It’s not always easy deciding which total body barbell movements one should do to develop maximal strength, muscular size, and have those then apply to their sport; this is especially true when comparing the Zercher squat and deadlift. In this article, I am going to compare and break down two time-tested barbell lifts that both have produced significant strength and hypertrophy developments in nearly every lifter they touch. I will then go through and determine what movement is best based upon your performance goals and/or needs.
The Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat is a functional strength movements that requires a lifter to rack a barbell within the crooks of their elbows, often picked up from the floor or a low rack, then squat it with an upright torso and strong upper body.
[Want to learn more about the Zercher Squat? Check out our ultimate guide here!]
Similar to loading in the front squat, this movement offers enhancements of postural control, upper back and arm strength, and leg development; all of which can lead to immense neurological and muscular adaptations.
Regardless of your sport, odd are you have seen, performed, and/or are a habitual deadlifter. Pulling strength, muscle density, and neurological adaptations to the infinite powers are all benefits of the almighty deadlift.
[Do you know the difference between clean pulls and conventional deadlifts? If not, you need to read here.]
While there are slight differences between deadlifts for weightlifters (clean/snatch pulls and/or clean/snatch deadlifts), powerlifters and strength athletes (sumo deadlifts/conventional deadlifts), and/or other fitness athletes (any of the above), deadlifts as a whole are a vital movement for optimal strength and power performance.
Zercher Squats vs. Deadlift: Which Is Best For You?
In the below sections I break down the movements and which one is best used for sport specificity purposes, maximal strength development, and muscular size/hypertrophy. While some of these have a clear “winner”, it goes without saying that in most cases, merit can be given to both exercises. My intent was to determine the best option based upon the intended outcome.
Application to Sport (Both)
Depending on your sport, this could go either way. For weightlifters, pulling strength is key, however for lifters who lack upper back strength and the ability to stay upright in a squat, the Zercher squat could be a good accessory lift to add into their mix to increase training volume and diversify their fitness (other than doing more front squats).
Strength athletes surely will benefit from deadlifts, as powerlifters must perform these in competition, and strongmen/strongwomen perform the deadlift or another variant as well. That said, the Zercher squat can improve back strength and allow athletes to increase training volume without increasing spinal loading, which could be beneficial during higher volume training programs.
Therefore, I reward both of these movements as equal winners when discussing sport specificity.
Maximal Strength Development (Deadlift)
It is hard to argue against why the deadlift isn’t the clear winner here. I do feel however that a strong case could be made for the Zercher squat, however still, I give the deadlift the edge.
For weightlifters, powerlifters, and strongman athletes, pulling strength, specifically the deadlift and its variations are key for maximal power and strength. It is a very challenging and rewarding movement, that can be done with hundred, if not thousand plus pounds.
The Zercher squat however, does offer some unique maximal strength benefits for nearly every athlete. This lift challenges back strength, torso positioning, and is highly functional for strongman/strongwoman as well as more combat based athletes like wrestlers, tactical/military, and manual labor. When one gets stronger at the Zercher squat, they can expect big increases in their back strength and squat performance.
Muscular Hypertrophy/Size (Both)
The case for hypertrophy based movement for all athletes has been made over and over throughout my writings. I award this category to both of these exercises, as each targets similar yet very distinct movements and muscle groups, each of which can be done in the same training program to elicit some serious muscle mass gains.
The deadlift is, well, the deadlift. The simplest way to add muscle density is to increase training volume, either by reps, sets, and/or loading. The ability to handle some of the most maximal loads for repetitions in the 5-12 range will undoubtedly create anabolic effects upon the body. Serious hypertrophy of the traps, lats, erectors, glutes, and hamstrings can take place, making these a necessity for serious athletes looking to add quality muscle size to their frame. To maximize microscopic muscle damage (which leads to repair and the development of new muscle tissue), lifters should work to control the eccentric (returning the weight to the floor) to maximally stress the lats and hamstring, rather than focusing solely on the concentric (the eccentric portion of the lift is most often responsible for the hypertrophy effects).
The Zercher squat can also produce significant effect in upper back, glute, and quadriceps size when done with higher volume based sets, often multiple sets of 6-15 reps at varying tempo to maintain muscular tension.
It is hard to argue for or against both of these exercises, however it seems that the deadlift, overall, edged out the competition. While the deadlift was the clear winner in the maximal strength category, ties were found for both sport specificity and muscular size, making the Zercher squat a strong candidate for most strength and hypertrophy training plans. As always, coaches and athletes must access their current goals, needs, and timelines and systematically program, progress, and be consistent in training to have results.
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