Long before Dan John invented the goblet squat, another anterior-loaded squat called the Zercher squat was performed. Zercher squats were the brainchild of the strong St. Louis star Ed Zercher from the 1930s, who, according to training lore, did not have a squat rack in which to train.
Instead, he deadlifted the barbell off the floor and somehow wedged the barbell in the crook of his elbows. This resulted in the Zercher squat.
Sounds painful, doesn't it? But if you're looking to build up your quads, spice up your squats, and build mental strength, then consider the Zercher squat. This masochistic exercise covers many basics and deserves a place in your training. Here we explain what the Zercher squat is, how to do it, train muscles, suggested programming, and a few must-do variations.
What is the Zercher Squat?
This movement differs from traditional barbell squats in that it is held in the bends of the elbows rather than the front or back of the shoulders. This front-facing position challenges your upper back, torso, arms, and legs while holding the barbell in your elbows. This alone will help build some serious mental strength.
This doesn't change the squat pattern drastically, but it does encourage you to have a more upright torso and a slightly wider posture to open up your hips. This will help you get into a deeper squat. For many strength athletes, the Zercher squat is a protector for the lower back, as the spine is not directly stressed as with the squat.
How to do the Zercher squat
- Stand the barbell on the squat stand at hip height, then crouch and place the barbell in the bends of your elbows.
- Stand up and clasp your hands as needed for extra strength and stability.
- Get in a wider than usual squat position and crouch deeply as you raise your torso and ankles toward the ceiling.
- Push hard through the floor and crouch while keeping your chest up.
- Reset and repeat, maintaining a good upright posture.
What makes the Zercher squat unique
Let's start with the fact that this squat is not for the weak. Holding a loaded barbell between your elbows is very uncomfortable. But if you can take it, this will build some serious mental and physical strength in your training. Zercher squats allow for greater stress than their cousin, the goblet squat (but less than the front squat) for extra strength.
This exercise builds serious upper back strength as it is required to hold the barbell in place and maintain an upright posture. Because of the upright torso and the greater freedom of movement, the quads are hit harder. When a sissy or belt squat machine isn't available, the Zercher squat is a great alternative.
Plus, Zercher squats work the biceps isometrically, and not many squats do that.
Zercher squats target the lower body, especially the quads. But holding the barbell in your elbows also recruits the upper body muscles. Here are the muscles that the Zercher squat works.
- Upper back (rhomboids and middle traps)
- Biceps (isometric)
Benefits of the Zercher squat
With all the discomfort of Zercher squats, there must be some reasons to do them, and here they are.
- It builds toughness: Building strength is tough because life isn't all about bicep curls and tricep extensions. Overcoming the pain of performing the Zercher squat will build some mental and physical strength that will carry over to your other exercises.
- It will save your lower back: Since there is no pressure on the spine like the squat, this is a great way to train the squat pattern hard and heavy without putting any strain on your lower back.
- Zercher squats help build quad strength and muscles: Being upright and squatting deeper brings more knee flexion and increased quad use for more quad strength and muscle building potential.
- It helps in upper back development and core strength: The strength of the upper back and core muscles is emphasized in the Zercher squat by the front-heavy position of the barbell. Your upper back and core strength will keep you upright, and if either fails, you're done.
Common knee flexion errors with Zercher
If you're new to the Zercher Squat, here are some things to keep in mind so that you can take advantage of all of the above.
- Do not maintain an upright posture: Leaning forward too far on this type of squat puts too much strain on the lower back and makes it a good morning. Prevent this by reducing weight and keeping your core, biceps, and upper back moving.
- Lower your elbows and hands: It is uncomfortable to have a barbell in your elbow. Because of this, there is a tendency not to maintain proper tension in the biceps, resulting in elbows and hands falling forward. Start lightly and build strength before loading heavy loads.
- Don't keep your upper back moving: If you don't keep your upper back tight, you'll bend too far and lift your hips too quickly. This is a no-go for all squat variations, including the Zercher squat. Maintaining your upper back promotes a neutral spine, which results in better shape and a safer squat.
Build strength and muscle with Zercher squats
Use Zercher squats as a substitute for your regular squats and do them at the beginning of your workout when you have the most energy. This is a full body exercise that is physically demanding and not ideal when you are tired.
If you're new to the movement, start with 70% of your usual front squat weight to build core, upper back strength, biceps strength, and better technique before adding any serious load. Here are guidelines for building strength and muscle with the Zercher squat.
- Muscle building guidelines
There are two options here, either more sets, fewer reps, or fewer sets and more repetitions. Since muscles are built in almost all rep ranges, it pays to vary your sets and rep ranges. Do either three to five sets of 5 to 8 reps or two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
- Strength building guidelines
After you've developed a better technique with the Zercher Squat, it's time to build serious strength and toughness. Doing three to six sets of 3 to 6 reps works well.
Zercher squat variations
Why should all the fun of Zercher Squat stop? This front-loaded position can be transferred to other lower body variants and other high-intensity training methods.
Here are a few variations to test yourself out, and some alternatives if that squat isn't your thing.
Zercher split squat
Split squats are already difficult, so why not increase the difficulty even more with this Zercher variant? By exercising one leg at a time, you improve the force imbalance between the sides, as well as core stability and balance. This is a great extra move to do after your heavy squats and deadlifts to help support any weak spots.
Tempo Zercher squat
Slowing down the Zercher squat by lifting quickly increases the amount of time your muscles are under tension. This increases your strength and muscle gains and detects weak spots that don't show up when you lift quickly. By slowing down, you increase the intensity with less stress, which is a great way to anchor a good Zercher squat technique.
The Zercher position works well for the Carry family. This can be done in place of your regular wearing style to build serious upper body strength, posture, and fitness. Adding this to the beginning or end of your squats will test your resilience.
Zercher squat alternatives
Double kettlebell front squat
The two rack kettlebell front squat will feel like you are being strangled because it requires the strength of your core and upper back to stay upright. This position fires up your front core, upper back, like the Zercher squat, but without the discomfort of clamping a barbell in your elbow.
If the Zercher squat really isn't for you, you have the king of all quads, the front squat, to go back to. The front squats have similar benefits and work the same muscles as the Zercher squats. The biggest benefit of the front squat, however, is the ability to add more load than the Zercher squat.