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Front Squats vs Back Squats and why “Functional” Training is Nonsense.

In a recent conversation with another Martial Arts/Strength coach we raised a few valid points that are well worth sharing.

It all started with a discussion about an article detailing the Barbell Squat and how the Front Squat was superior to the Back Squat (in the eyes of the articlesoriginal author) as it is “functional”

The Front Squat – Awesome in the right setting

As soon is I read that bloody word I got a shiver down my spine and my teeth started to grind.

How has it come to the stage where Trainers and Coaches feel they can justify their opinions by simply saying “Because it’s functional” I used to hear this the whole time when I worked in a commercial gym and every time I heard it I just wanted to punch someone really hard. Repeatedly.

The hypocrisy arises in that I also prefer the front squat to the back squat. The difference is, I’m going to explain why without resorting to meaningless, wishy washy nonsensical, buzz words. Then I’m going to tell you why “functional” training sucks.

The value of barbell squats, either front or back, comes in they are full body strength exercises. The limiting factor in both variations tends to be the torso as opposed to the legs. The back squat places greater load on the hips and low back, the front squat relies more on the upper back and abs.

The argument that one is more “functional” than the other is moot.

The Back Squat – Awesome in the right setting

The most functional version is the one that best suits the athletes wants and needs.

Personally I prefer the front squat. Here’s why: 1 – I learned it first. In fact the first lift I was ever taught was the power clean, so the squat was a natural progression. For years after I never had access to a squat rack, so if I wanted to do a barbell squat I’d power clean the bar into position. 2 – I have low back and hip injuries from other activities which are aggravated by the back squat. The front squat keeps me more upright so I feel less stress in the low back. Back squats are good for me right up until a point where they go from nice to evil, and that transition point is at a very low weight, around 100kg’s and the next day I can’t walk and have to call my physio. And that’s with good technique! 3 – I have a very strong upper back. I guess this goes back to the power clean.

As a coach I prefer the front squat for the simple reason that it is relatively self coaching and also far easier to bail if it goes wrong. If you lean forwards during a Front Squat, the bar simply falls off you. If you need to bail, the bar simply falls off you. The Back Squat is a different animal in this respect, you really need a good spotter and/or a rack to perform these safely.

That said I have several guys who simply cannot front squat. Usually this is down to existing postural issues, often shoulder problems (rampant in the martial arts community) or lack of spinal mobility. The guys with spinal issues are forced into extension by the back squat, but are held in flexion on the front squat. I find some of the martial arts guys, particularly in the striking community have shortened chest muscles. Place a bar on their front and you exacerbate this issue and they instantly go into kyphosis. This is bad. On the other hand, open them up with some band pulls, band overhead squats etc, then stick a bar on their back and they are forced into extension, they MUST keep their chest held open and high. Yes, the weight must be kept a little lighter, until their body opens up, but so what? The back squat, for these guys, is fixing their posture, opening their spine and rib cage and generally making them more awesome. If we need extra leg strength we can go to split squats and other single leg variations with weights held at their sides.

The Fucking Stupid Squat – Only Awesome in certain settings……usually the circus

So what about the talk about the weight loaded to the front aids us in forward locomotion, as we require on the playing field or in the ring? This is often where the “functional” crowd go when defending their arguments.

All gym exercises are contrived. As are most sports for that matter. This realisation alone should be enough to shut up all the “functional” chitter chatter that goes on.

In terms of force production, most exercises will work in a vertical plane. Why is this? Gravity.

JC pulls a big tyre – Awesome in any setting

In order to produce horizontal force we must either lie down (hip trusts, bridges, bench press), use a pulley/band station (often impractical) or  work against a friction/inertia based resistance. ie sleds/trucks/cars etc (as advocated by JC Santana, who actually understands proper function of the body)

There is one exception I can think of and that is the Kettlebell Swing, due to the pendulum action it does have a large horizontal component  (when properly performed with a good hip hinge and with enough weight.)

That said, if we take a muscle by muscle or even a movement pattern view point, then we see that squatting (lunging etc) all involve the extension of the hip, knee and ankle while under load.

So while yes, they may be contrived drills with no resemblance to a sporting activity, but the goal of the drill is to strengthen this extension pattern. It is not a drill to make us better at running/jumping/punching.

To get better at running/jumping/punching guess what we should spend our time doing……..Yup, running/jumping/punching.

The gym work is merely an assistance to our real work. The gym is to get us stronger and more resilient.

End of.



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