Why Front-Loaded Squats Are Best for Bulking
All types of squatting are great for building muscle, gaining strength, and improving our health and fitness. In fact, in many ways, squats are the best bulking lift. However, although all squat variations are great for us, each of them has a different purpose, and some of them are much better for bulking than others.
For powerlifters, the low-bar squat is king. It uses a smaller range of motion, it has great leverage, and our back strength won’t ever hold us back. If our goal is to squat as much weight as possible, low-bar squats are best.
For athletes, high-bar squats are popular. The range of motion is a little larger, it still allows for fairly heavy loading, and it does a great job of bulking up the lower body. For sprinters, footballers, and rugby players, it’s a great squat variation.
But what if you’re a skinny guy who’s trying to get bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking? We aren’t trying to win powerlifting competitions, and we care about more than just being able to sprint like a demon.
For us, front-loaded squats–such as goblet squats and front squats—are easily the best squat variations. They allow for the largest range of motion, they pack muscle onto our lower and upper bodies, they toughen up our spines, and they help us stand taller and straighter.
- If our goal is sheer muscle growth, front squats win.
- If our goal is to develop general strength, front squats win.
- And if our goal is to improve our aesthetics, again, front squats win—easily.
What are Front-Loaded Squats?
Before we dive deep, let’s clear up what we mean by front-loaded squats. We’re talking about any squat variation where the weight is held in front of us. There are a few variations:
The goblet squat has us holding a dumbbell in front of us, and it’s famous for being the best beginner variation. However, it’s not just a beginner’s lift. It remains one of the very best bulking lifts until we grow too strong for them—until we can do 12+ reps with the heaviest dumbbells we have access to. After all, it not only bulks up our legs but also our backs and even our arms.
Once we get too strong for goblet squats, there’s the option of grabbing two dumbbells or kettlebells and holding them in a racked position, allowing us to squat twice as heavy if all we have access to are dumbbells or kettlebells.
The front squat has us holding the barbell in front of us, in the crease between our collarbones and our shoulders. Unlike the goblet squat, you can load it up progressively heavier without fear of ever outgrowing it. The “advantage” of the front squat is that you won’t be limited by your arm strength, making it better for challenging your legs and your back.
The Zercher squat has us holding the barbell in the crook of our elbows, supported by our biceps and traps. It’s an advanced combination of the front squat and the goblet squat. Like the front squat, you can load it up gradually heavier without fear of growing too strong for it. But like the goblet squat, it challenges your legs, your back, and your arms. This makes it a great companion exercise for the front squat.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be talking about all front-loaded squats. I understand that they’re all slightly different, but they all share some common dynamics, and it’s those commonalities they share that makes them so great for bulking.
Since front squats are the main squat variation you’d be using for most of your bulking career, we’ll use it as our main example. But the same principles apply to goblet squats, and, in many cases, the Zercher squat as well.
Front-Loaded Squats are True Full-Body Lifts
Some people think of the classic back squat as a full-body lift, others think of them it as being a leg lift. Both groups are right.
- A back squat is a full-body lift in the sense that it will improve our overall health and fitness. It puts a great strain on our bones, tendons, ligaments, and even our cardiovascular system, provoking a number of great full-body adaptations.
- But back squatting won’t build muscle in our upper bodies. Only our quads, glutes, and adductors will be brought close enough to failure to stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth.
That isn’t to downplay the value of the squat. Our quads and glutes are the biggest muscles in our bodies, so any lift that challenges them will allow us to build a tremendous amount of overall muscle. It’s just that all of that muscle will be in our lower bodies, like so:
A front squat, on the other hand, is a true full-body lift. We get all of the aforementioned health and fitness benefits, but also build a ton of muscle in our upper bodies, like so:
It’s a little weird that moving the barbell in front of our necks would bring in so much extra muscle mass. To understand why that is, we have to look at how it changes the physics of the lift:
What we’re seeing here is the moment arms calculated at the sticking point of the back squat and the front squat. That may or may not sound like mumbo jumbo, but bear with me.
- Moment arms are the horizontal distance between our joints and the weight. The longer the moment arm, the harder it will be for our muscles to lift the weight.
- The sticking point is where our muscles contract the hardest, where we stimulate the most muscle growth, and where most people lose the momentum that they need to finish the lift. The hardest part of the squat is when the moment arms are the longest for our hips and knees, which is when our femurs are parallel to the ground.
So what we’re seeing in that illustration is that back squats put our hips in a position of poor leverage at the sticking point, forcing them to work harder to lift the barbell. As a result, we get a lift that’s quite challenging on our lower bodies, not so challenging for our upper bodies.
On the other hand, the front squat makes the moment arms longer for our upper backs (and quads), making the front squat a true full-body lift. In fact, Greg Nuckols, MA, calculated that front squats work our upper backs 235% harder than back squats (source):
When we finish a set of front squats, it’s not just our legs that have been challenged enough to grow, but also our upper backs. The obvious benefit is that we’ll build muscle in our upper backs, but there are a couple of secondary advantages, too:
- Front squats are a better accessory lift for the deadlift, given that it’s our spinal erectors that often limit us when deadlifting.
- Front squats do a better job of improving our posture, given that it’s those same postural muscles that help us stand taller and straighter.
On that note:
Front Squats are Better for Aesthetics
When it comes to our aesthetics, most people look like the fickle fellow on the left but would rather look like the righteous fellow on the right. Front squats are a great way to do that. They bulk up our spinal erectors, strengthen our backs overall, and improve our posture (study).
Now, front squats aren’t the only way to do that. Conventional deadlifts are great for improving the strength of our spinal erectors, too. Even overhead pressing can help. But front squats may be the single best lift for improving our posture.
Think of it this way. If your upper back muscles can keep you from caving forward while you’re holding hundreds of pounds in front of your body, how easy will it be to stand up straight when you aren’t holding anything at all?
Front Squats are Deeper
One criticism of front squats is that they’re quite a bit lighter than back squats. And that’s true: most people can high-bar squat about 25% more weight than they can front squat, and can low-bar squat roughly 35% more weight than they can front squat.
The assumption is that because front squats are so much lighter, then they must not be as good for bulking up the quads, glutes, and adductors. They’re better for our upper bodies but at the cost of being worse for our lower bodies.
However, that fails to take into account the fact that front squats allow us to sink so much deeper, like so:
What’s happening here is that because we’re squatting with a more upright torso, our hips are tilted further back, our hip angle at the bottom of the squat is lower, and so we can sink much deeper without our pelvises jamming up against our femurs.
Have more space in our hips is great for reducing the risk of hip injuries, and it’s also better for improving our flexibility, mobility, and general strength, and you might even argue that it’s better for the aesthetics of our quads, since they’re being worked through a larger range of motion. But we’re talking about sheer muscle growth here, so let’s get back to the point.
Consider a partial squat, where you only squat down a few inches. Shortening the range of motion allows us to lift much heavier, right? But because we’re losing all of that range of motion, it cancels out the benefit. In fact, the shallower depth makes partial squats worse for bulking our legs.
The same principle is true with back squats and front squats… sort of. Partial squats allow us to lift heavier because we’re stopping our descent before the sticking point. We’re making the lift easier by shortening the moment arms. Most of us can learn to back squat to parallel, which means we’re descending al the way to the sticking point of the squat. Going deeper wouldn’t necessarily force us to take any weight off the bar because going deeper wouldn’t increase the peak demands on our muscles. That’s why squatting to parallel counts as a “complete” squat.
Even so, front squats do allow us to go much deeper, and that has other advantages. For starters, it allows us to get a much tighter knee angle at the bottom of the squat, like so:
That tighter knee angle means that we can work our quads through a much larger range of motion.
So what we have is a lighter squat that works our quads through a much larger range of motion, making it harder to guess whether we’d get more net muscle growth or not. But if we look at a study by Bret Contreras, PhD, we see that front squats and back squats produce the same amount of quad (and glute) growth.
In terms of our health and fitness, that greater range of motion also means more time under tension, a greater distance to push the barbell, and so even though we’re using a lighter weight, we’re still doing a similar amount of overall work, and thus getting similar overall benefits.
That means that with front squats, we’re getting the extra upper-back growth without any real downside.
So to summarize:
- Having extra hip space and using lighter weights reduces our risk of injury without reducing health and performance benefits.
- We work our quads through a larger range of motion, thus developing a more versatile strength, and likely better quad aesthetics as well.
- This extra range of motion makes up for using lighter weights, allowing us to bring our upper backs into the squat, and thus stimulating more overall muscle growth.
Front Squats Force Great Technique
So, let’s be frank for a moment. When we first learn how to front squat, it feels kind of like being strangled by a barbell. Beginners often need to do some stretching before being able to even get into the proper starting position. And even with plenty of stretching, our forearm and finger tendons might still be stretched to the point of pain.
Here’s a video of Marco teaching the front squat. At the end, he goes over some stretches you can use to improve your forearm and shoulder mobility and flexibility, allowing you to hold the bar in a proper rack position (as opposed to using the cross grip).
The front squat will become very comfortable with practice, but I don’t want to gloss over the fact that it’s a more advanced squat variation. In fact, it’s arguably a more advanced squat variation than the back squat.
One solution to this, of course, is to start with goblet squats. By the time we can goblet squat the heaviest dumbbell for a dozen reps, chances are that we’ll have developed the strength and mobility we need to front squat.
However, despite being a tricky lift to master, the technique we use to front squat actually comes with a ton of advantages, too. It’s great for our mobility, awesome for our posture, we’re less likely to injure our hips, and, finally, it forces good form.
If you back squat with bad technique, you may still be able to muscle the barbell up. With a front squat, though, if you aren’t maintaining a pleasantly upright spine, the weight will tumble off of your shoulders. Not only does that make front squats safer, but it also makes them for learning how to squat with proper technique.
The main point of this article is to illustrate why front-loaded squats are so incredibly good for bulking. Now, that isn’t to say that other squat variations aren’t great as well. They are, especially when it comes to bulking up our quads (which are the biggest muscles in our bodies).
Even so, the front squat has a whole slew of advantages. Just to keep things interesting, I’ve included some extra advantages that weren’t covered above, too:
- Deeper range of motion: we front squat with a more upright torso, allowing for a larger range of motion, and making it less likely that we’ll jam our hips into our femurs.
- More upper back growth: because we’re supporting the weight in front of us, front squats do a better job of bulking up our upper backs. This is great from both a bulking perspective, of course, but it’s also great for our general strength (and our deadlifts).
- Front squatting is great for our spines: squatting with an upright torso puts our spines under plenty of compressive force, making our spines tougher, but also less shear stress, reducing our risk of injury, and likely making the front squat less fatiguing.
- Front squats force better squatting technique: when we’re front squatting, any deviation in technique will cause the weight to dump forward off of shoulders. This means that even when squatting hard, and even when approaching failure, front squats continue to reinforce good technique.
- Front squats are better for our posture and shoulders: a typical back squat requires developing the mobility needed to crank our shoulders backwards, which is fine, but it won’t improve our shoulder health. Front squats, on the other hand, require developing t-spine mobility so that we can get into a proper rack position, improving our upper back (t-spine) mobility and posture.
- Front squatting is easier on our knees. That doesn’t matter for most people. Unless our knees are already injured, squatting tends to make them tougher. But some of our knees are already injured, and front squats are good for that (study).
- Front squats still yield just as much quad and glute growth: front squats are lighter, yes, but since we’re squatting deeper, it produces equal growth in our quads and glutes (study).
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