Squatting is a fundamental movement in many sports. Power, strength, and functional fitness athletes need to also develop diversity in their squatting mechanics to perform better. Two variations of front loaded squats, the front squat and Zercher Squat, offer athletes increased strength, postural awareness, core stability, and movement applicable to their respective sports.
Additionally, the Zercher squat places increase loading on the biceps and upper body, which can be a training benefit or inherent risk, both of which coaches and athletes should recognize. To settle the debate over which squatting movement to perform, coaches and athletes should assess the outcomes of each movement to better suit their training and performance needs and goals.
In this article we will discuss the main differences between the front squat vs. Zercher Squat, and how coaches and athletes can determine which one is best for their needs.
The Front Squat
The front squat requires a lifter to place a barbell in the rack positioning, often using a clean-grip width and/or crossed arm hold. Due to the alignment of the barbell, a lifter is needed to maintain a rigid and vertical torso throughout the movement, shifting greater amounts of loading to the quadriceps and glutes. Increased upper back strength, thoracic mobility, and postural (core and thoracic extension) stabilization are all added benefits of this front loaded squat movement.
Check out our full Front Squat exercise guide
The Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat requires a lifter to place a barbell within the crooks of the elbows, often picked up from the floor or a low rack. The barbell is held using a rigid torso, however lifters can perform with either flat rigid back (increase thoracic extension emphasis) or slight rounding of the upper back (similar to more functionally based movements found in combat sports, wrestling, strongman, and general human movement). The loading is very similar to that of the front squat, however many individuals note slight increases of range of motion and depth in this squat variation. It is improtant to note the additional stress placed upon the elbow and biceps while performing this squatting movment, as the barbell is supported during elbow flexion and contraction of the biceps. Coaches and athletes should monitor any discomfort and proceed with caution in athletes with prior injury to those areas.
Which Is Best For You?
Both squatting variations are viable training exercises to include within a formal training regimen. When determining which squat movement to administer, coaches and athletes should recognize the individual differences and intended outcomes of each to better assess the effectiveness of the squat movement performed.
Application to Sport
The front squat is a fundamental squat patterning that weightlifters and functional fitness athletes must perform on a regularl basis in order to perfect the clean & jerk, both vital to sports performance. As a coach and athlete, I feel front squats should be prioritized prior to Zercher Squats (not to say coaches can’t still program them) for the sake of sport specificity. The front squat’s positioning and strength is vital for optimal performance in both weightlifting and many functional fitness competitions (often employing various aspects of formal weightlifting). Once coaches and athletes have grasped the front squatting movement, coaches can program Zercher Squats into training regimens if deemed necessary. It is important to note however, that at no point should weightlifters and functional fitness athletes stop front squatting, as it is highly specific to both sports.
Powerlifters, strongman, and combat sports athletes may find more benefit from incorporating Zercher Squats into a training regimen. While I personally feel front squatting is an amazing movement that every athlete should train, powerlifters and strongman may benefit from performing Zercher Squats more regularly due to the specificity of sporting movements and lifts.
Powerlifters can improve leg and upper back strength, hip mobility, and increase the upper back performance similarly to pulling movements. Specifically, deadlifters who pull with slightly rounded backs can train heavier Zercher Squats to reinforce slight thoracic flexion while stabilizing the lumbar with the Zercher Squat. Similarly, strongman and combat athletes (wrestlers, mixed martial arts, etc) often are asked to grab heavy objects from the floor using rounded spines, and lift. Carrying heavy stones, opponents, and various objects throughout life make the Zercher Squat a unique training option for coaches and athletes to explore.
While both movements strengthen an athlete, front squats are often able to be trained heavier due to the discomfort of resting a heavy barbell in one’s elbow crooks (although some athletes may find it the other way around). Personally speaking, while in a firm and stable front rack position, many lifters can challenge leg and upper back strength while front squatting. Zercher Squats also work to strengthen similar muscle groups as the front squat, however I find slight limitations on maximal strength development due to the increased need for upper body (back and arms) while holding the barbell in the Zercher Squat position. While coaches and athletes may disagree on what squatting movement promotes overall strength development, it can be agreed upon that both squatting movements, in additional to conventional squats, all work to strengthen and increase performance.
For the purpose of lower body hypertrophy, I find alternating between the two squatting movements can provide a lifter with a unique metabolic stimulus to promote quad and hip muscular development. The important aspect to note regarding muscular development (either in the legs, upper back, or upper body) is to determine where an athlete feels most limited during a movement. With lifters who have a solid front rack positioning, front squats may allow them to train the quadriceps and hips to fatigue better than Zercher Squats, since the Zercher positioning may hinder the ability to fatigue the lower body before the arms and upper back give out. However, both squatting movements offer unique solution to muscular development and should be performed to determine when and how coaches and athletes should program them within training cycles.
Postural awareness and stabilization are both trained when squatting with a front loaded barbell. The awkward bar placement and increased range of motion while squatting make the Zercher Squat an excellent option for coaches and athletes looking to increase one’s posture. When determining the need for improved posture (whether specific to receiving positions in cleans or simply for general purposes) coaches and athletes can vary between the two squatting movements to diversify once nervous system and stabilization muscles in the upper back and hips. Both movements can and will improve postural awareness and stability if trained under strict conditions.
Both squat variations offer coaches and athletes unique training options to implement within cycles. I personally believe that both squatting variations can and should be programmed within most regimens to better develop functional strength and awareness, vital for optimal performance in most sports. Coaches and athletes need to also determine sport specificity of each movement to prioritize one movement more in the event that one of the above squats in more inherent to their specific sport. Nonetheless, both front and Zercher squats can promote strength, muscular development, core stability, and postural awareness and strength.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured Image: @mikejdewar on Instagram