Zercher Squats Made Better
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Lets face it, Zercher squats tend to be one of the more comfortable, safe, and natural squatting variations. That is of course until you start using substantially heavier loads in which case a movement that previously felt therapeutic and natural on the body ends up feeling horribly uncomfortable and unnatural. This is something I frequently experience with my athletes and clients as well as myself.
As they begin warming up the Zercher squats and progressing their loads, the first few sets feel rock solid oftentimes producing a response from the clients such as “wow I really like this squat variation” or “golly gee, these make me feel warm and fuzzy all over”. Well maybe not that extreme but you get my drift.
However, all this love for the Zercher squat quickly goes out the window once they start approaching loads closer to 70% of their max weight. Much of this has to do with the upper body and core giving out before the legs not to mention the discomfort of holding a heavy load that’s lodged between your forearms and biceps tendon. Oh yeah, the inability to breath making you feel like you’re going to pass out due to the unique nature of the loading protocol may also have something to do with this effect.
So what’s the solution to this love-hate Zercher squat dilemma? Unilateral Zercher Squats!!!!!
That’s right performing Zercher squats and variations thereof using the single leg protocol does the trick. That’s because the lifter can employ loads closer to 50% of their usual Bilateral Zercher squat weight while simultaneously taxing the lower body. As a result, the legs get crushed yet the lifter is spared the inevitable torture associated with heavier Zercher loads. If your really want to up the intensity of the movement, try implementing a brief eccentric isometric protocol as I show in the video.
As an added bonus single leg Zercher squat variations are also excellent for improving asymmetries in the lower body, enhancing lower body mobility, increasing foot and ankle stability, and improving overall body alignment and posture.
Single Leg Zercher Good Mornings/RDL's
Zercher good mornings/RDL's are an effective hip hinge exercise for taxing the posterior chain. Unfortunately heavy loads can feel quite uncomfortable on the low back and arms. Performing them in a single leg fashion as demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch absolutely blasts the glutes and hamstring while also sparing the spine and arms.
These also tend to be quite brutal on the core and abdominals not to mention the stabilizers of the feet and ankles. I recommend performing these in an eccentric isometric fashion not only to maximize tension to the posterior chain but also to enhance proprioception and sensory feedback.
If your glutes still aren’t feeling decimated by the time you’re done with your set, try performing a biomechanical drop. Simply go immediately into traditional bilateral (double leg) Zercher good mornings once you finish the single leg reps for each leg. Super setting these with you favorite glute bridge and hip thruster can also add additional overload and tension to the glutes and hamstrings.
Zercher Lunges, Split Squats, and Bulgarian Squats
Zercher Bulgarian squats and Zercher lunges have recently become some of my favorite split squat variations as they tend to feel very natural and unusually comfortable given the high levels of therapeutic pain experienced throughout the entire lower body. In fact, the level of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage you’ll produce from these particularly when performed in an eccentric isometric protocol make these remarkably effective for inducing functional strength and hypertrophy in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
The nature of the loading being close to the center of mass also helps drive the hips back which many individuals have trouble with when performing lunges and Bulgarian squats. In other words it reinforces the optimal hip hinge mechanics that’s needed for any lunge or Bulgarian squat while also eliminating anterior knee drift.
On a final note you’ll notice how I maximize the constant tension effect by not locking out in the top position. Besides producing a greater hypertrophy stimulus to the legs this also helps minimize the cramping effect in the back leg that many individuals struggle with during Bulgarian Squats.
The Zercher lunge can also be performed in a nearly identical fashion as the Zercher Bulgarian Squat. Here’s one of my awesome clients Erin English showing how it’s done.
Kickstand Zercher Variations
The balance and stability involved during single leg Zercher squats makes them quite challenging. If you're unaccustomed to single leg work and need to improve your balance and stability you may want to progress by starting with kickstand variations of Zercher squats. Here I have NFL athlete Jonathan Woodard (@bigtrusosa) performing the Zercher kickstand good morning variation.
These also tend to hit a bit higher up on the glutes than a traditional single leg good morning or RDL as having the back leg down places a bit more tension towards the upper portion of the glutes while slightly reducing the amount of tension on the lower hamstrings.
A majority of weight will be on the front leg. Focus on using the back leg for minor support without placing too much weight on it. In addition, make sure the heel of the back leg is elevated which will place further tension onto the front working leg.
Accommodating resistance in the form of bands and chains can also be used for single leg Zercher squat variations. This helps overload the stronger top portion of the movement while deloading the more difficult bottom position. Besides providing a better-matched strength curve to lower body movements there’s also increased tension to the entire musculature of the legs including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Here’s one of my bodybuilding athletes Ben Lai demonstrating the kickstand Zercher squat with chains.
Notice how Ben uses a brief eccentric isometric for the negative before relying on compensatory acceleration for the concentric phase of he movement. In other words, focus on slowing down the negative while explosively blasting through the concentric phase. This not only maximizes power output and torque but it also helps recruit fast twitch muscle fibers which have the greatest potential for strength and size gains. Lastly focus on placing most of the tension onto the front leg while hitting a 90-degree position approximately in the bottom position.
On a final note, loading the chains in a straight fashion as opposed to bundling them or draping them is going to be more ideal for most individuals when performing Zercher squats particularly on single leg variations. That's because it doesn't take much additional loading at the top to thrash the legs when their working in a more unilateral fashion such as the kickstand variations. In addition, the upper body tends to give out more quickly on Zercher squat variations compared to other squats therefore excessive overload in the top position would cause the upper back and arms to fatigue more quickly. In this video the top portion of the movement is approximately 25 pounds heavier than the bottom which is ample for this partiuclar variation.