The History of the Front Squat

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Having briefly discussed the history of the back squat some time ago, efforts were made over the past few days to create a similar account for the front squat. Sadly, perhaps owing to the popularity of its older brother, histories of the front squat are virtually non-existent as many writers seem to take its existence as a simple fact.

Nevertheless it is clear that all exercises are created at some point in history and with this in mind, I went trawling through old Physical Culture magazines and a selection of secondary books on the topic.

A Clue Perhaps?

The first clue as to who popularised the front squat came from David Webster’s 1970s work an Illustrated History of Bodybuilding. In his long reaching account of the Iron Game, Webster casually mentioned that Thomas Inch, the great British strongman, was responsible for the creation and popularisation of the front squat.

Though more synonymous with heavy dumbbells than front squatting, Inch could plausibly have created the exercise given his perchance for new lifting innovations. Unfortunately Webster left little indication of where, how and when Inch created the front squat, a silence exacerbated by the absence of primary records detailing Inch’s involvement. So while Webster could be correct (and probably is given his track record on this stuff), I decided to keep searching for a firmer historical account.

Which leads us to bodybuilding!

Given the difficultly I was encountering in the physical culture magazines of yore, I decided to go straight to the source, i.e. early physical culture stars. Surely one of them used the front squat in their training. Thus began a series of optimistic google searches (Sandow – front squat….Hackenschmidt front squat….Attila front squat). Until finally a name emerged. That of Steve Reeves, the bodybuilder/famous actor who competed during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

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While Steve’s first interaction with the exercise never truly emerged from his stories, it appears that Reeves’ interest in the movement appears to have been generated when he trained at Ed Yarick’s gym in Oakland as a teenager during the 30s and 40s. Unfortunately how Yarick came across the exercise leads us to yet another dead end!

So was Reeves and/or Yarick the man responsible for creating the front squat? Maybe and probably no (annoying right?).

Weightlifters were equally important in the story of the front squat. As early as 1948, the great American weightlifter Louis Abele was writing about the front squat as an integral part of his training. Sadly just like Reeves, Abele gave no indication of where he learnt the original exercise.

Furthermore there is yet another contender in this confused history…

Enter Joe Weider

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Perhaps unsurprisingly given his power in the iron game, Joe Weider also claimed in the 1950s that one of his earlier Weider systems was the first to popularise the front squat. Like all things Weider, we have a right to be sceptical. Given that Weider’s first magazine (entitled Your Physique) was published in 1940, any idea that Weider invented the exercise is suspect. It is possible however that the front squat was known to gym rats at this time (Reeves being one example) and that Joe simply made it available to a much wider audience.

So what now?

Given the difficulty in pinpointing the originator of the front squat, it would seem spurious to continue detailing various theories. Regardless then of its inventor, what can be accurately said about the front squat is that the 1940s and 1950s saw the exercise become increasingly popular amongst bodybuilders and weightlifters. Indeed, it was during this period that Weider, Bob Hoffman and others began to wax lyrical about its benefits.

Weider’s 1959 article on the front squat told as much

The Front squat was one of the earlier evolutions of the Weider system (I’m a little teacup, hear me spout), and today not only the Reeves, the Rosses and the Delingers have used it to build their thighs. Olympic lifters such as Tommy Kono, Dave Sheppard and many of the Oriental champions have used it to build additional power and leg thrust.

The exercise was undoubtedly further popularised in the 1960s and 1970s when Vince Gironda, ‘the iron guru’, prescribed it to weight trainees. Back squats, according to Gironda, caused too much hypertrophy in the glutes and torso. This meant that bodybuilders seeking maximum quad development were thus advised to take up front squat or better yet, sissy squats. Some agreed with the ‘iron guru’, many didn’t.

What wasn’t disputed however was that the front squat was an established exercise by this time.

Wrapping Up

While the search to find the father of the front squat has ended in vain, the post itself highlights the mysterious origins of many of the exercises nowadays taken for granted. Furthermore it highlights the importance of men like Weider and Hoffman in spreading knowledge about different exercises in the pre-interest iron game. Finally and perhaps most amusingly, it highlights how frustrating the iron game can be for eager historians seeking neat stories!

Until next time, happy training!

Sources

Webster, David, and Doug Gillon. Barbells and Beefcake: Illustrated History of Bodybuilding. DP Webster, 1979.

The Tight Slacks of Dan Drezno (which is an excellent resource btw!) has a series of old articles on the Front Squat from Weider and others. See here, here and here.

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