How to Improve Your Front Squat Without Squatting

In most sports, practice makes perfect.
Take basketball for instance. If you’re a poor free throw shooter and need to improve this aspect of your game, the usual solution is to practice more free throws.

Spend more time focusing on your weakness to improve it. Makes sense, right? When it comes to improving your squat, deadlift, or bench press you’ll spend more time squatting, deadlifting, or bench pressing, right? But what if you spend more time focusing on this weakness and it never improves? Do you keep grinding away day after day and risk injury by pushing yourself to the brink? Or do you throw in the towel and blame genetics? What if there is an underlying cause that you haven’t examined? Joseph Campbell once said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” This statement is true for all aspects of life- whether it be business, relationships, communication, or even the lifts you perform in the gym. We all have fears. For most lifters, one major fear we all wish to avoid is the fear of being weak.

The Squat Showdown

Ask ten different people what the king of all lifts is and half will tell you it’s the squat and the other half will tell you it’s deadlifts.

But, ask those same ten lifters which is the superior squat variation- the front or back squat. A once friendly conversation turns into mass hysteria. Manhoods are ridiculed, egos are called out, and battle lines more intense than Waterloo are drawn.

Here’s the thing though. Some of the most wickedly strong men on the planet are jacked beyond belief because they front squat. You’ve been avoiding the front squat because it highlights some glaring weaknesses you’re too afraid to face. These weaknesses are not only holding back your front squat numbers. They are preventing you from getting stronger in every other lift. Here are the three reasons you’re not as strong as you want to be:

  1. You have the thoracic mobility of Quasimodo
  2. Weak upper back strength
  3. Poor anterior core strength or activation
ways to improve your front squat without squatting

Here’s the thing. Some of the most wickedly strong men on the planet are jacked beyond belief because they front squat. Image courtesy of:

Listen, Mobility Matters

The vast majority of us- even fitness writers- spend far too much time hunched over our computers with rounded shoulders.

To make matters worse, many of us assume this position again once we get home. We hunch while we surf the internet or play our favorite video games for hours at night.

Rounded shoulders cause our pec minor and major to become shortened and tight. Meanwhile muscles like our traps, rhomboids, lats, and rear deltoids lengthen and weaken. Hence the Quasimodo-like posture. To maintain the upright posture needed to front squat you need good thoracic mobility. Actually, you need thoracic mobility period. This will affect your overall chest and back strength (more on that later), not to mention improve your posture. Improving your thoracic mobility can be done every day with a few stretches. You can add them into your workout warm-up or your morning routine. Hell, you can even do these on breaks at the office or during a Netflix binge.

The quadruped thoracic rotation is a perfect stretch to add into your warm up. Or you can do it while you wait for YouTube advertisements to finish. Assuming an all fours position on the ground, place one hand behind your head. Without rotating from your hips, reach with your elbow underneath the stationary hand. Then rotate back to the starting position and take your elbow to the sky- reaching as far as you comfortably can without pain. Perform ten reps per side. If you’re a frequent flyer, this is an excellent mobility movement to do once you land to help unstiffen your back from the flight.

Other optional thoracic mobility exercises include:

  • Side Lying Windmills
  • Thoracic Bridge
  • Walking Spiderman with Overhead Reach
  • Thoracic Spine Opening on Foam Roller

Your go-to t-spine mobility movement on your front squat days should be the Bench T-Spine Mobilization exercise. This stretch not only hits your t-spine, but it also provides a stretch into your lats and improves shoulder flexion. Both are key to building a better rack position.


Ways to improve your front squat without squatting

Just look at all that great mobility. Image courtesy of:

Back to What’s Important

Let’s say you have good thoracic mobility, but holding a barbell in the rack position still feels like you’re cradling a small elephant.

What’s the deal? I hate to tell you this, but your back isn’t strong enough to support the weight of the barbell.

Upper back muscles like the serratus anterior, levator scapulae, rhomboids, the traps, and, of course, the lats have to work together to elevate your shoulder blades and rotate them upwards into the rack position. If your upper back muscles aren’t strong enough to support the weight you’re holding in the rack position, it’s likely that you’ll find your back rounding in the bottom of the front squat. Hammering the big compound lifts like barbell rows and weighted chin-ups are always crucial for building a strong back. We’ve all heard the adage, “If you want to grow, you gotta row.” There are some great row variations that will help you build a back strong enough to support the weight of the bar in the rack position. Hit your rhomboids by throwing in 3 sets of 10-12 reps of Batwing Rows. Does your lower back or hamstrings tire out too easily while performing bent-over rows? Add in chest supported rows (flat or with a slight incline) and row your heart out. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades at the top of the movement to work the muscles of the mid-back and rhomboids more. As with most big lifts, your lats play a huge role in maintaining a strong rack position. Exercises like stiff-arm lat pulldowns, dumbbell pullovers (Arnold’s favorite), and weighted pull-ups and chin-ups are excellent for this. In today’s world, however, we’re all time crunched and looking to get more bang for our buck. The 3-Point dumbbell row is not only a great row variation but it also activates your anterior core. A weak anterior core is the third reason why many people can’t handle front squatting. This exercise will help you take care of problem number two while giving your core a few more experience points.

The Core Issue

Core strength and stability are crucial to about every lift known to man.

Poor core strength can lead to injuries. If there is one thing besides the fear of being weak you want to avoid as a lifter, it’s getting injured.

Ways to improve your front squat without squatting

This makes for a fun party trick, but it’s not an effective way of training your core. Keep reading. Image courtesy of:

The lack of a strong and stable core is also one of the reasons why many people run screaming from front squats. Most lifters who fail to engage or lack the anterior core strength to front squat will bastardize the movement pattern. They try to make the front squat feel more like a back squat. This typically causes most people to overextend their backs. Over time this places a significant amount of wear and tear on your lumbar spine. It can destroy your long-term performance more than a blast from the Death Star. For years, internet clowns have waved their anti-core training flags proudly. Proclaiming that squatting and deadlifting are enough to build and maintain a strong core. In everything in life, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If your weakest link is your core, look no further for the reason you’ve stalled out in your squat and deadlift. There are countless ways to increase core strength and stability:

Stability and strength are boosted by focusing on core movements that are anti-extension, anti-flexion, and anti-rotation. These help you keep a more neutral core which is crucial to a proper front squat. The most versatile core exercise you can use in this instance is the pallof press. I use some variation of the pallof press with all of my clients, online or in the gym. It’s less intimidating and painful than asking someone to hold a plank. I’ve found that most clients tend to feel the results from this after only 2-3 reps. The best variation to use while working on core engagement for front squats is the pallof press with overhead reach. By pressing the cable or band overhead, you recruit more of your obliques and rectus abdominus muscles to prevent flexion. Excessive flexion at the bottom of the front squat is a one-way ticket to dumps-ville.

Weak Racks are Wack

Taking the time to improve these sticking points for your rack position is important.

It will make front squatting less painful. It will also carry over to other areas of the gym.

Improving your thoracic mobility will improve overall shoulder health. A stronger back means more gains all around. Building and maintaining anterior core strength will lead to better posture and a healthier lower back. Building a better rack leads to getting more jacked.

About the Author

Robbie FarlowRobbie Farlow, King of the Gingers and Protector of the North, is an uber nerd who loves all things Star Wars, video games, Marvel, and 90s music. Oh and tacos and whiskey. When he isn’t hosting his podcast, Side Quest Podcast, where he interviews the smartest people in fitness, or helping his online coaching clients discover their inner superheroes, or fighting white walkers, you can find him playing video games, deadlifting, munching on tacos, or living by his motto: Scotch and Squats.