It Starts With the Front Squat Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, The Strength Agenda proudly brings you another great article from one of our guest writers, Patrick Kern. In today’s piece we go over the front squat, the importance the lift should have in your training program, how to perform the lift itself, and a whole other part that is devoted to fixing yourself so you can perform the lift better.

For those of you who don’t remember Patrick, he is a weightlifter that trains out of Santa Cruz Strength in Santa Cruz, CA and runs Kern Strength and Fitness. If you want some great general fitness or strength and conditioning tips, hit up his site and give it a look. Now with that being said, Pat asked me to read some of the first drafts of this article and the minute I took a look at it I knew it would be a great piece to share with you all.Before you say to yourself, how does he qualify to talk about this, first of, Patrick graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Exercise Science. If that’s not good enough take a look at the cover photo for this article. Yep, that’s Patrick burying a 220 kilogram (485 pounds) front squat with good form. That’s good enough for me and should be for you as well. If you like the article make sure to comment below so Patrick knows how his hard work payed off. With out further ado, here…we..go!

The Rationale for Front Squats

So you want to start learning Weightlifting (Olympic Lifts)? Cool. You are taking on an endeavor that forever will change your life. One of the most crucial training lift that you will do is the Front Squat. You can also reap the benefits of one of the more popular (and in many programs, mandatory) training lifts for Olympic Weightlifting, even if you aren’t competing in Olympic Weightlifting specifically. They can benefit people and athletes of all types, and for all activities. Bodybuilders and physique competitors will notice more quad development as their front squats get stronger. Additionally, front squats, when combined with other jump-assisting exercises such as back squats, cleans, push jerks, also help to train a stronger jump, as taught by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Baechle, Earle, page 386-387). What athlete wouldn’t want to jump higher or have stronger (or stronger looking) legs? Side note: you don’t need to be an athlete to justify front squats. When technique is solid and as the movement gets stronger, I’ve had clients who have reported reduced back pain since doing front squats (along with other training modalities such as improving flexibility and learning recovery methods). I’m positive that I am not the only one who this happens to. With proper coaching, it’s a very safe and effective movement for developing overall physical preparation and improving motor function in the human body.

What You Need to Perform a Proper Front Squat?

Before we even think about setting world records in the snatch and clean and jerk, or even just putting some good weights on those lifts, we must first establish positional strength; specifically, that of the spine. Can you keep your spine upright in a full depth squat? If you can’t, then this is the first thing that we need to address. The best way to find out if you can do this: The Front Squat. Either you can stay upright or the bar will fall out of your hands when you tip over like a tea-kettle. You must first establish positional strength in the front squat. There is a reason why in all of the USAW Level 1 courses, you learn about this first before doing anything else.

The best way that I can describe “positional strength” is being able to hold certain isometric positions while other eccentric and concentric movements are happening. In the case of the front squat, we are dealing with the strength to keep the spine upright (the isometric position) while bringing your knees and hips into full flexion and extension (eccentric to concentric movement). Another example that might be easier for most to understand is while doing a standing bicep curl (eccentric and concentric movement), keeping your hips still (isometric position) rather than power humping the bar to complete the bicep curl.

Neurologically speaking, it takes less to hold up a front squat then it does to hold up an overhead squat; this partially explains why the world records for cleans are always greater than the world records for snatches. It also takes more to achieve this than to hold up a heavy back squat. That’s also why you can probably back squat more than you can front squat (assuming you don’t have presiding chest or shoulder issues). And that’s also why the front squat is better than the back squat as a predictor of how much you are capable of cleaning, IF YOUR TECHNIQUE IS REFINED.

Keeping upright in your spine is also important because it further reinforces multiple, larger joint systems working towards holding the weight up as opposed to fewer and smaller joints. Keep an upright spine over your hips and ankles, now you have 3 joint systems stabilizing the weight. If you let your spine relax and not be over your hips, now it’s a death race between your thoracic and lumbar spinal discs, depending on which one is already closest to herniation. I don’t even want to know what that costs in the realm of healthcare bills.

Once you have learned how to stay upright in the front squat, now you have learned where to catch the clean (not necessarily how, more on that in another article) and how to ride the clean down into your full depth squat. Getting comfortable in this position is fundamental to the rest of the Olympic lifts. If you can’t trust yourself to stay strong while holding a bar across your chest and shoulders, you aren’t ready to build the snatch or overhead squat yet. Learn to walk before running.

Performing the Front Squat

There are 3 different techniques for achieving the front squat, the hands- underneath hold, which has more nicknames than I care to list, the hands-over/X- hold, or use straps to help assist the positioning. For those who simply want to incorporate the front squat into a general fitness routine, any of those ways works, though preferably you will use either the hands underneath or the straps version if the hands underneath is that difficult to achieve. The X-hold is ideally something that is only used for a short period of time. For those who want to use the front squat to enhance your Weightlifting, you must achieve the hands-underneath technique. Don’t cry about it hurting; you chose this sport.

1) Set up the bar in the rack. For those who have some legitimate flexibility issues (more on how to solve these later), you may want a little bit of weight on each side. You shouldn’t need more than 5 kilograms on each end of the bar in order to assist you with your wrist flexibility. Technique is the name of the game right now.

2) The bar should sit on your chest and shoulders, and not in your hands. You will have to push your chest up into the bar to help you support it with your muscles and not your clavicles. As you train this lift more often, along with the rest of a sound training program, you will develop the musculature needed to rest the bar there. When placing your hands underneath the bar, let the bar sit more in your fingers at first. If you can rest the bar in your palms while keeping it supported by your chest and shoulders, that is great upper body flexibility.

3) Once you have the bar in the front rack position, stand up with it and walk back away from the rack. Keep the elbows high with your chest upwards and your back tight.

4) Once in this position, set up your feet to near shoulder width apart, albeit slightly inside or slightly outside of shoulder width depending on your individual femur (thigh) length and hip structure build. Longer femurs will generally favor a wider stance, while shorter will generally favor a narrower stance.

5) Take a breath and squat down as far as your mobility allows. The target of this exercise is to be able to put your hamstrings to your calves while maintaining and upright torso. One way to imagine this is to keep your chest parallel to the wall while squatting. If your chest points down to the floor more than it does to the wall, we need to work on your mobility (see next section). If you can complete this movement properly, continue for the assigned reps based on your program for the day.

6) Once assigned repetitions are completed, walk the bar back into the rack.

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