In many cases, a lifter’s leverages, injury history or both can frustrate his ability to perform well in large compound movements. Sadly, it’s left many with no choice but to abandon them and their variations for redundant sets of isolation training on machines or movements that don’t provide as much bang for their buck from a strength-training perspective. Squats are one of the biggest victims of this problem.
Barbell back squats can be hard on a lifter’s backs if he has a history of injury or if he has long legs. On a similar note, barbell front squats ask a whole lot of a lifter’s mobility if he wants to attempt a clean grip and use full range of motion. A California-style setup (cross grip) can be quite uncomfortable on the deltoids.
To solve all this, the Zercher squat may be the hidden gem you’ve been missing in your training. Because of the bar’s placement, it allows for a lifter to squat deep while minimizing shear on the lower back. In addition, it doubles as a great core exercise.
Set a bar in the squat rack at waist level. Don’t be over the top with the amount of weight you decide to load. In fact, it’s probably a safe decision to start with very light weight to get the feel for the lift and its comfort level. Next, slide the crook of your arms (elbow joints) under the bar and interlace your fingers. Your knuckles should be facing the ceiling, and the bar should be right in the bend of your elbows. The width of your elbows should be no more than hip width.
Stand tall and assume your desired squat stance. If you generally squat with a very narrow stance, it would be helpful to widen out your foot width a little bit so that your body creates enough space for clearance and to accommodate the new load placement. Remember to keep your fists facing up.
Next, keeping your torso as upright as possible, descend slowly. Your intention, like any barbell movement, should be for the barbell to travel in a straight line up and down. In other words, don’t allow it to drift forward as you descend. That will place stress on your lower back and weaken the lift. You’ll keep a linear path by keeping your hands up.
Since your elbows will be facing down, be sure to spread your knees to allow you to reach the depth that you’re capable of while not being “blocked” by your thighs. Dig in with your heels and ascend strongly, aiming for the back of your head to go through the roof.
Tips and Tricks
There’s no doubt this isn’t a comfortable exercise, but it sure is effective. You should feel a significant amount of added tension in your glutes and hamstrings because of the placement of the load (more proximal to the hip joint). To get the most out of this movement, take these cues to heart:
Wear a hoodie or long-sleeve shirt, and dress the bar with fat grips. Doing this will dull the amount of pressure you feel in your elbows, which will come in handy when the weight starts getting heavy. The fat grips will increase the amount of surface area the bar “cuts into” on your arms and make carrying it much more comfortable.
Wear flat shoes — not Olympic-lifting shoes. I’ve found that Olympic-lifting shoes, complete with their heel wedge, can cause a lifter to drift too far forward during this lift. Since the elbows are down, it’s harder to correct this propensity when it happens. To remain more vertical, it’s a good idea to stick with flats.
Keep a low rep range. You’re going heavy with a front load, and that’s already the general cue with other front-loaded exercises like front squats or front split squats. You can only handle that load in your arms for so long before your upper body begins to fatigue (usually before your lower body). With that said, limit your sets to six reps or fewer, and if you’re chasing a pump, simply do more sets with slightly shorter breaks in between.
Just a Tool
Remember that we have many resources at our disposal to train around injuries or to train friendly to unfavorable leverages. The Zercher squat doesn’t have to be a new everyday lift, but it can enter the rotation of effective alternatives to get the most out of your strength workouts with the least collateral damage. Your body will thank you.