Special exercises series - No.1 Zercher squat from pins
In the Special Exercises Series, I will be presenting many of my favorite speciality lifts to strengthen specific weak points in your big basic movements. For this first part of the series, I will talk about one of my all-time go-to movements for getting strong: the Zercher squat from pins. It’s not the most comfortable exercise, but it can build heaps of strength and thick muscle in the “power regions” (upper back, trunk, legs).
I’ve been a fan of this exercise since 1998, and have worked up to over 400lbs on it (we didn’t have thick bars back then, so yeah, it sucked!). I still use it to this day, it’s that effective! So it’s no wonder it’s the first on my list of special exercises for this new series.
What is good about it?
- Strengthens the core/trunk in a way that is specific to any squats, deadlifts and Olympic lifts.
- Helps build the quads of long limbed lifters.
- Targets the glutes in short limbed lifters.
- Improves the capacity to keep the upper back solid when front squatting or doing cleans.
How is it done?
Set up a barbell (ideally a thick bar) on pins in a power rack. The height of the barbell should be such that in the starting position you are in the lowest squat position you can assume without losing your lower back arch.
- Use a stance that is somewhere between a normal squat and a sumo stance.
- Squat down low, keeping the torso as upright as possible. Grab the bar in the crook of your elbows. Tuck the bar to your chest, contract the upper back hard and contract your abs as if someone were about to punch you in the stomach.
- Stand up straight. Your goal should be to avoid any forward lean when standing up.
- Slowly bring the barbell back onto the pins.
- Reset before every rep. You want a dead start each time.
Are there any advanced variations?
I really like to use chains on this exercise, especially if the goal is to increase your capacity to keep the upper back rigid (e.g. if your upper back rounds when doing cleans or front squats).
You can also do the Zercher squat not from pins. The first rep is from pins but you stop about 1” short of them on every rep. This works well for higher rep sets (6 to 8) and is a very good hypertrophy exercise for the quads in tall lifters.
What do you need to avoid?
Do not round the lower back. There exists a movement called the Zercher deadlift in which you are picking up the barbell from the floor in the crooks of your elbows. In this case, you don’t have a choice but to round the lower back.
But since the Zercher squat from pins is a movement to strengthen the body in a way that is specific to the squats, Olympic lifts and deadlifts, we want to keep the lower back arched and the chest high.
- Do not allow your chest to dip down (or the torso to lean forward). Focus on keeping the upper back as tight as possible and the chest high.
- Avoid losing tightness in any part of your body. Before you begin to lift everything must be tight:
a) screw your feet into the floor
b) grab the floor with your toes
c) pull the bar towards you and tighten your upper back
d) contract your abs like you’re about to get punched in the stomach.
Once this is done, you can begin to lift, and with every new rep, reset by going through steps 1 to 4 again.
- Do not lower the barbell by bending forward. The eccentric/lowering portion should also be done under control while keeping the chest high and the back tight.
What are the best loading parameters?
Multiple low rep sets where form and position are maintained (so not all out) are your best option when doing Zercher squats from pins. I personally like 3/2/1 waves (1 x 3, 1 x 3, 1 x 1, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1, etc.) and Cluster sets of 5 reps (1 rep/10-15 sec/1 rep/10-15 sec/1 rep/etc. to 5 total reps) on this exercise.
If you are using the Zercher squat not from pins, it is mostly a hypertrophy tool and will work well with sets of 6 to 8 reps. If form starts to breakdown, stop the set.
When to use it?
The Zercher squat from pins is an assistance lift for the front squat, deadlift or the Olympic lifts. It should be integrated after one of these lifts if you’ve diagnosed difficulty maintaining a tight position in your lifts.
It can also be done as part or a core circuit but with lighter weights. For example:
A1. Cable crunches x 8-12 reps
30 sec rest
A2. Zercher squat from pins x 5 cluster reps
30 sec rest
A3. Farmer’s walk x 30m
3 min rest
Perform 3-4 sets.
This would be used early in a training cycle to prepare the core for heavier loading.
Try these out and let me know how you like them!