5 Exercises to Increase Your Front Squat and Quadriceps Size

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The front squat is an exceptional exercise for building quadriceps size and overall leg strength. It also beefs up your upper back and posterior chain. It has significant carryover to the back squat in powerlifting, building aesthetic teardrop-shaped quadriceps in bodybuilding, clean and jerk in Olympic lifting, and notorious CrossFit workouts like Fran.

The front squat is a compound movement targeting the quadriceps. The gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, and soleus are the supporting muscle groups assisting the target muscle during the movement.

Related: 5 Barbell Front Squat Tips to Improve Your Max

The hamstrings, gastrocnemius, erector spinae, anterior and lateral deltoid, supraspinatus, trapezius (lower, middle, & upper), clavicular head of the pectoralis major, levator scapulae, serratus anterior, and abdominals (rectus abdominis and obliques) act as stabilizers during this exercise. [1] Stabilizer muscles help maintain a posture or fixate a joint by contracting without significantly moving. [2]

The front squat is most commonly performed using a barbell but can also be completed using dumbbells, kettlebells, cable, or sled machine. To keep the bar is racked on the shoulders throughout the entire movement you may choose the Olympic clean grip or the crossed arms grip commonly used by bodybuilders and those with limited wrist flexibility.

The five exercises outlined below are going to not only going to increase your front squat strength but are also going to increase the size and strength of the muscles used to execute the movement.

Tiger Fitness CMO Marc Lobliner discusses the differences between front and back squats.

The 5 Best Exercises for Increasing Your Front Squat

#1 – Front Squat Variations

Now you may think this first recommendation is poor one, but hear me out. Far too often in the fitness community we see people looking to add exercise after exercise to bring up lagging muscle groups and stimulates muscles from different angles. While this sort of variation has its place, improper exercise selection can quickly lead to poor carryover in achieving the desired goal.

You’re reading this article because you want to increase your front squat and rightfully so, it’s an exceptional exercise. I encourage you to program front squat variations like partials, pauses, breathing reps, lockout holds, and bottoms-up repetitions. While they may not be the most glamorous exercises they’re incredible effective at reinforcing proper form, exposing muscle weaknesses, bringing up muscle imbalances, priming your central nervous system, and powering through mid-repetition sticking points.

Partial repetitions involve adjusting the load and limiting the exercise’s range of motion so that you can blast through sticking points. Do you always find yourself struggling to stay upright midway through the descent?

Then set the support pins just below the point where you pitch your torso forward. Practice keeping the elbows high, abdominals braced, and feet spreading the floor. With this safety catch you can perform more repetition or use slightly more weight with decreased injury risk.

Paused repetitions are one of the best exercise variations in your workout arsenal. If you’ve never perform paused reps then get ready for some serious intensity increases. This variation is pretty self-explanatory; at some point during the movement pause for 1 to 5 seconds before continuing with the repetition. In the case of front squats most lifters choose to pause at the bottom of the movement/in-the-hole.

Olympic Lifts

During this pause focus on engaging the target and supporting groups while staying as tight as possible. You should expect to lower the weight if you want to accomplish the same number of paused reps compared to traditional reps. incorporating pauses during your warm-up or back-off sets are an excellent way to increase time under tension, blast the quadriceps, and jack up the heart rate.

If you’re a true masochist then experiment with breathing paused reps. I first heard about these from Greg Nuckols, owner and author of StrengthTheory. Instead of pausing based on the number of seconds he recommends pausing based on the number of complete breaths.

You should start with a very low percentage of your 1 repetition maximum for these (30-50%) as they’re extremely taxing on the muscles, especially the abdominals, upper back, and posterior chain. Throw these in during your warm-up or back-off sets and you’ll see both size and strength increases.

Lockout holds are an excellent tool for building confidence with heavier weights. Let’s say your 1 repetition maximum is 305 or 310 and you want 315 so bad yet the psychological though of 315, 3 plates per side, is daunting.

Build confidence with this heavier weight by loading up the bar, setting your starting position, unracking the bar, and holding the lockout position for 5 to 15 seconds. This technique will not only help you break through the psychological barrier of a heavier weight but it will also increase upper back engagement and prime your central nervous system for your working sets.

Bottoms-up repetition might be the most underrated front squat variation for improve strength and muscle size. While many lifters have no issues unracking the bar and staying tight during the descent, a large majority find themselves loosing tightness and pitching their torso forward during the ascent.

Start with the ascent, hardest part of the movement, first. Set the pins at or slightly above the usual bar position when you’re at the bottom of the lift. Carefully get in to the racked position when the bar is resting on these pins and perform the ascent. Focus on keeping the elbows high and abdominals braced.

You may find yourself lowering the weight to complete the same number of reps and that’s ok, in fact it’s encouraged. Building strength and explosiveness out of the hole will expedite your progress.

#2 – Hack Squats

The best auxiliary movements to improve your front squat strength and size of the engaged muscle groups should have a strikingly similar movement pattern. The hack squat is a prime example of a brutally effective exercise with high carryover. This exercise can be performed using a barbell, Smith machine, plate-loaded lever machine, or plate-loaded sled.

This compound push exercise hammers the quadriceps while also engaging the glutes, hamstrings, posterior chain, and upper back. The barbell variation is the most difficult to perform but also builds forearm and grip strength. When performing the barbell variation take a shoulder width stance and place the barbell directly behind your ankles.

Take a double overhand or mixed grip and squat down until the quadriceps are almost parallel with the floor. Take a deep breath, brace the abdominals impact and stand up. Ensure your hips stay low, shoulder blades remain retracted, arms, and back are as straight and upright as possible.

The same movement can be accomplished with the Smith machine. If you find these variations difficult to perform then try the available hack squat machines at your gym.

#3 – Leg Press

While a majority of your exercises should be free-weight barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell exercises, machines should not be neglected. Exercise machines like the leg press offer you the ability to blast your quadriceps, isolate your lower body, support your lower back, and decrease the risk of injury if training to failure.

The leg press at your gym may be at a plate-loaded sled or lever machine loaded at 45 degrees, horizontal, or vertical angle. While the leg press doesn’t utilize as many stabilizer muscles as the front squat it’s an excellent tool for overload the quadriceps; while you may have trouble repping 225lbs on front squats you may find it easy to crank out sets of 20+ reps on the leg press with that weight. Placing your feet on the lower end of the platform with further emphasize quadriceps muscle fiber recruitment.

Throughout this movement it’s crucial to keep your knees in-line with the direction of your toes, to press through your heels rather than your toes, and to ensure your knees don’t cave in. Add a few sets of 10-20 reps in the middle of your workout or a brutal finisher set of 50+ reps at the end of your workout with increase both your quad size and front squat numbers.

#4 – Cleans

When many bodybuilders and powerlifters hear Olympic-lifting related exercises like the clean, jerk, and snatch they express extreme concern with the movement, citing it’s too technical to perform without an experience coach. While a coach is extremely helpful for increasing your competition lift total and improving form, you can safely perform these movements on your own. While they do require more mobility, explosiveness, and flexibility than most other exercises, cleans are a great tool for increasing your front squat.

Full and hang cleans are most commonly performed using a barbell but can also be taught using kettlebells. Cleans are essentially a bottoms-up front-loaded squat variation. The rack position used in cleans and front squats can be identical. This movement increases hip mobility, ankle flexibility, upper back size, and explosiveness out of the bottom of a front squat.

If you hone-in on your clean form and focus on increasing your strength in this exercise there’s a high likelihood your front squat numbers and thigh size will also progress. If you’re new to Olympic movements then approach this lift as you would any other; watch form videos, start light, progress slowly, listen to your body, and seek out the feedback experienced trainees if possible.

MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner demonstrates proper goblet squat form.

#5 – Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is an exceptionally effective movement that’s just beginning to get the attention it deserves. Although the movement cannot be loaded heavily and is relatively simple to perform it’s an excellent tool for reinforcing proper form, warming up the lower body, finishing off a brutal leg day, and packing meat on to the thighs.

This exercise can be performed using one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. If performing the one bell variation begin by selecting a weight, placing it vertically in-line with your hips and in between your legs. Take a shoulder width or slightly wider stance and position the kettlebell so that the handle is facing up or place the dumbbell vertically so that one end is facing up.

Squat down and grab the handle or dumbbell with a neutral overhand grip. Bring the bell to chest height and fully extend the hips and knees; this is your start position. Take a deep breath and bend your hips and knees, holding the bell at chest height throughout the entire movement. Hold at the bottom of the movement to increase intensity and mobility of the hips.

Push through your heels back to the starting position, breathing out as your ascend or at the top of the repetition. For the two bell variations hold one in each hand horizontally using a neutral overhand grip.

This squat variation is front-loaded and engages the upper back like the front squat, requires little to no set-up to perform, and can be used at any point during a workout. If you’re looking to increase your squat volume without significantly hampering recovery then the goblet squat is a key tool in your exercise arsenal.

References

1) Griffing, James, et al. “Barbell Front Squat.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.
2) Griffing, James, et al. “Kinesiology Glossary.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2015. Web.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.