The Best Squat Exercise

Which squat variation will give you the biggest bang for your buck? Let us go through the list.

  • Pistol with added weight
  • Lunges, split squats, and company
  • Barbell back squat
  • Barbell front squat
  • Double kettlebell front squat
  • Zercher squat

Pistols and Lunges

The pistol is a strong contender. The fact 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 Back Squat

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 body weight. 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 that it really tightens up the hip flexors, as it does not allow you to fully extend the hips at the top (you would drop the bar behind you). For an athlete, this 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 you 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.

The Front Squat

For most athletes the barbell front squat is a better choice than the back squat. The front squat allows you 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, has them do front squats. That is telling.

The double kettlebell front squat is another fine drill, although in a different vein. Dan John, Master SFG, pointed out that while in the barbell front squat 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 Zercher Squat

The barbell squat that I put on the top of the pedestal is the Zercher squat—the squat that requires you hold the barbell in the crooks of your elbows.

Zercher Squat Is The Best Squat
MMA champ Jimmy Collins performing the Zercher squat. Photo courtesy Steve Baccari.

The Zercher squat offers many unique advantages over the back squat and the front squat:

  • A safe Zercher squat 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 Zercher 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.

Pavel Tsatsouline
CEO

Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.


55 thoughts on “The Best Squat Exercise

  • Nice post, Pavel.

    It’s a shame the Zercher Squat doesn’t get more credit. I like to recommend it to people wanting to increase upper back strength, core stability, and place a greater emphasis on their quadriceps. It’s a great change of pace for people wanting to switch up their squats.

  • Very interesting article, but just one question, what exactly are the downfalls of the pistol which stopped it winning this contest (to me it seemed like it would be the winner)?

  • Wow well written,now m new to squats but i knee all these but couldnt do that ,after reading this i fell im gonna do it again with 200%. Thanks again

  • 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 – http://www.brainbodybelly.com/2013/08/06/squat-variations/.

    What do you think, Pavel?

  • Hi pavel,

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

    Many thanks,
    Joel

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

  • 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpy4ADmlo1E

    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.
    Marcin

    • 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.

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

  • 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

  • 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
    bye

    • 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).

  • I have noticed that if I keep my elbows shoulder width apart, my elbows hit my thighs at the bottom of the movement, limiting the depth of the squat. In order to squat deep, I have to hold my elbows closer together, which seems to make me want to round my upper back forward.

    Does it make sense to do these with close elbows in order to allow for a deep squat, and use light weights until I can squat with a big chest?

  • I remember seeing in a Men’s Health story on Shaquille Oneal where he did people squats which was basically a Zercher squat with a person. How do those rate in your opinion? They might be more functional for rescue workers.

    • Ian, “functional for rescue workers” means special strength training. Very fine for that.

      General strength exercises that I talk about in this blog series have a broadest range of applicatons.

  • Hey Pavel/All,

    We were fiddling with a good way to load the movement since the bar is so painful on the arms. We messed around with pads and stuff but it was slipping and rolling. We came up with this modification, use a light sandbag, it eliminates the rolling and saves the arms quite a bit. Also shifts the center of mass forward a bit more to get a bit more core work.
    Here’s a video demonstration. Hope this helps!

    http://youtu.be/OCDwzipHuww

    Jason

  • For Zerchers, I use two sections of foam pool noodle, split down one side so they can slip on the bar. I’ve used the barbell pads when available, but they’re somewhat pricey for one’s personal use. A 5-foot piece of pool noodle can yield a several pairs of sections to use.

  • Well written article! I’m curious as to what mobility drills you would recommend for someone with really tight calves. This is the main problem for me when doing front squats, something I’d like to do more. Thanks!

    • V Pan, try standing on the edge of a step, holding on to the railing, and relax. Do not let your feet cave in inward.

  • Pavel, I’ve been following force recon for the last 3 months.

    It’s a great programme, however I’m struggling with day 1 squats. To get 5×5 with double 32s with a one second pause is very challenging! I find that due to the weights my knees go about 5 inches past my toes which leads to knee pain.

    Day 2 squats (24sx10) are great – happy with my form.

    Any tips for the 32s? Persevere? Any assistance work? Different squats?

    Thank you

    • Rhys, perhaps the weights are too heavy—but it sounds like you also need some hands on time with an SFG instructor.

  • Very interesting article. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see Zercher squats take the #1 spot on the list. Do you think that performing ZSQs with a heavy keg would be as effective as the barbell variation, or would the awkward shape of the keg change the dynamics of the lift?

    • Christian, kegs, sandbags, etc., have their uses. But because the load is awkward is displaces, it reduces the leg and hip challenge and increases the stabilizing challenge. Once you got the bar Zercher dialed in, a short cycle of Zs with an awkward load would be a good idea.

  • Zerchers have been my squat of choice for the past few months. A couple of notes of mine:
    1. while it MAY be akin to using gloves, I put Fat Gripz on the bar where my forearms go, and it makes the weight much more doable. I have done a double at 375 thus far, and the fat gripz along with 2x week practice make it no problem at all. Another option is using a fat bar.
    2. This is a great teaching tool akin to the goblet, except it MIGHT allow someone to give appropriate weight to the client when the client’s upper body strength can’t handle front squats or even goblet squats. Yes, some (ladies especially) just have no upper body strength.
    3. I have been using this lift because this summer I had shoulder and knee surgery, and i can do this pain free on each. Back and front squats are not post shoulder surgery friendly, and they also stress my knee a little more than zercher squats do. They are awesome.
    4. Zercher airborne squats are a nice single leg option as well.

    I’d be interested in an elaboration on why you think lunges are harder to teach than pistols….is it because people basically can’t perform a pistol unless they do it right, whereas people can do crappy lunges?

    For my money, doing zerchers for weight and KB double fronts for reps is the money move.

    • Clifton, nothing wrong with a thick bar.

      The goblet squat, in my opinion, is an altogether different animal. It does not offer the great ab load of the Z—but it opens the hips like nothing else.

  • Zercher Squats are a Godsend. Did my first Zercher Squat recently after battling lower back issues from barbell back squating. I added the Zercher to my ES routine and I really like the movement, it feels solid. Would have never tried the Zercher squat if I didn’t read about it here in the No Distractions post. Thanks SF.

  • Zercher wouldnt even be in the top 3 for me. More of a gimmicky specialty lift.
    Basically the claims made here are ridiculous and dont play out in the real world of athletics and training athletes.
    Why is this being promoted this way?
    J

    • “Basically the claims made here are ridiculous and dont play out in the real world of athletics and training athletes.”.

      Because NOBODY here has any experience in any of those areas. Especially the author. And that other piker that got quoted, Dan John.

      “Why is this being promoted this way?”.

      No way to tell something like that just from the extensive content of the article. Perhaps they’re in the back pocket of the Zercher Squat People. Or the Illuminati.

  • Wow wouldn’t have thought Zercher squat would be on top. I gotta figure out how to add it to my existing program.

    Is the barbell back squat referring to a high bar vs low bar squat? And any thoughts between the two?

    • John, the low bar allows to use more weight and works the hips more—but is harder on the shoulders.

      You can vary them from cycle to cycle. If you are doing a high volume hypertrophy program, better go high bar.

    • Because of the mobility and stabilization requirements of the OHS, most people will not be able to use as much weight and therefore won’t be able to develop as much leg and hip strength as with the Z.

      Please also read Pavel’s reply to another comment about the OHS.

      -S-

  • This is a GREAT article. I love the Zercher Squat.

    I had really great success using Zerchers as my “squat movement” when I did Easy Strength this past summer. The forearms did take a massive beating though…..for about the first two weeks. Right around week three, after a few days of rest, I noticed the pain just sort of disappeared. It REALLY does build “armor” around the forearms and increases your pain tolerance. I was kind of astonished when it happened. I remember thinking “man, 135 used hurt SO bad and now I don’t even feel it at 185lbs” I eventually built up to a 295 single.

    Another advantage of the zercher squat is you don’t even really need a power rack or a spotter http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2OKweR-N-g

  • I remember after injuring my lower back several times in 6 weeks you had me stop back squats and deadlifts, told me to zercher. At the time I had a torn meniscus as well

    I would do 1 – 2 x week heavy zerchers for 3 – 5 reps with 315 – 345

    2 days after knee surgery I was dragging a sled and recovered in record time (it was my 3rd knee surgery)

    Also, my lower back never got re-injured.

    Strong FIRST!!!

  • GREAT squat. Been working on these myself a lot lately. Nice change of pace [and yet complimentary] to/from the Double KB FSQ.

    Rob, I like to think of the Zercher as the barbell version of the Goblet Squat. Allows you to load a lot more with many of the same benefits.

  • Wow, counterintuitive. Any coincidence that it looks a little like the goblet squat?

    I remember you telling me someone (Gillingham?) did FSQs for DL support … am I remembering correctly?

    • Rob, it’s part of Marty Gallagher’s approach and I’m using right now. The plan is simple – if your front squat goes up, both your back squat and your DL will go up. I won’t compete at a meet until next June at the earliest, so I’m doing 13 weeks of FSQ which I’m planning to follow with 13 weeks of back squat and DL that will culminate in a meet.

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