The Front Squat: Clean Grip or Cross-Face Grip?

If the back squat is the Lamborghini Aventador of the lifting world, the front squat is the Ferrari 458 Italia. Equivalent in that both are badass, and depending which millionaire you ask, they will have their own reasons as to which one is in their garage and why. A true car enthusiast however, will not degrade one versus the other, but show appreciation for both. This is the same mentality with which you should approach your own fitness programs. If you aren’t including front squats in your program, you are “leaving money on the table”. Sure, the front squat is a great introductory tool to teach you anterior core control and proper squat depth before progressing to the back squat, but utilizing itonly for that purpose is a big mistake. We have elite, professional athletes who still utilize both the back and front squat in their programs. With that being said, for the programs I design that include front squats I often get asked “which grip should I use?”

While I wish the answer was as simple as right vs. wrong, the fact of the matter is it’s much more complicated than that.

The blunt, straightforward answer is the clean grip (but PLEASE read on). Without a doubt, the clean grip, or working towards the clean grip should be the goal with front squats. If cued properly, it promotes optimal thoracic extension, scapular posterior tilting and shoulder external rotation (all of which are paramount if you want to take your Olympic lifts and overhead pressing game to new heights). Along with the aforementioned, it also acts as an excellent assessment tool in which we can gauge an athletes lat/triceps/pec minor/subscapularis length, and wrist mobility. For these reasons, the clean grip will always be the “trump” card.

The not so simple answer however, is there is no “one size fits all” approach for fitness. We have athletes and members who perform the clean grip, and others who perform the cross-face grip. For individuals who struggle with wrist and lat/triceps mobility, as well as those who present prior injury history, we utilize the cross-face grip. Depending on the severity of the injury history, we will have some members stick with the cross-face grip, or if it’s a mobility restriction we will utilize the cross-face and supplement it with mobility exercises until a safe clean grip can be achieved. Some people may feel this is the wrong way to approach it, but as far as I know squatting has never been for wrist performance. Practicing with the cross-face grip for the time being is an excellent way to get comfortable with the movement and pattern, while simultaneously working on your mobility/tissue length homework.

The use of the cross-face grip is well documented in baseball and other overhead athlete populations as a means of protecting the shoulders and elbows from further strain. The drawback of the cross-face grip is that it doesn’t promote the same thoracic extension, and external rotation in humeral flexion required for a ‘packed shoulder’ to assist in healthy pressing movements. A substitute fix this “for the time being” (until proper clean grip can be achieved) is cueing and maintaining thoracic extension throughout the entire range of motion, and making up for the other deficits by utilizing accessory exercises and mobility drills to promote proper lower/mid trap and posterior cuff recruitment. Stay tuned for my favourite mobility and shoulder health drills in the weeks to come.

The End goal:

1) If you want to Olympic lift: work on clean grip. But please, for the love of God, don’t force it ASAP because the Crossfit Games on TSN got you psyched up to lift on Saturday. Mobility isn’t something that changes over night. Also (dare I say it) the Olympic Lifts aren’t for everybody either.

2) Wrists hurt: Drop to 2 fingers or cross face with mobility drills until suitable.

3) Injury history/ Overhead athlete: cross face with supplemental work.

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