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, former StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, 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.
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.