7 Benefits of the Zercher Squat (Plus 3 Drawbacks)

Zercher squats are similar to front and goblet squats. They work your biceps, core, upper back, and lats as well as your leg muscles. Zercher squats tend to put less pressure on your joints and lower back than more traditional squats. 

It is an exercise popularized by athletes competing in Strongman competitions. It has grown in favor among Crossfitters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders alike. It is not advised to attempt a Zercher squat without adequate training to ensure your form is correct and the risk of injury is reduced. 

There are a lot of benefits to the Zercher squat and it is loved by many athletes. However, it is not the easiest exercise to perform and for a lot of people, the cons outweigh the pros. It is an exercise worth attempting, however, the same muscles can be worked using a combination of other exercises.

Why is it called a Zercher squat?

Zercher squats are also referred to as the king of all exercises. It gets its name from a strongman from St Louis known as Ed Zercher. The pinnacle of his strongman career was during the 1930s and 1940s where he was one of the best in his field. 

He established a gym that was stripped right back to basics. Legend says that there was not a single squat rack in the gym, meaning that Zercher had to become creative. 

Zercher introduced his technique to his friends in the weightlifting community and it is believed this is how the Zercher squat became more widely known. As the 1960s rolled around, the Zercher squat had made it onto the list of sanctioned United States All Round Weightlifting Association (USAWA) lifts. 

What is a Zercher squat?

It is what is known as an odd lift - a strength training exercise that is a combination of more than one activity. In the case of Zercher squats, your upper and lower body are working independently. 

The upper body lifts and carries the weight of the barbell, while the lower body performs a squat. As the barbell is held in front of your body, it is referred to as a front-loaded exercise. 

The Zercher squat works your front delts and biceps due to holding the barbell in front of you. It also works the core, quads, and upper back to keep your torso stable and prevent you from toppling forwards.

What do you need to do a Zercher squat?

You will need a squat rack complete with a barbell and weight plates. These should be chosen in a range that suits your strength capabilities. We recommend performing your initial few reps using just the barbell.

This will allow you to get a feel for the movement without overwhelming your arm muscles. Working up from this point will allow you to master the correct form and techniques before adding additional weight.

Many athletes like to place padding on the barbell while they are performing these Zercher squats. If you do not have a barbell pad, wearing a long-sleeved gym top will provide your arms with a little additional padding.

This prevents the barbell from pulling on your bare skin and reduces the chance of it slipping off of your arms.

How do you do a Zercher squat?

Loading from a Squat Rack 

You should begin with your barbell loaded with weights and resting on the squat rack. Allow the barbell to settle in the crease of your elbow, and pull your lower arms towards your body.

This should hug the barbell snugly to your chest. Some lifters will cross their arms over the top of the barbell to reduce the chance of the bar slipping.

Stand as if you are performing a standard squat, but set your feet slightly wider apart. Experiment with different foot positions until you find one that you are comfortable with. Take care to keep the stance wide for stability.

Keeping your back straight and your torso upright, bend your knees. YOu should lower into a squat as per usual. Try to keep the bull of your weight balanced on the central section of your foot. Your middle and lower back should stay in a neutral position, but your upper back may round slightly. 

As your body lowers, your elbows should fall in between your knees. If you cannot fit your elbows between the knees, this is an indicator that the stance is too narrow. Try widening your stance and reattempting the squat. 

You should try to squat lower than parallel. The deeper the squat, the more you are working the muscles. Once you reach the lowest point, drive your feet into the ground and use this force to push yourself back into a standing position. 

Ensure you keep your chest facing forwards and up. Keep the barbell as close to your body as possible to ensure the squat has maximum impact. 

Loading from the Ground

This requires a fair amount of mobility and flexibility in your ankles. Start with your feet in a solid, wide set stance. This should be slightly wider than a squat stance.

Bend forward and arch your back. Reach down to the barbell on the ground.

Run your arms underneath the barbell so that it falls inside the crooks of your elbows. 

Slowly straighten your legs, deadlifting the bar off the ground as you do so. 

Once you reach the top of your movement, squat down. Keep your chest and core engaged to prevent injuries. 

Squat down until you have gone past parallel. Press your feet firmly into the ground and drive through your heels to return to a standing position. 

Benefit #1: Improves Core Stability

The Zercher squat heavily involves your erector spinae and transverse abdominus muscle groups. These help to stabilize your core, stop your pelvis tilting excessively, and keep your spine straight.

The squat is heavily demanding of your core muscles if you wish to do it correctly. It is not uncommon for your core to feel as if you had done a full-blown ab workout the day after performing Zercher squats.

Benefit #2: Builds Strength for the Real World

There are many situations in life where you may be required to carry a weight out in front of your body. These could be during your job - if you are a nurse or firefighter you may well be required to carry a person who cannot walk. 

If you are a manual laborer, training this squat will help you carry objects around your workspace. There are many instances where this kind of carry is useful in the real world. 

The Zercher squat will also work to improve the strength of your stabilizer muscles. These are muscles such as the hip abductors and adductors. This is because you need to keep the positioning of your feet on the ground stable. 

Benefit #3: Improves Posture

To perform a Zercher squat correctly you need to keep your back straight. The lift forces you to engage your postural and upper back muscles, in turn helping to improve your natural posture. 

The postural muscles will limit your ability to perform the squat. If they are weak, you will feel the barbell pulling your body forward and you may even drop the bar. The postural muscles are fairly isolated during this exercise. This means that if they begin to fail, other muscle groups cannot kick in as effectively to compensate.

In more traditional back squats, secondary muscle groups will activate if your body begins to pull forward. This means that the exercise is not as targeted or effective. Holding the barbell in your elbow crook means that you are forced to push your chest up. This will protect your back as well as increasing your thoracic capacity. 

As well as this, traditional squats where the weight is on your shoulders have a tendency to compress your spine. The Zercher squat has you holding the weight lower down on your body. This reduces the load on your spine, making it undergo less strain. 

Benefit #4: Easier to Perform Deeper Squats

The Zercher squat allows for a wider range of motion without being demanding on your flexibility. This means that you can drop deeper into your squat than you would during a back squat.

This is a good exercise to teach you to drop your hips below parallel at the bottom of your squat. The direction of movement in this squat variation is in line with the natural direction your knees travel in.

This allows you to squat more deeply without putting additional strain on your hip and ankle joints. 

Benefit #5: Improves Quad Strength

While performing Zercher squats the main leg muscle group targeted is the quadrilaterals. These are used preferentially over your hamstrings and glutes. 

This is because your back is meant to remain in a straight line, meaning that your hips will fall directly underneath your torso. This then means that the knees are at a larger angle when you reach the lowest part of your squat. 

The further forward the position of your knees, the more work the quads need to do in order to force your body upright again. 

Benefit #6: Great Training Exercise for Strongman Events

In particular, Zercher squats are ideal for training for Conan’s Wheel, the Atlas Stone, and the Yoke Carry. 

This is because all of these events have an element of holding a weight in front of your body as well as supporting weight with your elbow crease. This is a particularly great training method for Conan’s wheel if you do not have access to the wheel to practice on. 

Benefit #7: It is a Good Way to Mix Up Your Workout Routine

If you are getting bored with your more traditional lifts, the Zercher squat is a great way to mix up your routine a little. It is a particularly effective replacement exercise for front squats. 

If you are feeling as though your routine is a little simple or boring, this is the perfect way to push yourself a little harder. It is important to not attempt Zercher squats until you are confident in your front squats.

Drawback #1: Your Body May Prefer Other Squat Variations

There are many, many exercises that you can use to target the same areas on your body as a Zercher squat would target. These include, but are not limited to, back squats, front squats, overhead squats, lunges, and classic deadlifts. 

Many people struggle with the form of Zercher squats. This is nothing to be ashamed of, as everyone’s body operates differently. If you cannot do the Zercher squat, or do not feel comfortable while doing it, we suggest trying some other exercises.

Drawback #2: It is Not Comfortable

The Zercher squat puts a lot of strain on your arm muscles. The heavier the barbell is, the more pressure is forced into the crease of your elbows.

When you are lifting really heavy weights, some people will begin to find this pressure too uncomfortable to move past.

Attempting to lift a barbell that is excessively heavy can be dangerous. If you cannot keep your back straight it can cause your upper body to topple forwards.

In some cases, the barbell may even pull your forearm forwards, causing it to straighten out. This can cause severe bruising and a lot of pain.

Some people also say that they struggle with their breathing while performing the Zercher squat. This is because the way the barbell is positioned can often put a lot of pressure onto your chest and upper abdomen. When you are only doing a few reps, this is not too much of an issue. As you increase the reps, you can become quite breathless as you near the end of your sets.

Drawback #3: It Can Be Hard to Perform Correctly

The Zercher squat is widely regarded as being an advanced exercise. You should be confident in your weightlifting abilities and should not attempt this move as a beginner.

We advise perfecting classic deadlifts and front squats before you try a Zercher squat. Other good exercises to get your body ready to perform a Zercher squat include back squats, overhead squats, military presses, and sumo deadlifts. 

All of these exercises will teach you the best way to maintain your posture and form throughout the range of motion. You should be able to control the way your body moves with precision and coordinate your muscles perfectly. 

It is also important to have a good level of lower body strength to support the movement, good balance, and decent core stability. These will all prevent you from injuring yourself while performing a Zercher squat. 

How heavy should the weights be for Zercher squats?

Generally speaking, you should reduce your front squat weight by about 15%. At the same time, you should keep the numbers of reps and sets. 

If you do 3x10 sets of 80kg front squats, you should be doing 3x10 sets of around 68kg. This will prevent you from failing your lift and will reduce your risk of injuries being sustained.

What are the risks associated with Zercher squats?

If you are lifting weights that are too heavy, there is a risk that you will tear your bicep muscles. This will happen if the barbell moves too far away from your body. 

If you cannot keep your back straight and an upright posture you are likely to drop the barbell. This can potentially cause quad damage. 

Zercher Exercise Variations

Rack Pull

Set the safety bar to around your knee height. From here, perform the movement as if you are doing a deadlift.

This uses a little more of your back than the deadlift. 

Deadlift

To do this exercise, follow the instructions above for performing the Zercher squat from the ground. This exercises great for working a huge variety of muscles.

Hold/Walk

This is as simple as the name suggests. Hold the barbell in the same way as you would when preparing to squat. Either stand stationary or walk as far as you wish to go carrying the bar. 

This puts your muscles under a lot of strain but it is a great exercise to perform for conditioning. 

Accommodating Resistance 

You can add resistance bands to the barbell if you wish to make it even harder and push your muscles further. This allows you to overload the upper range of motion and deloads the lower half of the range of motion. 

This provides a more consistent level of tension throughout the entirety of your lift. Overloading the top half of the movement means that you really target the core, biceps, lats, rear delts, and upper back. 

How to Incorporate Zercher Squats Into Your Workout Routine

To Target the Upper Back 

After doing a set of front squats, do sets of 4-6 reps of Zercher squats. Take 4 seconds to drop to the lowest point of your squat. Raise your arms and elbows, lifting your chest as you straighten back up. 

To Improve Your Metabolic Conditioning

This is tough but gives good rewards. Begin each of the reps from the floor position (i.e. as if you were doing a Zercher deadlift). Go to both extremes of the movement - reaching as high and low as you can. 

You should do anywhere from 15 to 20 reps of this movement. Do not drop the barbell on the ground in between your reps.

To Build Your Biceps

Stand, holding your barbell in the Zercher position. Try to keep the barbell stable for between 30 and 45 seconds. We recommend following this with bicep curls for sets of 6 to 8 reps. 

To Work on Your Squats 

Incorporate some Zercher squats into your leg day routine. We advise doing sets of between 6 and 10 reps, depending on the weight. Pause for a second at the lowest point of your squat and remembering to engage your core.

To Improve the Middle of Your Deadlift

Perform Zercher deadlifts from pins set just below your knees. Do these immediately after regular deadlifts in sets of between 4 and 6 reps. Take care not to lift your hips too rapidly. 

Alternatively, you could do 4-6 reps of Zercher squats. Take it slowly, you should need about 4 seconds to reach the lowest point. Do not bend your knees past a 90 degree angle.

Summary

Zercher squats are useful as an enhancement for your training regimen. They will not replace other squats and should be seen as a supplementary exercise. It is ideal for targeting weaker areas of your body and rounds out your training session beautifully.

Zercher squats are a fantastic exercise for people who have long limbs. They can drop deeper into the squat, meaning that the muscles are more engaged and have to work harder.

Kevin Harris
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