The Front Squat

Leg strength is increased by doing rock bottom, ass on the heels, upright, elbows high, Front Squats. Dick Notemeyer felt that “you can’t Clean and Jerk it unless you can Front Squat it for a triple.” High repetition Back Squats could supplement leg workouts, but the key is Front Squats.

Down Slow, Up Fast

A few years ago, at the Training Center in Colorado Springs, I went with a group of discus throwers over to “hang” with the O lifters. Impressed with the ability of the resident athletes to recover from cleans, I asked Dragomir about his “secret.” “Down slow-up fast!”

It is a difficult thing for the Olympic lifter since the demise of the press to NOT have great legs. Well, I was/am one of them. As a junior in college, I lifted in a meet and needed 165/363 pounds to win. Well, I cleaned it, bounced up and jerked it for three white lights. Now the interesting thing is that my lifetime best front squat was 365. Dick Notmeyer had a mantra: “If you can front squat it for three, you can clean and jerk it.” Later, at the Utah Summer Games, in 1991, I cleaned 182.5/402 stood up and lost the jerk behind. Again, my best front squat was 405.

So, why am I boring everyone with a history lesson? Simply, the same levers that allowed me to throw the discus over 190 as a Senior in college kept me from being a squatting machine! Here are a few ideas for those of us in the crappy squat category:

1. Become an expert in “catching the bounce.” That wonderful stretch-reflex that leaps you out of the deep position CAN be trained. Dick used a drill we called “Barski Cleans.” With straps lock onto the bar, stand up, lean back a little so your shoulders get pulled into a proper position, now dip forward to just below your knees, squat clean it and stand right up. These would be called Squat Cleans from the Romanian Deadlift today, but you will find them very helpful in teaching you to time your lift so your leg problems are not a problem.

2. Try front squatting at the start of your workout. It took me a few weeks to get used to doing other stuff after front squats (jerks, especially, but snatches can be a problem, too.) Also, try front squatting at the start of EVERY workout for a week or two. Nothing crazy, maybe two sets of two, with around 80%, then a single at some higher weight. Some of us need the “Nervous System Stimulation.” I just invented that, but it seems to help. The way to learn a language is to immerse yourself into it, perhaps you need to immerse yourself in your legs.

3. I found track season really helped my front squat. Why? I would really back off on the O lifts and do more bodybuilding and stairs/hills. When the season ended, a week or two later my legs would be ten or twenty pounds stronger. Maybe a general conditioning course would help. Joe Mills used to recommend fast deadlifts and repetition squats to turn problems around. With Dick Notmeyer, we would do all kinds of “contests.” We had a bench 225 for reps board, squat bodyweight for reps contest, sit up contests, and all kinds of fun, but productive stuff.

4. Finally, you may just have to accept that you are going to have weaknesses. When I did the Soviet Squat routine and got my front squat to 405, my jerk form went out the window. When I got my jerk back around, my bottom position tightened up. I think the secret lies in something Coach Ralph Maughan told me: “Turn your weaknesses into your strengths.” Of course, when you do that: you find new weaknesses!

The front squat is simply squatting with the barbell supported on your chest. Ideally, the hands don’t hold the weight, rather your shoulders and collarbone support the bar. It takes a “little” flexibility. The best way to get this flexibility is to do…front squats! Gary Valentine quoted Joe Mills as saying that “if you can put the palms of your hands on the back of your head, you can front squat.” Dedicate yourself to front squats and they will soon become second nature.

The key, and this is so important, is that the athlete sits straight down “between” the legs and continues down until “the ass is on the grass.”

What does “between the legs” mean? One of the true keys to squatting and the O lifts is this simple concept. I teach it this way: have the athlete stand arms length from a door knob. Grab the handle with both hands and get your chest “up.” Up? I have the athlete imagine being on a California beach when a swimsuit model walks by. Immediately, the athlete puffs up the chest which tightens the lower back and locks the whole upper body. The lats naturally spread a bit and the shoulders come back “a little.”

Continuing with the arms in the “hammer throwing” position, with the Muscle Beach chest, lean back away from the door. Now, lower yourself down. What people discover at this moment is a basic physiological fact: the legs are NOT stuck like stilts under the torso. Rather, the torso is slung between the legs. As you go down, leaning back with arms straight, you will discover one of the true keys of lifting: you squat “between your legs.” You do not fold and unfold like an accordion, you sink between your legs. Don’t just sit and read this: do it! To develop the ability to squat snatch or squat clean hinges on this principle!

Front squats can be done either after cleaning the bar to the chest or by taking them off a rack. Both methods have a value; I find that front squats after cleaning the bar seems to really get me “meet ready.” I’m huffing and puffing before my second rep!

By the way, my book Mass Made Simple is built around a quality squat program. Click here for details.

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