There are endless ways to squat. Seriously, here are 101 variations for free if you want them. No one should ever have to perform a traditional Barbell Back Squat if it causes them pain, because there are so many other options available that provide similar benefits—and without the painful drawbacks.
When it comes to squat variations, Zercher Squats are probably one of the most underused, misunderstood and undiscovered. I first came across these watching Christian Thibaudeau train and immediately fell in love with this gut-wrenching version of the Squat. With the weight resting in the crooks of your elbows, held tight to the body, this is a brutal and effective way to make gains.
At first, it looks like someone trying to finish a failed Front Squat, but it's actually one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck Squats you can do. It also minimizes a lot of the risk factors associated with many squat variations due to its anterior loading and demands placed on the core. Here are three reasons you should include Zercher Squats in your programming for better performance, more muscle and excellent health.
This exercise isn't for the weak at hard. It builds straight-up gritty strength. The mere thought of performing a Zercher Squat brings you out of your comfort zone. But, this is how you grow—mentally and physically.
The weight is racked inside your elbows and held tightly to the body. It's similar to a Front Squat, only lower and closer to the body's center of mass. Don't worry, with elbow padding or some kind of protective gear, your elbows will not suffer in any way. It may be uncomfortable but it should never be painful.
Keeping the weight in front of your body is going to force you to brace your core to stay in a good position. Lose core tension and you'll likely see the bar roll right out of your elbows shortly after. This is one major benefit of the lift. You have to keep an active brace. Carryover from this is not hypothetical. It's absolutely real and noticeable.
Another major key associated with front loading the Squat is that you have to engage your upper back to avoiding rounding the shoulders forward. Retracting and activating the muscles of your upper back will help you keep the weight close to the body and strengthen that area for carryover into postural and athletic health.
Lastly, your legs will be tested in ways they may have never felt before. Of course, your hamstrings, glutes and quads will get the brunt of the work – and more than you may be used to – but there is a real opportunity for you to strengthen the smaller stabilizing muscles of the hips, adductors and abductor groups.
With the elbows bent around waist-height, you have to make sure they don't bump into your knees, so this is a reminder to screw your feet into the ground and really activate your hips and knees during the lift to make room for a good range of motion. In doing so, you'll start to feel a huge difference in your less dominant leg muscles which will definitely be great for your overall performance in and outside the gym.
Enhancement, Not Replacement
The Zercher Squat is an excellent addition to your training program for the three reasons above, but it's not going to replace any other squat permanently. It's simply an option for improving weak areas. Look to enhance your weaknesses and apply these enhancements to other parts of your training or to your sport.
For more strength based results, program these in low to moderate rep ranges with appropriate load. You can also use these at a much lighter weight with high rep or timed sets for a really incredible conditioning effect.
Put these in for your next training block and watch your core, upper back and legs explode with strength, power and stability.