Why we love the Front Barbell Squat
Resurrecting yet another forgotten exercise…
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I had the good fortune to start off my iron career as an Olympic weightlifter. I also was fortunate to come up in a time when athletes were not overwhelmed with the curse of too many choices. Nowadays those seeking to increase power and strength, add lean muscle mass and improve human performance are presented with a seemingly unlimited number of attractive alternatives. How is the earnest trainee, someone ready, willing and able to put in the work and exert the effort supposed to find the strength and power golden needle buried deep within a voluminous haystack?
Back in the 1960s we had very little information but the information we had was uniformly barebones and rock solid. Our informational sources were limited but as it turned out my mentors gave timeless advice that still forms the backbone of what I believe and practice to this day. Those ancient strength strategies form the irreducible core of my philosophy. I would label the approach they passed along to me as “sophisticated simplicity.”
I took my earliest training cues from men like John McCallum, Tommy Suggs, Morris Weisbrott, Bill Starr, Bob Bednarski and John Grimek. Every month these men offered up hardcore training advice in well written articles that appeared in the muscle mags: Strength & Health, Muscle Builder and Iron Man. The progressive resistance approach of the day was to combine backbreaking work with crude tools powered by minimalistic training templates.
One profound gift they gave me that still resonates to this day was the progressive resistance training emphasis on the full barbell squat, both front and back. Out of all the progressive resistance exercises the barbell squat was singled out as the undisputed King. My mentors stated unequivocally that leg power was the key to human power and proper squatting was the key to leg power. As a teenage Olympic weightlifter, I routinely practiced back squats and ultra-deep front squats. The squats were done in both paused style and “rebound-and-go” style.
My coaches mocked weak-legged weightlifters that got pinned and were unable to come erect from the bottommost position of a squat clean. This inability to “recover,” i.e. come erect from a deep squat with the Olympic bar and weight plates racked on the shoulders (prior to jerking a barbell overhead) was overcome by routinely practicing deep front squats. The favored rep range was three to five reps with an occasional 8-rep set thrown in, or, more likely, a limit single.
Our group of training partners would, in turn, work up to one, all out “top set” in each exercise and then, as a group, move onto the next exercise. We did not do multiple top sets with a static poundage in any exercise: there was no 5x5 or 8x3 or 3x8 using the same poundage on all the top sets. Our training menu was so extensive we did not have time to use multiple top sets as we worked our way through “whole body routines.”
A typical training session would go as follows: clean and press, power snatch, clean and jerk, front or back squat, bench press, deadlift, bicep curls and tricep dips. This was a lot of work and this routine would take two solid hours four a group of 4-6 lifters (working round robin) to complete.
I was schooled and hardened in this high intensity, high volume approach. In each session, you performed your lifts in front of your training partners. On every set of every exercise you performed in front of men whose opinions you respected and valued. And their opinion was based solely on how you performed under a maximum poundage. Did you step up or wilt? It was easy to generate 102% effort under those circumstance.
We would train using this identical training template twice a week and on a third day we would gather to perform maximum single reps in the press, snatch, clean and jerk, back squat, front squat, power clean or deadlift. Most of us would “total out” in the three Olympic lifts.
Front squatting was a regular part of my early training and to this day I am a huge proponent: the main advantage of the ultra-deep front squat is it works the legs maximally over a maximally extended range-of-motion and, most importantly, the front squat requires you use proper squat technique. If the front squatter bends forward while ascending the payload, the barbell, will pop off the shoulders and fall to the floor. This technical anomaly forces the front squatter to maintain an upright torso. When the proper technique is combined with maximum depth optimal results occur.
You don’t just start off doing perfect barbell front squats on the very first set in the very first session. Learning to front squat properly is as complex as learning a baseball bat swing, tennis serve or a golf swing. In the optimal front squat, the trainee sits back as they descend. This keeps the knees over the ankles for maximum positioning and upward push power. The torso is kept as upright as humanly possible on both descent and ascent; the elbows are held high as the barbell wedges against the throat.
Most men pinch their stance when learning to front squat: ideally you need to widen your stance, allowing the gut to drop between the thighs, enabling a deeper squat. Beware! When you open your stance width and learn to drop down fully and completely you will likely be “leg weak.” You are working in a stance width that is new to you and where you have very little leg leverage. The good news is when working with a new stance width leg strength comes up rapidly.
Start front squatting with an empty 45-pound weightlifting bar. Do not add any poundage until you are able to perform three sets of eight perfect, cookie-cutter reps. Go all the way down and hold the bottommost position for a beat before arising. Knees are pinned out during the descent and ascent. Inhale between reps. Breathe “as if trying to suck all the air out of the room.” Once you master the 45-pound empty barbell, once you can perform perfect front squats for three sets of eight reps, add 10-pounds per session for ten consecutive sessions. In ten sessions you will be handling 145-pounds for 8 perfect, cookie-cutter front squat reps. The classic warm-up sequence is…
- first set, 50% of the max poundage used in that session
- second set, 75%
- third set (top set,) 100%
If a trainee was scheduled to squat 100-pounds for 8 reps (on the top set) the three-set poundage selection would be: 1st set, 50-pounds, 2nd set 75-pounds, 3rd set 100-pounds for eight reps. One helpful hint: on set one and again on set three, we suggest performing a full 8-rep set, on the 75% 2nd set, the middle set, DO NOT perform 8 reps as that would sap some strength better reserved for the 3rd and final set. Usually the experienced squatter will perform 3-4 reps with the interim second set. The idea is to “feel” the weight, yet not expend any power that could be better used on the final all-out top set.
No one does barbell front squats anymore: they are awkward, difficult, complex and maximally taxing – exactly the traits that make front squats so effective. A ten-week cycle of front squats will powerize your legs in ways you cannot imagine. Play with your stance width until you find that sweet spot that allows you to drop to ass-on-heels depth while maintaining perfect balance, vertical shins and a vertical torso.
Many trainees find the kettlebell goblet squat makes a great precursor to barbell front squatting. The tool is secondary to the technique and the tactics. If you want to take your leg strength to the next level, if you want to add a full inch to your leg size in 10-weeks, subject yourself to ten weeks of ultra-deep front squatting.
Do no other thigh exercise, concentrate 100% of your efforts at conquering this technically difficult, maximally beneficial, killer leg exercise. Let us not allow front squats to become extinct. This exercise is far too effective and productive to end up on the exercise trash heap, along with the bent press and the two-hand-anyhow. Give front squatting a test drive for ten weeks. You can thank me later.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.