How to Dominate Sandbag Zercher Squat

Sandbag Zercher Squat FaceI was a little nervous before the set. Still it was an increase in working weight, unknown ground. Heavy sandbag was lying silently in front of me, challenging to lift it up with all its appearance. Set was going to be filmed, so I had no chance to screw up. I stood above the bag showing my domination and closed my eyes to visualize inevitable victory. I quietly squatted down and grabbed the sides of the enemy. Next thing I deadlifted the bag with rage and jumped explosively to catch it in Zercher position. My goal was at least 3 reps. It’s all probably because of adrenaline running my veins, but when I reached the goal I still felt energy and nailed 2 more. It was really hard to put this bastard down quietly but I made my best and finally got the feeling of euphoria of new PR mixed with faintness. My goal of 90 kg Sandbag Zercher Squat was one step closer.

As you probably noticed, today I’d like to talk a little bit about sandbag strength training, specifically Sandbag Zercher Squat. Above you have read my (pathetic) literature attempt to explain how I was able to nail 85 kg for 5 reps in this exercise. It was filmed and you can watch the video here:

NOTICE: This video may not work on mobile devices.

Of course, I can see some flaws in form, but, I guess, no PR was set with perfect technique. Anyway, my goal today is to explain what kind of beast Sandbag Zercher Squat is, and how and, importantly, why do you need to dominate it. Let’s go.

Enter Sandbag Zercher Squat

Sandbag Zercher Squat [SZS] is a variation of basic squat exercise. Every living (and probably some dead) human should be practicing some sort of squatting regularly. There are plenty of reasons why you need to perform it. Increased leg strength, increased sprinting speed, higher vertical jump, more functional body, better sports performance – to name just few. Besides, bottom position of squat is essential for human being. Ability to sit in full squat position means that your ankle flexibility is optimal (I was really surprised how many people can’t perform such simple feat due to their poor flexibility).

What’s the difference between SZS and regular barbell squat? Let’s structure the answer:

  • In barbell squat we take barbell from squat stands or power rack. Then we take couple of steps back and perform the reps. In SZS we take sandbag off the floor. So we need to deadlift the bag with high pull first, then jump with it and clean it to Zercher position [Zercher position is a place between your forearms and upper arms, other side of the elbow. Zercher Squat was created and popularized by Ed Zercher, a strongman from the 1930s]. And only after that we are able to perform the reps. Obviously there is much more auxiliary work with SZS. This means several things that will be explained below.
  • In barbell squat you work against the resistance on your back. In SZS you work against resistance in front of you. Besides, holding sandbag in Zercher position involves your biceps into action big time.
  • Range of motion in SZS is shorter than in barbell squat. You are holding the bag in front of you and can squat down only until your arms touch your legs. You can definitely squat lower with barbell.
  • Barbell squat feels much more comfortable than SZS. Sandbag is odd and awkward which makes it more interesting  and somewhat more beneficial to train with.

To learn more about benefits of sandbag strength training check out this article.

If you want to learn more about barbell squat check out this article.

Why Do You Need SZS?

You should clearly understand the pros and cons of Sandbag Zercher Squat to decide whether you need it in your program or not.

Pros:

  • More calorie expenditure. This means that you can achieve more fat loss if your diet is proper.
  • Working against resistance in front of you teaches you to fight the force, again, in front of you. This is beneficial for strongmen, football and hockey players, wrestlers, MMA fighters etc. They all deal with resistance in front of them most of the time.
  • Sandbag is awkward, so it will develop your stabilizer muscles much more.
  • SZS builds grip strength. You need to crush the bag hard during the clean.
  • Sandbag training is minimalistic and cheap. As well as tough and badass.
  • Master of SZS will possess tremendous full-body strength.

Cons:

  • It’s hard to progress in SZS if it’s combined with upper body pulling/rowing exercises. It is because of huge biceps involvement.
  • It’s not optimal for leg size. Leg muscle activation is poor comparing to barbell squats.
  • It’s hard. Very few people will withstand the demand of the exercise.

Now you can decide whether you need to bother and become cooler or just remain girly and weak.

Why Do I Train SZS?

This question is easy to answer. Firstly, I always practice what I preach. It’s never ending exploration of the Rough Strength Method with its endless possibilities. Secondly, legs are not my primary focus. I’m not a bodybuilder. As long as SZS allows me to get stronger and develop better coordination as well as agility, the benefits of the exercise are far more outstanding than its restrictions. This exercise definitely teaches you right things.

How to Perform SZS Correctly?

Let’s get to the main part. How to perform Sandbag Zercher Squat? What are the main technique points? Let’s see:

1. Put the sandbag in front of you. It should be between your legs.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Deadlift

2. Lean forward and squat just like in deadlift position. Keep your lower back arched. If you see yourself from the side, your butt should be lower than your shoulders and higher than knees. Just look at the Arnold above. SZS is the same but without the barbell and with sandbag between your feet.

3. Crush the sides of the sandbag.

4. Deadlift the sandbag off the floor. Just past the knee level explosively drive your hips forward and shrug your shoulders pulling the bag up with intention to jump. You should be able to catch it in Zercher position. Watch the video above for reference. Or study this video of Power Clean:

5. Re-catch the bag if needed. Again, watch my video.

6. Squat down until your arms touch your legs. Stand up and repeat for desired number of reps. The best advice I got on squat technique was not to think about standing up but rather about pushing the ground away through my heels. In my experience, this little tweak cleans up everybody’s squat technique the first time the person tries it.

7. Lower down the sandbag slowly and with respect.

These are the basic technique points you need to address to learn proper form of Sandbag Zercher Squat. Let’s get to programming.

How to Incorporate SZS into Program?

We finally got to the juicy part. How to really dominate the Sandbag Zercher Squat? As always programming requires individual approach. I divided people who might possibly be interested in SZS in 5 categories: novice trainees, bodybuilders, powerlifters, Rough Strength Method followers and others. Let’s examine how each group can incorporate SZS into their programs:

Novice Trainees

Firstly, let’s talk about novice trainees that want to explore the benefits of Sandbag Zercher Squat. Who do I consider novice? People that are training seriously, consistently and effectively less than 2 years. People that were wasting time in the gym for 5, 10, 15 or whatever years and just starting proper strength training are also considered novice. What should you know about novice training methods? All they need is to get stronger. Read this article for instructions. What important is the fact that SZS is not that demanding in this phase, that is why you can use it in full-body workout with success. Here is example:

A1) Dips 3 x 5 with 7 rep maximum [RM]

A2) Pull-Ups 3 x 5 with 7 RM

B) Sandbag Zercher Squats 3 x 5 with 7 RM

Perform first two exercises alternating sets. Rest between sets for no more than 2 minutes. 7 RM means the weight you can lift for maximum of 7 repetitions.

Your arms will be tired after upper body work, but you probably won’t be able to notice it in performance.

Bodybuilders

If you chose bodybuilder’s path, SZS is not optimal for you. But if you want to try something new and spicy, here is an example leg workout for you:

A) Sandbag Zercher Squat 3 x 6-8

B) Barbell Lunges 3 x 10-12 (per leg)

C) Romanian Deadlift 3-4 x 10-12

D) One-Leg Calf Raises 3-4 x 15-20

Pick the weight that feels comfortable but not light and, importantly, allows you to feel target muscles. Perform all exercises in straight fashion, one after another. Rest no more than 1-2 minutes between sets and no more than 3-5 minutes between exercises.

Why SZS is the first exercise? It’s the most demanding of them all. If you put it in the end, you won’t be able to accomplish much. Here is another example of bodybuilder’s workout. This time it would be Legs/Arms:

A) Sandbag Zercher Squat 3 x 6-8

B) One-Leg Deadlift 3 x 10-12 (each leg)

C) Towel One-Arm Curls 3 x 10-12 (each arm)

D) Lying Triceps Extensions 3-4 x 10-12

Recommendations on working weight and rest are the same as above.

Again, SZS should be first in this kind of workout. Your biceps would be blasted after them so I decided to put Towel Curls here to make it even more spicy. Why not full-body workout? For experienced bodybuilders splits are more suitable, in my opinion.

Powerlifters

If you are into this powerlifting thing, then obviously you should use SZS as auxiliary work after your Squat or Deadlift workout. Depending on your program, there are several ways to incorporate this exercise. Again, as with bodybuilders, it’s probably not the best option (Zercher Good Morning would be more suitable). But anyway, let’s assume that you want to add SZS as assistance work after your max effort squat session. The workout can look like this:

A) Barbell Squat – work up to 3 RM

B1) Sandbag Zercher Squat 4 x 8

B2) Barbell Good Morning 4 x 10

Everything is clear with the squat. Work up to the weight you can squat only for 3 reps. For assistance work pick the weight that is comfortable.

Rough Strength Method followers (Strongmen included)

Finally, Rough Strength disciples. With increase in working weight you’ll need to isolate SZS from any upper body work (of course, if your goal is to get stronger in this exercise). I, personally, use Upper Body – Lower Body – Upper Body split with success right now. So my lower body session may look like this:

A) Sandbag Zercher Squat 3 x 5 with 7RM

B) Sandbag Shouldering 5 x 1 (each side, so it’s 10 sets total)

C) Pistols 3 x 10-12 (bodyweight, optional)

D) One-Leg Calf Raises with bodyweight 3 x 25 (controlled, with squeeze at the top, 2 seconds up, 2 seconds hold at the top and 2 seconds down)

Sometimes I don’t have much time and train SZS solely because it’s the exercise I want to improve most (out of these 4).

There are lots of variation options here. For example, you can substitute Sandbag Shouldering with Sandbag Bear Hug Good Morning or Glute Ham Raise. Or if you prefer to concentrate on Pistols, you can put them first and add weight to them. To make it work you should put SZS later and add more reps while cut the working weight. Variations are endless, your fantasy is the limit.

Others

Don’t be fooled by “Others” label. This group contains quite badass category of people. Let’s put here MMA fighters, crossfitters, football and hockey players, wrestlers and other functional athletes. Also you can add military men, firefighters and other professions that require stamina in addition to strength. How can their conditioning workout look like?

A1) Clap Push-Ups for 10 reps

A2) Pull-Ups for 10 reps

A3) Sandbag Zercher Squat for 10 reps

A4) Kettlebell Double Swings for 10 reps

A5) Medball Throws with partner for 10 throws

Perform all the exercises one by one with as little rest as possible. Start with 3 circuits and work up to 5 circuits with no rest between exercises. Rest for 1-2 minutes between circuits. This will build unstoppable stamina and conditioning.

Closing Thoughts

Sandbag Zercher Squat is the exercise that will bring you results. It’s hard. Most of people will find it uncomfortable. Some people will find it impossible to perform on a regular basis. Torn fingers, annoying soreness in biceps, strong desire to puke right in the set – that what is waiting for you. Is it worth it? Hell yes. Thanks for reading. If you find this article useful then share it with friends.

Play rough!

AZ

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I’m always ready to help you.

P.S. What is your experience with Sandbag Zercher Squat?


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11 thoughts on “How to Dominate Sandbag Zercher Squat

  1. Gabri

    Dude Alex!

    I started performing Z SB Squats 5 days a week since I sas following Dan John’s 40 day program. After increasing the weight to about 45 kg, I really had to brace my abs so hard that I literally felt it in my balls. (I’m 6’3” so I have a hard time keeping my back straight)

    I thought I was doing it wrong since I couldn’t squat down to the bottom, now that you have said that it is normal I will give it a new chance in the future.

    One question, with good technique, the sandbag shouldn’t move relatively to your torso right? So you have to start squatting till your arms touch your legs, and push through the heels to stand up, right?

    Thank you Alex!

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Gabri,

      with good technique, the sandbag shouldn’t move relatively to your torso right?

      Yepp, you should hold it tight to your body. It will be hard to do with heavier bag but it is possible.

      So you have to start squatting till your arms touch your legs, and push through the heels to stand up, right?

      Squat as low as possible. Don’t limit your ROM artificially. I squat till I hit the lowest position possible then I stand up pushing through heels.

      Thanks for commenting.

      – Alex

      Reply
  2. Jefferey Atkins

    The Sandbag Back Squat is the squat variation that will allow you to lift the most weight – it is therefore a vital component for building strength. However, we also include Sandbag Front Squats, Sandbag Zercher Squats, Sandbag Shoulder Squats and Sandbag Bear Hug Squats in this programme for the other benefits they provide.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      The problem with Sandbag Back Squat is the way to lift the bag in position. Unless you have a partner to help you or some device it’s not an option. And, of course, you won’t be able to lift heavy poundage because of this.

      – Alex

      Reply
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  6. Giovanni

    The sandbags articles have been so useful, I was evaluating to buy barbell and plates but they are too expensive and with a power rack they occupy too much space. Then I saw how you made and use the sandbags and I will incorporate the sandbag zercher squat and sandbags deadlift to my bodyweight routine. Maybe shoudlering and pressing too.

    Reply
    1. Giovanni

      Oh right. The economic aspect is just a part of the argument in favor of the sandbags.
      Another thing is that even if barbell training helps you reach higher numbers the real life strenght is likely lower than sandbag training because this last one is more similar to a challenge you may encounter out of the gym, and it involves al lot of all the other little muscles.
      Moreover, reaching higer numbers is not always a good thing, in fact the spine gets a lot of stress. And I don’t like it.

      Reply
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