A brutal exercise that is worth trying at least once.
The Zercher squat is not an exercise for the uninitiated. The lifter who invented them was equal parts genius and mad scientist. Ed Zercher was a strongman who was active in the 1930’s and 40’s. An urban meathead legend said that his training space resembled more of a warehouse than an actual gym. Allegedly, he did not have a squat rack. And so, to perform squats, he would deadlift a barbell off the floor and roll the bar into the crook of his elbows. Thus, the Zercher Squat was born.
The Zercher Squat is a unique and challenging exercise. The barbell is held in your elbows, as opposed to on your back. The bar sits somewhere around the bottom of your ribs, making the mechanics of the exercise different from a regular front squat where the bar is up on your shoulders, under your neck.
If this sounds brutal, you’re absolutely right. But training is not about being comfortable, you can do that perfectly well from your couch.
Zercher squats are an advanced exercise and so the common mistakes are less technical and more often due to weaknesses. Relax, I’m not calling you weak, just pointing out some common weak spots of the exercise. No matter how strong you are, there’s always a “weakest” link in the chain. I won’t cover common mistakes with a basic squat pattern here.
This is likely due to a bad setup, poor engagement of the upper back, or general upper back weakness. When the upper back rounds, your head and chest shoot forward, while your hips shoot backwards to counter. The bar is already pulling you forward, and now so is your upper body. If we extrapolate this, you’re on your way to a face plant – not good.
Engaging the upper back starts before you unrack the bar. Driving your shoulder blades down and back is going to be the best way to lock the upper back in place while engaging the most amount of musculature you can. If you have trouble with this, work on your band pull aparts to relearn how to engage these muscles. And then do some more specific work to strengthen them.
This is likely due to weak abs and poor core engagement. When the abs can’t stabilize the body enough, we will tend to arch the back and flare the ribs. This arched position puts the load on the spinal erectors and low back. This is not as strong, and might cause some pain in your back.
Before you unrack the bar, contract your abs hard and stack your ribs on top of your pelvis. They should remain stacked throughout the exercise. Imagine a string from the bottom of your ribs to the top of your hips. You want this string to maintain the same length throughout the lift. If it lengthens, you’re losing the contraction of your core. If it shortens, you’re likely folding forward (see above).
Anti-extension core exercises should be added to your core training.
This is likely due to your stance, which I’ve referenced several times already. I’m assuming you already have decent squat depth, as in, comfortably below parallel. Since your elbows and low and in front of you, if your stance is too narrow they will soon contact your thighs and you’ve run out of room. Open up your feet and turn your knees out (they should still be tracking over your toes). This extra space should get the thighs out of the way of the elbows allowing you to squat to your proper depth.
If you’ve opened up your stance and there is enough room for your elbows to fit (test this without any weight) and you’re still struggling with depth, then you’re probably just using too much weight for this squat variation.
Unique exercises always offer unique benefits. This doesn’t necessarily make them better, just different.
The Zercher squat is unforgiving of poor upper body posture and mechanics. The bar is placed in such a compromising position that it only allows a small margin of error. If you don’t stay upright, you will fall. Plain and simple.
In a back squat, by comparison, you can get away with a lot of bending over. I’m sure you know someone who regularly turns their back squat into a Good Morning exercise. This is not optimal. But if your body naturally defaults to this, it can be difficult to correct it while still using an exercise that allows you to get away with it.
Rotating in the Zercher Squat will be a humbling experience. More importantly, it will demand the more upright position you are working towards. When you eventually return to back squats, the hope would be this more upright posture would become your “normal”.
To be honest, I am not sure this is necessarily true, and if it is, it’s at least partly an indirect effect. I am going to nerd out a bit here, so if you are uninterested to read it all, the answer is: maybe. If it does, we’re splitting hairs, and it probably doesn’t make enough difference either way to matter. If you use an intelligent training plan, you’re getting plenty of quad work.
Allow me to nerd out…
Broscience teaches us that a front-loaded squat makes the quads do more work. But biomechanical science tells us a front-loaded squat makes the posterior chain (glutes) do more work.
Our bones and muscles can be thought of as a series of pulleys and levers. A moment arm is the perpendicular distance from an axis (joint) to the line of action of a force. Don’t rack your brain figuring out what that means, what you need to know is that a longer moment arm is capable of greater force production.
Imagine trying to slam a door. The first time, you push as hard as you can at a point very close to the door hinge. The second time, you push as hard as you can from a point at the edge of the door, far from the hinge. The door will move way faster on the second try.
OK, back to Zercher Squats. Since the weight is held in front of our body, it increases the moment arm to the hip, which allows for greater force production from the glutes. Also, it shortens the moment arm to the knee, which allows for less force production from the quads.
So we’ve got a position that is advantageous for glute force production. The body is smart, and efficient. It will accomplish a task in the most efficient way it can.
But there is another aspect to consider. The function of the quads is knee extension. So if you can bend your knee further (knee flexion) then there is more work for the quads to do to straighten the legs (extension). Many people can squat deeper – bend their knees more – with a front loaded squat like a Zercher Squat. So if there is more knee bending happening in a Zercher as opposed to a back squat, then maybe there is more quad activation.
One last piece is some people claim that they “feel it” more in their quads. This sensation doesn’t always matter, and is not an accurate detection of what’s happening in our body. A better example to illustrate this point is pull-ups. You might feel your biceps pumped up and fatigued at the end of a set of pull-ups, and feel nothing in your back. But the next day, your lats are screaming while your biceps are fine. The body is tricky.
The bottom line is this: it’s unclear whether it really is more quad emphasis. And it probably doesn’t matter. This is a topic for exercise scientists to debate and research and for biomechanics nerds like me to get excited about. For 99% of the population, it will make no tangible difference.
I briefly mentioned this above (I promise I’ll leave out the science gibberish this time). Due to the front-loading of the Zecher position, many lifters can achieve greater squat depth with this variation. If you struggle with squat depth then using Zercher squats to make it easier to get into that position can help your body become “familiar” with that position.
A deep squat can be a bit of a foreign position to our bodies as we age. Finding safe and comfortable ways to get there can help re-wire our motor patterns to allow us to get there at will.
Note: the depth of our squat is highly dependent on our mobility as well as our skeletal structure. Not everyone can or should squat ass-to-grass. But we all should squat with the fullest range available to our body.
If you have a weak core, it’s going to be very obvious when you try this exercise. Even just holding the bar standing still in the Zercher position is challenging on your core. This squat variation is going to teach you to create maximal stability through your core. It will be a sort of brutal sink-or-swim method of teaching, but it works.
Not enough core stability will result in your falling over. An adequate amount of core stability and you’ll be able to get through your sets. But your core will be lit up either way. This lesson can and should be then applied to all your other lifts.
Personally, I am an advocate for always sticking to the basics and not trying to fix something that isn’t broken. However, as a trainer, I am well aware of the intangible benefits of new exercises and challenges in training. If trying to nail down a weird exercise like a Zercher squats gets you excited to get in the gym and train hard then by all means have at it.
Additionally, Zercher squats are unnecessarily hard. In my opinion, there is a lot of value in doing hard things in the gym just for the sake of doing hard things.The benefit is in overcoming difficulty, but in a controlled environment. There’s a high sense of accomplishment from successfully completing a grueling workout or exercise. So if you need a challenge just for the sake of a challenge, these might be your new best friend.
If an exercise has unique benefits, it likely also has some unique drawbacks. The following should be considered before incorporating Zercher squats into your workouts.
Your Zercher squat is not going to be nearly as heavy as your back squat. There are some freaks who can Zercher squat as much as they can front squat, but this is rare. So the result is you are using much less weight than your legs can tolerate. If your training goal is hypertrophy, or pure leg strength, then this would not be your best option.
The limiting factor of the Zercher squat is going to be your ability to hold onto the bar. Don’t get me wrong, your legs will still do a significant amount of work. But they’ll still have gas in the tank at the end of your set. Specificity matters in training. Other squat variations, or leg exercises where the limiting factor is the muscles of the legs are much more specific and conducive to improving the size and strength of your legs.
Earlier I mentioned how workouts are not supposed to be comfortable. But unless you just enjoy doing things that hurt, you’re likely not going to be a big fan of Zercher squats. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s that it actually is very uncomfortable in your elbows. For most people, this is a big enough turn off to try them once, and never again.
The real answer is: it depends.
I don’t believe there’s any need to use Zercher squats. They are likely more applicable to training for certain sports, but for most people they have no special carryover. There’s almost always a better exercise to accomplish whatever goal you’re chasing.
However, I still think they’re worth trying at least once. Maybe this variation of squats is one that feels great to you and that you enjoy. If that’s the case, have at it. You have to do what works best for you.
If you have a good poker face, you can try these on your own first. Then tell your buddy to come train with you and show them this exercise, and pretend it’s totally normal and easy for you while you watch them struggle. Just don’t tell them that idea came from me.