Who else wants to know, “Why Are Front Squats Harder Than Back Squats?”
It just doesn’t compute that altering the position of the bar by no more than 6-8 inches means such a big difference in the weight you can lift.
And yet most of us can lift significantly more in the back squat than the front squat.
So, allow me to explain why there is such a disparity between your front squat and back squat.
Why Are Front Squats Harder Than Back Squats?
There are various reasons why front squats are harder than back squats. This is mainly due to the fact that you have to maintain a more upright torso, while the upper back is required to perform an isometric contraction. Furthermore, the front rack position is less stable than the back rack. So, as you add more weight to the bar this instability makes it harder for you to power through the front squat. A lack of wrist or shoulder mobility also makes it more difficult for you to hold the front rack position.
1. You Have to Maintain a More Upright Torso For Front Squats
One of the main differences between front squats and back squats is your torso position.
When it comes to front squats you have to maintain a more upright torso position.
The aim is to keep the barbell over your mid-foot.
However, in order to accomplish this your upper body must remain much more vertical with the chest facing up.
This will ensure that the bar doesn’t roll off your shoulders, which is further aided by keeping your elbows high.
You’ll also find that having to keep your upper body straight will mean that you are less likely to curve or round the back.
With that being said, you shouldn’t round the back with back squats either.
But, the simple fact that your body remains in a more vertical position throughout means that many of your stabilizing muscles are working a lot harder during front squats.
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2. Your Upper Back is More Involved in Front Squats
The fact that you have to keep your chest up and remain more upright during front squats means there is a lot more involvement for your upper back.
In fact, front squats have a reputation for being just as much an upper back exercise as they are for quads.
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I would even go as far to say that front squats typically feel “harder” because you potentially have weak upper back muscles.
I can guarantee that most athletes that have a strong upper back will find that their front squat weight is very close to that of their back squat.
In effect, your upper back must perform an isometric contraction during front squats.
And you have to hold this contraction throughout your entire set.
If you don’t hold the contraction of the upper back muscles, you may find yourself falling forward, or you allow your torso to stray from the upright position.
In fact, your torso position is more reminiscent of a back squat, or even a Romanian deadlift.
This is not only poor form, it can also lead to injury.
So, if you find that you’re really struggling with front squats, your upper back strength should be the first place you look.
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3. The Bar is Less Stable in the Front Rack Position
The barbell is typically positioned in a far less stable position during front squats.
When you perform a back squat you almost create a shelf on which you can lay the bar down on your upper traps.
The barbell is more likely to remain in place and there is very little chance of it rolling off your upper back.
However, when it comes to front squats you can typically find yourself fighting to keep the bar secured in place.
Firstly, if your elbows aren’t high enough the bar can roll forwards and off the front delts.
In fact, if you’re having difficulty in keeping your elbows high this typically points to a weakness in the upper back muscles once more.
Then there’s always the fear of the bar going the other way and getting pushed against your throat.
More often than not, you find that you spend more time concentrating on trying to secure the bar in place, as opposed to actually performing the front squat with good form.
4. You Lack Wrist & Shoulder Mobility
I would hazard a guess that mobility issues scare a lot of people off from even trying front squats in the first place.
The front rack position requires you to hold the barbell in place with a clean grip.
However, this takes a great deal of wrist and shoulder mobility.
And unfortunately, many of us lack the flexibility to hold the front rack position.
In fact, you require both strength and mobility in the wrists, shoulders, and upper back to maintain this position throughout an entire set.
Firstly, you have to be able to externally rotate and retract your shoulder blades.
Then there’s the question of getting your wrists bent back far enough so that you can get your fingers under the bar.
Realistically, you actually only need to get two fingers underneath the bar to secure it in place.
However, with practice and using mobility drills for your wrists, you can increase the number of fingers you have in place.
This is why many people perform the front squat with a cross grip.
But, in truth, this should only ever be a temporary solution.
Unfortunately, it’s not the most secure and stable of positions in which to hold the bar.
We go back to problems with the bar rolling forwards if your elbows are kept high enough.
And of course, the bar rolling backwards against the throat if you can’t secure the bar in place on your front delts.
I will also say that cross grip will typically mean that the bar is slightly higher on one side.
So, once more, this isn’t a very stable position.
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5. Quads & Glutes, Knee & Hip Flexion, and Core
You’ll typically hear that the front squat is more quad, knee, and core dominant due to having to support the bar in front of you.
Whereas, back squats will activate the glutes, hamstrings, and hips to a greater degree.
Therefore, back squats will always be “easier” than front squats due to more glute involvement.
Basically, the glutes are the largest muscle in the body.
Therefore, the more involved they are with a lift, the more power and strength you have to complete that lift.
You could almost say that front squats are a more anterior chain focused lift, and back squats are more focused on the posterior chain.
And the stronger muscles of the body are typically behind us.
There are actually various counter-arguments to these theories.
Firstly, you could say that back squats are more challenging for the core due to heavier load.
Then there’s the fact that front squats may not be optimal for quad development.
Yes, there is certainly more knee flexion with front squats (which will recruit the quads more), but you’re also lifting a significantly lighter load than you would with back squats.
Finally, your quads will be unable to pull you out of a deep squat all on their own.
You will still require glute activation to come up from a full-depth squat.
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So, I hope it’s a little clearer as to why front squats are harder than back squats.
Your torso position and upper back strength play a huge role in supporting the bar during front squats.
So, any weakness here will see you struggling.
Furthermore, the bar is far less stable in the front rack position.
Plus, you’ll require a greater degree of wrist, shoulder, and upper back strength and mobility to keep the bar in place.
Therefore, even though you typically lift less weight with front squats, there are many more technical points to hit.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.