There is no exercise known to man that stimulates growth more effectively than the humble squat. How has such a simple 2 phase movement that involves little more than an ‘up’, and a ‘down’ movement become the foundation of any person trying to increase size, strength and power of their leg muscles!? Well the secret to the squats success lies in its simplicity, the smooth transition from the up and down movement of any squat, be it a front or back squat maximises time under tension (TUT) as well as enabling you to endure a large weight in a relatively stable, consistent position, minimising the risk of injury.
The whole body workout
The key to a squat is locking your core in tight, so recruiting the rectus abdominus and particularly the transverse abdominals (TVA), as well as maintaining the natural arch in the lower back whilst making sure your backside is sticking out and your shoulders are back (naturally pushing your chest forward). The main aspects of a squat (front or back) are integral to its efficacy, failing to do any of the abovementioned will inevitably lead to poor form and injury. The front and back squat engages almost every muscle in your body, and consequently the body’s release of growth hormone and IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor) is exaggerated to keep up with the level of exertion!
The types of squat you can do include the classic back squat, front squat and the overhead squat. All of these moves have their roots planted firmly in powerlifting, but their ability to increase size, power and muscle endurance meant bodybuilders, sporting athletes and now Crossfitters are incorporating them in almost every strength and power related session. The two most common variations of the squat are the front and back squat, but despite their similarities they do in fact target subtly different muscles when executed correctly.
The back squat requires the bar to be rested onto the shoulder region between your shoulders, most commonly with the bar sitting on your trapezius muscle (if traps are yet to be developed, or if your balls are yet to drop, then feel free to use a pad of some sort…but expect grief from your peers when doing this), held steady by your hands and arms. The move itself places more load onto your posterior portion of the lower body region, namely your glutes and your hamstrings. Note the location of the bar here in that it lies almost directly above the spine meaning it places more strain on the vertebrae, commanding you to recruit more of your core muscles to maintain its integrity. The spine absorbs compressive forces remarkably well, problems only arise with back squats once fatigue kicks. Once fatigued, the back can begin to roll and round off, but ensuring good form (shoulders back, chest forward, arse out, lower back arched in) should minimise any risk of injury.
The back squat differs to the front squat in that the bar is placed along the clavicle and resting on the front deltoids. The natural response to this is for the shoulders to be pulled forward and the lower back to round off, but this places more emphasis on the person to ensure that the core is strong and the bar placement is running down the spine as much as possible, rather than pulling everything forward. This tendency to pull the body forward places more emphasis on the quads by increasing the range of knee flexion. The front squat definitely recruits the erector spinae more than the back squat because it naturally pulls you forward, increasing the risk of lower back strain if not done properly. It is worth considering wearing a lifting belt the first time you try to front squat, whilst also remembering to reduce the weight you plan on lifting at first. The front squat is used to encourage lifters to go deeper into a squat as well as increase the focus on core strength.
What should I use, Front or Back squats?
Quite simply (and probably predictably) you should use both, but be sure to space these out in the working week so that the legs and the supporting muscles have enough time to rest and recover. The fact that front and back squats hit different regions of the lower body make them an ideal variation for optimal muscle development and performance. Include both of these super leg building moves to maximise your growth potential, and like any exercise…stay safe!