Best Zercher Squat Guide – Technique Tips, Muscles Worked, Variations and Benefits
This extensive guide to the Zercher Squat will teach you everything you need to know about this useful, uncommon yet highly effective squat variation.
What is the Zercher Squat?
The Zercher Squat is a lesser-known type of squat that involves holding the barbell in the crook of the arms, out in front of the body.
It especially challenges the quads, upper back and core.
It is popular with Strong(wo)men and it can be performed without a squat rack. This makes it accessible and adaptive.
Once you learn the proper technique, breathing, movement mechanics and benefits then you will understand fully how, why and when to use it.
- What is the Zercher Squat?
- Benefits of the Zercher Squat
- Muscles Worked by the Zercher Squat
- Why are they Called Zercher Squats?
- How to do the Zercher Squat
- Technique Tips
- How to Zercher Squat from the Floor
- Sets and Reps
- Zercher Squat Variations
- Zercher Squat Alternatives
- Expand your Skills
Benefits of the Zercher Squat
These are many benefits of this uncommon Squat exercise.
The Zercher Squat is a great tool for building mass and muscle, especially for the quads.
The positioning of the load allows for a high degree of knee flexion at the bottom of the Squat. This really targets the quads and makes them work hard.
Make sure to keep your tempo slow to maximise time under tension and gains.
In the same vein as above, the Zercher Squat is highly effective when it comes to getting strong. Make sure to program properly and rest adequately between sets for maximum results.
It Makes you Mentally Tougher
The Zercher Squat is not for the faint hearted. It requires grit and determination, and it is tough on the arms as well as the body.
But preparing yourself to overcome physical challenges will make you into a more resilient human. It is a skill that can be sharpened and a valuable one at that.
Better Squat Movement
The Zercher Squat is not an exercise where the form can be “cheated” through.
Excellent form must be maintained at all times or else the weight will fall. This means that an upright position is essential, along with good lower body mobility and a high level of knee flexion.
In turn this will improve Squat form in general and is highly transferable over to other types of Squats.
Following on from the previous point, the mechanics of the Zercher Squat will also lead to better posture.
The movement must be completed with a neutral, strong back and this will carry over into real life and improved posture in general.
It is a Safe Exercise
One of its benefits is that is it safe. It is impossible to overload your body with the Zercher Squat because your arms will simply not be able to support the weight. Generally, the worst that can happen is that the load will fall forwards out of your arms.
Muscles Worked by the Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat works the following muscles:
- Upper Back
- Spinal erectors
- Core and abs
The front-loaded rack position forces the back muscles and core to work hard to stabilise the load throughout the full range of motion.
Why are they Called Zercher Squats?
The name comes from its creator Ed Zercher.
He was a strongman and powerlifter from the 1930’s. According to accounts, he loved to lift and train with all manner of different objects and loads in order to test his strength in as many capacities as possible.
He included anvils, wrecking balls, machinery and metal junk in his training.
Zercher had some very impressive Deadlift and strength numbers:
- Harness Lift: 2,150lbs (1940)
- Roman Chair Lift: 610lbs
- Leg Press – Unsupported: 600lbs for 10 reps
How to do the Zercher Squat
You can do the Zercher Squat from a rack or from the floor.
This guide will focus on the version from the rack.
- Adjust the barbell height in the rack so that it sits just under the height of your elbows
- Curl your arms so that the barbell rests in the crux of your arms
- Clasp your hands together
- Move your body under the barbell and get stable
- Inhale and brace your arms, core and glutes
- Lift the weight upwards off the rack
- Step backwards so that you have room to Squat
- If you need to, exhale then inhale and brace again to get ready for the set (optional step)
- Break at the hips, then knees and Squat down to full depth
- Maintain an upright torso and braced, straight spine at all times
- Explode back upwards to the starting, standing position and exhale
- Repeat for the desired number of reps in the set
- Re-rack the barbell
Keep your elbows closely pinned by your sides at all times.
If holding your hands together feels uncomfortable then point your palms towards the ceiling instead.
How to Zercher Squat from the Floor
If you are performing the Squat from the floor you will need to first Deadlift it into position before you start each set.
Another method involves deadlifting the weight in a conventional manner, resting it in your knees then scooping it up into position.
Sets and Reps
The following programming tips will help you choose exactly how to include the Zercher Squat in your training based on your personal goals.
Please note that these are recommendations. They will vary from athlete to athlete but the principles are sound.
To Get Stronger
The exercise is a barbell Squat after all so keep things classic. Go for 3- 5 sets of 3 – 6 reps.
Take bigger breaks so that you hit each set with energy and purpose.
You must pay close attention to your bracing and breathing when going heavy as well.
To vary the stimulus, you can also add chains and bands and keep things fun.
To improve your Mobility and Technique
Try 3 – 4 sets of 7 – 10 reps and use a light load.
Pay close attention to your speed and maintain a similar speed for every rep during every set.
You can even introduce pauses at the bottom in order to really let your body feel the movement and get used to it.
This method will significantly help your hip and knee mobility as well.
When your goal is hypertrophy, the weight should be lower than the strength sets and you want to be aiming for 3 – 5 sets of 8 – 12 reps.
Keep rest periods between 30 – 45 seconds for optimal results.
The last few reps of every set should feel hard and close to failure.
Zercher Squat Variations
Original as it is, the Zercher Squat does have a few useful variations that you should know about as well.
- Zercher Carry
- Bottoms Up Z Squat
- Tempo Z Squat
Zercher Squat Alternatives
If you want to create a similar physical attack on your body but cannot Zercher Squat for whatever reason, then the following alternatives will serve you well.
Front Loaded Squat
The simplest way to re-create the Zercher Squat is to Squat with the load in an anterior supported position.
Your imagination is the limit here. Any solid stone, metal, granite block, sandbag, bumper plate etc will do. Try to simulate the same grip as much as possible.
This offers an easier racking position and will afford you more weight.
It also demands the same upright torso position which will stimulate the same core and postural benefits.
Front Racked Double Kettlebell Squat
Swing both Kettlebells into the front rack position with your palms facing each other. Although not strictly speaking a unilateral exercise, the load is still divided into two and must be supported individually by each arm.
This offers a unique challenge for your grip strength and balance and coordination during the whole movement.
If you want to learn more then check out our FAQs.
Are Zercher Squats Better than Regular Squats?
No. They offer a different stimulus and place more emphasis on the arms and biceps.
Both variations are effective ways to build muscle, strength and mental toughness.
Are Zercher Squats Harder?
Zercher Squats can be brutal due to the uncomfortable loading in the crux of the arms. They are hard in their own way, as are Back Squats with their own respective qualities.
Do Zercher Squats Work Abs?
Yes, the exercise is a fantastic core and abs workout.
The entire core must work exceptionally hard to balance the body and control the movement at all times. The Zercher Squat should be performed slowly, leading to more time under tension. This is also good news for the building of abs muscles (rectus abdominis)
Which is Better Front Squat or Zercher Squat?
This depends on your goals. If you struggle with the necessary front rack mobility for Front Squats then Zercher Squats can provide a strong alternative.
Zercher Squats also allow for incredible knee flexion and a low hole position as well.
This does not mean that you should always substitute Front Squats for Zercher Squats, rather it should be used intelligently whilst you also work on your mobility so that you are, eventually, able to perform a correct Barbell Front Squat.
How Much should You Zercher Squat?
You will lift about 15% (minimum) less than your Front Squat numbers.
When the barbell gets heavier, you must also be prepared for the pain of racking the barbell in the crux of the elbows.
Start light if you are learning the exercise for the first time.
Is the Zercher Squat Dangerous?
No, it is not dangerous when it is done correctly.
Keep your torso upright, your back straight, the barbell stable and your breath strong and you will be fine.
Make sure to start light and work up to heavier weights.
Expand your Skills
Learn how to add Face Pulls or the T Bar Row into your training.