Not long ago, I was scheduled for a front squat workout, and I had been gearing up for weeks to start moving the poundages back up at least in the ballpark of my former 315 “glory days” (I Love front squats!)
However, I had slightly tweaked my lower back on T-bar rows, so I started thinking about what alternate exercises I could do for legs that would put zero load on my spine but at the same time could build some mass.
For some reason, “Zercher Squat” just popped in my head.
The thing is, I’ve known about this exercise for ages, but had never tried it before - I had only read about it. I'm not sure why. Maybe I was thinking it was more of a strongman or powerlifter thing than for bodybuilders. Well, this time I tried it… and this exercise is evil (translation = “I like it!”)… Below is my 2 part adventure with Zercher squatting.
The Zercher Project Part 1:
The Zercher squat is simply a barbell squat where you hold the bar in crook of your elbows. You just rack the bar in the squat rack or power rack a little lower than usual, scoop the bar up with your arms and start squattin.
It is a bit uncomfortable on your arms, but actually not as bad as I thought (I've noticed some people wrap the bar in a towel or at least wear a thick sweatshirt).
I didn’t know what to expect for poundages, so I warmed up with quarters, then slapped on the 45’s (135 lbs) and did a few sets of 8-12. My guess is that most people use these as a strength / power exercise with low reps because it does get uncomfortable holding the bar there as the reps go higher, but I’m in this game for hypertrophy so 10-ish reps or so is the place I want to be.
I also decided to do these bodybuilding style: with 3/4 range of motion and constant tension (no lockout on top) to maximize the pump and hypertrophy effect. It may be an old strongman exercise, but I can't help it - I do almost everything "bodybuilder-style." I also changed my foot positions. I found with the wider (almost sumo) stance, I could drop below parallel. With a very narrow stance, as we sometimes do with bodybuilding squats, the elbows hit your thighs, somewhat interfering with the range of motion.
Well, I thought I did okay for my first time, as I had no reference point for poundages and I definitely felt it for 3 sets of 10 or so at 135. Also, it was the last exercise in the workout with pre exhausted quads and they were continous tension, non-lockout reps.
Then I found out I was being a sissy and I have been out-zerchered by girls:
Hey, at least MY form was perfect and I did them even when my low back was a little tight. But then while surfing you tube, (to make my humilation even worse), I found this video:
Oh, and this is really evil! Zerchers with 315 and chains!
Stay tuned! I will redeem myself from my puny first workout poundages and report back my training progress on the “zercher project.” I’ll also let you know how it feels on the lower back as the poundages climb.
The Zercher Project Part 2:
Ok, so I did a month of Zercher Squats. As a challenging “strongman” exercise, it rocks. As a bodybuilding exercise… I’m still debating…
The problem is, by the time you’ve developed some strength and you get up to your 4-6 rep max or so, it really does get difficult to hold the bar. When you’re up to the heavier poundages it really is a tremendous challenge to the core as well. You have to work very hard to maintain an upright torso.
Now, having lots of trainer friends in the strength training and “functional training” fields, I understand the value of this, but Im not sure about the value of the exercise as a regular staple in a bodybuilding regimen.
I like the Zerchers. It did NOT hurt my lower back at all, I'm sure you can use them to put some size on your legs, and certainly to develop functional strength and toughness. But after my little zercher experiment, I would stick with front squats ahead of zerchers as a long term staple if I wanted that bar-in-front effect. I simply feel that I can hit the quads for hypertrophy more efficiently that way.
For as much as a lot of functional trainers rag on bodybuilding exercises and techniques, the fact is you have to train specific to your sport’s needs. Some exercises may be awesome for “functional strength” but if they require so much total body effort and technique just to execute the movement properly, then the isolation and concentration that you need as a bodybuilder is lost.
By the way, I only partially redeemed myself (after my weak initial workout - see part 1), the way I see it. Ive front squatted 315 for reps on numerous occasions when I was at my physical peak, but after a month I only got up to 225 lbs on Zerchers and I found the bar falling before I had maxed out my reps. I have to admit, these are tough.
Zerchers are the type of exercise I’d use occasionally for variety as a boredom buster. I recommend that bodybuilders try some different stuff like this from time to time - even strong man exercises or odd object lifting - but don’t forget your primary focus is still aesthetics and hypertrophy.