The front squat has long been a staple in our program but we often differ from others in why we teach the movement the way we do. The front squat is normally associated with an anteriorly loaded pattern that has a more vertical torso than the back squat. With the front squat we often see athletes drop straight down into the hole with their butt between their feet, and knees 12” in front of their shoes. For us this is a movement compensation that we want to stay away from. From day 1 we teach and train our athletes to sit back and utilize the hips in every movement, especially the front squat. This differs from the more traditional model that keep an erect torso and allow the knees to travel forward past the toes. There’s several reasons we want to teach a more hip dominant pattern.
1. Reduce Stress at the Patello-Femoral Joint
Many weaker athletes want to shift forward into their quads and become very knee dominant when front squatting. In trained Olympic lifters this is fine. They’ve developed the mobility and movement skills to be able to push through their heels while being more upright to prepare for the jerk. They truth is OLY lifters don’t shift forward like a novice athlete does. It takes an experienced eye to see the subtle differences in what seems like a similar movement. but end result in a less trained athlete is a faulty movement pattern and compensations that grow weaknesses instead of strength. We want our emphasis into the much stronger hips and not the knees. Ariel showed that subjects with the greatest movement forward of the knees while performing the squat also had the highest tibiofemoral shear forces (Ariel). Restricting the forward displacement of the shin changes the biomechanics of the movement up the kinetic chain as well, resulting in more hip activation.
With more severe cases, athletes eventually get to the point where they can no longer get lower because of a severe anterior shift. We’re talking along the lines of struggling to reach a half or even quarter squat depth. The hips appear as they have a block in them. If they were to try to get any lower they would collapse. The last straw is as athletes go higher in weight they can no longer even complete the movement. We’re not talking failure because of maximal weight. We’re talking movement pattern failure. As the weight shifts anteriorly the knees shift past the toes bringing the heels off the ground overloading the knees. Hence, the reason we see the pattern get higher and higher as the weight goes up.
2. Movement Pattern Efficacy
When an athlete has different movement pattern at 70% vs 90% you have issues with the pattern. We want the pattern ingrained that it is the exact the same across all loading schemes. Yes, velocity of the bar, effort, etc. all changes to the difficulty of the load but the pattern itself should not morph into something different. When you let a faulty movement pattern take hold, the compensation eventually takes over to the point of no return. Athletes can no longer reach quality depth and as weights increase quality of movement continues to decrease. This shouldn’t happen. We want to reinforce positive movement patterns continually.
3. ACL Stress Reduction
Technique efficacy on the squat matters more than just loading a clean pattern. It has influence on loading the ACL. Letting the heels come off the ground in a squat, which generally results in the knees traveling past the toes, has shown to result in over 3 times more ACL loading. This anteriorly shifted squat pattern creates concerns over knee health when compared to a posteriorly shifted squat with the weight through the heels (Toutoungi). It has been shown that as the knees go forward beyond the toes in a squat the tibial plateaus slope anteriorly, which results in increased load on the ACL (Nisell).
Sitting back with the hips results in a more forward trunk lean during the front squat which also has its affect on the ACL. Compared to a more vertical trunk position, performing a squat with the trunk tilted forward, using hip flexion, has been shown to decrease ACL loading as well. Shifting the hips back with posterior loading matters.
4. Hamstring Activation
Ohkoshi reported that there was no ACL loading at any of the knee flexion angles (15°, 30°, 60°, and 90°) tested when maintaining a squat position with the trunk tilted forward and weight through the heels. A more forward trunk tilt results in much higher recruitment of the hamstrings. Increasing hamstring activity exerts posteriorly directed forces at the tibia, decreasing quad activity and minimizing ACL load as well (Kulas, Ohkoshi).
You can see a posterior weight shift matters. Not only do can we recruit higher activity in the posterior chain but we can reduce loading through an important ligament by doing so. It becomes virtually impossible to front squat correctly with a vertical trunk position without the knees shifting forward and losing pressure through the heel. We view anytime we can emphasize more glute and hamstring activation with athletes as a good thing.
Teaching the squat pattern whether front or back should focus on posterior weight shift first and foremost. Too many athletes associate squatting with moving down. We want to teach athletes to think BACK not down.
Teaching and training efficient movement patterns go beyond numbers and pretty lifts. Removing strain from joints that already see their fare share should be a priority. Training off the field, or court, should in the end add to their resilience not add to breaking an athlete down.
Ariel BG. Biomechanical analysis of the knee joint during deep knee bends with heavy loads. Biomechanics IV. Baltimore: University Park Press; 1972. p. 44–52.
Toutoungi DE, Lu TW, Leardini A, Catani F, O’Connor JJ. Cruciate ligament forces in the human knee during rehabilitation exercises. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2000;15:176-187.
Nisell R, Ericson MO, Nemeth G, Ekholm J. Tibiofemoral joint forces during isokinetic knee extension. Am J Sports Med. 1989;17:49-54.
Kulas AS, Hortobagyi T, DeVita P. Trunk position modulates anterior cruciate ligament forces and strains during a single-leg squat. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2012;27:16-21. http://dx.doi. org/10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2011.07.009
Ohkoshi Y, Yasuda K, Kaneda K, Wada T, Yamanaka M. Biomechanical analysis of rehabilitation in the standing position. Am J Sports Med. 1991;19:605-611.