The Squat

 By: Emily Sluis, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS and Brittni Hsu, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW


There are a wide variety of different squatting techniques and varying discussion on the differences of each and when to use them. This month, we are going to discuss common squat variations and benefits of each. The main types of squats are goblet squat, front squats, back squats, and overhead squats.

The Goblet Squat   

Named for the way in which you hold the dumbbell - in front of the chest, with the hands cupped - the goblet squat is great for warm-ups, for squat movements where weight isn't the focus, and for teaching technique to beginners. 

The anterior load of a goblet squat forces the patient or athlete to sit their hips back in order to maintain their balance, teaching and reinforcing a proper squat pattern by engaging the posterior chain. While the goblet squat is great for beginners, due to the fact that the resistance is held much farther in front of the center of mass, the weight pulls the body forward and exploits a weak core. Because of the nature of the exercise, heavy loading is difficult and awkward. For focus on increasing load, the front squat is a better option.

The Front Squat

In the front squat, the barbell is in front of the neck, across the front of the shoulders. Front squats require excellent mobility - thoracic spine mobility to keep your chest up, wrist flexibility and shoulder mobility to rack the bar, hip mobility to squat low, and ankle mobility to effectively complete the movement. Very similar to the goblet squat, the athlete needs a more vertical trunk position and the hips and knees will inevitably be pushed forward to keep the bar positioned over the middle of the foot and allow the body to remain balanced.

Because the knee and hips must travel anteriorly into a positive shin angle, the front squat is naturally a more quad-dominant squat variation due to the large moment arm acting at the knee. The front squat typically allows for the greater squat depth, which is great for quad strength development, however, may be irritating to patients or athletes with chronic knee issues.

In comparison to the goblet squat, because the load of the bar is closer to the center of mass, there are fewer complaints of back pain. However, this is only applicable if the athlete is able to perform the front squat with proper technique.

These first two squat variations place the external load anterior to the center of mass during the exercise. The back squat, in comparison, places the load posteriorly, which changes the biomechanics and muscular involvement.  

The above picture illustrates the differences in the front squat and back squat. Notice the more vertical trunk position and greater depth of squat with the front squat. During the front squat, due to greater anterior knee excursion, a larger external moment arm is created from the knee joint center to the line of gravity acting at the barbell. This puts a greater load put on the quad and knee joint. In contrast, there is a larger external moment arm acting at the hip during the back squat, which loads the hips and glutes more as compared to the front squat.  

The Back Squat

Goblet squats, front squats, and back squats all effectively work the core, hip, and lower extremities, but there are slight variations in technique and muscular involvement when the load is posterior versus anterior. In the back squat, the barbell is behind the neck, which allows the athlete or patient to extend their hips back further and creates less stress on the knees. The back squat also requires a greater forward trunk lean than the front squat, and thus, doesn’t irritate the back as much.

However, the change in position of the bar also changes the biomechanics and muscular involvement during the squat. Quite simply, anterior-loaded squats target the quads, while back squats focus more on the hips and glutes. Both lifts recruit all these muscles together, but the emphasis shifts from one lift to the other.

Since front squats place a greater emphasis on the quads—as opposed to back squats which rely on the more powerful glutes and hips of the back squat, the maximum amount of weight an individual can lift varies between the two techniques, with increased capacity possible for the back squat. This means that a back squat is generally superior in handling heavier loads, thus maximizing strength gains. It is suggested that a balanced athlete with good mobility and proficiency should be able to front squat around 70-85% of their back squat weight.

The Overhead Squat  

The overhead squat is one of the most difficult of all squat as it also emphasizes overhead shoulder mobility, core stability, and requires excellent thoracic mobility. In an overhead squat position, the dowel rod or if able to tolerate, a load (barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell), would be held at end range shoulder flexion while the athlete completes a squat, looking for the same mechanics as you would in a front and back squat. Common deficits in mobility cause compensations including difficulty maintaining the load with your elbows fully extended and maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement avoiding lumbar extension. It is also critical to have full closed chain ankle mobility and hip mobility.

The overhead squat is commonly used in movement screens to reveal various mobility and stability deficits. Due to the difficulty of overhead squats, it is very uncommon to have perfect overhead squat.

To quickly recap, the goblet squat is great for teaching beginners proper squat patterns. The front squat can really develop quad strength and hypertrophy, but may be irritating to patients with previous low back or knee issues. In comparison to the front squat, the back squat allows you to add increasing loads for strength development, but focuses more on the glutes than the quads. And the overhead squat is very difficult to complete due common mobility issues, but adds in an additional stability component by having the load overhead. The squat is an instrumental exercise for patients and athlete alike, but needs to be taught with proper technique and keeping these considerations in mind