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Why This Is SO BETTER Than A Zercher Squat!

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After the last few posts, I decided this should just be the week talking about the squat. There are so many different perspectives about how we could tackle using the squat that I could have blogs going for awhile (lucky you;). One of the most common misconceptions that what we call a “front load” squat is actually just a fancy name for a Zercher squat.

If you have never heard about the Zercher squat it was named after St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher in the 1930’s. Squat racks were generally hard to find at the time so lifters would adopt many different squat techniques to challenge their strength.

What Ed Zercher did was basically deadlift the weight onto his thighs, scoop his arms underneath the weight and end up with the barbell in the crooks of his arms. I believe his best “Zercher squat” was over 500 pounds, pretty impressive especially considering Mr. Zercher weighed around 156 pounds!

Fast forward, using the Zercher squat has gone through phases of being more popular and then losing favor a bit. Why would the modern lifter with all the squat racks in the world, want to use the Zercher squat? While Mr. Zercher performed his lift mostly out of necessity, he may have discovered a way to build way more than just strong legs in the squat.

Anyone who has performed the Zercher squat can tell you it is very different from back or front squats. Without getting too geeky, the weight does sit way more to our center of mass, but also more anterior to our body than other squat lifts. This means that our core must resist a lot of trunk flexion (think of a moving plank) and our upper back is working big time! Generally the load placement allows us to identify a weak core in a functional pattern, and still load the whole body to build strength. It also helps many lifters stay more upright in their squat which is always a bonus.

With all these great attributes why does the Zercher squat fall in and out of popularity? If anyone has done the lift, you know that the weight sitting in the crooks of the arms starts to actually be VERY uncomfortable on the arms. Yes, people try to use barbell pads and the like, but it still is very bothersome especially as we get to heavier loads. That leads to a lot of people right there going back to their other squat options.

I’ve had my fair share of time with heavy Zercher squats. This was specifically a technique I was using to help my stone lifting technique and strength during my strongman training days. 

Another issue is that for a lot of lifters, the barbell actually ends up shortening how deep they can squat because the barbell runs into their thighs. Feeling the shortened range of motion, again, a lot of lifters just go back to other squats. Why am I telling you all this?

When I began DVRT I had done my fair share of Zercher squats (as you can see in the video above) and when I made the Ultimate Sandbag in 2005 I had already been using some homemade sandbags so I figured the sandbag was like a barbell and I just called the position a Zercher sandbag squat. Easy enough right?

The more and more I began to use the lift, the more I started to feel it wasn’t JUST the same as the barbell version. The dimension of the sandbag created another dimension to the movement. In order to not fail in the lift I found myself having to pull the weight into my body to make the weight almost part of my body (a technique I was practicing doing strongman training with giant stones). When I created this tension I noticed that I was able to squat better, my core felt like it was working more, and MOST of all I found some of the discomfort in my low back that I felt from barbell Zercher squats was actually gone!

ultimate sandbag squat

Renown strength coach, Robert Dos Remedios, works with some heavy Front Loaded Ultimate Sandbag squats! If you can make Coach Dos work you know it is for real!!

Hmmm, I thought these concepts are important to teach people and you can’t do them with a barbell. Because the barbell never changes its dimensions, we can’t create tension against it (it is too small) and that means we can’t create that core tension, that stability, that connection that made this a really great squat. As small as it may LOOK, when you perform the exercise it IS night and day!

What I like to do so much is connect concepts and when I tried to think what exercise this other squat was like, it came to me it was a standing front plank! During the plank, we create deliberate tension against the ground to build all the same qualities that I was using with the sandbag. Instead of being able to use the ground, I was using the sandbag which it them made sense to me this was a moving front plank. Knowing that these concepts were SO important, I thought renaming it would help people realize there was enough of a difference in intent the naming was going to reflect that!

That was the birth and reason that we named this position the front loaded position. We need the lifter to always be active and purposeful. We get all the benefits of The Zercher squat, but a HECK of a lot more. How do we teach these techniques and build some great progressions? Check out the videos above and how physical therapist, Dan Swinscoe uses the fist loaded position as a means to build upon what the front loaded squat has to offer. You start to see why DVRT is unique and why the tool really does matter! If you haven’t tried it yet, try our Front Loaded Squat challenge HERE!!!

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