The Ultimate Guide to The Zercher Squat: Benefits and Tips

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I’ve been around gyms since my mid-teens.

I’ve seen many dedicated athletes, performing many different exercises to build strength.

Bodybuilders, sportsmen, and health conscious individuals develop their physique through various exercises.

In this whole time I have seen possibly two dozen people try out the Zercher Squat.

Only one of those people truly committed to the exercise and implemented it into their routine.

I continue to witness this person performing the Zercher Squat, to this day.

But what exactly is the Zercher Squat? Why should you do this exercise?

The 10 main benefits of the Zercher squat are: 

With this article we are going to perform a deep dive on the Zercher Squat. 

As with all my writing, I will use a blend of personal, anecdotal experience, and references from people within the industry.

Most importantly, I will explore the scientific literature to see where the consensus lies. I'll explain whether it validates the information which is available online about the Zercher Squat.

History of The Zercher Squat

Ed Zercher was a strongman of renown in the 1930’s and 40’s. He continued with his impressive feats of strength in later life, before his death in 1995 at the age of 88.

Zercher had a hard, no nonsense attitude to training.

Apparently, his gym looked like an industrial warehouse with an abundance of heavy duty items that in no way resembled gym equipment.

One interesting point is that the Zercher gym never had a squat rack. Ed developed a technique of picking up the loaded barbell from the floor, cradling it within his bent arms and squatting.

The birth of the Zercher Squat, which is still talked of in hushed tones has an interesting spectrum of opinions.

These range from those putting it at the top of the pile for developing full body strength. Then there are those deriding it as damaging and pointless.

Zercher Squat Experiment

For a second let’s go back to my opening gambit. 

After seeing all those people try out the Zercher Squat, why is only one of them continuing with the exercise?

I think it’s more important to explore the people involved to get an idea of the answer to this question. So I ‘m going to change lanes for a second. Trust me it will all make sense.

Ten or so years ago I was performing a kettlebell routine in my gym, when three regulars walked in. One of them being the Zercher Squat guy.

After shooting the breeze for a bit, they expressed a genuine interest in what I was doing. I was running a sports style session with double long cycles, snatch, jump squats and some accessory exercises.

They had come to the gym on that particular day with no scheduled session. They were probably just going to do chest and biceps exercises. Which would then be followed by consuming their own bodyweight in protein shakes.

I took them through my session and soon had them blowing pretty hard and panting. They found a new respect for strength endurance.

I went on to explain the mobility benefits of what we had done and how it would lend itself to their longevity as lifters. Each of them made statements that they would like to implement a session a week into their routines.

The Test Subjects

Here’s a quick profile of the three guys:

  1. 1
    6’3”, 260lbs, lives on the bench press, lifts massive weights, couldn’t even see his toes, let alone touch them.
  2. 2
    6’0” 230lbs, strong guy, lives on the bench press and preacher curl. He would constantly complain of upper back and shoulder pain.
  3. 3
    5’10” 190lbs, former athlete, perfect form, lots of compound lifts. That guy that you saw power cleaning and jerk pressing in the corner of the gym before it became cool. Also that guy who comes to the gym at weekends to do a mobility session.

Around a month later I asked each of these guys how they were getting on with the kettlebell session. 

Results and Discussion

Guys 1 and 2 told me they had stopped, basically because kettlebells are too tough. 

They were getting stiffness in the upper back and shoulders. They also read online that kettlebells don’t build muscle.

Guy 3 told me that he was really enjoying the sessions. He discovered weaknesses highlighted by the movements. He was working on developing the strength and mobility to remediate the weakness.

Guy 3 was also enjoying the challenge of the new techniques. He loved the sensation of operating overhead movements with an elevated heart rate.

Guess which of these three is the guy I still occasionally see Zercher Squatting in the gym?

Not to mention the same guy is still killing it with the kettlebells. Guess who is also the guy who looks absolutely incredible at 53 years of age? Which of the guys are are now in their mid-fifties and we never see in the gym? Guy 3.

That may have been a slightly long-winded introduction to the next stage of our discussing the Zercher Squat. But I think it builds a strong foundation for us to further explore the exercise and its place in the gym.

Why Do Most People Not Do The Zercher Squat?

Because it’s so damn hard!

Very early in my career I was told in no uncertain terms, by a very highly respected weightlifting coach.

“There are two types of people in the weights room. Those who are there to build strength and those who are there to display strength."

That has stuck with me for many years.

If you’re choosing to Zercher Squat, you are choosing to build strength.

To the untrained eye your weights may appear pitiful compared to what the guy in the rack next to you is back squatting. So what?

So you fall out of that “smash a PR and post it on Instagram to impress 12.7k people and become a brand ambassador” bracket. Leave your ego at the door.

Just like Ed Zercher, this squat is tough, it’s hard and gritty. Like Ed’s gym it’s unconventional, brutal and finds you out.

If you’re looking for an exercise to get you an extra 1000 likes and followers, I’d stop reading now.

If you’re looking for a lesser known, old school classic, that just might bring your strength to new levels. Let’s do it!

Zercher Squat Technique 

This is a brief description of the exercise technique. Don't consider this to be a comprehensive guide. Please seek the advice of a qualified coach to fine tune your Zercher Squat!

Step 1: Set Up The Starting Position

There are two set up options. The first is to deadlift a barbell up to just above the knees. Make sure to looking for the lower quads, rather than the top of the kneecap. Slowly squat down, with the bar balancing on your lower thigh. From here slide your arms under the bar and cradle it in the crook of your elbows. You may want to pad the elbows as it can be pretty uncomfortable. The second option is to lift the bar, already situated in the elbow crook from a waist height squat rack.

Step 2:  Adjust Your Elbows

Adjust your position so the elbows are around shoulder width apart. Your knuckles should point to the ceiling.

Step 3: Secure Your Hands

Clasp one hand with the other (preferably in a fist) to ensure the bar is secure within your forearms.

Step 4: Secure Your Hands

Keep the bar tight against your body. Position your feet just outside of shoulder width and with turn your toes out slightly.

Step 5: Drive Upwards

At this bottom position of the squat, your elbows will be in contact with your thighs. Your knuckles should continue to point to the ceiling. Drive up by squeezing the glutes and pushing the heels through the floor. Remember to brace your knees outwards as you push up.

Step 6: Squat Down

Reverse the movement by squatting down to the start position. Start the movement by bringing your hips back, and maintain your hand and arm position.

Step 7: Elbows In

Keep the elbows tucked in tight to make sure the lower back is not loaded excessively.

The 10 Benefits Of Zercher Squats

“The barbell squat that I put on the top of the pedestal is the Zercher squat”

 Pavel Tsatsouline - Fitness Instructor to NAVY Seals

1. Develops Gritty, Old School Strength

I believe the Zercher squat builds old-school, gritty physical strength. In my opinion, it is a great way to develop some equally gritty mental strength.

It invites you to uncover and explore your weaknesses and then asks you what the hell are you gonna do about them!

We can discuss the mental aspect a bit later, but for now let’s take a look at the physical benefits.

2. Upper Back Gains and Front Squat Improvement

The Zercher position increases the involvement of the whole upper back musculature: the traps, rhomboids, and rear delts.

So in that regard, the Zercher squat can help solidify the back during the front squat and deadlift.

If your weakness in the front squat is "losing" your upper back on the way up - your upper back rounds and the bar drops forward - then the Zercher squat will help you. If your barbell deadlift fails at knee level, the Zercher can help you there too.

3. Teaches You Exactly How To Squat

Despite the physical demands of the Zercher squat, it is actually used by a lot of lifting coaches for form.

A deloaded (broomstick or training bar) Zercher squat helps to develop sound technique.

Louie Simmons, the Westside Barbell legend is a huge fan of the exercise, both for himself and his incredibly strong athletes. He loves it for teaching sound technique in beginners.

"It teaches you exactly how to squat. It teaches you to push your knees apart. Push your chest up. Push your buttocks out. The whole nine yards."

 Louie Simmons – Powerlifting Legend – Westside Barbell

4. Increased Core Activation

Keeping the weight in front of the body means the core has no choice but to brace and brace hard. To maintain the correct position throughout the squat, your core will be fully engaged.

I can only try and explain to those of you who have never tried the movement, how “locked in” your core feels. In some exercises, the cue to brace your core almost feels like a bit of a standard practice.

But with the Zercher Squat, you feel like the integrity of your position depends on those core muscles.

Equally the muscles of the upper back have no choice but to retract and activate in order to maintain the desired posture.

5. Hits The Quads Hard But Easy On The Knees

The first thing I tend to hear when a person Zercher Squats for the first time, is how hard the legs are hit. But those with knee pain state that they find it easier on the knees, compared to back squats.

Yavuz et al stated in their 2015 study [1] that:

“We also managed to show that the front squat created higher EMG activity in vastus medialis despite the lighter loads compared to back squat that agrees with the idea of “being a more isolated movement for knee extensors.”

Gullett et al stated in their 2009 study [2] that squatting with the bar at the front of the body

“was shown to be just as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces on the knee.”

And

“This information suggests that front squats could be advantageous for people with knee problems such as ligament and meniscus tears, and for general long-term joint health. Front squats could also be useful for individuals with shoulder problems that limit their range of motion, making it hard to grip the bar during the regular back squat.”

Now these statements are made regarding the conventional front squat position. However, they are comparable to the Zercher squat. Yuvaz et al indicates that the vastus medialis (that teardrop muscle at the inside of the quads) is activated more with the bar in front of the body than the back squat. Gullet et al indicates that squatting with the bar in front of the body reduces the compressive forces on the knees compared to back squats.

So, let’s quickly summarize.

Squatting with the bar in front of the body increases the activation of the VM and reduces the compressive force on the knee joint.

Hence, the Zercher squat could be advantageous for people with knee problems. This is in line with the anecdotal claims of the people I mentioned earlier. Lifters who claim that it really blasts the legs and is easier on the knees.

6. Increased Activation Of Stabilizers

Where the Zercher Squat seems to even further stand out from the back squat, is that lifters report they feel that the position appears to really activate the smaller stabilizing muscles of the hips, adductors and abductor groups.  

These stabilizing muscles strengthen over time and will transfer to other lifts including back and front squats.

7. Practical Strength

The real world applications of lifting a weight close to your chest from the ground up are obvious. There is something raw and powerful about lifting weight up from the ground.

Think of moving out of your house or apartment and you're moving that big box of dinner plates. Once you carry that from the ground up successfully the feeling is awesome.

Even certain jobs such as paramedics and firefighters can benefit from Zercher squats to apply their strength in regular jobs. 

Any activity involving carrying weight in front of you can be improved with this squat. Some CrossFit athletes prefer using Zercher squats for carryover strength in many events.

8. Breakthrough Front Squat Plateaus

The Zercher squat is a front load bearing lift. The  carryover to front squats are almost identical.

Both squats work similar muscles and you can program both in to your routine to help with your front squat numbers. The increased core activation and arm strength will directly relate to your front squat skills. 

Furthermore, if you're a frequent front squatter, you can use the Zercher squat to deload and work on movement patterns. This will help you bring some variance into your routine without losing functional strength.

9. Arm Blasting Squats

I also need to mention how the isometric position of the arms really blasts the biceps. While its not primarily a biceps builder, the Zercher squat will blast your arms and leave them sore.

Again let’s listen to Louie:

“My all-time favourite and I feel a major part of our success (at Westside Barbell) is the Zercher squat. These are done off the floor or in a rack with a wide or close stance. This exercise will build every muscle in the body.”

 Louie Simmons – Powerlifting Legend – Westside Barbell

10. Great For Strongman Strength

If you're a competitive strongman, the Zercher squat will be beneficial for your progress.

The motor patterns and muscles used in the Zercher squat mimic events such as the Atlas Stones, Conan's Wheel and Yoke Carry.

The biggest benefit strongmen report from Zercher squats is their ability to carry weight in front of them. The Zercher squat trains your forearms and biceps tremendously to improve your carrying technique.

Specifically, training your elbow muscles for weight in the creases transfers to the popular event of Conan's wheel which is particularly hard to train due to lack of equipment.

Tips to Perfecting the Zercher Squat

Warm Up 

Make sure you warm-up thoroughly before performing Zercher squats. The increased mobility demands on the hips can be a problem if you're squatting cold. 

I recommend increasing the core body temperature and foam rolling the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and TFL. You can follow this up with light dynamic stretches.

Center The Bar

It is really important to make sure the bar is centralized to the body.

Even the smallest deviation will throw your balance.

Widen Your Stance

Take a marginally wider stance than you would for back squats. A rule of thumb is for the elbows to make contact with the inner part of the thigh at the bottom of the squat.

Open the feet slightly by pointing the toes out a touch. As we discussed earlier, the Zercher Squat really highlights any weakness or tightness in the body.

By opening the feet we enable the hip flexors to move without “blocking” the movement.

Start From The Hips

Break from the hips, rather than the knees as you start the downwards phase of the movement.

This cue is helpful for all squat movements but especially for a front loading squat where bending the knees can cause a rounded back.

Keep your glutes engaged and bend your torso forward to activate the appropriate muscles and core stabilizers.

Keep Your Torso Upright

Along with starting the movement with your hips, keeping your torso straight is the next helpful cue.

You may have to adjust your stance and work on your mobility but keeping your torso straight will really develop your upper back muscles. The strength will really help stabilize your core and lower back.

Common Mistakes of Zercher Squats 

Leaning Forwards

There is a tendency to allow the weight to pull the upper body forward at the bottom of the squat. At the bottom of the squat, many people have the tendency to allow the weight of the barbell to pull their weight forward.

It is important to keep the core and biceps activated to keep a strong and upright torso. 

Bouncing Off The Bottom Of The Squat

Be sure to really control the tempo of the transition from the bottom of the Zercher Squat. If you bounce and rush the transition, you are basically driving the bar into the delicate tendons of the biceps.

Anybody who has suffered a bicep tendon injury can tell you this is best avoided.

Sitting Back Too Far

Along with leaning forward there are lifters who may sit too far back.

You'll notice more quadricep dominant engagement instead of the hip dominant exercise its intended to be. This is normal since the weight is in front of you and your center of mass shifts. 

However, keeping your hips inline with your torso is a great way to gauge your technique. Your knees may move further out to prevent leaning forward. Be sure to watch for this common mistake since you may roll the weight out of your hands.

Too Narrow of a Stance

As I mentioned earlier, you need to widen your stance to allow your elbows to tuck in your knees at the bottom of the movement.

Although each lifter will have different functional anatomies, a narrow stance will also prevent your hips from opening up enough. The end result is a rounded back or the dreaded butt wink.

Drawbacks of Zercher Squats 

1. The Zercher Squat Is An Intense Exercise

As I tell my clients, 

“Intensity has to be earned.

In other words, don’t expect to progress past the training bar stage quickly.

To handle significant weight, you need the prerequisite mobility, strength and motor control.

You might find that you need to continue with other types of squats to overload the muscles, whilst you practice the Zercher Squat.

Further, the Zercher squat can be painful if you don't learn proper technique before hand. A barbell in the crooks of your elbows is uncomfortable. Add more weight and imagine the barbell rolling sounds excruciating.

Make sure you progress slowly to heavier loads for your Zercher squats.

2. Difficult To Breathe and Brace

When the bar is in front of you, your rib cage is more difficult to expand. Hence, learning to breathe and brace in a Zercher squat is difficult. Some lifters find it challenging inhale enough oxygen at teh top of the lift.

The result?

After a few reps, the Zercher squat becomes an anaerobic exercise. So now you're training strength endurance to keep up with the metabolic demands. 

Some athletes actually use high rep Zercher squats for training purposes. Namely, sports where stamina are of primary importance: boxing, CrossFit, MMA, etc.

3. The Zercher Squat May Start With A Rounded Back

If you're using the first method to start your Zercher squat, you will notice your back is rounded.

At low loads, many lifters won't have a problem with a rounded back. 

However, at a higher weight, it can pose a problem for those with weaker lower back muscles. 

4. Your Progress Will Be Slow

With all of these demands of the Zercher squat, your numbers may not progress as quick. Instead of adding weight to your bar its critically important to work on technique.

Initially, lifters will be limited by their biceps and forearm strength.

As a result, lifters won't see PRs or dramatic weight increases short term. Some athletes may get discouraged and stop working on form. They'll increase their weight and injure themselves.

Should Zercher Squats Be Your Main Lift

My personal opinion would be no.

No, if you are training for conventional sports performance, Olympic lifting or general fitness.

Even Louie Simmons is a clear advocate of the Zercher Squat. But, the majority of pictures and video we see of Louie squatting, involves the back squat.

I would consider the Zercher squat to be a movement that you can implement into your routine. Similar to an accessory exercise to improve many other lifts. There are even anecdotes, from the Dragon Door kettlebell community, that it improves their deadlift.

My advice as a coach would be to continue with your foundational movements. Only bring the Zercher squat into play as and when it’s needed.

Perhaps combine it with your traditional squats to mix a session up.

However, I would consider the Zercher squat as a potential main lift for a strongman training for stone lifts. In addition, those people who have very physically demanding jobs can benefit. Specifically, jobs requiring high levels of strength, including isometric arm strength. Examples would be labourers or firemen.

Zercher Squat Adaptations

As we’ve already mentioned, the Zercher squat is a very demanding exercise. It can involve blood, sweat and even a few tears.

There are ways to adapt the movement to make it slightly less demanding though.

These can be as simple as using a towel or foam to pad out the elbows, preventing the soreness that many people get.

However this could also involve specialised equipment.

The Zercher Squat Harness 

These strap to the upper body and eliminate the need for the barbell to directly contact the elbows. This prevents soreness and allows the lifter to maintain the perfect posture throughout the movement.

I like the Zercher harnesses because for some people, the bar position becomes the defining factor for the lift.

You often see lifters stressing about where the bar is and whether their arms can support the load.

Sandbag Zercher Squats

If the barbell version is just too daunting. Or you just suffer too much in the arms, your gym may very well have a selection of sandbags.

The sandbag will be a far more comfortable alternative to the barbell and the squat should be performed with the exact same technique.

However the sandbag brings its own unique twist to the Zercher squat. The nature of the sandbag means the load in your arms will be constantly moving. Hence, your muscles will be constantly adapting to these micro movements.

This will enhance the stability training involved as well as force you to activate your stabilizer muscles. Muscles particularly within the abdominals and hips.

Rogue Sandbags

Best Sandbag For Zercher Squats

The Rogue Sandbags are made of tough fabric and and offer great durability. Plus, you can use the handles during Zercher Squats to secure the weight.

Check Price on Rogue Fitness

Frequently Asked Questions

Is The Zercher Squat Dangerous?

Just like any old school exercise that has stood the test of time, the Zercher squat is not inherently dangerous. As long as you perform it with perfect technique and appropriate weights you're safe.

I would seek the advice of a professional coach who will provide you with the technical knowledge to be able to perform safe Zercher squats

What is The Point of Zercher Squats?

Zercher squats are a safe and effective member of the squat family of exercises. They are a fantastic exercise to alter the angle of attack from more traditional squatting exercises. The different angle increases the training effect on the quads, upper back, and core.

Are Zercher Squats Hard?

Yes. Zercher squats are very demanding. The demands come from the added intensity on the upper back, arms and core. You may also find there is an increased demand for overall mobility.

Do Zercher Squats Work Your Abs?

They most certainly do! In fact, it is a common opinion that Zercher squats place the highest demand on the abs of any of the squatting exercises.

Final Thoughts

Zercher Squats are probably the most underused, misunderstood and undiscovered version of the squat.

The Zercher squat is a fantastic alternative to the more conventional squatting exercises. In particular, if you fall into the following categories.

  • Those suffering with lower back pain when back or front squatting.
  • Those who suffer from knee pain when squatting
  • If you are looking to improve your squat technique and posture
  • If you are looking for increased upper body training effect while squatting

Zercher squats are also great for strongmen, powerlifters and anybody who works a physically demanding job.

Perhaps you want to spice up your workouts a bit and are open to trying out an extremely tough exercise. The Zercher squat is straight out of the old school vault and will challenge many.

My advice, the next time you’re in the rack and about to get under the bar. Consider making your final effort a set of light Zercher squats. I promise you won’t regret it

References

https://www.westside-barbell.com/blogs/2008-articles/the-forgotten-weapon

Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(10), 1058–1066. doi:10.1080/02640414.2014.984240 

Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 1 - p 284-292 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb

Evaluation of Muscle Activities During Different Squat Variations Using Electromyography Signals Erdag Deniz1(&) and Yavuz Hasan Ulas2 R. A. Aliev et al. (Eds.): ICSCCW 2019, AISC 1095, pp. 1–7, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-35249-3_114 

About The Author

Nathan Carter is a highly qualified fitness professional with over fifteen years of experience. He has enjoyed several roles over this time, including: Tutor & Assessor for Level 2 Fitness Instructors and Level 3 Personal Trainers Sports Performance & Conditioning coach for a professional rugby team. Nathan has been a sponsored surfer for many years. His relationships over his career have included companies such as Billabong, Santa Cruz, Fanatic, ION and Finisterre. Health, Fitness and Wellbeing are not just Nathan’s career. They are his passion, his hobby and his lifestyle.

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