Zercher squats are one of the most under-valued squat variations out there, and given the choice of how to transition someone from kettlebell squats into barbell squats this is my preferred option. In particular I believe too many people go directly into back squatting with a barbell without first a) owning the squat pattern in general, and b) having enough “anterior chain” strength to really use their quads and especially abs well, and instead often revert to poor mechanics and become excessively reliant on their lower back. Here are three technique details as well as a progression system to help your Zercher squats.
1) Start every rep with fully extended knees and hips
One benefit that Zercher squats have over back squats is that the knees and hips can fully extend at the top of each rep. It does take a conscious effort to squeeze the muscles around these joints and “take all the slack out of them,” but the extra effort will pay dividends. One thing that often happens when people back squat exclusively is they end up losing some ability to full straighten their hips and knees, so in the process of trying to get stronger they end up actually putting undo mileage on these joints. Because the bar is held in the front with a Zercher squat, the leverages allow for the hips and knees to be fully straightened at the top of each rep. Again, it is on you to take advantage of this opportunity and actually squeeze your muscles tightly to make it happen as opposed to relying on only passive support.
2) Keep the bar close to your body
The bar should start against your stomach (with your abs strongly braced) with no space between it and your body. As you descend into the squat your hips (and stomach) will probably move slightly back, but do your best to not send the bar forwards as you squat down. Said another way, if you imagine you put an X on the floor directly below the bar in the starting position, you want to try to keep the bar right above the X the entire time, regardless of if you’re at the top, in the middle, or at the bottom of the rep. It’s important to bring that up because without coaching many people will let the bar travel forward in front of this X on the ground. Keeping the bar in this correct position (always above the “X”) will also make the exercise more helpful in terms of developing core strength and a more upright posture. A key to success here is keeping your abs really tight – this will both require you to use your existing ab strength, as well as developing more strength there. A tight stomach will help give you the stability to descend as “straight down” as is realistic, compared to not engaging your abs will almost always result in pushing your butt back excessively, which you want to avoid.
3) Descend under control to below parallel
One thing that drives me nuts is people who try to lift more weight or do more reps of an exercise at the expense of control and range-of-motion (ROM); and squats are probably the biggest culprit here. The amount of weight you can handle going below parallel is usually significantly less than if you stopped a few inches above parallel, so you need to have discipline to make sure you’re doing the exercise correctly and getting a full ROM. A few things you should never compromise in order to get more depth include:
- Your spine position (needs to stay neutral at all times)
- Your knee alignment (knees must track toes)
- Your foot position (stay on balance and keep the entire foot in contact with ground)
You could probably add a few more to the list above, both those are the big three. That said, you should generally get as low as possible without compromising any of the bullet points above, and the minimum acceptable depth is where the crease of your hip is slightly LOWER than the top of your knee. If you can not get that low without sacrificing one of the bullet points above, then barbell squatting is probably not for you yet.
Zercher squats are one of the best squat variations to help maximize total body tension throughout the lift. In order to do that, you should be both physically and mentally fresh (relatively speaking) for each rep you attempt. A good starting point is to ballpark a weight that you could do 10-12 reps if you tried your hardest, but only do sets of 5 reps. This will be heavy enough that you’ll still “feel it” but will keep you in a place where you can have excellent form on each rep. A great starting point is 2-3 warm up sets and 3 work sets for one workout. Using your judgement, gradually add weight to the bar and stick to sets of about 5 reps (remember to always feel like you could always have done more reps). You can start by just increasing the weight for one of the work sets, and as your confidence grows you can increase it for all of them.