The Difference Between Front & Back Barbell Squats

Lifting heavy weights creates myriad benefits for women.
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Barbell squats are no longer the exclusive domain of the boy's club – few exercises will whip your lower body into shape quicker and more effectively than weighted squats. Not only will you tone and define your thighs and glutes with regular squats, you'll bump up your resting metabolic rate, strengthen your bones and burn calories to boot. You have plenty of squat variations to choose from, but front and back barbell squats lead the pack.


Back barbell squats serve as the standard variation of the exercise. In this version, you hold the bar on the back of your shoulders, gripping it with your hands out to the sides and palms facing forward in the starting position. For the more challenging front squat, bring your arms – positioned so that your upper arms are parallel to the ground with your elbows held high and fists facing your chest – under the bar, mounted at upper chest-level on the squat rack. Support the bar on your deltoids. Cross your arms at the wrist and grasp the bar overhand in the middle so your knuckles face you and your palms face down.

Muscles Targeted

Both types of squats, which are compound exercises that work the whole body, focus on the quads, glutes and hams. These exercises also employ the abs and obliques, the adductor muscles of the thighs and the erector spinae. Because the front squat forces your body to engage more muscles to balance the bar, it activates some muscles that the back squat doesn't, including the deltoids, pecs, traps, levator scapulae, supraspinatus and serratus anterior. These muscles work as stabilizers, or in other words, muscles that help other muscles complete a movement.

The Trainer's Word

While the front squat caters to more advanced exercisers, pro trainers tout its safety benefits. Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Eric Cressey says the front squat lets those who suffer from external rotation issues lift the bar pain-free, though he concedes that the back squat is a better choice for those who have acromioclavicular – or upper shoulder – problems. Certified Athletic Therapist Jim Reeves says the front squat gives athletes more bang for their buck, allowing them to safely handle bigger weight loads in less time than the back squat.

Things to Consider

The front squat poses a much bigger challenge than the back squat – you should be completely comfortable with the standard version of the exercise before attempting this variation. For either type, use a squat rack and stand in the middle of the rack as you lift. Always enlist the guidance of a certified trainer when learning a new exercise – this golden rule goes for both front and back squats.

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