Here's what you need to know...
- The goblet squat is great for teaching technique to beginners and for major squat movements where weight isn't the focus. It's a great warm-up and good for when you're focusing on time under tension and higher reps. It's tough to progress though once you're ready to go heavy.
- The front squat requires significant coordination, core strength, back rigidity, and overall leg strength. A more quad-dominant squat variation, the front squat typically allows for the best depth, even south of the goblet squat. But bar placement can be tough for many lifters.
Anteriorly loaded squat variations require significant core, quad, and upper back strength. We're mainly talking about the front squat and a relative newcomer, the goblet squat. Which is best for you? Let's match them up, grade them, and see which variation reigns supreme.
The Grading Scale
We're going to grade each variation according to the following criteria:
- Strength Builder: Is it a good tool for building elite strength?
- Hypertrophy Builder: Is it a good choice for building significant hypertrophy?
- Learning Curve: How easy is it to learn?
- Mobility & Depth: How much mobility does it require to perform well? How easy is it to get low?
- Wow Factor: Is it impressive and exciting for onlookers or for personal records?
- Progressive Overload: Can you use it to make long-term gains?
- All-Terrain: How well can it be performed in a poorly equipped gym or outdoors?
- Technique Builder: Does it reinforce archetypal squat technique that carries over to other variations?
- Safety: Is it safely performed without a cadre of spotters? How high is injury potential?
The Goblet Squat
To perform a goblet squat, you need only a chunk of weight – kettlebells, dumbbells, or medicine balls are the three most common choices. Dan John's summary of the movement is still the gold standard. He says that one simply needs to stay tall and sit the torso down between the legs. Because of the anterior loading, this is easy for almost everyone. To perform flawless goblet squats, you just need to be reminded to:
- Keep the feet flat
- Puff up the chest
- Brace the arms in against the body
- Keep the upper back tight
- Stare straight ahead
- Sit down between the legs
- Push the knees and floor apart
That's it. Easy movements are great movements, and this variation is accessible to almost everyone.
Benefits of the Goblet Squat
- Easy to learn
- Little equipment needed
- Strong core, quad, and back activation
- Teaches resistance against forward collapse
- Back tightness is easier to feel
One of my favorite benefits of the goblet squat is that it teaches upper back awareness. Too many novice squatters don't realize the necessity of keeping the upper back tight because they don't lift enough weight to get stapled forward. With even moderate weights, the goblet squatter feels his upper back round forward. Arm positioning allows good bracing against this, which teaches the value of using the upper back to fight forward-collapse. Ultimately, learning to brace and tighten the upper back is foundational for squatting big weights. Check out my scapular positioning (yes, I know I wing) on both versions in the photo below – much more lat and mid-back tightness on the goblet squat.
Shortcomings of the Goblet Squat
- Heavy loading is awkward and difficult
- Back pain more prevalent at low-moderate resistance
- Long-term resistance progression is impractical or impossible
- Difficult to spot
- Elbows get in the way of getting to full depth
- Potentially dangerous if balance is lost
My gym has 16 pairs of dumbbells of 100 pounds or more, with our heaviest set being 175 pounds. Few gyms, though, have dumbbells or kettlebells heavier than 100 pounds, which makes long-term progressive overload difficult or impossible. Plus, it's a hell of a task to get a 175-pound dumbbell into goblet squat position. Many can't lift them off the ground, much less get them up to chest height. I saw stars for this entire set with the 175.
And, though the goblet squat is great for beginners, I've found that it consistently causes more back pain that any other variation we teach, at much lower weights, even with good form. Because the object is held much farther in front of the center of mass, the weight pulls the body forward hard – it exploits a weak back. Note the photo where the green line represents the center of bar weight and the blue line my projection of the center of mass.
Lastly, anyone with a large client base sees a wide continuum of balance and coordination. Those with poor coordination are better candidates for the goblet squat, in which the weight is more easily stabilized; barbells are long and unstable. But, as I watch athletes sit deep into a goblet squat, I worry about what happens if they lose their balance backward. How would one ditch the weight, held across the most important organ in the body?
I don't have a good answer, and the impact of a 100-pound dumbbell hitting the heart might kill a person on the spot. The exercise is difficult to spot and we usually have suspect athletes squat with their back close to a wall or squat rack, which can serve as a backstop should they want to fall backward.
Best Use of the Goblet Squat
Considering its strengths and weaknesses, the goblet squat has a niche:
- Warm ups
- Teaching beginners to squat
- High-rep sets for hypertrophy or endurance
- Outdoor workouts
- Challenge workouts
Barbells are impractical outdoors and in workouts where a person is challenged to move fast between exercises. The goblet squat solves those problems. Besides the obvious use of teaching technique to beginners, the goblet squat is great for major squat movements where weight isn't the focus. As a warm up, the goblet squat is a fantastic grab-and-go that prepares you for a heavier workout ahead, especially one featuring its nemesis, the front squat.
Grading The Goblet Squat
- Strength Builder: C
- Hypertrophy Builder: B
- Learning Curve: A
- Mobility & Depth: A
- Wow Factor: C
- Progressive Overload: C
- All-Terrain: A
- Technique Builder: A
- Safety: B
The Front Squat
The front squat will humble those that neglect it as it requires significant coordination, core strength, back rigidity, and overall leg strength. A more quad-dominant squat variation, the front squat typically allows for the best depth, south of even the goblet squat. It's also the easiest squat to keep a tight, neutral, or arched lower back, even with heavy resistance. There are three different grips to choose from, which makes the exercise accessible to anyone:
Christian Thibaudeau's video explains the different grips perfectly for those who need a brush-up.
The front squat is also very simple to learn and execute. Once the appropriate grip is chosen, the exercise boils down to the following:
- Keep the elbows up
- Stare straight ahead
- Sit down between the legs
- Force the bar into the throat
- Push the knees and floor apart
- Drive the chest up while ascending
Many coaches will advise the lifter to squeeze the shoulder blades together to resist forward collapse. Though this makes sense, and back tightness is huge, I haven't found this to work very well. The shoulder blades are so far protracted in each grip variation that getting much, if any, retraction is difficult. This isn't to say that you shouldn't try, but at heavy loads there isn't much "feel" to the retraction and tightness attempts. Hence, I didn't list it as a cue. Check out the photo below showing the scaps in similar levels of protraction in each variation (from left to right: cross-arm, strap-assisted, Olympic).
Benefits of the Front Squat
- Easy to learn; technique is relatively simple
- Great builder of quads and upper back
- Increases core strength and athleticism
- Easy to ditch bar; spotting often unnecessary
- Progressive overload is easy for both strength and hypertrophy
- Compatible for those with shoulder range of motion deficits
Because the anterior loading of the bar is closer to the center of mass, I get few complaints of back pain. Anterior loading keeps the lower back tight by default, because by the time the torso would lean enough to produce lumbar flexion, the bar would have been dumped. For these reasons, it's both a great entry-level variation to teach proper spine mechanics and a life-long strength builder.
Shortcomings of the Front Squat
- Requires ample balance and athleticism
- Ankle and wrist mobility must be very good
- Bar placement is very unstable
- Bar placement can be uncomfortable or painful
- Difficult to use barbells that are thick or have a slick finish
The front squat requires a lot more athleticism than other variations because of the heavy anterior load and the small, unstable placement of the bar. It's not easy balancing a heavy seven-foot bar that rests only in a small notch on the shoulders. The front squat exploits deficits in core strength, ankle mobility, hip mobility and upper back strength. Weak links are very difficult to overcome.
Front squat bar placement doesn't work well for everyone. Those with underdeveloped deltoids or shoulder issues can experience pain in keeping their elbows up. And, because it's easy to squat deep with a front squat, ankle mobility can quickly become a limiting factor. Lastly, because the bar is only loosely secured in the cross-arm and strap-assisted grips, bars thicker than 29mm tend to slip more often and dump at lower weights.
Best Use of the Front Squat
- For long-term strength goals
- For hypertrophy, especially in back and quads
- Increasing overall body strength and athleticism
- Increasing mobility for other squat variations
- Increasing proficiency at squatting below parallel
- Increasing Olympic lifting prowess
It's hard to pinpoint a "best use" for this lift, mostly because it's utilitarian. The front squat can be used to teach a beginner or harden a veteran. It exploits and yet develops ankle mobility, hip mobility, core strength, balance, upper back, and quad strength. Although this list seems all-inclusive, not all squat variations can boast the ability to increase proficiency in so many attributes. For those who want to get better at the Olympic-style, very-deep squat, the front squat is the best place to start. And for those who want to keep their O-lift totals rising, well, it's a staple.
Grading The Front Squat
- Strength Builder: A
- Hypertrophy Builder: A
- Learning Curve: B
- Mobility & Depth: B
- Wow Factor: B
- Progressive Overload: A
- All-Terrain: C
- Technique Builder: B
- Safety: A
Which Exercise Wins?
Both are great training tools, used for different jobs. But, in long-term and overall utility, the winner is the front squat. Although the goblet squat is great for teaching the movement and can be a useful tool for hypertrophy, its usefulness can run out fairly fast.
One last word regarding hypertrophy, though. While I gave the front squat an A and the goblet squat a B in this category, I need to make a distinction. I'm a huge believer in 6-8 reps for hypertrophy, and the front squat works well for this rep range. But, for those who want a good pump or who grow better in the 10-15 rep range, the front squat isn't a great choice. The upper back simply fatigues too fast in long sets, and the last few reps always end up looking ugly.
Additionally, going slow and maximizing time under tension with a front squat means you have to drastically lighten the load, and the problem of upper back fatigue is even further exacerbated. For a traditional hypertrophy rep range of 8-15, drop sets or challenges like 1 1/2 reps, the goblet squat is a much better choice. Though overload isn't as great, the quads get hit really hard, time under tension can safely increase, and all of these factors result in an intense pump. It all depends on the rep range you're working in.