By Ben Bruno T Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• Twenty rep squats are great for building leg size, but they aren’t perfect. Form can get ugly, and they don’t work well with front squats.
• Front squat 21’s, front squat-back squat combos, countdowns, and rest-pause sets are all effective spins of the 20-rep squat protocol.
The quickest way to build bigger legs is with high-rep squats. But I’m not talking high reps with light weights. I’m talking high reps where you start to question your sanity halfway through the set, yet somehow manage to override the intense burn and gut it out.
There’s something extremely gratifying about pushing your limits and seeing what the hell you’re made of, not to mention it’s a great way to pack on a whole bunch of muscle in a hurry.
What I don’t like about traditional high-rep back squats is the inevitable, near-debilitating lower back pump that accompanies them. Anyone that’s gone to hell and back on a high-rep set of squats can relate to what I’m talking about. Moreover, any time you push your limits, form tends to get ugly fast.
That’s why I prefer front squats in general to back squats. For one, front squats are a better quad exercise than back squats because most people – either due to anthropometry, mobility restrictions, and/or technique preference – tend to turn back squats into a more hip dominant exercise. Considering most people squat for quad development, front squats make more sense.
Moreover, front squats offer an inherent safety check. If your form gets too shoddy you’ll just dump the bar, whereas with back squats you can continue to grind out ugly rep after ugly rep until either your mind or your lower back gives out, whichever comes first.
Trouble is, front squats don’t usually lend themselves to higher reps because holding the bar becomes an issue, so you can’t grind out reps the way you can with back squats. With that in mind, here are four front squat finishers to blast your quads to new growth.
1. Front Squat 21’s
Any bro worth his salt has done 21’s with biceps curls. These are the same thing, only with front squats.
• Start by doing 7 reps from the bottom position to about halfway up.
• Next, without racking the bar, do 7 reps from the top to about halfway down. (You know, how most guys do their regular squats.)
• Finish up with 7 full front squats. That’s one set.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
You’ll need to use a lighter weight than you’d otherwise be able to use for regular front squats, especially if you do them after your heavier work as a finisher. Because of that, holding the bar shouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Wussies need not apply.
2. Front Squat/Back Combo
This is a new spin on the classic 20-rep squat that combines front squats and back squats.
Pick a weight that you think you can front squat for 8-10 reps. Start by doing as many front squats as you can before racking the bar briefly to get into position for back squats. However many reps you got on the front squats, you must make up the remaining difference with back squats to hit 20 total reps.
So if you got 8 reps on the front squats, you’d need to grind out 12 back squats. Or if you got 10 front squats, you’d have to do 10 back squats. The weight will be less than what you’d use for a 20-rep back squat, but they’re just as brutal and you’ll feel them more in your quads without the agonizing lower back pump.
With heavy back squats, the lower back tends to be the limiting factor and the squats tend to deteriorate into more of a good morning. But when you’ve already smoked your legs with the front squats, it’s easier to keep good form and you feel the squats more where you want to feel it and less where you don’t.
3. Front Squat Countdown
This combines higher rep work with strategically placed isometric holds for complete quad annihilation.
Start by doing 6 full front squats followed by a six-second isometric hold in the bottom position, at or slightly above parallel. Then, without racking the bar, do 5 reps followed by a five-second hold: then four, then three, then two, then one. In total, it comes out to 21 reps and 21 grueling seconds of holds that feel like an eternity.
It won’t take a whole lot of weight to have your legs begging for mercy. If this seems like too much at first, start at 5 reps and work down. I’ve also had good luck with some of my clients using goblet squats, which are still brutal in their own right but are much more manageable.
4. Rest-Pause Front Squats
Rest-pause training can mean several different things depending on who you ask, but the style I’m referring to is taken from Dante Trudel’s training program. In that context, a rest-pause set is essentially three mini-sets, each separated by 10-15 deep breaths that end up taking about 20-25 seconds.
Start by picking a weight that you can get for 8-10 reps, rest 20-25 seconds and rep it out again, this time shooting for 3-5 reps. Rest 20-25 seconds and rep it out a third time, this time shooting for 2-4 reps. Aim for 14-20 total reps.
I prefer slightly higher rep ranges, but for those of you that struggle to support the bar with higher reps, the lower end of the rep range will be fine.
Some coaches don’t recommend rest-pausing squat and deadlift variations for safety reasons, but the self-limiting nature of front squats helps ensure that your form stays in check. It ends up being a great way to grind out some more reps than you’d be able to do in one continuous straight set because you don’t have to worry about supporting the bar for so long.