Nate Green over at T-Nation recently asked me to contribute to an article series regarding commonly believed notions about fitness. One of the topics I addressed is that I believe front squats are more beneficial than back squats for most people. Unless you are training for powerlifting, front squats are a better choice in terms of lower body recruitment and back health.
I readily admit that I didn't come up with this one my own, but through talking with reading material by people such as Robert Dos Remedios and Mike Boyle, among others.
Much of what we read on the intertubes and in weightlifting books say that we (mostly directed at guys) need to be back squatting in order to get strong. I beg to differ and rarely, if ever, have clients do back squats anymore. One exception is in the form of complexes, and also just to teach proper form.
The latest NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has a study done at the University of Florida (J Strength Cond Res 23(1): 284-292) that found in healthy individuals "The front squat was as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments."
The study found back squats had "significantly higher" spinal compressive forces and greater torque on the knees, which is precisely what one should avoid in order to stay healthy. Therefore in terms of long-term joint health front squats are preferable.
Further, for most people, especially those that sit alot at work, hip mobility is a concern, and I've had good results having people improve mobility through front squatting. By racking the bar in front you are forced to keep a more upright position which puts less of the load on your back, more on your hips and legs. It also means to reach parallel a greater range of motion of the hips is necessary. This means your glutes, hams, and quads are working harder. Though it is harder initially, and it may take awhile to increase the ROM, I've seen people's lower body development and strength make great improvements over a relatively short amount of time.
Your legs are forced to do more of the work, hip mobility is stressed to a greater degree, and there is less lumbar and knee stress. That's a win-win-win in my book.