Strength for front squats means strength for other exercises

Over the past 16 weeks or so, I have been working very hard on front squats = front squatting two times per week. I have used various rep ranges during this time and am currently reaping the results. This is what I have been doing:

Phase 1 (weeks 1-10)

Day 1: 3×8 front squats

Day 4: 8×3 front squats

This phase was actually, looking back, a technique building phase. It is not usually recommended to do front squats for high reps because the back tends to tire before the legs do and you can thoracic flexion (upper back rounding). My problem with cleans has always been that my upper back collapses, causing me to fail to squat the weight up purely because I did not have the core strength to keep my torso very upright. For the first 5 weeks or so, 8 reps of front squats was incredibly difficult for this reason – my upper back tended to round on the last couple of reps. I can happily say however, that by week 6, I had noticed a great improvement in my form. I was able to maintain good posture for the entire 8 reps/3 sets. I put this down to: increased strength, increased frequency of doing the movement and, the high time under tension that the upper body muscles have to be in when front squatting for 8 repetitions.

The 3×8 session was complemented with the 8×3 session. I went as heavy as I could with good form for 3 reps, and repeated 8 times. It may interest you to understand that, for the first 5 weeks of doing this, the weight difference between that used for the 3×8 and that used for the 8×3 was not much – because I was limited by my upper back strength. My focus on the 8×3 day was technique, not pushing all out 3 RMs. I focused on keeping the whole body tight, keeping my knees out and elbows up, and breathing.

By the time I got to week 8 of training these two sessions, I had plateaued with the 3×8 but my form had improved greatly for both 3×8 and 8×3. I decided to keep in the 3×8 and just carry on with the weights I had been doing (going up as and when I felt I could) but now to focus on strength for the other session. I reduced reps from 8×3 to 8×2 and used the 8×2 session to really get in some heavy weight with good form. I was able to maintain good form for 2 reps, which would have been a bit harder to do with 3 reps. The 3×8 day was focusing on the maintenance of good upper body posture and the 8×2 was focusing on lifting bigger numbers. By week 8, the difference in weight used between the 3×8 day and the 8×2 day was significant.

After a couple more weeks, the 3×8 wasn’t really getting any easier and I wasn’t going up in weight. The plateau wasn’t good for my self esteem so I decided┬áto change the programme and came up with the next phase…

Phase 2 (weeks 11-14)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 8×1 front squats

As you can see, day 1 is now very different. I have actually never had any success with the 5×5 scheme in all the years I’ve been training but I thought I would give it another try… I started out using the same weight that I had been using for the 3×8 for the 5×5. Doing 3 less reps felt much easier but the 5 sets still felt like a lot of work to get through. Again, I was focusing on good form for a challenging amount of weight. I never deliberately use the same weight for all sets on the 5×5, I base the weight to use on how easy/manageable the previous set was and I always try to do more than I did the week before. I go up very slowly however. I might do 4 sets at X kg and then the last set at X+1 kg. The following week, I will probably do 3 sets at X kg and 2 sets at X+1 kg. This is typically how I like to train and I feel it works very well for me.

The 8×2 was getting hard before, so I dropped it down to 8×1 and focused on getting high quality one repetitions 8 times. I was able to get the weight up fast using the 8×1 method. It was a lot less daunting only having to focus on 1 rep at a time!

It did not take long for the 5×5 weight used to go up. I was going up in weight every week consistently, supported by lifting a much heavier weight once x8 on the other day. I started to think that the 8×1 was an ‘easy way out’ because it was such low volume at this point so I changed the programme once again to something which allowed me to do 1 rep sets but in a different way…

Phase 4 (weeks 15 onwards)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 54321 front squats

Day 4 was a very interesting programme! If you have not heard of it, it basically means you do 5 sets and in set 1 you do 5 reps, in set 2 you do 4 reps, set 3 is 3 reps, set 4 is 2 reps and set 5 is 1 rep. In a way it is a pyramid style of training. You put the weight up for each set. I have only been doing this for the last 3 weeks so it’s new to me but so far it has been very fun to do! I like it particularly because, there are fewer reps as the sets go on and they seem manageable because I don’t put the weight increment up by very much each time so it almost seems like I am lifting the same weight fewer times, which is very easy psychologically! Since front squats are a very unnatural exercise for me due to my poor posture (hunch back), I always focus primarily on technique and upper back rigidity and uprightness, before anything else. So I choose the right weight to allow me to maintain this form.

I am finding that having two days of 5 set front squats is a lot of volume but I know my body and I work well with lots of volume.

 

The point of this article was to actually explain the carryover from all this front squatting I’ve been doing. Now I’ve read in lots of different places that front squats don’t tend to carryover to back squat strength. For me, I disagree. My back squat weight has gone up significantly after all this work on the front squats. I am back squatting once a week in addition to front squatting twice a week and I definitely feel stronger in the back squat (and the numbers show it!). Not only has my back squat got stronger, my clean and jerk, and my clean and jerk separately, have all got stronger too. I imagine that practising the upright posture of the front squat for lots of reps and lots of sets over a long period of time (several months now), has really carried over to the start position for the jerk, probably due to strong abdominal muscles and a very rigid torso. My rack position has obviously also been getting a lot of practice and I no longer have any issues with elbow position or elbows dropping. My elbows feel tight, up and strong.

I am extremely happy with all the work I’ve been doing and the results are really showing. At the moment, I have no issues with my front squat – I am getting stronger every week, form is excellent at the moment, and other exercises have improved as a consequence of all the front squatting. I think I finally understand and agree with what lots of sporting experts say when they say that the front squat is a great athletic exercise and can make you a good all round athlete.