Front squats are important for two main reasons:
- They improve the athlete’s leg strength.
- They improve the athlete’s torso posture and upper body strength in the front rack position of the clean.
When the phrase “improve upper body strength,” is used, you automatically think about lifting exercises that involve a 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 a closed hand on it. This habit develops because it’s easier to front squat this way. 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. Turtleback – technical term 😝, is what happens when athletes catch heavy cleans in the bottom position and their upper back rounds forward, giving them that turtle-shell appearance.
Turtleback 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.
A few doubts and questions might be 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 Turtleback.
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.
Food for thought. Best of luck in your training.