Front squats for great, defined, powerful quads.
I never really enjoyed doing legs, and used to do the occasional leg day with minimal squats and more lunges and stuff.
One day, I really got inspired about leg day, and actually started to enjoy doing legs from there on out. I then focused almost 50% of my workout only on squats.
The kind of squats I did were low bar, wide stance powerlifting squats. My legs gained pretty good size and my strength increased just nicely.
But I lacked definition, and lots of it. Even when I lost lots of body fat and got really lean, I still lacked lots of definition.
Long story short, a few years later, I started doing front squats and realized my problem. I was hamstring dominant.
Meaning, when I did a squat, my butt went up first and most of my power came from my butt. I also had a terrible forward lean throughout my squat.
So I ditched back squats for a while and started focusing on improving my front squat.
With front squats it’s advised to be pretty upright during the lift, else the bar would choke you. I couldn’t even front squat half the weight I could back squat.
But now my quads gained even more size. My quad strength improved remarkably and I got what I wanted. Definition in my quads. And I still focus about more than 50% of my workout on squats.
But there are also a lot of scientific reasons why front squats are quite a viable option.
Even though one can not go as heavy with front squats as with back squats, because of the change of the center of mass of the bar, both provide the same muscle activation.
The front squat is as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment.
Even, vastus medialis activity is found to be greater in the front squat (study) while semitendinosus EMG activity is greater in the back squat. Meaning, better teardrop activity for the front squat, and better hamstring activity for the back squat.
Some men think that doing back squats will give you a big butt, so most men would then rather do front squats. That is a myth however, as the gluteus maximus’ activity is equal for both squat varieties.
Stance width is what effects glutes activity. Wider stance = greater glut activity. One can also go heavier with a wider stance.
Spinal & Joint Health
The back squat, particularly the low bar back squat, results in lots of forward lean which then results in a significant higher compression force on spinal disks.
The front squat however has significantly less compressive force on the spine.
In my experience, I used to have a bad knee that caused pain real bad whenever I would squat, this too disappeared when I switched over to front squats.
For me, when doing wide stance, low bar squats, I can’t go as deep as when I do front squats.
And you need to go deep…
Deep squats provide performance enhancing benefits, unlike half or quarter squats. (study)
Another myth about: Deep squats
They say ass to the grass squats are bad for your knees. Well that is also false, as deep squats present an effective training exercise for protection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity. (study)
Even as there is significant less compression force on the spine during the front squat, trunk muscle activation is also the same in both front and back squats. So it provides the same amount of muscle activity for the abdominals and the back muscles. Although the front squat shows the highest level of erector spinae activity. (Study) So it’s better for strengthening your back, as your erector spinae is very needed to stabilize your spine.
I didn’t enjoy doing front squats at first because it felt like my upper back couldn’t handle all the weight in front and felt as if my trunk muscles had to work even harder just to keep the weight up.
But now my muscles have adapted, and as a added benefit, I eliminated my butt wink problem and now have a very solid squat form.
If you ever worry that your hamstrings will start to lag behind, just do some heavy deadlifts.
However, my hamstrings just improved from doing front squats.
Few last notes
Stance width. Quad development favors that your knees may travel over your toes in my case.
It’s true that it puts a bit more stress on your knees, but as I said above, my knee pains disappeared when I switched to this kind of squat.
Your knees may still point outwards, it doesn’t need to be parallel. My feet are about shoulder width apart, with a 90° angle between my legs. Also, knees pointing outwards and knees paralleled, shows no difference in muscle activation, so the best is just to stand however feels comfortable for you.
I’m not saying ditch the back squats.
I’ll still do low bar back squats, as that’s how I can lift the most weight and I enjoy going heavy. But I would cycle between the two and ensure I don’t become hamstring dominant again.
Last note: if you squat and your knees travel inwards during the upward phase of the squat. You need to strengthen your glutes.
Don’t delay, do it as soon as possible and save yourself a lot of trouble later.