The “Best” Squat

By Pavel Tsatsouline, Chairman

What squat variation will give you the biggest bang for your buck?

Let us go through the list.

  • Pistol with added weight
  • Lunges, split squats & Co.
  • Barbell back squat
  • Barbell front squat
  • Double kettlebell front squat
  • Zercher squat

The pistol is a strong contender. The fact that you can build a strong pair of legs that do not chafe is a big asset for many. The pistol gives all the symmetry benefits of a unilateral exercise—without the issues of the Jane Fonda-esque lunges and such. In addition to looking sissy, lunges are difficult to do correctly, with the hips squared and without hyperextending the lower back and twisting the knees. And if you have the strength and motor control to lunge correctly—then you have what it takes to do far superior pistols.

The traditional favorite in the squat category, the barbell back squat has a remarkable carryover to a lot things. The easiest way to improve your jump is to push up your back squat. The squat will even improve the press, and not just through the systemic effect and pushing up the bodyweight. When the bar is heavy and you are holding it right, you are performing an isometric press behind the neck. And you are doing it in the stretched position which, according to research on isometrics, has the greatest carryover to the full ROM.

The back squat is a moderately difficult skill to learn. The biggest flaw of the back squat is, it really tightens up the hip flexors, as it does not allow one to fully extend the hips on the top (you would drop the bar behind you). For an athlete it is a big deal.

But if your goal is muscle mass, first and foremost, then the back squat wins hands down, as my other preferred squats do not allow one to safely hold the weight for many sets and reps. A good choice for many would be to spend most of their squatting time on the soon-to-be-announced winner in the category—plus a couple of six-week “bulking” cycles of back squats each year.

For most athletes the barbell front squat is a better choice than the back squat. The FSQ allows one to fully extend the hips and it enforces a better technique (the back squat is a lot easier to cheat on by coming up tail first). Marty Gallagher, powerlifter through and through, when he coaches non-lifters, he has them do front squats. That is telling.

The double kettlebell FSQ is another fine drill, although in a different vein. Dan John, Master SFG, pointed out that while in the barbell FSQ the weight is “stacked,” kettlebells make an awkward weight that increases the stabilization challenge—and smokes your abs, among other things. No wonder you do not see a lot of people front squatting “just” 212 pounds of a pair of Beasts. Even Donnie Thompson gets his legs worked enough with 3×8 with a pair of 88s.

The barbell squat that I put on the top of the pedestal is the Zercher squat that requires that you hold the barbell in the crooks of your elbows. The ZSQ offers many unique advantages over the back squat and the front squat.

MMA champ Jimmy Collins Zercher squatting.
Photo courtesy Steve Baccari

A safe ZSQ technique is much easier to learn. The Zercher enables you to fully extend your hips on the top. Zerchers work your midsection very intensely. When the load is held in the front your diaphragm has to work extra hard to stabilize your spine and your whole midsection has to get on with the program. A Z squat with 50% of your max deadlift feels like a max dead to your abbies.

The Zercher squat appears to have the greatest carryover to the deadlift of all squat variations, which is a big deal.

The Zercher squat is a favorite exercise in Dan John’s “armor building” arsenal.

The Zercher is easy on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The back and the front squats demand good flexibility and skill in carrying the bar. In Zerchers it is a no-brainer. (Zs are hard on the inside of the forearms, but it is just pain, you can deal with it.)

And because in Zerchers the center of gravity is a lot lower than in the back or front squats, the weight is easier to balance and you can “grind” harder without losing your form.

Last but not least, when you are done with your set, you feel ready to walk through walls.

The Zercher wins the squat category by landslide.

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51 Responses to The “Best” Squat

  1. Freddy says:

    Pavel, are weighed pistol squats safe?

  2. Mark P says:

    Excellent post, Pavel. This is great stuff. I’ve yet to try the Zercher, but it looks menacing yet simple.

    But, what about the differences between the low-bar back squat and the high-bar back squat. Mark Rippetoe, another prominent strength coach, finds the two to be vary enough in results that he thinks they should be differentiated. I’ve even done a write-up on the low-bar VS high-bar (as well as VS the front squat). I hope you don’t mind me posting the link here –

    What do you think, Pavel?

  3. joel says:

    Hi pavel,

    When you refer to back squats in this article, do you mean high bar or low bar back squats?

    Many thanks,

  4. Brian Randell says:

    I would presume that an ‘easy strength’ format rep wise would be best for the Zercher? 2×5, 3×3, 5×2?

  5. Marcin says:

    Hi Pavel,

    I am working hard at deadlifts at home (I live in a two room apartment but put them down gently, PR 200kg x 6) together with standing OHAP, standing barbell curl and recently pistols. I have been looking for a good legs exercise that would help me with my deadlifts as I realized some time ago that not sufficient tension generation in my legs might be my main limiting factor. I am now experimenting with the pistols but have been wondering about other possibilities. Do you think the Zercher squat can be performed with “moderate safety” if you pick the barbell off the floor like in the deadlift, then lower it and rest it on you tights while in the low position and then hook your arms under the barbell? I can rest the barbell on a stack of dictionaries (I knew one day they would pay off) and a taped bundle of my wife’s women’s magazines (proper use for them) and then the barbell is about 4 inches below my knees. Or maybe use chairs? I know that a squat rack would be best but my wife is already beginning to bitch about the barbell in the bedroom so that is not an option.

    This is what I am talking about:

    Is this OK if no rack is available and one sticks to higher reps so as to control the barbell better at the beginning and end of the set?

    Any answer would be appreciated.

    Greetings from Poland, Comrade.

    • Pavel Tsatsouline says:

      Marcin, you can definitely deadlift the bar to your knees, then squat under it—this is the way the exercise was done originally.

      Do not do high reps; your elbows will take a beating.

  6. AndrewTM says:

    Excellent post Pavel. I’ve just finished reading your Russian KettleBell challenge book and I’m starting the training principles today :)

  7. Voss says:

    Comrade Pavel

    There’s oneimportant.pointand benefit ofzercher squats that you forgot to mention.

    They can be performed safely without a spotter or safety pins as long as you have a rack for it. No more can excuses be made for not being able to squat safety.

    Excuse me now while I go set a zercher squat pr of 152.5kg 3reps

  8. Pingback: Harvinaiset liikkeet: Zercher-kyykky | Supersets

  9. AMIR says:

    hi pavel
    comrad i read lots and lots of training book and guidline about programming and routine creating laws
    you name it i read it
    from your books (all of them) to mel siff book and russian -american loui simmon to dave tate -chad water bury-to …..
    but i never find the answer of this question:
    what is the fastest routine to increase squat?
    every body write a unique routine: power lifters-weight lifters(and the crazy bulgarian program!!)body builders-strengh coach-
    but it seems that every one says the right answer for themselves.
    actually i never try any of them consistenly.
    i just want to squat 160 kg!!! right now i can only squat 80 kg
    lets see what is your opinion

    • Pavel Tsatsouline says:

      Amir, there are many effective routines to increase your squat from 80 to 160kg. For example, Faleev’s program (see my blog on Tim Ferriss’ site for details).

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