Question: If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, why do you include front squats in your training?
Answer: You include front squats in your training to improve your performance in the clean and jerk.
Now…here’s something you need to know. Front squats are important for two main reasons:
1) They improve the athlete’s leg strength.
2) They improve the athlete’s torso posture and upper body strength in the front rack position of the clean.
When I use the phrase “improve upper body strength,” you automatically think about lifting exercises that involve movement of the arms. Presses, rowing exercises, etc. However, you need to understand the front squat is a developer of the stabilizer strength needed in the shoulders, arms, upper back, and chest that are required to hold a heavy clean in the proper position. Even though your arms are basically immobile during a front squat, everything from the waist up is contracting hard to keep the bar in the correct position. Hence…strength is being developed in those muscles. It’s just not movement-based strength.
When you see people do front squats, you often see them just hooking two fingers under the bar instead of making an effort to keep a closed hand on it. This is a lazy habit that develops because it’s easier to front squat this way. If you’ve ever done front squats, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t need to explain it with a bunch of physiological mumbo jumbo. Maintaining a closed (or almost closed) fist on the bar makes front squatting a lot tougher.
This is where a problem can easily develop. When you front squat with two fingers, there’s a much higher possibility of your upper back rounding forward. Letting those hands relax and fingers pop off the bar often leads to the “turtleback” position. You understand that term, right? You’ve probably seen it. It’s what happens when athletes catch heavy cleans in the bottom positon and their upper back rounds forward, giving them that turtle-shell appearance.
Turtlebacking is a technical problem. It can lead to inefficient cleans and, most likely, problems with the jerk because the athlete will have almost no chance of jerking a massive weight from a hunched-shoulder position. To make heavy jerks, you need to have that wide shoulder spread that makes it look like the bar is sitting on a big shelf.
If you do all your front squats with a turtleback position, there’s almost a guarantee that it’ll transfer over to your cleans. Then you’ve become a turtleback cleaner, and your progress is going to be held back because of it. This means you should make every effort to front squat with wide upright shoulders, which is often connected to the hand grip on the bar.
Now, let’s clear up a few doubts and questions that are popping into your brains.
Is it possible to front squat with two fingers while still maintaining a big wide chest, no turtleback? Sure, it’s possible. However, it won’t work like this with most athletes. Generally speaking, two-finger front squatting is going to drastically increase the chance of turtlebacking.
When we say “closed fist on the bar,” does that mean we literally have to keep our entire hand closed tightly on the bar? No, it doesn’t. Having a little relaxation of the hand is fine. It’ll probably be necessary unless you’ve got phenomenal upper body flexibility. The basic idea is we want to keep as much hand on the bar as possible during the front squat, because it’ll increase the chances of maintaining a nice wide shoulder spread. Using the “no fingers allowed to pop off’ rule is a good start. As with many things, there are blurry lines between suitable and unsuitable.
Will I have to use lighter weights in the front squat if I keep a closed hand on the bar? Because I can handle a lot more weight if I just use two fingers. Yes, front squatting with a closed fist will likely reduce the weight you can handle. It’s a lot easier to front squat with two fingers, which means you’ll be able to use more weight. But lowering the weight will still be a greater benefit to your C&J because you’ll be improving the posture of the lift. Besides, most of an athlete’s leg strength comes from back squats anyway.
Are there athletes who can front squat with two fingers and still maintain perfect posture in the clean rack position? Yes, but you’re probably not one of them.
Are there top international athletes who front squat with two fingers? Yes, there are. Some of you dying-to-contradict-the-author-of-an-article-because-you’re-desperate-to-prove-somebody-wrong-because-you-didn’t-get-enough-mashed-taters-at-the-dinner-table-and-your-desire-for-vengeance-consumes-your-soul folks have probably already jumped on YouTube to find video of a world champion who front squats with two fingers. If that’s the direction you want to take, go ahead and front squat any way you want. I’m sure your particular situation and skill set is identical to that world champion…
And just because I understand some of you think the only coaches who know anything valuable are from Europe or China, here’s a little story. I was in a training hall once where a bunch of top international lifters were working out. One of them was front squatting with two fingers, and his coach saw him. His coach (who is really famous and successful) snapped his fingers at the athlete and barked out, “ACH!” When the athlete looked over, the coach put his hand up to his shoulder as though he was holding a clean…with a closed fist. Then he used his other hand to point at it. The athlete got the message, so he changed his hand position and sealed more of his hand on the bar.
As with all weightlifting topics, there are several variables involved with this kind of discussion. There are other technical concerns and issues that relate to front squat position, and this article only covers one of them. Also, no rules apply equally to everybody. There are always going to be exceptions, and there are certainly exceptions to this article. However, 25+ years in this sport have taught me some general guidelines that usually help everybody who follows them. This is one of them.
Food for thought. Best of luck in your training.