The squat is the strength training lift. It’s the best lift for bulking up your quads, glutes, and calves, and it stimulates more overall muscle mass than any other lift, with the possible exception of the deadlift.
There are different ways of squatting, each with different pros and cons. This article has nothing to do with powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, just with using the front squat to getting bigger, stronger, fitter, and much better looking. For this, the front squat is the best. That’s a controversial claim, we know. But we’ll show you why.
- Squatting for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
- Muscles Worked in the Front Squat
- How to Front Squat (Video)
- Front Squats with Blood Flow Restriction (BFR)
- Front Squat Alternatives
- Bodyweight Squat Alternatives
- Diagnosing Weak Links
- Assistance Lifts for the Front Squat
- Accessory Lifts for the Front Squat
Squatting for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
The squat is a divisive lift: it separates the strong from the weak. Just kidding. No, the squat separates the guys who care about being strong with a barbell from the guys who care about looking more attractive.
The strength trainee squats heavy, hard, and often. They choose the heaviest variant: the low-bar back squat, and they program it at the beginning of every workout. More serious strength athletes may even squat every single day of the week.
The squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power, and size.Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength
Bodybuilders, on the other hand, start their workouts with literally any of the other Big 5 Lifts: the deadlift, the chin-up, the overhead press, or the bench press. These other lifts will very obviously make us look better in a t-shirt. The squat will not. And so the squat stands apart.
But what if this was all just a simple misunderstanding? What if I told you that squats were one of the most important aesthetics lifts? What if there were a type of squat designed for both strength and aesthetics?
Let me explain why the front squat is that unifying squat. We’ll start with why it’s so good for developing general strength, and then we’ll transition to why it’s so great for improving muscle size and aesthetics.
So, first of all, the front squat has you holding the bar in front of you, resting on the crease between your shoulders and your collarbones, up against the front of your neck, like so:
Bit of a weird way to hold a barbell, sure. But holding the barbell in front of you forces you to maintain an upright torso, allowing you to sink even deeper into your squat. That might not sound all that impressive just yet but bear with me.
The reason that an upright torso allows you to squat deeper is that it frees up more space between your hips and femurs, like so:
On the left, we see a low-bar back squat done to parallel depth, as per the recommendations found in Starting Strength. On the right, we see a deep front squat done like an Olympic weightlifter. As you can see, our anatomy allows us to sink much deeper into a front squat.
Now, why does this matter? For starters, the front squat reduces the risk of injuring your hips, but that’s rare anyway. The main benefit is that the deeper we can sit into the squat, the more growth we’ll stimulate in our quads.
If we take a look at the difference in knee angle, we see that the back squat is working the quads through 115° range of motion, whereas the front squat works the quads through 150° range of motion:
A greater range of motion means more overall work is being done, making it better for improving our fitness. It also means that our quads will grow stronger in a larger range of motion, which means that we’ll develop more versatile strength. And it’s also better for stimulating muscle growth. Will any of that make us better at powerlifting? No. But is it better for everyone else? Absolutely.
It’s not all good, though. Notice that the hips are being worked through a smaller range of motion. That brings us to our next point: the back squat is more hip-dominant than the front squat. This becomes even more evident if we add in the moment arms at the hardest part of the lift.
The hardest part of the squat is when the femurs are parallel to the ground because that’s when the moment arms are the longest. As a result, this is where our muscles contract the hardest, where we stimulate the most muscle growth, and also where most people lose the momentum that they need to finish the lift.
If you aren’t familiar with physics, unfortunately, this might look like physics. What we’re seeing is that the back squat puts the hips in a position of poor leverage at the sticking point, forcing them to work harder to lift the barbell. As a result, the hips will get a larger growth stimulus, perhaps at the expense of the quads.
If you wanted to prioritize hip growth over quad growth (as many of our female clients do), that might be a reason to favour back squats. However, we have the deadlift to take care of our hips. Our hips will be just fine without needing to turn the squat into a hip hinge.
If we take a look at the front squat, you’ll see that the moment arms are spread more evenly between our quads, hips, and spinal erectors. Not only will our quads be forced to work harder, but we also see our upper backs coming into play:
Holding the barbell in front of our bodies increases the moment arm for our thoracic spines, putting around 235% more load on our upper back muscles (as calculated by Greg Nuckols, MA), and thus stimulating a ton of muscle growth in our upper backs.
Front squats are, hands down, the best squat variation for building upper back strength.Greg Nuckols, Stronger by Science
In fact, front squats stimulate our spinal erectors even more than isolation lifts that are specifically designed to target that area, such as back extensions (study). This extra upper-back growth is what makes front squats so good for improving our posture and aesthetics.
Now, this extra upper-body growth comes with a price: most people front squat about 15–25% less weight than they can back squat. Part of this is because of the extra range of motion, part of this is because the front squat is so challenging on our upper-back muscles. This makes the front squat horrendous for powerlifting. No powerlifter wants to front squat 300 when they could be back squatting 400.
That reduction in weight is enough to cancel out some of the benefits. Our quads are strengthened through a larger range of motion, which is good. But we’re lifting less weight, which is bad. We need to weigh these pros and cons against one another.
If we look at a study by Bret Contreras, PhD, we see that front squats and back squats produce the same amount of lower-body growth. That means that with front squats, we’re getting the extra upper-back growth without any real downside.
Finally, the front squat forces good technique. As soon as your technique begins to crumble, the weight will simply roll off your shoulders. You won’t be forced to grind out the rep with a rounded back, you won’t get pinned, and there’s less stress on your lower back to begin with. This makes the front squat the safest (heavy) barbell squat variation, allowing you to push harder without needing to worry about injuring yourself.
The front squat is a magical lift:
- Deeper range of motion: Front squats are done with a more upright torso, which makes it easier to use a larger range of motion, and makes it less likely that you’ll jam your hips into your femurs.
- Better for your upper back and core: Because the barbell is held in front of you, front squats do a better job of bulking up your upper back, which is going to have greater carryover to your deadlift. They also do a better job of strengthening your core, which has great carryover to your push presses.
- It’s great for your spine: squatting with an upright torso puts your spine under plenty of compressive force, which gives you some great adaptations, but also less shear stress. This makes it pretty safe and easy on your spine.
- It forces better squatting technique: Poor front squat technique can lead to the barbell falling off your shoulders. This means that even when lifting heavy, and even when approaching failure, front squats continue to reinforce good technique. This keeps the lift safe even as you push yourself hard.
- It’s better for your posture and shoulders: A typical back squat requires developing shoulder mobility so that you can crank them backwards, which is fine, but it won’t improve your shoulder health. Front squats, on the other hand, require developing t-spine mobility so that you can get into a proper rack position, which improves your upper back (t-spine) mobility and posture. It’s a better shoulder adaptation.
- Just as much quad and glute development: front squatting means lifting less weight, but since you’re lifting through a larger range of motion, it still produces the same overall amount of muscle growth in your quads and glutes (study).
- It’s easier on your knees: the front squat is easier on your knees (study). Admittedly, that doesn’t matter for most people, but it’s certainly an advantage for those who already have cranky knees.
- It’s less demanding on your lower back: this would be a bad thing if we weren’t also deadlifting, given that we do want the benefits of greater spinal loading (such as denser bones and a more resilient spine). But since we’re already training that area so hard with our deadlifts and rows, the front squat gives your lower back a well-earned break.
However, the front squat is a brutal lift with a rough learning curve. I’d say it’s a lift that only a mother could love, but we’ve asked plenty of mothers to try it. They don’t like it either.
It gets worse, too. Most people don’t have the wrist mobility to hold the barbell properly when they first start trying to front squat. They try it, can’t get into the right position, feel like they’re being choked to death, and abandon it forever.
The front squat looks like a painfully awkward way to strangle yourself with a barbell.–Michael Matthews, Legion Athletics
Don’t abandon it. If you do some wrist stretches during your warm-ups, you’ll probably be able to get at least a couple of fingers under the bar. That’s enough to start with. And yes, it might feel awkward up against your neck, but that pain will pass after you get used to the lift.
Give it a chance. In return, it will give you tremendous gains.
Conclusion: the front squat tends to be the best variation for building overall muscle mass, improving posture, and gaining all-around strength, making it the best default variation for bulking up. The downside is that it’s bad for powerlifting and it’s hard to learn.
Muscles Worked in the Front Squat
Like the deadlift, front squats are a great lift for working your body from your neck down to your toes. In fact, the squat’s claim to fame is that it stimulates over 200 muscles at the same time. Is that true? Sort of. But that’s the wrong way to think about the squat.
I mean, it is true that the squat works hundreds of muscles. But that’s not really what we’re interested in. Most of those muscles aren’t limiting factors, they won’t be taken anywhere close to failure, and so they won’t grow.
Imagine doing ten-rep sets of biceps curls with ten-pound weights. Your biceps would get worked, sure, but you’d still be fifty reps away from failure. Your biceps won’t grow from that. It’s not challenging enough.
That’s not so different from how your hamstrings feel while squatting. Yes, your hamstrings are active during a squat, but not anywhere near active enough to bulk them up. A 2009 study found that our hamstrings only contract about 27% as they’re able to while squatting, which isn’t nearly enough to provoke muscle growth. Adding supporting evidence, another study found that after seven weeks of squatting, the participants gained a significant amount of muscle in their quads but none whatsoever in their hamstrings. It’s the deadlift that takes care of our hamstrings (and especially Romanian deadlifts), which is why we need a good balance of both squats and deadlifts in our bulking programs.
Or let’s take our lats as another example. Our lats put in work to help stabilize our spines while we squat, sure. But they won’t be challenged enough to stimulate any muscle growth. If we want to bulk up our lats, that’s where chin-ups come in.
Despite the hundreds of muscles that are active while squatting, only a few muscles are worked hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. That might not sound like much, but if we look at the amount of red in the illustration below, we see that it’s quite a lot indeed, largely because the quads are so monstrously enormous.
To get an idea of exactly how much muscle the squat works, we can look at the size of the average man’s muscle groups by volume (as analyzed by Menno Henselmans, MSc):
- The Quads: 1800 cm³
- The Glutes: 1200 cm³
- The Calves: 850 cm³
- The Hamstrings: 700 cm³
- Shoulders: 400 cm³
- Chest: 250 cm³
- Lats: 250 cm³
- Triceps: 250 cm³
- Traps: 200 cm³
- Biceps: 100 cm³
- Forearms: 100 cm³
What we’re seeing here is that the squat works the two biggest muscle groups in our bodies all at once—hard. More than 3000 cm³ worth of muscle is being taxed to its limit. That’s far more than half of the muscle in our bodies, and we’re not even counting the adductors and spinal erectors, which will also be brought close enough to failure to provoke muscle growth.
Now, why does it matter how much muscle mass a lift works? The bench press works a fairly small amount of overall muscle mass, and yet that doesn’t stop it from being an absolutely badass lift for bulking up our chests. So why do we care about the sheer amount of muscle being worked by the squat?
What makes the squat special is that it goes so far beyond being just a strength exercise. It works so much muscle mass that it taxes both our anaerobic and cardiovascular systems to their limits. As we grind out our reps, our anaerobic systems will be pummelled into the ground. Then, when we collapse into a puddle of misery between sets, our cardiovascular system goes into overdrive to deliver oxygen to those drained muscles, preparing us for the next set. That’s why our hearts are thumping in our chests after a hard set of squats.
So, because of the sheer amount of muscle being worked, squats aren’t just great for building muscle, they’re also an incredible tool for improving our overall health, work capacity, and general fitness. In fact, doing 10-rep sets of squats isn’t so dissimilar from doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on a bike. Except squats are bigger.
Furthermore, because of the tremendous amount of muscle growth they stimulate, squats are one of the best lifts for helping us resist fat gain, for helping us gain lean mass, and for collecting the myriad of health benefits that lifting offers: greater insulin sensitivity, better blood sugar regulation, more brainpower.
It’s no wonder that squats are often seen as the strength training exercise. No, they won’t give you broader shoulders or bigger arms. The muscle you build while squatting won’t be staring back at you in your bathroom mirror. But if you care about becoming bigger, stronger, fitter, and healthier overall, then squats are your ticket.
And squats can also be a good aesthetics exercise. If you choose front squats, they’ll also help you build a bigger and thicker back, and help you stand taller and straighter.
Plus, having rock hard legs with chiselled quads looks absolutely badass.
How to Front Squat (Video)
If your goal is to gain overall size and strength, you’ll want to squat less like a powerlifter, more like an Olympic weightlifter. That means squatting with a more upright torso, sitting your butt “down” instead of “back,” and holding the barbell in front of your body instead of on your back.
There are two squat variations that get us into this position:
- The goblet squat: where you hold a dumbbell in front of you. This variation requires less mobility and is much easier to learn, but it’s harder to progressively load ever heavier. It’s better for beginners.
- The front squat: where you hold a barbell in front of you, “racking” it on the fronts of your shoulders. This variation requires more flexibility in your forearms, lats, and triceps, but it allows you to continue gaining size and strength beyond a beginner level.
Holding the weight in front of you gives your quads a much deeper range of motion, it’s easier on your lower back, and it will help to strengthen your upper back and posture. It’s also harder to injure yourself, making it perfect for going hard and heavy.
However, those benefits don’t come free. Most beginners will need to start with goblet squats instead of front squats, and even for intermediates, it can be hard to master.
Here’s Marco teaching the lift:
As you do your front squats, you might want to keep a few cues in mind:
- Keep your belly braced and your spine neutral.
- Don’t sit back into the squat, sit down into the squat. Think about bringing your butt down.
- Keep your elbows high.
Front squats can feel awkward at first, so be patient with them. They’re well worth the struggle.
Front Squats with Blood Flow Restriction (BFR)
When done properly, blood flow restriction training is proving to be an effective way to increase muscle growth. For the front squat in particular, there’s one study showing that a combination of strength training and blood high-rep flow restriction training produced radically more quad growth than just strength training alone:
Now, it’s worth noting that this study was conducted on competitive powerlifters. Powerlifters often eschew higher rep ranges, so perhaps it’s merely the high-rep training that’s leading to all of this extra muscle growth. Maybe if our training already includes higher-rep leg training, we wouldn’t get these same benefits. But even so, this does seem to be quite effective.
If you want to try this approach, the conventional strength training group was doing sets with 60–85% of their one-rep max (5–20 reps). This was the foundation of the training in both groups. But one group added in blood flow restriction training every second week. This blood flow restriction training was done with 30% of their one-rep max, they did four sets, and they took the first and final sets to failure.
There’s no reason to think that this style of training would only work for the quads, either. We could take this same approach with our arm training, adding in some lighter blood flow restriction training every second or third week.
Front Squat Alternatives
At this point, it’s no secret that we love the front squat and that the front squat loves us back. But we’ve already sung that ballad. And besides, front squats aren’t for everyone. Maybe you’re lifting without access to a barbell, or perhaps your particular anthropometry suits another squat variation better.
Besides, if your front squat progress ever stalls, or even if you just get sick of them, then it might be worth switching to another variation just to freshen things up.
Goblet squats are done by picking up a dumbbell and holding it in front of your chest. The weight is in almost the same place as in the front squat, which keeps the torso upright and challenges the upper back. The difference is that you’re holding the dumbbell in front of you instead of letting it rest on your shoulders, which requires far more shoulder and biceps strength.
Goblet squats are one of the best bulking lifts of all time, for a time. They work all of the same muscles as front squats, but they add in your biceps and all of the muscles in your shoulder girdle. It’s a true full-body lift. The only problem is that you’ll eventually grow too strong for them.
We use goblet squats as a main squat variation in the first couple phases of our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, and they’re perhaps our single favourite squat variation. However, because of the sheer amount of muscle mass goblet squats work, once you can do more than ten reps with the heaviest dumbbell, it will become more of a cardiovascular exercise than a bulking exercise.
Now, it’s important to improve your cardio as you bulk up, so even then, goblet squats can still have a role in a good bulking routine, but they’ll stop stimulating as much muscle growth. If you can’t do ten reps with the heaviest dumbbell yet, though, choose these as an assistance lift.
The Two-Dumbbell Front Squat
If you’re training at home without a barbell, eventually you’re going to run into the problem where you grow too strong for the goblet squat and need to find a more challenging squat variation. One approach is to start working one leg at a time, such as with Bulgarian split squats. Another approach is to start holding twice as many dumbbells:
The idea here isn’t to hold the weights up, which would be super heavy, but instead to rest the weights upon our shoulders, the same way we do when front squatting. The lift will still be hard on our cores and backs, but that should keep it a bit easier on our arms and shoulders, allowing us to properly stimulate our quads and glutes.
If you have access to kettlebells, there’s also the option of holding two kettlebells in a racked position, like so:
Again, the idea isn’t to hold the kettlebells, but rather to rest them there in that racked position. Fortunately, kettlebells are designed with this position in mind, so it should actually feel quite a bit more natural than it does with dumbbells.
The only trick with kettlebells is that we might not have a pair of kettlebells that both weigh the same amount. Perhaps we have one 75-pounder and one 50-pounder. In that case, no problem, it just becomes an “offset” squat, like so:
Our legs will work just as hard, but now we’re got our obliques working to keep our torsos from leaning to the side. That’s a great bonus. We just need to remember to alternate sides from set to set. Or, if you prefer, you can alternate in the middle of each set.
Once we’re talking about holding two dumbbells or kettlebells, each going up to 75–100 pounds, and with sets going as high as twelve or even twenty reps, these become a longterm squat alternative for people without access to a barbell. If we ever do become too strong for these, though, we can always move on to two-dumbbell Bulgarian split squats.
The Low-Bar Squat
The low-bar squat is the biggest and most famous squat variation. It’s the squat variation that you’ll find in both Starting Strength and StrongLifts, and it’s the squat that you’ll see every powerlifter doing. It’s the squat that holds all of the world records.
The low-bar squat has you positioning the barbell lower on your upper back, usually on top of your rear delts, like so:
This “low-bar” position allows your hips to bear the brunt of the load and requires the least amount of upper-back strength (study). This allows most people to low-bar squat about 10% more weight than they can high-bar squat and about 25% more weight than they can front squat.
You’d think that the extra emphasis on the hips would come at the expense of the quads, but it doesn’t. The extra weight on the barbell makes up for the smaller moment arm. So, just like the other squat variations, it’s fantastic for our quads.
However, the low-bar squat does have its downsides. With the low-bar squat, we bend more at the waist, less at the knees. Problem is, that extra bend at the waist can cause our hips to jam up against our femurs, reducing our range of motion, and possibly leading to hip issues down the road. It’s a rare injury among the general public, but it’s relatively common for powerlifters.
Minimizing the involvement of the back muscles also makes the low-bar squat more of a specialized lower-body lift instead of an all-around size and strength builder. It becomes more about developing hip drive, less about developing overall strength.
Is the low-bar squat good for prioritizing hip growth? One reason someone might favour the low-bar squat is that they want proportionally bigger hips. We see this a lot with our female clients. The low-bar squat would allow them to “sit back” into the squat and then drive the barbell back up with their hips. That will indeed shift more emphasis to the hips while squatting.
Furthermore, because there’s so much emphasis on bending at the hips, the low-bar squat trains our glutes through a larger range of motion, similar to a deadlift. That’s great for building up a bigger, rounder butt.
Conclusion: This is a great squat for powerlifters and hip growth. However, if you’re not a powerlifter, and if you’re not trying to prioritize hip development, this probably isn’t the squat for you.
The High-Bar Squat
The high-bar squat bridges the gap between the low-bar and the front squat, and is oft considered the best all-purpose squat.
For starters, the high-bar squat has us positioning the barbell higher up on our backs, on top of our traps, like so:
This higher position requires less shoulder and wrist mobility, and it allows for a narrower grip and a sturdier upper-back contraction. The main difference between high-bar and low-bar squats, though, is that it changes our centre of gravity, allowing for a more upright torso:
As you can see, the high-bar squat is a sort of hybrid between the low-bar squat and the front squat. This makes it a great all-around squat, and it’s popular in a lot of general strength and powerbuilding programs.
However, most people can low-bar squat about 10% more weight than they can high-bar squat, making them extremely rare to see at powerlifting meets. As a result, you’ll see many high-level lifters preaching the benefits of the low-bar over the high-bar—because of its better carryover to powerlifting competitions.
Even with the lower weight, though, the high-bar squat tends to be better for bulking up. It uses a larger range of motion, there’s more space in the hips, and it’s a bit better for bulking up our back muscles. You’ll even see a lot of powerlifters squatting high-bar when they’re trying to gain mass.
We still argue that, on average, front squats are better for bulking up. But if for some reason front squats don’t agree with you, then high-bar squats are a great alternative. Even if you just want a change of pace now and then, these are sweet.
Conclusion: This is a rad all-around squat. Ain’t nothing bad to say about it. If you aren’t fond of front squatting, high-bar squats are a great choice.
Bodyweight Squat Alternatives
Without weights, we won’t be able to put much stress on our spines or stimulate much growth in our spinal erectors, but there are a few bodyweight squat variations that are great for building muscle in our quads and glutes:
- Bodyweight “air” squats
- Split squats & Bulgarian split squats
- Reverse lunges & walking lunges
- Pistol squats (holding something for balance)
There are a couple of accessory movements that are great for just our quads, too, such as:
- Sissy squats (if your knees are strong)
- Kneeling bodyweight knee extensions
Anything that challenges the strength or work capacity of our muscles can provoke muscle growth. However, we need to keep the hypertrophy principles in mind when trying to build muscle with bodyweight training:
- We should still lift in moderate rep ranges (of 5–40 reps per set): if we’re doing more than twenty reps per set, our pain tolerance can become a limiting factor instead of our muscle strength. If we’re doing more than forty reps per set, we stop stimulating as much muscle growth, and we start making endurance adaptations instead.
- We need to make sure that balance isn’t the limiting factor: if we’re concentrating more on keeping our balance than on working our muscles, we won’t be limited by our strength, and so we won’t provoke muscle growth.
- We need to lift closer to muscular failure: when we’re squatting in moderate rep ranges of 5–10, our muscles will often give out before our cardiovascular systems and pain tolerances start to limit us. Even when we stop shy of failure, our muscles have still been challenged enough to grow. With bodyweight training, though, the rep ranges can get quite a bit higher, and we’re more likely to stop our sets because we’re tired or in pain, and it becomes all the more important to endure all the way until our muscles actually start to give out.
So when it comes to choosing bodyweight squat variations, we need to find variations that are heavy enough to cause muscle failure before forty reps, and ideally before twenty reps (which might disqualify air squats). We also need to make sure that the lift is fairly sturdy so that our balance doesn’t limit us (which can be a problem with pistols quats). But if we can do that, then we can build just as much muscle with bodyweight squat variations.
The easiest way to make bodyweight squats heavier is to train one leg at a time (unilateral). If we can do forty air squats in a row, we may only be able to do twenty split squats (per side). As a result, the best bodyweight squat variations tend to be one-legged.
A fairly easy way to fix all of those problems, of course, is to do pistol squats while holding onto something for balance. That way we’re getting the challenge of pistol squats without our stability being the limiting factor.
The next trick to make bodyweight squats harder is to keep constant tension on our quads. To do this, we simply avoid locking out at the top of the lift. That’s going to keep our blood trapped around our quad muscle, giving us a bigger pump, limiting the number of reps we can do, and allowing us to get more muscle growth with fewer reps. (Taking this concept one step further, we can even experiment with blood-flow restriction training.)
Now, it’s true that using a larger range of motion tends to lead to greater muscle growth, but the most important part of the range of motion is getting a stretch at the bottom of the lift and then lifting through the sticking point (which is just above parallel). Because the very top of the squat is so easy, it won’t really stimulate any growth.
Furthermore, there’s nothing stopping us from adding a bit of external load. If we load up a backpack with books and hold it in front of ourselves, we now have a way to gradually make our Bulgarian split squats heavier over time.
Another cheap way to make bodyweight training heavier is to get resistance bands. The strength curves of resistance band lifts aren’t quite as good as barbells and dumbbells, but they’re still quite effective for stimulating muscle growth.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Split squats are good, but the range of motion tends to be fairly limited and our back legs can help contribute to the lift, allowing us to do more repetitions before hitting failure. To solve both of those problems, we can raise our back legs up, giving us the Bulgarian split squat. It will still take some practice before balance stops being a factor, but because we have our back legs balanced on a chair or bench, we have more stability than with a pistol squat.
Pistol squats are one of the harder bodyweight squat variations. The problem is that they require quite a lot of mobility, stability, and balance, meaning that until we’re quite skilled at them, our strength is unlikely to be the limiting factor, and so they won’t stimulate much muscle growth. The solution to that, though, is simply to hold onto something for balance until you don’t need it anymore.
The next way to make pistol squats better for building muscle is to avoid taking the tension off of our muscles at the top or bottom of the lift. It is good to get a stretch on our quads at the bottom of the lift, but we don’t want to rest there. And it is good to squat above and the sticking point (which is when our thighs are horizontal), but we don’t need to fully lock out the lift at the top. This makes the lift a bit harder, allowing us to get the same amount of muscle growth without needing to do as many reps.
Step-ups with a low step are a great bodyweight squat variation for beginners, and then as we become more advanced, we can gradually raise the step higher. Step-ups are also easy to add external load to, such as a backpack full of books.
Diagnosing Weak Links
When your squat strength plateaus as a beginner, the solution is usually to spend more time squatting or to gain more weight. Spending more time squatting will train the muscles that you need to improve at the squat, and eating more calories will allow those muscles to grow.
However, as an intermediate lifter, it pays to pay attention to why you’re unable to add more weight or eke out an extra rep. If your back is giving out, we can sneak in a bit of extra back work. If your quads are giving out, we can sneak in a bit of extra quad work.
Now, that extra work could come in the form of extra squatting, sure, but squats are damn hard. There’s only so much squatting you can do. If your back is giving out, it might be easier to address that with smaller, lighter, easier assistance and accessory exercises.
The first step to fixing a weak link is to figure out where that weak link is.
Your squat will fail for one of three reasons:
- Your back upper rounds because it’s not strong enough to support the weight. This is especially true with front squats, and it means that your spinal erectors are your limiting factor. If you’re eager to bulk up your upper back, that’s great news. Your back will grow stronger simply by continuing to do front squats. However, you can speed up your back growth even more with conventional deadlifts, bent-over rows, and good mornings. Using a lifting belt and improving your bracing technique can also help.
- Your hips shoot up at the bottom of the squat because your quads aren’t strong enough to lift you up. If this is happening while front squatting, remember to keep your torso upright while squatting. But this rarely happens with the front squat. It’s more common with low-bar and high-bar squats. To fix this, we simply need to strengthen your quads. You could do that by switching to front squats, of course, but you could also use the leg press, hack squats, step-ups, and split squats.
- Your form doesn’t crumble, but the bar won’t rise because your hips aren’t strong enough. This too is more likely to occur with the hip-dominant squat variations, especially if you “sit back” into a low-bar squat. You can bring up weak hips with more hip-dominant squatting, but you could also use glute bridges, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.
- Your quads run out of gas just above parallel. Great. This is a normal place to fail. More front squatting will fix this, but so will choosing quad-dominant assistance and accessory lifts.
Assistance Lifts for the Front Squat
As a beginner, there’s a good argument to be made for just practicing the main lifts more often. For example, a beginner might do goblet squats 2–3 days per week instead of using a variety of different squat variations. However, as an intermediate lifter, there are some advantages to bringing in assistance lifts:
- For general strength, assistance lifts are similar to the main variations, but they’re specifically designed to help us double down on our strengths or to fix a weak link.
- For general health, adding in this extra variety will give our joints and connective tissues a break from doing the exact same movement over and over again.
- For aesthetics, assistance lifts work our muscles in a slightly different way, stimulating new muscle fibres, and helping us to develop fuller muscles.
However, if you’re new to the front squat and you want to speed up the learning curve, it’s perfectly fine to do more front squatting instead of using assistance lifts.
Squat to a Box
Squatting to a box can help correct our tendency to squat with a shorter range of motion as the weight gets heavier. This is important because if your range of motion is getting shorter as the weight gets heavier, you aren’t actually giving your muscles a greater stimulus. You’d just be making the lift easier to account for the heavier weight.
If you practice squatting to a box for a few weeks, your squat depth should become much more consistent. Problem solved.
Squatting to a box is separate from a box squat. There’s a squat variation called the box squat, where you squat down to a box, sit on it, and then squat the weight back up. This isn’t that. Squatting to a box is where you do your squats just like normal, but you make sure to tap your butt against the box at the bottom of every rep.
If you have trouble keeping your upper back from rounding while front squatting or deadlifting, the Zercher squat will do a good job of strengthening your upper back muscles.
Zercher squats are where you hold the barbell in the crook of your elbows, down near your abs. These make a good accessory lift for both the sumo deadlift and the front squat, given that it works a number of the same muscles:
- Spinal erectors
- Upper back
Like the front squat, is holding the weight in front of you will allow you to keep a more upright torso and squat with a deeper range of motion. However, many people are able to go sink deeper when doing Zercher squats, which is another reason why they’re such a valuable assistance lift.
The main downside is that it’s hard and it hurts, but another significant downside is that it’s hard to lift as heavy on the Zercher squat as you can go on a front squat, with the biceps often being the limiting factor.
Accessory Lifts for the Front Squat
Accessory exercises will help make you even bigger, stronger, and better looking. In one study, the researchers compared the muscle development of people doing just squats compared with doing squats, leg presses and leg extensions. The volume was equated, so both groups were doing the same amount of lifting overall, and so as you’d expect, both groups gained the same amount of muscle mass.
What was cool, though, is that the participants doing a greater variety of exercises got more balanced muscle growth. All four heads of their quads grew proportionally. Surprisingly, adding in those accessory exercises even resulted in a greater increase in squat strength.
However, as we mentioned above, if you’re still learning the lifts, there’s a good case to be made for practicing them over and over again until your technique is solid. So if you’re still struggling with your front squat technique, it may be best to stick to front squats and goblet squats until that groove is fully greased.
But once you know how to squat properly, you don’t need that same relentless practice, and you can capitalize on the benefits of exercise variation.
The list of accessory lifts for the squat is endless, but here are our favourites:
- Leg press: the leg press is fairly heavy while also limiting the stress on your back muscles, allowing you to emphasize your lower body. If your quads are holding you back on the squat, the leg press is a great choice.
- Good morning: if your squats (or deadlifts) are limited by your back strength, good mornings are great for bulking up your spinal erectors. They’re good for your hips and hamstrings, too, making them a great accessory lift for both the squat and deadlift. If your quads aren’t limiting you on the squat, these are a solid choice.
- Step-up: this is another great exercise for bulking up your quads. Step-ups tend to be a bit easier and lighter than the leg press, allowing you to toss them onto the end of a tiring workout.
- Leg extension: this is another good way to bulk up your quads. However, leg extensions only bulk up your quads, making them fairly inefficient.
- Split squat: split squats work well but are a nightmare to do, making them a suitable exercise choice for people who hate themselves but still want awesome results.
- Bulgarian split squats: similar to split squats, Bulgarian split squats are a bit of a pain to learn and a bit of a pain to do, but they’re extremely effective for bulking up the quads.
If your hips are lagging behind your quads, you could switch to a low-bar squat position to emphasize your hips a bit more. However, keep in mind that we have a whole movement pattern designed to bulk up your hips: the deadlift.
So if your hips are lagging behind, that might be a reason to deadlift more often or to use more deadlift accessories (such as hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts).
Squats are one of the best hypertrophy lifts of all time, and are great for stimulating growth in the two biggest muscles in our bodies: our quads and glutes. The three main squat variations are the low-bar back squat, the high-bar back squat, and the front squat. All three are fantastic, but the low-bar squat is best for powerlifting, the front squat is best for gaining muscle size and aesthetics, and the high-bar squat is a good compromise between the two.
The reason that the front squat is ideal for gaining muscle size and aesthetics is that it works our quads through the largest range of motion, it stimulates growth in our upper-back muscles, it’s easiest on our joints, it carries a lower risk of injury, it improves our posture, and it’s the least fatiguing. Plus, the front squat is extremely knee-dominant, making it more distinct from the hip-dominant deadlift, adding more variety to our overall workout routines. But even so, you can pick whichever squat variation you prefer. All of them are amazing.
The main downside to the front squat is that it’s hard for beginners to learn, and so starting with a goblet squat is a good way to flatten the learning curve. Until you can do 10+ reps with the heaviest dumbbell (or weight plate) you have access to, there’s no need to switch over to the front squat.
In addition to our main squat variation, we can use assistance lifts to help practice the general movement pattern while adding a bit of variety into our routines. The Zercher squat pairs well with the front squat, since both have us holding the weight in front of ourselves. Another good assistance lift, especially if you’re having trouble hitting consistent depth, is the squat-to-a-box, where you tap your butt against a box (or whatever) at the bottom of every rep.
We can also use accessory lifts to stimulate extra growth in our quads, glutes, and backs with entirely different movement patterns. For example, the leg press is a great lift for bulking up our quads in a way that transfers well to the front squat. Or, if you want to improve your leg aesthetics, it can help to include some dedicated knee extension exercises, such doing leg extensions on an exercise machine. These help to bulk up the heads of the quads that aren’t trained well with squatting movements.
By combining heavier barbell squats with assistance and accessory lifts—for instance, doing front squats, leg presses, and leg extensions—we can gain muscle size and general strength in a balanced and versatile way with a lower risk of running into overuse injuries.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program.