Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Building big, muscular legs is somewhat of a challenge for a lot of gym-goers. Not many of us possess the genetics, structure and downright talent to build pillars of muscle onto our lower halves. But hard work, persistence and self-discipline will eventually and ultimately prevail.
Once you have your mind made up to trudge down the road to bigger legs with authority the next task is to clearly define what you will actually do in the gym. Proper volume, rep ranges and intensity levels are all on the docket along with the choices you have at your disposal regarding exercise selection. Of course, the big boy on the block, squats, immediately comes to mind as a staple in any routine.
Two of the most common forms of the “big man on leg campus” are the back squat and the front squat. As most of you have likely had experience with both of these quad movements, let’s look a little closer at which pulls out in front as a better mass builder.
Arguably called the king of all exercises, the back squat has been a foundational move for anyone who has ever seriously touched a barbell. Activating a myriad of muscles such as quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus muscles and indirectly affecting calves, lower and upper back and traps, it is easy to see the benefits surrounding a properly executed squat. For maximum benefit load a barbell on your traps and take a few inches wider than shoulder width stance with your toes pointed slightly out a few degrees.
Begin your descent dropping your hips as if you are about to sit on a low stool below while keeping your upper body as upright as possible. With your knees in line with your toes, drop as far as possible until your hamstrings meet your calves. Push with your hips back up keeping your back straight and knees in line, again, with toes. At the full extension position, avoid locking your knees and repeat.
Pros: As the pros of the back squat are too long to list here I will mention some of the biggies. They include overall body development, increased natural growth hormone production, the ability to squat a heavier weight than other squat options and an incredible metabolism booster. When performed correctly, the back squat strengthens the entire lower body while packing on the mass.
Cons: As the back squat is actually a highly technical lift, it can include a lengthy learning curve especially for taller lifters. You will find it difficult if you possess tight hips, hamstrings and calf muscles limiting your range of motion. Also, if these are not remedied, injury may be on the horizon. Another huge factor can be ego. Too many people seem to load up the bar with too much weight and shorten their range of motion. Finally, if you want to target the quads specifically, the back squat spreads the load to your entire leg area and will only be hampered by a weak point such as weak glutes or hamstrings.
Seen as the younger brother to the back squat, the front squat is an often forgotten or neglected exercise with a host of benefits. Using a lighter load and a more precise target of the quadriceps, the front squat has an entirely different learning curve as the back squat. Place the bar atop the front of your shoulders assisted by crossed arms, a clean grip or affixing wrist straps around the bar and holding onto the ends.
With your elbows stationary in the up position, step back from the rack and take the same foot stance as with the back squat: toes slightly pointed out and feet a bit wider than your shoulders. Descend keeping your elbows up as if sitting down and achieve as much range of motion as possible. With your core tight and back straight press the weight back up trailing your knees in line with your toes to the top position without locking your knees.
Pros: as opposed to the back squat, the front squat better targets the quad muscles and involves the hamstrings and glutes to a lesser degree. Since you are using lighter weight than the back version you will experience less spine compression and less potential for back and hip strain. With more quad activation the front squat is a safer alternative.
Cons: As predicted, keeping the bar on your shoulders could be a bit of a challenge. Fighting to keep your arms up and the bar steady could prove to shift the focus away from hammering your quads to simply staying steady. Another challenge may be for those who have weak cores (lower back included), the front squat could be difficult due to the requirement for a strong supportive midsection. Without proper strength in that area the weight can become unstable and balance will quickly become a challenge.
This verdict can only be reached depending on your goals, abilities and willingness to practice and improve on proper form. As most would attest that the back squat is the better mass builder due to it recruiting an enormous amount of muscle, the front squat does have its advantages. Better at targeting the quads, less spinal load and requiring more of an upright posture the front squat has its place in any program.
The best choice is to rotate both in your routine. Possibly have a higher volume and higher rep leg day including the front squat and another leg day that is heavier in nature with lower reps that includes the back squat.