The Zercher squat—what is it? The exercise supposedly originated from, you guessed it, a man named Zercher. Ed Zercher was an American strongman active in the 1930’s and in his day was one of the strongest men in America. The story goes he had no access to a squat rack and used to pick the bar up from the ground, rest it in his arms, and squat.
The Role of the Zercher Squat
The term Zercher squat refers to the way we position the bar, which is in the crook of the elbow. At first glance, this is an unusual way to hold a barbell, but it does present some benefits. Squatting with the weight placed in front of the body challenges the entire musculature of the back as it fights to maintain stability under a load that wants to fall forward. It’s also brutal on the anterior core muscles for the same reason.
Another distinct advantage of the Zercher squat is that it allows longer limbed athletes to squat deeper without compromising lumbar positioning. Some other squats that support a healthy lumbar position are these are the barbell front squat and the goblet squat.1 However, the barbell front squat requires significant mobility in both the ankles and shoulders, which unfortunately many lack. Athletes with long femurs will also struggle to maintain an upright torso in the front squat.2
The goblet squat is fantastic in every sense, but it’s limiting factor is the amount of weight that can be used.3 The Zercher squat overcomes both of these problems. It does not require above average mobility, and you can load a barbell with much more weight than a kettlebell or dumbbell.
So, if Zercher squats are so fantastic why don’t more people do them?
To put it simply, Zercher squats are brutally hard. The bar positioning is uncomfortable, and because most people can barbell back squat more weight they neglect this variation. However, if you check your ego and put up with some mild discomfort, Zercher squats are a fantastic exercise to perform. Zercher squats allow many to squat with better form and are an excellent assistance exercise for the front and back squat.4
Performing the Zercher Squat
- Wear a long sleeve shirt or a pair of elbow or knee sleeves around the elbows. This makes the rack position much more bearable. If you have access to a fat or axle bar, once again this is much more comfortable than a standard Olympic or power bar.5
- Although the original form of the exercise starts with the bar on the floor, I recommend using a rack. You want to set the rack height just below the elbow if you stand with your arms by your sides, this allows you to quarter squat the weight out of the rack. You can connect your hands if you wish in the rack position, or go unconnected.
- Use the same stance width as you would for the back or front squat. The Zercher squat is best performed with a controlled descent—this is not an exercise where ‘bouncing’ out of the bottom position is a good thing. Remember the priority is to maintain and strong and stable position, and this is best done with a controlled tempo. It’s important to brace, spread the floor with your feet, and lower into the squat. Drive up and lead with the chest and hips together.
- Start with a weight you can manage comfortably. This is true for learning any new exercise, but it’s worth noting regardless. Whenever a new exercise is introduced, the focus should always be on mastering the movement before adding load.
Add Zercher Squats to Your Training
The important thing to consider whenever adding new exercises to a program is to understand which category they fall under. Zercher squats are kind of obvious, they fall into the squat category. How you proceed from here will be dictated by how experienced you are in the gym.
In general, if you are a beginner, then you want to spend your time perfecting one variation at a time. Trying to learn to back squat, front squat, and Zercher squat in your first 6 months of training will most likely just lead to you forming bad habits. Yes, they are all squats, but they have subtle differences and you don’t want to carry over everything between them.
If, however, you are struggling to perform back squats or front squats as a beginner, then replacing them with Zercher squats is a great option. In general Zercher squats are harder to do wrong, and because they are very challenging with less weight there is an advantage for beginners training alone.
A Good Squat for All
If you are an experienced lifter, you can add in Zercher squats as an assistance exercise. These could be added in after your squats for the day or even as a light squat variation on another day. Just be mindful of the amount of squat volume you are creating when you include a new variation in your training.
Another way to add in Zercher squats for experienced lifters is during a deload or transition block of training. If you are failing to make progress with your squats, and are experiencing a lot of fatigue, then you could be due for a deload. You could simply lift less weight on the back squat, but adding in a new variation is generally much more enjoyable and still challenging during the workouts.
1. Braidot, A. A., M. H. Brusa, F. E. Lestussi, and G. P. Parera. “Biomechanics of Front and Back Squat Exercises“,Journal of Physics: Conference Series90 (2007): 012009. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/90/1/012009.
2. Gullett, Jonathan C., Mark D. Tillman, Gregory M. Gutierrez, and John W. Chow. “A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals“, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23, no. 1 (2009): 284-92.
3. Russell, Pamela J., and Sally J. Phillips. “A Preliminary Comparison of Front and Back Squat Exercises“, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport60, no. 3 (1989): 201-08.
4. Ochoa, Justin. “3 Reasons Why Athletes Should Try Zercher Squats“, STACK. October 11, 2017. Accessed July 02, 2018.
5. Leibreich, Ryan. “How To Zercher Squat: One Exercise To Rule Them All“, TrainHeroic Blog – Applied Science For Coaches. Accessed July 02, 2018.