3 Front Squat Alternatives for Shredded Quads & Sculpted Abs

Oct 11, 2022 | Strength & Conditioning

Young muscular woman exercise goblet squat with kettlebell on hard training at the garage gym.
Ah, the famous front squat. Great for hamstrings, quads, upper back, AND core. Not great for people who struggle with shoulder mobility and getting into the front rack position. Don’t force yourself to front squat if it doesn’t feel right to you — try these alternatives instead.

Sari Terranova is a total supermom, CPT, and nutrition coach who introduces women and youth athletes to the power of weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and functional strength training. She understands that not every move is for every person, so she’s come up with some killer front squat alternatives that’ll still get you the gains you want.

Sari Terranova
Sari Terranova

Sometimes No Pain Actually Equals More Gains

Some people will tell you that there’s certain exercises you simply must do. This is rarely a valid piece of advice. Our bodies are all constructed with such unique proportions that these sweeping declarations can actually be dangerous.

The front squat is one of those movements that may elicit a sneer of disgust from a judgy coach when they discover that it’s not part of your regular programming. However, if you lack mobility in your upper back and wrists, the front rack position can be uncomfortable or painful, even if you use straps or a cross grip.

Luckily, modifications can be made to almost any movement that allow you to build strength safely. Alternatives can help correct imbalances, increase mobility, and expand your repertoire of safe and effective movements.

If you’re front-rack-challenged (like me), try using these front-squat alternatives for safe and pain-free leg day gains.

Front Squat vs. Back Squat

So, what’s all the hype about the front squat, anyways? Very similar muscle activation happens in most squat variations (quads, glutes, hammies, calves, core), but evidence shows that the front squat may have an edge on back squats for quadricep firing (in contrast to slightly more glute action on the back squat).

Because the weight is loaded anteriorly (on the front of your body), the front squat requires a more upright posture to avoid face-planting in the middle of the gym, resulting in slightly less hip extension.

This front squat also reduces stress on the lumbar region, which makes it a good alternative on your lower body days if back squats hurt your lower back.

Additionally, maintaining an upright torso when doing a front squat requires increased core recruitment, making it a bodybuilder’s go-to variation for teardrop quads and ripped abs.

Make More Progress in the Gym

3 Best Front Squat Alternatives

1. Kettlebell Goblet Squats

Goblet squats are great for front squat novices. They’re simple to perform, require minimal equipment (you can sub a dumbbell held vertically if you don’t have a KB), and you can do them almost anywhere.

Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Dig your feet into the ground to find your regular squatting stance (which is a little different for everyone), grip the sides of the handle or the ball of the kettlebell, holding it close to your chest.

Inhale and brace your core. Keep your elbows close to your body, engage your lats, and keep your chest upright as you squat down until your elbows reach just inside your knees.
Push your feet into the floor and rise to starting position.

Coach’s Tip: You can also perform double-kettlebell front squats by holding two KBs on the fronts of your shoulders. The bells lay almost horizontal with the handles touching in front of your chest.

2. Zercher Squats

I’m partial to zercher squats because they allow for increased load due to the use of the barbell and rack position. They also absolutely torch your abs due to the unique position of the load. Zerchers also increase bicep and upper back recruitment that you won’t find in many squat variations.

Place the bar on the rack so it sits just under elbow height when you are standing in front of it. I recommend starting with just the bar to get the form down, and then add weight accordingly.

To unrack the bar, scoop it into the crook of your elbows, stand tall, and back away from the rack. (I like to press my palms together in a prayer position; others like to keep them face up.) With your feet in your standard squat position, take a breath to brace your core and squat down, keeping your elbows close to your body and your chest proud. Lower until your elbows are just inside your knees and then push your feet through the floor to rise back to the starting position.

3. Weighted Spanish Squats

Spanish squats are my go-to burnout exercise (alternating with walking lunges) to finish off a brutal quad-focused leg day. Adding anterior weight and varying tempo makes them even more effective as a full-body metcon finisher.

Grab a heavy, long-loop resistance band and wrap it around a rack or other sturdy pole at knee height. Step into the loops so the band is in the bend of your knee. Step backward to create enough tension that you can squat back and down with solid depth. Once you have the tension and the form down, grab a kettlebell or a plate and hold it goblet-style as you squat into oblivion.

The bottom line is that if a movement is uncomfortable, you probably won’t do it, and if you do, your poor form will likely undermine the potential benefits. It makes much more sense to find alternatives that you can do correctly, comfortably, and frequently, albeit with less weight than a traditionally-racked front squat

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