One of the best exercises to simultaneously load several muscle groups in the body is a “squat”. There are different types of squat exercises but “Squat” is a term that is often used for back squat. Saying that the two most well-known types of squats are the back and the front squats.
Each exercise, although similar, uses different muscle groups and loads the joints differently. To be able to perform these exercises safely and effectively we need to understand the differences between the front and back squat.
The three main joints that are involved in all squat exercises are the hip, knee and ankle joints – making the squat a multi-joint movement. A multi-joint movement requires a group of muscles to work together simultaneously which makes squat a very efficient and functional exercise. The muscle groups that move and stabilise these joints are the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calf and back muscles. In addition, the abdominal muscles work alongside the back muscles to stabilise the body during the exercise.
The back squat, shown in the video below, involves the bar positioned across the shoulders on the upper back muscles. When squatting the focus is on keeping the spine in a neutral position, heels on the floor and the knees tracking over the line of the second toe.
The front squat, shown in the video below, is when the bar is positioned in front of the body on top of the shoulders very close to the collar bone. The focus is on keeping the elbows forward and the upper arms parallel to the floor.
The different positioning of the bar in both squats results in a different activation of the muscles and joints. Studies show that in back squats, the lower back and the glute muscles are activated more than in front squats. Conversely, in front squats the quadriceps muscles are activated more than in back squats.
As a result of the greater engagement of the glutes you can lift a heavier maximum weight in the back squat versus front squat (approx. 15 % more). The possibility to lift a heavier load with back squats should be considered as lifting heavier may put additional pressure on the lower back and the knee joints.
In the front squat the quadriceps and upper back muscles are more active when compared to using a similar weight with the back squat. Also the forward lean is less in front squat which can reduce load on the lower back.
Some people struggle with performing a front squat due to limited shoulder mobility (this can be improved by stretching e.g. the latissimus dorsi). Another difficulty may be limited wrist mobility to maintain full extension. If this is the case an alternative grip can be used in the front squat as in the photo below.
Overall, neither of the front or back squats is preferable, what is important is choosing these exercises according to the goal, injury history and the anatomy of the athlete.
For example, studies indicate that the front squat is a better choice for those with a history of knee injury.
Finally, it is important to keep the spine in a neutral position in both types squats to prevent any lower back injuries. If you have unsure about anything written in this article please do not hesitate to chat to one of the coaches at Warwick Workout. If in doubt: ask for help!
By Shabnam Delrooz. ‘Shab’ is currently doing her Curtin University practicum at Warwick Workout under Dr Laurence Houghton.