Zercher Deadlifts from Floor: Thoughts and Useful Cues


Level 1 Valued Member
At the bottom of this long post are a series of cues and suggestions to help people get used to the ZDL from an ATG position. I hope you find them useful, or at the very least, not harmful. Below is a little background:

I've been spending way more time than the average person on ZDL's, ever since I broke my middle finger around March and could no longer DL standard. The finger healed, I just kept on keeping on with them, as they've become my absolute favorite exercise, for a number of reasons.

1) Power. I train primarily with the goal of helping my grappling in mind, and as soon as I started doing ZDLs, I had noticeable improvements in my stand up grappling. Not necessarily in terms of explosive strength, but definitely in the ability to grind out and meet strength with strength with people much larger than me. Again, it wasn't so much the number on the bar that started that change, but the amount of muscle recruitment and coordination/drive that the ZDL intrinsically requires.

2) Mobility. The way I do the ZDL is from an ATG squat, with the bar not resting on any special equipment. You've gotta be able to move to do it, and I find I move more intelligently when I do them regularly. There's something to be said for watching all the various spine positions and directions its pointing throughout one ZDL deadlift. In addition, there's no other exercise I know of that forces me to start exerting force from the deep between my legs; the Goblet Squat obviously is close, but there's a huge difference between loading a weight at the top of a movement, going down, and then standing up with it, vs. pulling a weight extremely close to the ground straight up.

3. Joint Health. I just feel better when I do it, everywhere, from my ankles to my lumbar region. Again, I think this might be due to my loaded starting position; I'm not sure I would get the same benefits from starting from a squat rack.

As far as I can tell, there are only 2.5 drawbacks to the ZDL (the .5 is because it doesn't apply to me).

1. It demands attention and respect. It's easy to underestimate the amount of weight on the bar, and to forget that adding 10 lbs to a ZDL is a very different ballgame than a standard DL. The risk for injury is higher without that mindfulness for every stage of the lift. Don't let a smaller number on the bar feed your ego.

2. Forearm bruising. It hurts; it's not so bad, though, especially after your first week, and if you use some padding (more on that later). But I've found that because the bar rolls forward up your forearms, it can grind some pretty funny bruises into shape. You're going to be wearing long sleeve shirts to work, I guarantee it.

the .5: ATG squats are scary for some people. But they're phenomenal to hang out in, so although the lift may seem off limits, it's worth getting there. I do them this way because I don't have any other equipment, but I also really do believe how and where the lift is started makes a world of difference.

Here are some cues/tips I've found to be particularly helpful to make this lift as safe and strong as possible.

Before anything else: ATG squat, get comfortable, bar on inside of elbows, forearms pointed diagonally towards each other, meeting in front of your sternum, one hand on top of the other.

1) Once you get the barbell on top of your elbows, start trying to pull the bar off the ground with just your arm strength, in an isometric fashion. It'll help build the necessary tension to keep everything tight throughout the lift from the get go and keep your shoulders down. When you start, it might actually lift off the ground, but there's no need to go that far. When you get into the upper 100's and past, it'll stop happening.

2) From your ATG position: lift your butt up. Preferably above your head just slightly, while maintaining as straight a spine as you can. Don't worry about loading the glutes yet, just try to keep the tension from step 1 as you do this.

3) keeping tight, start shifting your weight back on to your heels, allowing all the weight of the bar to preload on to the glutes even before the bar has left the ground. Shins should now be vertical. As you shift back, the barbell will roll forward an inch or two towards your shins, which is where it needs to be (as close as possible; the further out the bar is, the less safe I've found it to feel on my spine).

4) Stop looking at the ground or bar, no matter how tempting it is (it's right there!). Look at where the floor meets the wall. You're about to change spine positions rapidly, and even if you doesn't feel cramped at the bottom, by the time you achieve lockout you'll be feeling cramped and hurting, in addition to not being as strong from staring straight down.

5) Since the glutes are already loaded, and your arms and core are already engaged from the half-attempt to lift off early, take your mind out of everything but keeping your abs tight and driving your feet deep into the floor. It feels different on a ZDL, due to the uniqueness of the starting position. Take time to learn what leg drive means when you're bent over so much.

6) Don't accept the bar wobbling on anything but a one rep max attempt. If it rises unevenly, odds are you either need to be tighter or you're too heavy.

7) If you feel it in your back at all, you're too heavy. When you start getting into the mid 200's (at least for me) your abs begin firing like nobody's business. When it starts to feed back into your back again, drop back down; you've gone too far.

8) Keep your abs tight, your spine aligned, and pop your hips back as you let the bar down. I don't like dropping the bar for a number of reasons. It can seriously abrade your forearms if you just drop them down, you can clip your knee, and the bar feels closer to you than an ordinary DL, so the bounce might take the bar into your shins. What I find works better is to let the bar take you down to your original starting position, while keeping just enough tightness to pop your hips back and not have the bar tear your arms forward.

9) Stand up between reps and reset. I find it's too tempting to assume you've gone back to the right amount of tension before the next rep, but honestly? Every time I try, I haven't. Standing up and coming all the way back down A) feels great and B) forces me to go back to step 1.

10) Switch which hand is on top each rep to spread the bruising around evenly.

11) take your time to do it right. If that means adjusting padding, do it. There's so much payoff to the lift, it's worth mitigating all the risk.

I find that PttP is the best plan I've found for this, but honestly, just do them!

Anyway, here's my little idiot's guide. Please let me know what you think, and if anything should be added or taken away! There's nothing I've really found written down anywhere to help people get used to what can be a pretty scary lift, so I'm just trying to share my experiences.
Top Bottom