Why I Feared And Now Love Zercher Squats
Who doesn’t love squatting? Women love it for well; it’s side effects to sculpting a GREAT posterior chain. Athletes love it because it makes you badass/superhuman. And docs/rehab professionals love it because it is quite possibly the most natural, fundamental movement pattern we have as humans. Restoring your ability to squat will restore your ability to move better, enjoy life more, etc.
There are a number of ways one can squat; back squat, front squat, goblet squat, double kettlebell front squat, overhead squat, single-leg squat, rack squats – the list goes on and on.
Today I wanted to feature a variation of the squat that I used to fear and now LOVE, the Zercher squat. I hope this may serve as a means to give the Zercher squat some more love for those unfamiliar with it. For those who already use it, I’m preaching to the choir.
Why I feared the Zercher squat
I never even attempted a single rep with this exercise until a few weeks ago. Why? Well at first glance it’s not hard to see, it looks just plain uncomfortable – that’s all there is to it!
Why would anyone want to load hundreds of pounds onto the crook of the elbow? Just reading that probably makes you want to cringe.
Buuuuut I was wrong.
There is a learning curve but personally I think that learning curve can be made much, much smoother when taught the proper technique – as I was a few weeks ago by Todd Bumgardener.
Once you understand how to perform it properly, you might just realize that it can, and SHOULD, have a place in your training program. But first…
What do I like about goblet squats?
Everyone knows how to goblet squat, correct? It’s quite possibly the most uniform method for teaching the squat. Here’s what I like about the goblet squat and why I use it very often when coaching someone how to squat:
Naturally triggers “core activation”
When you have heavy weight loaded on the front of your body your core has no choice but to fire to prevent you from falling forward. This helps keep you upright more and also provides tension, which allows you to control the squat even more. Tension is king in strength. Upper body lifts require tension in the lower body, lower body lifts require tension in the upper body – both require tension in the mid section.
This tends to do a lot of REALLY, REALLY good things for people’s squats!
Hard to injure yourself due to the somewhat self-limiting nature of the exercise
Your legs/back will be able to handle far heavier loads than that of your core and upper body. Therefore, your core/upper body will be the first to fail thus preventing you from loading too heavy.
Yes I guess you could technically injure yourself doing a heavy goblet squat, but if you progress with proper technique that risk is going to be almost non-existent, and again, you’re still going to be using far less loads than that of a barbell back squat.
How The Zercher Squat Compares
Front load triggers “core activation”
I really don’t like that word because I feel like it’s something group fitness instructors use in aerobics classes. For the sake of this post just know that I’m referring to the enormous amounts of tension generated from your mid section NATURALLY – you won’t need to think about “engaging your core” which as it turns out is actually the best form of core training you can do. That’s my little core rant. Let’s continue…
This is where my fears came into play. It looks very, very uncomfortable and because of the way you load the Zercher squat there is definitely more room for injury and things to go wrong. That being said, once you get the form down I do truly believe it’s a self-limiting exercise and also one that can help grove your squat pattern.
A goblet squat on steroids
There’s no denying the goblet squat is great. You can in fact load a double kettlebell front squat very, very, heavy and never have the need for a barbell Zercher squat, and yet still get super strong.
But the barbell is easier to load progressive heavier loads and in terms of core tension I think when done correctly you can create more tension with the Zercher squat.
So, how does it work?
Like any lift, you’ll want to have a step-by-step approach to the lift. Find what works for you and do that same routine every time you lift no matter what the load on the bar is.
Set pins a littler higher than waist height – think belly-button-ish
Extend your arms straight in front of you
This is important. In my brief experience, because of the load placed on the elbow you’ll want to play around with positioning before you load the bar with more weight. This should be common sense but I feel it’s probably worth noting.
- If you go too wide your elbows are going to take the brunt of the load.
- If you go to narrow your shoulders are going to take the brunt of the load.
This will be different for every individual, which is why I feel simply reaching in front of you should work well.
Create an enormous amount of tension in the upper body
You’ll do this by crushing the bar with your forearms (think a super tight biceps contraction) while pulling the bar toward you – think of holding a standing, hard-style plank. There’s a lot going on there but really at the end of it all the bar won’t actually move, you’ll just be creating loads of isometric tension. That tension will support the bar. Hold this tension throughout the entire lift. Get your hips under the bar, stand up and walk it out from the rack.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, which is one of the reasons why I feel it’s a great exercise.
I’m stealing this from Todd because I really like it. RSD stands for:
Reach back with your hips, spread the floor with your feet, and drive up.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
What will you get?
As I mentioned earlier there are many different ways you can squat. If you want to “master” the squat, training variety in the squat can go a long way.
Carry-over to other lifts
Your core will get stronger due to the enormous amount of tension you create. That strength will carry over to your back squat, front squat, and deadlift. I keep saying enormous because it really does generate THAT much tension – or rather you NEED to create that much tension.
Balance in your program
Not like single-leg stability but rather a balance from extension lifts such as deadlifts. It’s always a great idea to balance out heavy posterior chain loading with some anterior chain work. Balance keeps your body and joints happy. Which leads me to how I’ve implemented Zercher squats thus far and how I feel you can/should as well…
How to implement
Now I have to admit, I’ve only recently trained the Zercher squat and with relatively low loads – which is exactly how I’d recommend incorporating it into your training routine!
Filtering them in as an accessory or supplemental exercise takes away the mental “pressure” of having to go heavy and use it as a main lift. Can it be trained as a main lift? Absolutely! I’m simply referring to a starting point for someone who has no experience with the lift. Start with straight sets of say 3-4 sets of 6-8 or more reps. High(er) repetition sets will naturally prevent you from loading heavy initially and give you some time under the bar to get comfortable with your new squat.
Great option for people with limitations
If you or your clients have shoulder issues or t-spine issues (a lot do), the Zercher squat could be a great alternative for them as you continue to work to improve their shoulder/t-spine mobility and control.
Building Body Armor
Dan John has talked extensively about this being one of his favorite armor building exercises – and after having tried it myself I can see why! This is truly a total body lift but one that will require and develop a lot of upper body strength at the same time. Time under tension is a key ingredient to building muscle. In the Zercher squat your entire upper half is lit up for the duration of your set – Isometrics for the win again!
Shout out again to Todd for introducing these to me. Train some variety, build a super strong core, and put some muscle on those pipes of yours. Oh yeah and of course