I'd compare front squats to slowly submerging yourself into an ice bath. It hurts, it doesn't get better until you're all the way in, and even the thought of it will make you shudder.
Naturally, I decided I needed to master them.
Nicknamed "The Hunt for Quadzilla," my goal in January 2013 was to front squat 300 pounds. My squats were terrible and hitting 300 would either A) make me a better coach or B) make me institutionalized.
I'm happy to report that I achieved the former.....but only time will tell with the latter.
If I had to describe the video above in one word, it's "Finally!!" I never thought it'd take me over two and a half years to reach this goal. If experience is what you get when you don't get what you want....then you can say I have a lot of experience with front squats.
Lesson #1: Patience
I love setting goals. In fact, people should set more goals. They help keep you accountable and make things "real." But imposing a time limit on your goals can be a source of frustration.
In 2013 I was determined to squat 300 by the end of the year. That June I squatted a questionable 260. Eleven months later, I wasn't making the type of progress I wanted and tried an ugly looking 285 - so ugly that I wouldn't dare post it to YouTube. Looking back I was trying to put up as much weight as possible without respecting the process. I had grown accustomed to my progress on deadlifts and I was going to make my goal one way or another!
In truth I was putting the cart before the horse. Most goals in the gym are going to follow a slow, grinding progression. Is an ugly looking squat better than one 15 pounds lighter, safer and better looking? No. We want to coax your gains over time. Five pounds more here, an extra two reps there, it all adds up. Keep the line moving and you've won the year.
Lesson #2: Squat More Frequently
For much of my career as a strength coach I felt like I was living a lie. I'd preach the value of squats to clients but my own squats sucked. My left knee would cave in, I'd shift my weight and hips to the right, both elbows would drop and I'd look like a squatting ball of fail. Something needed to change.
My solution? Squat. Err'day.
If it sounds crazy it probably was. So while the Boston area was being blasted with just under 10 feet of snow this past winter - and no, that's not an exaggeration - I made it to the gym five days a week and squatted. But there was a method to my madness. I chose an "easy strength" approach which meant A) I never did more than 10 squats a day, and B) never came close to missing a rep. Three of those days would be on the "heavyish" side, the other seven would range from light to very light. It was simple, easy to understand, and most importantly, it worked.
When my 40 days of squats were up - a meathead's Lent, if you will - many of my squatting woes were fixed. It was an extreme approach, but giving yourself added exposure to a troubled exercise will only help your progress.
Lesson #3: Learn to Back Squat
For better or worse - and in many cases, worse - I can be very rigid. I'll always be a Yankees fan; there’s no question how “The Sopranos” ended; and I'll always think that four door Sedans with a spoiler are downright silly.
I also refused to believe that back squats could help my front squats. Back squats are a more advanced exercise than front squats. And if I couldn't master a front squat, why even bother?
I was wrong.
Back squats and front squats are completely different exercises. The back squat allows us the ability to hinge at our hips like a deadlift or kettlebell swing, allowing us to use more glutes than a front squat. We can also use our lats a lot more in a back squat, allowing us to get tighter and lift more weight. Attempting to hinge or use your lats in the front squat will only end one way - with you picking the bar off the floor.
That said, the back squat does offer carryover to the front squat. For one, back squatting 335 for reps suddenly makes front squatting 275 for reps a lot more palatable. Secondly, despite all the differences, squats will help your squats. (For more, see Lesson #2)
Lesson #4: Level Up Your Mental Game
As I intimated above, one of the biggest carryovers between back and front squats occurs in the most important department - the brain.
Some of my front squat struggles were physical, but the biggest barrier was in my own head. My fear of missing a rep and getting pinned was far greater than any other exercise. If I missed a deadlift, I could just let go of the bar. If I missed an overhead press? Again, just drop the bar. But having to bail out of a front squat - mid-squat, mind you - is loud and embarrassing.
Instead of thinking how I could dominate a front squat, I became preoccupied with not failing. It was similar to what my Dad would say to me in my old baseball days: "Whether you think you can or can't hit, you're right." To that end, I'd highly recommend reading Psych by Judd Biasiotto. A world record squatter and weightlifting psychologist, Biasiotto's advice might be corny but it works.
Before I front squatted 300, I spent three days telling myself that I was a great squatter. The night before? I may have even dreamt about it. I'm a better coach for it, but as I mentioned at the outset, those white coats are probably not far off.