Do We Need the Magic Front Squat to Back Squat Ratio?
A big chunk of the questions that I am asked are about squats. Many people are in search of the ideal squat routine and an ideal ratio of front to back squats. While I do think that most of these questions come from not understanding the basic concepts of programming, I find such an interest for the squats a positive trend. At least athletes do understand that proper squatting may play a crucial role in preparation, and thus they are in search of answers.
To avoid any frustrations, I will get straight to the point – there is no universal squat routine and for sure no ideal ratio between front and back squats. That does not come from modern weightlifting science not being able to figure out this mythic ideal pattern or elite athletes not being eager to share one. The reason is quite simple – the role of squats changes through all the periods of preparation and the pattern that suits you now may be less useful or even harmful a month closer to the meet.
This being said, I feel like I should give a more detailed explanation of “the role of squats” is. That encompass the aim that we pursue while squatting, which includes: how do we squat, how often do we squat, rep ranges, intensity zones, priority on front or back squats, and so on.
As such, I am not able to tell you ideal ratio for different squats, but I will try to let you understand how to figure out an efficient approach to squatting
The back squat is often underestimated. Unlike front squats, back squats do not resemble the competition lifts. So basically while we front squat we, inter alia, train ourselves to recover from the clean. When we back squat, we simply train our legs.
The less specific character of this exercise pays off more than fairly. Back squats allow you to handle much higher weights. It puts less stress on your knee joints. It does not put any stress on your shoulders and wrists (as heavy front squats do due to rack position), which also deserve some rest.
In other words, back squats allow you to use some really solid volume numbers for your legs. Back squats are much more efficient with higher reps than front squats are. That makes them a perfect fit for base (strength) period. You would like to do a heavy loading squat workout from time to time (the cycle length depends on your level of preparation and your weight class). In general, most likely a proper time would lie somewhere between 7 and 14 days.
Personally I favor the 3 sets of 5-7 repetitions protocol. That of course refers to the working sets with a final weight. The tricky thing is picking the right weight. You want to go to failure on each of the three sets. You may stop when you realize that the next repetition will not be completed, but no matter how you trust your feeling of weight, there is always a risk that you do underestimate yourself or just try to get away on subconscious level. As such I would recommend using a spotter and reaching real failure where you can’t stand up without spotter assistance.
That does not mean, however, that apart from these weekly/biweekly workouts you are not supposed to back squat. Doing some interim light back squats is a good idea also. That could be 1-2 sets of 2 with a weight equal to your best clean or 3 sets of 5 with a lesser weight. The main criterion: not making it hard.
During transitional and competition periods you would not want to do such kinds of protocols as they overload your legs that much making you sloppy in competition lifts. Trading some competition lifts performance for strength growth is fine in the base period, but definitely it is not something that you would want closer to the meet date. Accordingly, you may switch to a lower volume protocol, doing 2-3 sets of 2 to maintain strength levels and not get sore at the same time.
Front squat is a much more specific exercise for weightlifting. While it may be not the best choice for someone who is seeking just to make his legs stronger, front squatting is definitely a good way to practice the recovery from the clean. If you have some reserve kilos with your front squat compared to your clean, you will definitely waste much less energy recovering and will be more ready for the jerk. Not to mention that a good leg drive for jerk requires your upper back to be really tight and strong, and front squatting with big weights also helps to achieve this.
With respect to the above, putting emphasis on the front squat in the competition phase is a good idea. Most of the time you would want to front squat for 2-3 repetitions. In the competition phase I even recommend doing a few singles at weights that will not give you any soreness or even significant fatigue but will make sure that you are absolutely comfortable with the weight you are going to clean.
In the base period you would want to work to failure also, like with the back squats. But the back squat protocol would not work here and thus it is better to stick to 2-3 repetitions sets. Sets of 5 may be a viable option for light days where the weight shall not be anything challenging.
As I said, there is not one. You put an emphasis on back squats in the base period and on the front squats in the competition period, leaving some even equation for transitional period. It is very important to understand that the crucial thing is not the exact ratio of squats, but the approach you take. You can do one back squat workout in the end of competition phase with high volume and intensity and that would jeopardize the whole preparation, making you sloppy and sore.
Given that you understand the concept of picking the right weight and approach to your squatting work, this is an approximate idea of how often shall you do the squat workouts in each period:
Base period: 2 to 1 BS to FS ratio
Transitional period: 1 to 1 BS to FS ratio
Competition period: 1 to 2 BS to FS ratio
Again, these are very approximate numbers, reflecting the general idea of switching emphasis. Sticking to the right training principles is much more important that sticking to this ratio. Do not be too concerned with maintaining this equation if it contradicts any of the basic principles, e.g. do not do heavy squats workout on the days of heavy cleans and do not push front squats when your knees are aching.