Jiu-jitsu and MMA are sports that demand several qualities from every athlete participating – strength, mobility, durability, and strength endurance. Unfortunately, it’s common that these elements are lacking in many athletes, even when their skill level is high. It’s also true that many jiu-jitsu or MMA athletes are already spending most of their time training jiu-jitsu, not doing strength training in a gym. This means any athlete that supplements their skill training with strength training needs to choose exercises that accomplish a lot with less total time & effort..
If you had to build more muscular & more powerful legs for any athlete, build their range of motion & flexibility in the entire body, strengthen their knees, core & upper back for impact, while only choosing one exercise, there is a quick answer the best strength coaches will give you:
Use the front squat.
The strongest and most explosive athletes in the world have built their strength using a front squat for decades.
“why not just use a back squat instead?”
A barbell back squat is also a useful tool. However, the front squat provides some distinct positive advantages over other squat variations:
The front squat makes it easier to strengthen the legs & build mobility. In a front squat, the grip places weight in front of you instead of behind your shoulders. Because of this difference in weight distribution… the athlete’s torso remains upright and this allows them to work the legs more than the lower back. This is a positive feature that comes from the constraints a Front squat contains. The squat remains “honest” as you cannot tip forward and the legs must do the work over the back.
This position also allows you to sink into a deeper position without falling forward as easily which helps develop hip mobility and range of motion better. (See Olympic lifter’s mobility) In contrast, athletes often lean forward in a back squat while lifting the weight and this creates both strain and fatigues the low back instead of working the legs fully as intended. Again, this is a highlight of the “constraint” of a front squats frontal > backward loading strategy.
The front squat also allows the upper body to remain mobile providing us with the mobility needed to move through, apply, and escape positions on the mats while grappling.
So we understand that the front squat is a useful training tool to develop a strong lower body, that can build our mobility, and prevent overworking our lower back so we can shoot more powerful takedowns and positions on the mat explosively.
Let’s explain how you can begin to front squat.
Like with any compound lift, success is mastering the initial setup before the repetition begins.
One of the most distinct and variable aspects of a front squat is the placement of the bar and the grip used. There are several grips most commonly utilized by athletes.
This is the most classic grip utilized due to its traditional nature during the execution of Olympic lifts – where front squats were popularized.
A clean grip both demands but also can generate mobility adaptations in the shoulders, wrists, and elbows.
The scapula is forced to protract forward & upward (arms reach forward and up) while the elbows and wrists are bent to nest the bar.
This position is the most classic and when done well feels very secure and lends itself well to all other exercises of an Olympic lifting nature.
This can build & maintain mobility + resiliency in the upper body in many cases – the only downside is there is still a baseline level of mobility required to comfortably begin using this position and many will need to use a different grip to start.
If using this grip – it is generally done with only a few fingers under the bar. Do not grab it with your full and do not rest or carry the weight on your hands/wrists.
The most traditional solution lifters have solved the aforementioned issue with the cross grip. This is the classic “bodybuilding grip“ that many non-Olympic lifting bodybuilder trainers have used which was not burdened by the mobility requirements in the upper back and arms.
This was sometimes necessary with very large armed bodybuilders who had grown to a point where proper access to a Clean grip position began to become difficult. However, for anyone except for the largest (and usually hormonally enhanced) bodybuilders, a cross-arm grip may not be necessary and in some cases can feel uneven due to one arm needing to fold over the other.
This can create some shoulder discomfort in many cases especially when heavier weights are used – however, you can experiment and if the script feels comfortable to you it is an option.
One way some athletes frequently circumvent not having current access to the mobility required for a full clean grip is by using straps.
This simply lowers the elbow and wrist demand and many grapplers who may be working their wrists and elbows intensely at practice could use this as an option to prevent overstressing the lower arm.
It does require a pair of lifting straps that you loop under the bar and make sure and space them securely.
Note: While this takes away some of the mobility requirements for those that haven’t built it up – depending on your structure – some people feel the bar is less secure and they can’t move as much weight. Experiment for yourself but if you are only using the straps method it may be worth experimenting with the other grips if you want to lift heavier.
This grip is simply identical to a clean grip except your arms are extended fully forward “like a zombie”.
Removes while lightening the burden on the shoulders by consequence as well.
The zombie grip also places more total weight in front of you due to the weight of your lower arms and can make it easier to counterbalance and allow athletes to stay upright while squatting.
This is a highly underrated, low-demand, and easy-to-learn variation that not only makes it effective for training your legs but also helps athletes learn how to facilitate a squat pattern effectively.
This exaggerates the benefits a front squat already has even further and can help many people “learn to squat“ much faster than if they simply began with a back squat – which has fewer “constraints”.
So some may not consider this a “front squat“ variation – including as a grip that loads squat in the front of the body and has a similar effect/advantages and also has some positive carryover to grappling athletes.
This will work the upper back at a different angle and provide the midsection with a stimulus for getting strong.
Zercher squats can make the squatting pattern easy for some body types or those who would rather hold the load in their elbows than on their shoulders. You can decide on what is most comfortable for you and searches can be made more comfortable on the elbows by using pads on the barbell.
Follow these steps and cues to help perform a proper front squat – and utilize the troubleshooting methods below if you are struggling.
(These steps will specifically apply to the majority of front squats while a Zercher squat might require some differences for those unsure of themselves)
- Set up a barbell at approximately upper chest height. The bar should be lower than your clavicles but higher than your sternum. It should require a shallow dip for you to get under the bar and un-rack it in the next step.
- Regardless of the specific grip you are using (unless using a Zercher grip) grab the bar with your hands evenly spaced just outside of your shoulder width. This distance can be experimented with after the next couple of steps if you need adjustment.
- While securely maintaining a position/distance between your hands, bend your knees and step under the bar, swing your elbows under the barbell and point them forward so the barbell is resting on top of your clavicles and anterior deltoids. You should be in what is roughly a quarter squat position with what is at least close to a “clean grip” with your feet shoulder width underneath the bar in a position you feel comfortable standing from – your torso should be upright and the weight of the bar should be lightly pressing into your clavicles and shoulders.
The barbell should be touching your neck.
- If you are planning on using any grip besides a clean grip – at this time adjust the position of your hands and arms as needed to re-secure the bar with your chosen grip without losing the positioning of your shoulders, torso, and legs under the bar. Doing this at this time ensures that you are centered on the barbell and do not stand up holding the weight asymmetrically. If you are using a clean you could just secure that grip with your elbows high and skip this step.
- With your torso upright legs slightly bent the barbell secure against your neck and shoulders and your preferred grip in place, drive your elbows up so that they are slightly above parallel to the ground (elbows pointed in front of you and slightly up). Stand up with the barbell to un-rack it from the squat rack.
- Once you are standing up, keeping your elbows high, and feeling secure holding the weight, take a step back with one leg, ensure you are balanced and secure, and take another step back with the other leg. You can repeat this process once more if you need slightly more space from the rack but mind your surroundings.
- Use a mirror in front of you, or practice finding positioning with a lightweight, widen the stance of your feet so they are approximately shoulder width apart with your toes pointed slightly out between 10 and 45°. (This can vary between individuals and will be covered more below)
- Now that your upper body and lower body are in secure positions bearing the weight, you can begin to initiate a repetition by bending at the knees slightly. While bending at the knees your body will naturally want to counterbalance by hinging at the hips very slightly as well. Think about keeping your torso somewhat upright while bending your knees so they come forward. Your hips will naturally accommodate to balance. Your feet should be bearing the weight in this movement evenly through the ball, heel & side of the foot the entire time. (See figure A)
- KEEP YOUR ELBOWS UP while you lower yourself until you reach desired depth – which at a minimum should be so that the crease of your hips is even with the height of your knees. However, as long as your torso can remain fairly upright and you are comfortable squatting lower might be desired. The bar should never be rolling down your arms and shoulders and should remain secure in the position it started with the entire time. You should not be falling forward in this movement at all. Your knees should remain over your toes and not collapse inward between your legs.
- Once you reach the bottom position, immediately reverse course by standing up by driving your legs into the ground to straighten them and keep your chest and elbows up high. Stand up with the bar until you reach the starting position again.
When the desired number of reps is completed you can take one step forward at a time to place the barbell back into the rack. Make sure you set both ends of the barbell very securely onto the rack before setting it down and do not step out from under the barbell until you feel the rack fully and securely bearing its weight. Be cautious here and do not rush re-racking the bar.
Poor Set Up
Notice that the majority of the steps to perform a front squat began with a conscious and deliberate setup before any repetitions even began. Most problems in many exercises are not form that should be best remedied during a repetition but arise due to recklessly and impulsively beginning the movement.
Utilizing the steps written above that may seem more “boring“ regarding a proper setup are crucial so that the actual squatting pattern and force can be produced through the legs properly.
If you are having any problems at all the first step should be to review your grip, torso, and foot positioning.
Working in close connection to the above – some individuals cannot sit their butt down between their legs because they do not widen the position of their thighs enough.
Their femur and hips/stomach/rib cage collide into one another and the backgrounds forward to artificially lower the bar.
Make sure your thighs come out wide enough that your body has the mobility in space to lower itself between your heels. This can be accomplished through a combination of, pointing your toes out more, and making sure your knees are pushed outward just enough that they align with where your toes are pointing throughout the majority of the squat (sometimes they pull in a bit at the reversal stage of a squat and this is fine for a moment).
One of the most common struggles individuals have with the front spot is falling forward and struggling to hold the weight on their shoulders as they attempt to lift heavy.
This is not a drawback of a front squat but actually a feature.
While many individuals interpret this as a problem because they cannot lift as heavy of weight in comparison to a deadlift or back spot – what they are unknowingly noticing is that their legs (specifically the quadriceps and knees) are usually not strong enough to bear the weight they are asking of it.
In back squats and deadlifts, you can lift more weight because the body can tip forward at the hips and use the back and hamstrings/posterior chain to lift the weight. As we mentioned earlier in this post this is precisely what we use a front squat to avoid.
A front squat punishing your tendency to tip forward and hope to lift the barbell with your back is what forces you to challenge the legs themselves.
Individuals tipping forward on a front squat are not bending at the knees and pushing their knees forward, and are not strong enough to lift the weight with their legs on the way up – thus they instead shoot their hips up tall to get into a deadlift position where they are stronger to lift the weight.
When this is done the quads are not being challenged and your front squat has already failed.
The simplest solution to this problem is understanding that you have reached failure when you need to tip forward to complete a repetition as a front squat can’t be done that way or lower the weight being used so that you can squat with an upright enough torso that the bar does not lose position on your shoulders.
The key here is to UNDERSTAND that we want the knees extending to be the primary joint that lifts the weight and not the hips standing up. “Falling forward” is just compensation for the quads failing and thus the set is “complete”.
Ensure you are driving your legs into the floor with weight evenly pressed through the heel and the entire front of the foot (ball of the foot to the outside edge of the foot).
The front squat is one of the most valued and powerful tools for gaining strength in any athlete. It is used by many renowned strength coaches and athletes to build raw power for contact sports.
By taking the time to develop your ability to front squat – you can make a strong investment into gaining the leg strength that will allow you to prevent more injuries, finish takedowns, escape positions, dominance scrambles, and ultimately win more matches on the mat.
Review this post over again if needed as it can be a lot of information to digest at once.
As always, train sensibly and enjoy front squatting.
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