The Zombie Front Squat
by Steven M. Ledbetter
5 minute read
I’ve written a lot lately about the philosophy of training, so I thought a more practical post was long overdue. This week I had the opportunity to take the Coyote Point Kettlebell Club down to Clackfit to train out of the rain and with some new toys. Yusuf Clack has created a killer facility in San Jose that merits a trip. Also, we ate In ‘N Out, which always merits a trip. While there we nerded out, as nerds do, on Pavel Tsatsouline’s latest article on squat variations. It’s a great article, but my favorite variation was not present. So I took the occasion to teach everyone at CPKC that day the Zombie Front Squat.
The Zombie Front Squat is a variation of the traditional Front Squat that I learned from Mike Boyle’s Advances in Functional Training. He calls it the “Hands-Free Front Squat.” I call it the Zombie Front Squat because I am better at naming things than Mike Boyle. To perform the ZFS, get a bar in the rack position then stick your hands out in front of you like a zombie who smells brains. Now squat while keeping your hands out and up, ready to grab those delicious brains. Do a set of five and you’ll notice a few things:
If your arms drop, the bar will roll off your shoulders. Welcome to self-limiting exercise!
Your upper back is now screaming.
You probably don’t like me anymore.
The Zombie Front Squat is often described by Boyle and Ben Bruno as a “corrective exercise” for the Front Squat. Well, ok, sure, but it’s also a great exercise on its own. With your arms in the zombie position, you have to lock down your upper body and still extend your thoracic spine at least to neutral in order to remain upright. This is hell on your upper back and I promise you will notice it for days. A lot of coaches don’t like the ZFS because since it is so hard on the upper back, you can’t load it as much as the Front Squat. However, if you can Front Squat a lot more than you can Zombie Front Squat, it’s because you’re cheating on your Front Squat form by dropping your elbows and resting the bar on your hands. This is a bad habit to have when the load starts to exceed the strength of the ligaments in your wrists. Since it’s self-limiting, the ZFS will allow you to groove the front squat movement without thinking about all that pesky form stuff. You just have to keep your arms straight and your hands up.
I also use the Zombie Front Squat as a corrective for all my clients who cannot maintain a “big chest” in the goblet squat or the air squat. I just throw a dowel on their shoulders and have them keep their arms out in the bottom position by placing my finger tips on their palms. This position demands extension of the thoracic spine (to at least neutral) while the arms balance the load on the feet, giving the client the stability and confidence in the bottom position that they would find in a goblet squat. Of course, it’s not a goblet squat replacement because there’s nothing forcing out the knees. If your knees and chest are both caving in, you’re just gonna have to do both squat variations. Trust me, you need it. And if you’re my client, you’re not going to be doing Double Kettlebell Front Squats until you can Zombie Front Squat.
Some coaching tips to note on the Zombie Front Squat:
Keep your arms straight, hands down, and elbow pits facing the ceiling. This means your shoulders are properly packed and in external rotation, which makes for a more stable base of support.
Have a parter or coach place their finger tips on your palms for the duration of the rep. This subtle touch will help keep your hands up.
It may benefit you to just stay down in the bottom position for a while. Give it a try until your elbow pits rotate or the bar rolls off your shoulders. Then you’re done.
Most of my clients do this exercise with just a dowel. I have them squat and hold the position at the bottom.
My female clients who need more load are often more comfortable with one of those padded body bars. Ladies have less meat on their shoulders, so be kind and listen when they tell you it hurts.
Keep the load low and the reps lower at first. Remember you’re training to get into and stay in a position, not smoke your legs. I do them at the end of O-lifting sessions with much less load than I front squatted just to groove the movement.
If the bar rolls off your shoulders, or your elbows bend or rotate away from the ceiling, you’re done. Quality trumps quantity. Rest a few minutes and try again or call it a day.
It is also worth noting that I disagree with the question Pavel is answering. There is no “bang for your buck” squat variation, only the variation that you need at this particular moment to get you closer to where you want to be. Those needs might change and the best “bang for your buck” is probably going to change a lot in your lifetime based on where you’re at and what you’re training to do. Taking the time to learn how all of them feel will allow you to pick and choose which ones you need to get you to where you want to be.