YOUR LEGS DAY The mantra could be “squat until you drop,” since the compound exercise is one of the main lower body builders in your training arsenal. But when you’re forced to decide on just one variation of the exercise to perform, specifically, barbell back squats versus front squats – what should you choose to keep in your workouts?
The back squat is where massive PRs and lower body size and strength are created, making this move the traditional gold standard of leg day. On the other hand, the front squat offers powerful quad and core development potential that you can’t match with the barbell on your back. But which is the best?
In the real world, there’s no real reason (other than a doctor’s note) to only do one of these variations. You can’t go wrong with either selection, especially if you want a balanced workout plan. However, that doesn’t stop guys from choosing sides, especially when it comes to figuring out which one is best for specific purposes. It may be justified to choose one over the other, depending on men’s health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, CSCS, and Kurt Ellis, NSCA, of Beyond Numbers Performance. Our duo of experts took up the opposing points of view to settle this debate in the weight room.
The case for back squats
Back squats build athleticism
To move a heavy barbell on your back, it is not enough to lift as much weight as possible; back squats allow you to work heavy loads while building leg strength and size. Exercise movement is also key to developing lower body explosiveness, which is essential for top-level performance on the court, on the court, or just about any activity you can come up with.
“Coming from my athletic background, we use this lift to build strength and explosiveness and just to improve performance,” says Ellis. “So the way I look at it back squat is going to take the cake.”
Back Squats Build Your Back
Squats are called the king of all exercises for a reason: they hit most of your major muscle groups hard, especially your lower body. Here you hit everything, quads, hamstrings, even your glutes – and of course, you can never get enough glute work. “Everyone is trying to get big glutes these days,” says Ellis. “The back squat is going to be that move.”
The case for front squats
Sure, the back squat can be more visually impressive when you’re putting plates on the bar, but the front squat also brings in big money for leg day, according to Samuel.
The front squat does not allow you to lift with ego
While the rear-loaded position of the back squat allows even novice athletes to pack on plates to attempt sloppy and dangerous PR, very few people can even reach this spot in their workouts with the front squat. Ego issues aside, the front squat forces lifters to understand the mechanics of the movement, making it an exercise less likely to be done by beginners in dangerous places.
“The front squat is all about precision,” says Samuel. “It’s about understanding your mechanics. You have to keep that spine straight, so your spine can end up in a bad position. If he ends up in a bad position, you will have to lower the weight. It’s just a safer elevator overall.
The front squat gives you greater core activation
While back squats may target the glutes more, your six-pack will thank you for doing front squats. One of the main strengths of the front squat is the extra core engagement needed to stabilize your spine during the movement. Since the load is placed in front of your body, you’ll need to focus on keeping your core muscles engaged to avoid tipping forward.
Which squat is right for you?
You’re not going to go wrong with either move. But Samuel says longevity — the ability to do an exercise continuously over time with less risk of injury — is the ultimate goal, so the front squat gets the nod. The move may be harder to learn and not as comfortable to do, but he thinks that shouldn’t be a deterrent for its overall value.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, fitness editor at Men’s Health, is an NASM-CPT certified trainer and former professional football player and tech journalist who divides his training time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.