How to squat without a rack and protect your back

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Categories: Indian clubs, strength training

Do you know the zercher squat? If you’re into strength, health and longevity, at one point or another, you might want to consider adding loaded squats to your club swinging routine.

Research shows that using the legs, particularly in weight-bearing exercise, sends signals to the brain that are vital for the production of healthy neural cells.

According to studies from King’s College of London, there’s a specific link between strong legs and a strong mind. The conclusions show that subjects with the greater leg power  experienced less cognitive decline over a 10-year period, and overall aged better cognitively.

A little historical perspective…

Historians have found references to feats of strength and weight lifting competitions dating as far back as the 3600 BC. Strength was not merely an object of vanity but instead something of considerable societal importance.

Military recruits in ancient China were required to pass specific strength tests before they were allowed to join.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, no warrior or athlete swung Indian clubs exclusively.

Tamil, Hindu and Persian club swingers also lifted weights in one form or another, and worked on all around strength and fitness, as their physical training system was martial in nature. Wrestling and fighting was just part of their daily life.

The legendary wrestler known as the great Gama, performed thousands of squats daily with stone neck rings (Gar-nal), and pushed all his might against trees, in an effort to uproot them.

Even in Europe, back in the 1800’s, Indian clubs were a complimentary discipline to gymnastics, weight training, boxing and fencing. 

Squat progressions

All leg exercises are great, and in our videos we show you many ways to integrate the lower body with Indian clubs. But usually the loading parameters fall more into the endurance spectrum of strength, rather than pure strength.

The good thing is that any type of squatting is better than no squatting, and will improve your hip mobility, which is so important for ageing well.

When it comes to strength, you need a load  heavy enough to provide the right stimulus. Bodyweight squats are a great way to start and practice form, but when you can easily do 15-25 reps non stop, you need to start adding weight.

How heavy?

As a general rule, if you can’t do 6 reps, the weight is too heavy, but if you can do more than 12, the weight is too light. Rest 1-2 minutes and perform a few sets. 

I do not advocate you to start becoming a squat specialist and think you need to squat double bodyweight  or as heavy as possible to get the benefits of loaded squats.  

If you’re over 40, and are not looking at setting any records, focus on form over load. One “heavy” squat session a week is enough, but keep squatting and lunging the other days, using light weight. Basically do it often with a light  weight, not so often with a heavy weight.

The next step after bodyweight squats are Goblet squats. For these, you will need either a dumbbell or kettlebell, and watch our tutorial.

As you get stronger, you might need something heavier, like a barbell or a sandbag. We show you how cheap and easy it is to make your own sandbags further down!

Doing heavy squats with a barbell typically requires you to either:

  • have a squat rack
  • know how to clean the barbell off the ground and perform front squats

This is where the Zercher squat comes in

The Zercher squat is an exercise named after St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher. Back in these days (1930-40), not many gyms had a squat rack. You could call it the kettlebell goblet squat’s grandfather or strong uncle…

The video below shows you how to safely perform it.

I recommend wearing some elbow sleeves, and stance of course, is a matter of personal preference. I demonstrate the zercher squat with a wide stance. Some people might favor a narrow stance with elbow outside the knees.

For the fans of physical culture history, the Zercher lift had become a sanctioned USAWA lift in the 1960s. At 156 lbs bodyweight, some of Ed Zercher lifts included:

  • One Hand Snatch 120 lbs.
  • One Hand Clean & Jerk 130 lbs.
  • Two Hand Military Press 170 lbs.
  • Two Hand Snatch 145 lbs.
  • Two Hand Clean & Jerk 200 lbs.

Picking up something heavy from the floor and standing up with it is fantastic to strengthen your whole body.
Squatting with the load in front on the body rather than on the shoulders has some hidden benefits too. Many people struggle with balance (often falling back) and squat depth. 

In the Goblet and Zercher squats, the weight being in front of the body helps you maintain balance over your stance. At the same time, they also challenge the lower back to remain upright and prevent the torso from falling forward. 

From experience, this allows people to squat deeper with better form, especially if you follow our tips on increasing ankle mobility.

The barbell Zercher squat is one of the exercise from “Kettlebell Strong” our 12 week kettlebell and barbell program for the intermediate lifter.

Protect your back

When lifting heavy weight, we have to create a virtual corset that braces and protects our spine.

This is radically different to the type of breathing we use when swinging Indian clubs.

In the video, I explain as clearly and simply as possible the concepts of rich anchoring and virtual corset.

The rib anchor helps prevent the lower back from arching, and putting stress on the spine. The virtual corset protects the back from compression — weight-bearing, impact, and vibration, as well as any distortion in shape like arching, rounding, or twisting. 

Make your own sandbag and learn how to lift it

Not everyone has access to a barbell. Sandbags are great, and the beauty is you do not need anything fancy to be effective! 
Oh, and they cost next to nothing to make…

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