Ed Zercher was one of the greatest strongmen in history, with his reign as the world’s strongest man lasting between 1930-1940.
Now, however, he is more popularly known for his variations of popular exercises like the Zercher Squat.
The Zercher squat is designed to maximize stress on the quads by wedging the barbell into your elbows, drastically improving your center of gravity and allowing for a greater range of motion.
Recently, this variation of the squat has gained popularity because it has been shown to build stronger, more powerful quads and can carry over to improve athletic performance significantly.
Benefits of the Zercher Squat
#1 Quad development for hypertrophy and strength
Zercher squats force your body to be more upright, increasing your center of gravity and directing the load and stress onto your quads.
The more knee flexion, the more the quads have to work. The Zercher squat allows the knee to get a better range of motion due to the hips not having to hinge as much as they would in a regular squat.
Therefore increasing the load to the quads as opposed to the glutes, hamstrings, and posterior chain.
#2 Upper Body Development
The stabilizing muscles in the Zercher squat are primarily upper body like the lats, traps, erectors, biceps, and core. These muscles work tremendously hard to keep your body upright and keep you from falling forward or backward.
Often forgotten, these muscles are vital for daily life as they are constantly at work fighting gravity to keep us upright along with whatever strenuous task we throw at them.
So getting extra stimulus to these muscles from the Zercher squat will only equate to a better quality of life and longevity for your body.
#3 Develops Functional strength for the Real-World
We all can relate to how it feels to be strong in the gym, but not all exercises convert to being functional and helpful in the real world.
For example, the tricep pushdown is excellent for developing the triceps, but that range of motion would rarely be used in a real-world situation.
The Zercher squat, however, translates to the real world. The simple act of carrying weight in front of your body is used by every human being, whether that weight is a backpack, groceries, or you have a labor-intensive job.
#4 Core stability development
Due to the nature of the Zercher squat, being upright forces your core to work immensely hard. This is to prevent:
- Pelvic Tilt
- Excessive Lumbar Spine Extention
- Falling forward/backward.
Speaking from experience, Zercher squats will leave your core fatigued and sore, especially the first couple of times performing the exercise.
Check out our top 30 core exercises to improve your core strength further.
#5 Carry over into Strength Sports
Strength sports such as strongman, powerlifting, and crossfit are sports that athletes would benefit greatly from incorporating the Zercher squat.
The act of holding a weight in front of you is shown in all of these sports, whether it’s a;
- Yoke carry in strongman
- A heavy front squat in powerlifting
- Clean and jerk in crossfit.
So the Zercher squat can easily translate to improving many different movements in each of these sports.
Zercher Squat Drawbacks
#1 It’s not Beginner Friendly
Although it may seem easy and look quite impressive, the Zercher squat should not be the first exercise you learn.
The Barbel back & Front squat, along with conventional deadlifts, should be your primary concern. These movements teach your body how to move with load on a barbel. This is vital as the Zercher squat requires immense motor control coordination and balance.
Once you have these exercises under your belt, then consider giving the Zercher squat a shot.
#2 Very Uncomfortable
The Zercher squat can be an extremely uncomfortable movement to execute.
Due to the placement of the barbel being in the crease of your elbow, a place that isn’t designed to take a lot of load but can with training, although an extremely painful experience initially.
The barbell always has the possibility of rolling forward out of your arms which can lead to bruising or abrasions.
How to Do the Zercher Squat?
Step #1 Deadlift the bar to your thighs
Aim to pull the bar to around mid-thigh.
Step #2 Rest the bar on your thighs
Sit back, and scoop the bar so it’s resting on the crease of your elbow.
Use a pad to begin with, if you find resting the bar in the crease of your elbow uncomfortable. You can let your arms rest independently or place one hand on the other for extra stability.
- ⭐️Protects Your Body: Our 17-inch length x...
- ⭐️Fits 1” to 1.36” Standard Olympic Bars:...
- ⭐️Versatile: Our squat pad's high-grip surface...
- ⭐️Durable: Made with high-density foam, our...
- Portable: Our lightweight design makes it easy to...
Step #3 Proceed to squat the bar up
Squeezing your core and driving through your heels. Repeat.
Try maintaining an upright torso throughout the squat; if you cannot do so, lower the weight or start the squat portion of the exercise in a safety/power rack.
Squat as low as possible; the end goal for depth on this movement is you want the bar to touch your thighs.
Make sure your feet are placed just outside shoulder width before initiating the squat. This is to avoid the elbows from colliding with the thighs/knees at the bottom half of the movement.
Step #4 Once done with your repetitions, rest the bar on your thighs
Safely unhinge your arms, grip the bar as if performing a deadlift, and place it back on the ground.
If the load is too much, you can simply release the bar by unhinging your arms at the top of the movement in a swift, sharp motion. Although this will make a lot of noise and could cause minor damage to the equipment, be sure to check with your gym if this is acceptable.
Muscles Worked by the Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat works similar muscles to an ordinary squat. Yet, due to its upright nature and the load being more in the frontal plane, the hips, glutes, quads, upper back, biceps core adductors, and erectors are all worked.
The stimulus to the quads in this movement is tremendous; they are a primary mover. They are mainly in knee flection and extension, allowing you to push your knees forward and drop your hips into the squat position.
The glutes are also a primary mover in this movement; they are stimulated more heavily at the bottom of the movement, allowing you to explode out of the hole (bottom squat position) and return to the starting position.
Your abs act as a stabilizing muscle in this movement. Used heavily in the bracing and keeping position, they receive an isometric contraction building a rigid, strong core.
The erectors also play a secondary role in this movement; they allow you to flex and extend your back, which is also essential for maintaining an upright position out of the hole.
Due to the increased range of motion, the hamstrings play more of a role than they would in an ordinary barbell squat. They aid in stabilizing your quadriceps and torso in the eccentric portion of the movement (lowering yourself into the hole).
The adductors are heavily engaged in the eccentric phase of the movement. Due to the deeper range of motion, they are more stimulated than a regular squat. They are heavily responsible for the drive sensation you feel when trying to explode out of the hole.
The biceps, surprisingly, is also stimulated in this movement due to the wedging of the barbel being in the crease of your elbow; the biceps are also working isometrically to keep the barbel from losing its position in your elbow.
Who Should & Shouldn't Do the Zercher Squat?
There are no two ways about it; the Zercher squat is an advanced lift, even a challenge for the most seasoned lifters due to how technical the lift is.
I recommend learning basic barbell movements first, like the barbel deadlift and squat. A good rule of thumb is not to let the barbell control you; you control the barbell. This is so you can gain confidence and learn specific movement patterns required to execute the Zercher squat safely.
The Zercher squat doesn’t have to be in your training program all year round; it can be used sporadically to change your leg training when you’ve hit a plateau or aren’t noticing as much leg growth. Or it can simply be used to accommodate your training goals.
The Zercher squat offers variety and a new challenge; however, you won’t lose out on it if you attempt it once and never again.
Many successful strength athletes have conquered their sport, never even attempting a Zercher squat. In all my years of coaching, I have developed many athletes to a high level without ever prescribing or programming a Zercher squat.
Strongman athletes definitely should consider the Zercher Squat regularly as it correlates to a better performance in the sport.
Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations Zercher Squat
The Zercher squat can be performed for a plethora of training outcomes.
As a seasoned personal trainer and sports scientist, I will recommend how to program the Zercher Squat; however, take everything said with a pinch of salt, as any fitness element is not a one size fits all predicament.
Some terms you should familiarise yourself with are:
- Reps or repetitions are a fixed number representing how often you consecutively perform an exercise.
- Sets represent a collection of a determined amount of reps to be performed consecutively.
The Zercher squat is an excellent compound exercise. The diverse muscle groups it hits all at once are so unique it simply doesn’t compare to many other exercises.
The Zercher squat can build some serious muscle with proper programming for muscle hypertrophy.
- 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps with moderate weight. Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
Once you have mastered the technique and feel confident with the movement, proceed to:
- 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps with slightly heavier than moderate weight. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
The Zercher squat is excellent for building strength in the quads and posterior chain. For lifters that enjoy lifting heavier weights, the Zercher squat can be programmed to do so.
Some argue that the Zercher squat is easier to overload than the ordinary barbel squat because the weight is much easier to drop if you can’t execute a rep.
For example, going for a one rep max, you can simply dump the weight in front of you and be safe; however, many lifters find it harder to bail on a barbel back squat safely; speaking from experience, I agree. Cycle both of these to increase strength:
- 5 sets of 5 reps with heavy weight. Rest 4-5 minutes between sets or longer if needed.
- 3 sets of 3 reps with heavier weight. Rest 4-5 minutes between sets or longer if needed.
Zercher Squat Alternatives and Variations
Zercher Tempo Squats
Tempo squats are an excellent tool to increase one of the critical fundamentals of building muscle, time under tension. This can also reinforce movement patterning and confidence with the movement. A good start would be:
- 3-4 second eccentric (lowering portion) and a 1-2 second concentric (Driving portion upward).
Zercher Pause squats
Pausing at the bottom of the movement provides an isometric contraction, allowing your muscles to become more and more equipped to handle the load. This also removes momentum from the hole, which will aid in activating and building your glutes and abductors.
Note: This will require a safety rack or power rack.
- 【STRONG ASTM TESTED 800 LBS. WEIGHT CAPACITY】-...
- 【SOLID STEEL LONG SAFETY ARMS】- Other...
- 【MULTI-GRIP & REVERSIBLE PULLUP BARS】-Wide...
- 【STANDARD SIZED 1" HOLES】- Makes your squat...
- 【TWIN SUPPORT BRACES】-Makes this power cage...
The front squat has similar characteristics to the Zercher Squat; the load is dominantly placed in the front of the body, using similar muscles and movement patterns, although it does have some differences.
Dumbell goblet squat
Like the Front and Zercher squat, the load is predominantly placed in the front of the body; a dumbbell is a much easier and beginner-friendly alternative to hitting similar muscles to the Zercher squat because it is easier to get into position and execute reps.
Zercher Squat Frequently Asked Questions
Is The Zercher Squat a Dangerous exercise?
No, the Zercher squat is not dangerous when performed correctly. Following these ques can maximize your safety:
- Keep the torso upright by bracing the core.
- To start with, if available, perform the exercise in a squat rack or power rack.
- Ensure the barbel is sitting firmly in the creases of your elbows.
- Take a wider stance to ensure your elbows don’t collide with your knees.
- Keep the weight over mid-foot to maintain balance.
Do Zercher Squats Replace Back Squats?
Yes and no, if barbell squats have caused you pain and discomfort in the past, then Zercher squats may be a more viable option for you; still, either exercise stimulates similar muscles in similar areas, but both used together periodically would be my recommendation.
Zercher squats are causing discomfort in my arms. What can I do?
When you are first starting, this can be expected. A simple solution such as a long-sleeved top or, if necessary, elbow sleeves can help.
Alternatively, as mentioned earlier, you can use a gym pad, or a thicker barbell may lessen the discomfort.
- PHENOMENAL PROTECTION: Kunto elbow braces apply...
- KEEP ACTIVE: Stay supported no matter the...
- INCREDIBLE CONSTRUCTION: Our elbow sleeves are...
- TRUE FIT (NO SLIP) –Our fabric weave provides...
- MANUFACTURER’S WARRANTY: We're here to provide...
In my professional opinion, the Zercher squat should be attempted at least once by experienced lifters; however, longevity depends on your desired training outcome.
Beginners should learn Back/Front squats along with conventional deadlift before attempting.
If you want to put on some lower body mass, pick whatever squat feels most comfortable, and you can get stronger with it; attempting the Zercher squat is highly recommended.
If you don’t have access to equipment and still want to build bigger and more functional quads, check out my guide to bigger legs with nothing but your body weight.