7 Amazing Benefits To The Zercher Hold and Carry: How-To & Muscles Worked

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It can be difficult to see where a gym-based exercise translates into your everyday life.

To improve your movement patterns outside of the gym, functional exercises are beneficial.

The Zercher hold and carry is a lesser-known exercise in the fitness industry.

It is not an exercise that I have seen many people doing regularly in the gym, but it has some wonderful benefits.

Although it's related to the Zercher squat, the hold and carry is slightly different.

The 7 main benefits of the Zercher hold and carry are:

Let's get into the details of this cool exercise! 

What Is A Zercher Hold And Carry?

The Zercher hold and carry is a functional movement that involves holding a weight in front of you in the crooks of your elbows. It is named after old school strongman Ed Zercher .

Once held, you can carry it from one point to the next or holding it during a set in your workout.

It mimics the movement you would be doing while carrying a box from your car into your house. Similar to lifting a child into your arms, or placing a suitcase into the overhead compartment on a plane.

The Zercher hold can be used during a set of squats as an alternative to holding the weight on your upper back.

For a detailed guide on the squat version, check out The Ultimate Guide to The Zercher Squat: Benefits and Tips.

This transfers the load to the front of the body, and emphasizes the quadriceps more than a standard squat. It can also be used for deadlifts, good mornings, lunges, and any loaded carrying exercise.

I recommend including it in your routine at least once every couple of weeks to get the most out of this exercise.

How To Setup The Zercher Hold And Carry

The setup for the Zercher hold is pretty simple.

The easiest way to set it up is to place a barbell on a squat rack at just below chest height. You can load and unload the barbell according to your desired weight, and it’s easy to re-rack the weight between each set.

Alternatively, you can place the barbell on the floor or on a stack of boxes, similar to how you would setup a deadlift. This requires you to lift the weight off the floor before getting into position, so you might find you have to lower the weight you use with this method.

Zercher Hold and Carry setup

If you find the barbell is hurting your arms or digging in a bit too much for comfort, you can wrap a pad or towel around the bar to add cushioning.

The setup that you choose depends on the equipment and space you have available, and your personal preferences.

Feel free to try both methods and see which one you prefer.

Muscles Used In The Zercher Hold And Carry

The Zercher hold and carry predominantly targets the core muscles, and is a great exercise to work the majority of the upper body muscles.

The exercise is front-loaded so it increases the demands of the anterior muscles of the body.

The primary muscles targeted with a Zercher hold include:

  • Traverse abdominis (each side of the abdomen)
  • Rectus abdominis (the ‘six pack’ muscles)
  • Internal and external obliques (the sides of the abdomen)
  • Multifidus and erector spinae (down the sides of the spine

The Zercher hold and carry also target secondary muscles such as your trapezius muscles, anterior deltoids, pectoralis major, biceps, and forearms.

If the Zercher hold is being used as part of a squat or a deadlift, it will also work the quadriceps, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and calves.

7 Benefits of the Zercher Hold and Carry

The Zercher hold and carry has a number of benefits.

1. Works Multiple Muscles

Firstly, it works a number of muscles at the same time, making it a well-rounded compound exercise.

It can be incorporated into other exercises such as squats and deadlifts to add extra tension or shift the load to the anterior chain of the body.

2. Improves Power And Strength

If you’re looking to gain muscle and increase your power and strength, the Zercher hold and carry is effective because it is a loaded exercise.

It can be used as part of several compound exercises.

The Zercher hold promotes hypertrophy in a number of muscles, both large and small. 

It’s an amazing way to stimulate muscle growth in the trapezius muscles and to build a thickness in your upper back.

3. Targets Uncommon Muscles

Due to the uncommon placement of the weight in the elbows, this exercise can work muscles that are usually neglected in training programs. Specifically, the forearm muscles.

It’s also effective in working the stabilizing muscles of the trunk, helping you build a stronger core and increasing your stability.

Having strong core muscles is beneficial for other gym-based exercises and cardiovascular workouts, as well as activities outside of the gym.

4. Great For Beginners

If you struggle to hold a loaded barbell on your upper back during squats, opting for the Zercher hold avoids the heavy load being transferred to the back muscles and down the spine.

This makes it a great tool for beginners or for those who suffer with back pain or have previously had back injuries.

5. Requires Less Mobility

I recommend adding in some form of barbell squat into your workouts if you are able to.

If you have longer limbs and struggle to gain depth in your back squat or have difficulty holding the bar due to poor shoulder mobility, the Zercher hold is a great option.

6. It’s An Adaptable Exercise

The weight is not moving towards or away from the body in this exercise.

Instead, it involves a static hold of the weight on the forearms.

This means it can be used as an isometric exercise, or as part of a traditional concentric-eccentric exercise such as the squat or deadlift.

7. Highlights Muscle Imbalances

When the Zercher hold and carry is used, it can highlight muscle imbalances or postural deviations.

It is a functional exercise that mimics movements outside of the gym. Practicing the Zercher hold with correct form will translate into your everyday activities to improve your overall movement patterns.

5 Drawbacks of the Zercher Hold and Carry

Although there are a bunch of positives to including the Zercher hold and carry in your workout routine, there are a few drawbacks.

1. It’s Uncomfortable

Resting a heavy barbell in the crooks of your elbows is never comfortable, especially if you have no extra padding over the bar.

This is enough in itself to stop most people doing this exercise or avoiding it altogether.

2. You’re Limited By Biceps And Forearm Strength

Due to the weight resting on the forearms and biceps, you are limited with the load that you can add to the bar with this exercise.

If you have weak biceps, you won’t be able to load the Zercher hold with much weight.

3. It Requires Core Strength

This exercise also requires a decent amount of existing core strength, which can limit the amount of weight you can use.

If you choose to overload the exercise too much, you can compromise your form and put yourself at risk of injury.

4. It Requires Upper Body Mobility

If you normally perform back squats, but decide to try Zercher squats, your balance might be slightly off as the load is in a different place.

Additionally, if you have any muscle imbalances or if your upper body mobility is not the best, the Zercher hold is going to be challenging.

5. The Placement Of The Bar

If you’re lifting the barbell from the floor into a Zercher hold, there is a risk of injuring your back if you have poor lifting form and your back starts to round.

Make sure to perfect your lifting technique before attempting to life a heavy-loaded bar from the floor, or try placing the barbell on a low rack instead.

Common Mistakes Of The Zercher Hold And Carry

As a trainer, I have noticed a number of common mistakes that people make when performing this exercise as part of their program. Some of these mistakes could be detrimental and can greatly increase your risk of injury if done incorrectly with a heavy bar.

Loading The Barbell Too Much

Due to the simplicity of the movement, many people use way too much weight for the Zercher hold and carry. This is an issue when people like to go into the gym and ‘ego lift’. They don’t want to be seen using tiny weights so they load up the barbell and end up hurting themselves because it’s way too heavy!

The placement of the load being in the elbows is much more demanding than it looks. It requires a significant amount of strength if a heavy load is used.

Even if you can squat an impressive amount when doing a back squat, that does not mean you will be able to use the same weight for a Zercher squat.

And the same goes for Zercher deadlifts or lunges. 

Remember that the forearm muscles are much smaller and weaker than your upper back and leg muscles!

Leaning Backwards

Often when people are performing this exercise, they lean backwards to compensate for the load being placed on in front of their body.

Aim to keep your torso as upright as possible when performing this exercise to avoid unnecessary strain on your spine and back muscles. Working on your core muscles and maintaining a strong core will be beneficial to maintain good posture when performing a Zercher hold.

I do want to point out that if you are carrying this load from one point to another, it may be okay to lean back ever so slightly. 

But, avoid doing so if you’re doing a static standing Zercher hold or Zercher squat.

Not Engaging The Core

Another mistake people make with the Zercher hold is not engaging their core. This exercise requires a good amount of core strength to perform correctly.

Lack of activation in the core muscles can decrease your stability and balance during the movement and increase your risk of injury.

Carrying Too Far

Gym goers can also make the mistake of carrying the weight too far.

Keep the distance short enough for you to reach the end point without getting too fatigued. The weight shouldn't make you drop the weight onto the floor halfway through the exercise.

Wrong Bar Placement

The final mistakes that I have seen so many people make are holding the bar in the wrong places. The bar is supposed to rest in the crook of your elbow, between the biceps and the forearms.

But, many people hold the bar in their hands as though they are about to perform a set of bicep curls. Alternatively, people hold the bar in the front squat position.

It’s easy to get the Zercher squat and the front squat mixed up as they look very similar and work the same muscle groups, but there are subtle differences.

The front squat requires you to place the barbell in the rack positioning, and use a clean-grip width or a crossed arm hold. On the other hand, the Zercher Squat requires the barbell to be lifted from the floor or a low rack and held in the crooks of the elbows.

Who Should Perform The Zercher Hold and Carry?

The Zercher hold and carry is an appropriate exercise for most people. Zercher holds can be worked into any power, strength, or hypertrophy training program.

I recommend having a coach or a spotter there when you first try it just to be safe. But, if you don’t have a gym buddy to help you out, choose a weight you know is easy for you to start with.

Beginner And Intermediate Lifters

I suggest if you’re a total newbie to the gym to work on your core strength and upper body strength for at least a couple of months before attempting Zercher holds.

This is just to make sure you have a good baseline level of total body strength and stability to safely and effectively perform any exercise with a Zercher hold.

Lifters Looking To Change Up Their Routine

Sometimes our training programs can become repetitive if we do the same exercises every week. If you’re looking to switch up your routine, Zercher squats are a great alternative to front squats.

 Furthermore, Zercher deadlifts can replace conventional deadlifts or good mornings. This is going to help you stay motivated to train by adding variety to your workouts.

Lifters Wanting To Improve Core And Forearm Strength

For those of you wanting to work on your forearm and anterior upper body strength, Zercher holds can help. If you have a strong core and are able to hold a decent amount of weight in the crooks of your elbows, you should be using Zercher holds in your routine.

Athletes Who Don't Enjoy Squats

Anybody who either hates back squats or front squats can try the Zercher hold instead.

For those who can’t perform normal squats with correct technique due to poor shoulder or wrist mobility, the Zercher squat is a great alternative.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Do I Hold The Bar When Doing A Zercher Hold And Carry?

The barbell should be resting in the crooks of your elbows, held in place by your biceps and forearms and resting somewhere along your sternum.

The bar should be secure enough to stay in place as you perform the exercise and should be parallel to the floor. By this, I mean both ends of the bar should be at the same height. If the bar is wonky during the exercise, it indicates that you may have some muscle imbalances or poor stability.

How Do I Program A Zercher Hold Into My Training?

Zercher holds can be placed into your program at any stage. But, I recommend working on this exercise from early on if you plan to incorporate them into your training. If you are completely new to the gym, work on your baseline levels of strength first, then add them in after a couple of months.

Aim to put them into a workout at least once every two weeks and this can be any variation of the Zercher hold that I’ve talked about. Try to perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps of Zercher carry and holds. If you’re squatting, perform a similar number of reps and sets as you usually do, anywhere between 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps depending on your goals.

How Do I Know What Weight To Use?

If you’ve never done a Zercher hold and carry before, start with a low weight. It might feel easy to begin with, but after 5 sets of these, your forearms will likely be fatigued. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so use an easy weight to begin with just so you don’t injure yourself.

As you progress through your program and practice this exercise, you can begin to increase the weight. Choose a weight where you will fail in the last few reps of your target rep range. 

For example, if your goal is hypertrophy and you are aiming for 10 reps. That is, choose a weight where you fail on either the 8th, 9th, or 10th rep. This will ensure you are stimulating hypertrophy, but you are not at high risk of injuring yourself as long as your form is correct.

Where Should I Pick The Weight Up From?

You can either place the weight on a squat rack at a low setting or you can lift the bar from the floor. Both are similar, and once the bar is in position, the exercise is exactly the same. Be cautious of your back rounding if you’re lifting the bar off the floor and if you suffer with back pain. I recommend placing the bar on a low rack instead of the floor.

What Exercises Can I Do With The Zercher Hold?

The Zercher hold and carry can either be used as an exercise in itself (holding the bar stood in one place, or carrying the bar from one point to the next), or you can incorporate it into squats, deadlifts, good mornings, or lunges as alternatives to the conventional styles.

Final Thoughts

The Zercher hold and carry is a great movement to include in your training program. There are risks associated with the exercise, but this is the case with most loaded gym-based movements, and it should not stop you from giving it a go.

Zercher holds can provide a full body exercise, promoting strength gains and hypertrophy. They also help you to make improvements in mobility, stability and core strength, making them applicable to real life movements.

As they can be used as part of a compound exercise such as squats, they are easy to add in to a workout. They offer variety and challenge to the upper body and core muscles.

Yes, it’s not the most comfortable exercise and it requires a baseline level of core strength. But, add Zercher holds and carries into your routine once every couple of weeks and you most definitely will see some progress.

References

[1] Fujita, E., Takeshima, N., Kato, Y., Koizumi, D., Narita, M., Nakamoto, H., & Rogers, M. E. (2016). Effects of Body-weight Squat Training on Muscular Size, Strength and Balance Ability in Physically Frail Older Adults. International Journal of Sport and Health Science, 14(0), 21–30. doi:10.5432/ijshs.201504 

[2] Case, M. J., Knudson, D. V., & Downey, D. L. (2020). Barbell Squat Relative Strength as an Identifier for Lower Extremity Injury in Collegiate Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000003554 

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Athina Crilley

Athina Crilley is a Biochemistry graduate and a qualified health, nutrition, and recovery coach. She believes that health and fitness is a lifestyle and should be enjoyable. Athina currently works with online clients to achieve their goals and creates helpful and informative content online through her podcast and social media platforms. She has also written and published a book all about her struggles and recovery from an eating disorder called ‘Diaries of An Anorexic’.

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