I love all different kinds of squats, but if you press me for my favorite squat variation, I would say the front squat. A growing number of coaches and trainees agree with me, and with good reason. Its tends to be a lot more "user-friendly" than back squats, meaning most people can do them better with less instruction, and they're easier on the lower back. Those are two big plusses.
There's no replacement for spending some time with good old-fashioned heavy front squats, but if you've been hammering away at them for a while and seemed to have stalled, changing things up temporarily may be your answer. Rather than switch to an entirely different lower-body exercise though, try making some slight changes, abiding by the idea of "similar but different," so that you're still working the front-squat pattern, but in a way that will help address your specific weaknesses.
Here are five great front squat variations to add to your arsenal.
Band-Resisted Front Squats
Bands and chains give a unique stimulus as well by providing accommodating resistance, which means there's less tension at the bottom of the squat and more tension at the top. Accommodating resistance is great for training explosiveness out of the hole, but it can also be useful for folks with knee issues, lower-back issues, or both, because it deloads the bottom portion of the rep where things can get dicey if you're not careful.
Trouble is, not many gyms have chains lying around, or a power rack with band pegs. If you have access to those apparatus, consider yourself lucky and make full use of them. If you don't, still consider investing in some bands and using this simple technique to create accommodating resistance—no fancy rack required.
Just loop the band around the bar, space it slightly wider than shoulder width at the top, and stand on the band. It helps to start from the bottom position with the bar on the pins of a safety rack so you don't have to walk it out from the rack with the bands of your feet. You can do this if need be, but it's very awkward, so I start from the bottom.
Band-Resisted "Bottoms Up" Front Squats
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I've also used this type of band arrangement for dropsets where I start with band-resisted front squats, then remove the band and continue squatting with whatever weight I had on the bar. I like these a lot because the bands force explosiveness out of the hole, so when you remove the bands the weight feels easier. Also, just from a logistical standpoint, it's a lot easier to remove the bands than it is to strip plates, especially if you plan on doing multiple sets and don't want to fuss with loading and unloading the bar, which is one of my biggest pet peeves, personally.
Here's what it looks like in action:
Band-Resisted "Bottoms Up" Front Squat Drop Set
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I'm often asked "How much tension do the bands add?" Truthfully, I have no idea. It'll vary for person to person anyway based on height and stance width. But I wouldn't worry about. Just be consistent with your setup and use the same bands, and you'll get all the work you can handle.
I'm generally not a fan of partial-range-of-motion squats, but they can have a specific use. Many people find that after a while, the limiting factor with front squats becomes their ability to hold the bar, not how much weight their legs can handle. This is when partial front squats out of the quarter-squat position can help. However, I recommend this technique for more advanced lifters once they've already mastered full-range front squats.
Just like with partial deadlifts, front-squat lockouts overload the movement with more weight than you'd otherwise be able to squat using a full range of motion. This can help strengthen the core and upper back to support greater loads, while also giving you the confidence to hold bigger weights for normal full-range front squats.
To get the most out of this training effect, hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, then slow the eccentric portion of the rep to 2-3 seconds as well. Focus on keeping an upright torso rather than free-falling back down to the pins.
Front Squat Lockouts
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Start conservatively with the weight and make sure you're always in control on the eccentric. Remember, this should be used in conjunction with full-range squatting, not as a replacement.
Offset-Loaded Front Squats
Now we're getting cruel. Offsetting the load increases the demand on the core and glutes substantially, as it's very hard to keep the bar level on your shoulders. These are much harder than they look, and even a slight difference in loading will make a big difference, so start with a 5-pound differential and see how you do. Focus on performing the reps in a slow and controlled fashion.
Offset "Bottoms Up" Front Squats
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Once you wrap your head around the unique balance and strength challenges this squat imposes, begin playing around with different weight differentials. Higher total loads will allow for a higher differential, but light loads will provide plenty of challenge at first. I recommend doing these after your heavier squats as a way to train the core and get a training effect with lighter loads.
Do 3-5 reps on each side for a total of 6-10 reps per set. I start in the bottom position because it reflexively teaches you to get tight as you come out of the hole, and also because logistically it's easier to switch sides. You can also start from the top position with the bar in the rack if you prefer, but a word to the wise: You won't be able to do nearly as much weight as you can with regular front squats, so be sure to start light and work up slowly.
Bottom-Half Front Squats
These aren't you're typical half-squats! Here, you start in the bottom position from a dead stop and only come halfway up, pausing at the midpoint before coming back down. Unlike the way most people do half-squats, these are actually harder than full-ROM front squats—especially when you pause at the top—so load conservatively. Also, as with lockouts, be sure to control the eccentric portion of the rep and don't just free-fall to the pins.
Bottoms Up "Half" Front Squats
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This is a great way to fry your legs with less load, so be prepared for the burn!
Double-Pause Front Squats
Being tall definitely has its advantages—and truth be told, I've often wished I was a little taller myself—but it becomes a distinct disadvantage when you walk up to the squat rack. While shorter people often tend to pick up squats relatively quickly, for taller people it's an ongoing battle to master this movement with good form.
The most common problem I see as a trainer working with taller people is that they tend to fall forward as they squat down, particularly during the back squat. And once you lose your position on the eccentric, it's very tough—if not impossible—to get it back. This leads to ugly squats that resemble good mornings, and lower backs that cry at the mere mention of squatting.
My first recommendation for taller trainees is usually to focus on front squats or goblet squats instead of back squats. But they can often still use some help cleaning up the squat pattern, and the double-pause front squat does just that, while also providing a great training effect.
Double-Pause Front Squats
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As you can see, the first pause happens halfway down, and the second is at the bottom. Pausing halfway down ensures that you're in the proper position and in control of the weight on the eccentric, and pausing at the bottom helps ensure that you're not bouncing out of the hole.
The pauses also make the movement a lot harder, meaning you won't be using as much weight as regular front squats. This has an upside, though: It's easier to hold the bar while still giving your legs a great training effect.
Give some of these variations a try, and watch your front squat—and your leg development—progress to new levels.