For a good clean, you need a strong core (read about core muscles here). In the clean, once the barbell has been pulled from the floor (first pull) to shoulders (second pull) and is caught in the deep squat position (third pull), you will not be able to ascend unless your core can handle it.
The primary “core” muscles I am talking about for this blog post are abdominals, erector spinae and the latissimus dorsi, although of course all of them come into play.
If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I have a tendency to round my upper back when coming up out of the deep front squat position. It feels like my abdominals are folding and my back caves with it. In a failed clean, I will lose the bar because of this. I just won’t have the strength to come up from the squat or, the bar will just fall forward off my shoulders.
What are Zercher squats?
Coach and me decided to incorporate Zercher squats (link to video demonstration) into my programme to help with this core strength. More specifically, the core strength required dynamically when coming up out of the deep squat position. There are lots of exercises you can do to improve your core strength, but the Zercher seems perfect because a) it is a squat and b) the weight is held in front of your body just like in a clean and c) it’s less taxing on the legs due to the weight being lighter. The Zercher basically allows us to train explosiveness with our legs because the weight is lighter so we can focus on our speed and glute power (Zerchers also allow us to squat deep with more ease) and allows us to train our core muscles with a weight heavy enough to really tax them.
How do the benefits transfer across to the clean in Olympic weightlifting?
Because the weight is held at your stomach, your centre of gravity is lower, so Zercher squats force you to keep a very, very stable core. Your upper back, mid back and abs must be braced throughout the movement. They also encourage you to better manage, or optimise, your breathing. For example, the only way I can complete a good rep for a Zercher squat is by inhaling at the start of the movement and not exhaling until I am back up again. By holding your breath* you are keeping a solid, stable structure to lift the weight efficiently.
*Although some people advise against holding your breath whilst lifting, I enforce it.
A strong, stable core is imperative to help you get out of that bottom squat position in the clean. I’ve also read that Zerchers are one of the best ways of improving your deadlift, which, in my mind, will also transfer across to the first pull in the clean.
Try it and let me know how you get on. One thing I will say is to use a heavy duty barbell pad (!!) to wrap around the bar because when the weight gets heavy, Zercher squats can really hurt your biceps!