations in their workouts, they’re missing the opportunity to help build a lean physique. By engaging nearly every muscle in the body (not just the legs), they help to stimulate muscle-building hormones like growth hormone and IGF-1.
In terms of variations, there are numerous ways to load up a typical squat including a barbell on the back, in front, or overhead. Lifters can also utilize a dumbbell to make the move more challenging. The two most common variations are back squats and front squats, which both use a barbell to increase the difficulty of the exercise. However, despite their similarities, these two are actually quite different in the muscles they affect and the stresses they place on the body.
The back vs. front debate
Back squats place more of the load on the posterior half—namely the glutes and hamstrings. Since the weight is loaded almost directly down the spine, they also place compressive forces on the vertebra—meaning they force the core to do more work to protect the lower back. For those worried about back problems down the road, trainer and Medical and Rehabilitation Coordinator Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., argues that nearly any exercise can cause problems when done incorrectly. “The spine is great at buffering compressive forces, as long as you're not flexing or rotating it under tension. As soon as you start collapsing and rounding forward, your back takes a beating, no matter what kind of loading you use with it.” Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain an upright torso and avoid falling forward when driving up from the bottom of a squat.
In contrast to back squats, which place the barbell on the upper back, front squats challenge the body by placing the barbell in front, resting on the shoulders. By pulling the body forward and increasing knee flexion as a lifter descends into a squat, front squats place more emphasis on the quads rather than the glutes. They also challenge the lower back to remain upright and prevent the torso from falling forward. Somerset uses front squats to force lifters deeper into a squat, and also to focus on core control. “People tend to focus on their core more when they front squat than when they back squat, so the awareness makes the exercise a completely different challenge.”
The training balance
Squats should be a staple in any lifter’s routine looking to build muscle and strength or just enhance quality of life. To change up your routine, include both front and back squat variations. Since front squats are often more challenging for lifters to master, focus on using lighter weights to establish the form before loading up the bar. Use the following progression to amp up your lower-body routine and attack both the front and back squat in your workouts:
Perform the following lift (either back or front squat) at the beginning of your routine. Allow at least two days in-between sessions for your lower body to recover. During this time, incorporate upper-body lifting days as normal.
Day 1 Back squat; Sets: 3 Reps: 5
Day 2: Front squats; Sets: 3 Reps: 10-12
Day 1: Back squats; Sets 4 Reps: 5
Day 2: Front squats; Sets: 4 Reps: 10-12
Day 1: Back squat; Sets: 3 Reps: 3
Day 2: Front squats; Sets: 3 Reps: 8-10
Day 1: Back squats; Sets 4 Reps: 3
Day 2: Front squats; Sets: 4 Reps: 8-10