Zercher Squat Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked

While this squat variation may not have found it’s way into the “Ultimate Squat Guide“, the Zercher squat is a classic squat lift that challenges and strengthens the upper back, quadriceps, and hips for nearly every strength, power, and functional fitness athlete.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the Zercher squat, and more:

  • Zercher Squat History
  • Zercher Squat Form and Technique
  • Special Considerations for the Zercher Squat
  • Benefits of the Zercher Squat
  • Muscles Worked by the Zercher Squat
  • Who Should Do the Zercher Squat
  • Zercher Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Zercher Squat Variations and Alternatives

History of the Zercher Squat

It’s named after Ed Zercher, a renowned 156lb All-Around Weightlifter in the 1930’s, best known for his style of squatting and a reported 3.45x bodyweight deadlift, in 1934 (536lbs deadlift weighing 155lbs).

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 Perform the Zercher Squat: Step-By-Step Guide

The Zercher squat is a squat style that can build serious upper back strength, thoracic spine integrity, and increase quadriceps and glute development for nearly every athlete. The barbell placement differs drastically from back and front squats, however can offer some lifters needed loading stress and movement awareness which can impact their performance deadlifts and squats.

Despite not having direct correlation to formal Olympic weightlifting and/or powerlifting competitive squats, many athletes can benefit from the unique challenge that the Zercher squats place upon the body; all of which can then impact fundamental sport lifts (front squats, cleans, law bar squats, sumo deadlifts, etc) and movements.

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the Zercher squat with the barbell.

Step 1. The Set Up

Start by walking up into the barbell in the power rack, and place the barbell in the crooks of the elbows.

Set the feet in the squat stance.

Coach’s Tip: You can overlap the hands to add additional strength to the set up position.

Zercher Squat Exercise Guide - Set Up
Zercher Squat Exercise Guide – Set Up

Step 2. Upright Torso

Be sure to find the correct placement of the barbell in the crooks of the elbows, as this is essential for proper positioning in the squat.

If you have issues with the barbell hitting the elbow tendons, you can also wear a long sleeve shirt. That said, this exercise can help to build up the forearms and biceps, which can also help to add padding to the area.

Zercher Squat Exercise Guide - Bar Positioning
Zercher Squat Exercise Guide – Bar Positioning

Step 3. Squat Down

With the feet set and the torso upright, push the hips back and squat down, allowing the elbows to travel downwards inside the knees.

The chest needs to stay tall.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure to resist the load as it attempts to pull your torso forwards.

Zercher Squat Exercise Guide - Squat Down
Zercher Squat Exercise Guide – Squat Down

Step 4. Lift Up and Repeat

Once you have reached depth in the Zercher squat, which is often well below parallel, you want to (1) push hard through the floor like a squat, and (2) pull your chest upwards with rigid arms to stand the weight up.

This lift should be felt in the legs, upper body, and core.

Zercher Squat Exercise Guide - Drive Up
Zercher Squat Exercise Guide – Drive Up

Special Considerations for the Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat places a high amount of loading on the anterior legs, upper back and traps, and the biceps and elbows. Something to consider with the Zercher squat is that higher volume/loading can place a high amount of stress and muscular damage to smaller, less force producing muscles like the bicep. Due to the rack positioning, coaches and athletes must understand that loading will often by limited by upper back strength and/or elbow/bicep performance, which could limit the amount of quality work the legs get if that is your goal.

3 Benefits of the Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat offers unique front loaded strength and real world movement applications for strength, power, and functional fitness athletes. This movement is often done using moderate loading, as the limiting factors are upper body strength and positional awareness. Below are the benefits of specifically including Zercher squats into your training.

1. Increase Quadriceps Hypertrophy and Strength

Increased quadriceps engagement and development due to higher degrees of knee flexion reached at the bottom of the squat (sometimes even more than the front squat). Similar to the loading mechanics on the lower body as the front squat, this movement can be done under conscious, slow, and controlled movements to really target quadriceps hypertrophy.

2. Improved Squat Mechanics

Develop proper hip and knee movement integrity. When done correctly, this movement will force a very upright positioning, one that requires a high degree of knee flexion. The hips must also increase range of motion due to a slightly wider stance and the ability to gain greater depth that many lifters may experience.

3. Reinforce Postural Integrity

Upper back and postural strength is stressed to the highest of degrees throughout this squatting movement as the barbell is placed in the crooks of the elbows. Lack of keeping an upright torso will force the lifter to flex the biceps and elbows harder, which are early signs of a weak upright positioning. This movement can often only be done with moderate to heavy loads when using an upright position rather than leaning forward and using the biceps.

Muscles Worked – Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat differs from other squat forms in that the barbell placement is taken within the crooks of the elbows. By doing so, the load is not only front loaded into the quads, but the rack position itself forces the back muscles and upper body to stay active through the movement. Below is a list of muscle groups active (in no specific order) that the Zercher squat targets:

  • Quadriceps
  • Upper Back
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Abdominals
  • Biceps

Who Should Perform Deadlifts?

Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from the inclusion of Zercher squats within training programs.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes rely on the high amounts of strength and muscle mass build via the Zercher squat.

  • Powerlifting and Strongman Athletes: Any and all strength, power and fitness athletes who lack upper back strength during squatting and pulling, often expressed as rounding during heavier front/back squats and deadlifts.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: While the Zercher squat can be helpful for overall squat patterning and development, weightlifters could (and in most cases) should focus on front squats as they apply directly to the clean and can increase all similar muscle groups as the Zercher squat.

Competitive and General Fitness

This movement can be used by all athletes to increase upper back strength, core stability, and place a greater emphasis on the quadriceps; all when done with an upright and rigid torso. This movement can also be highly beneficial to most individuals, regardless of sport, as front loaded carrying and lifting of loads is highly functional to real-life training, manual labor, wrestling and fighting sports, and strongman training.

Additionally, the front loaded position can decrease stress placed upon the lumbar spine as well as minimize the amount of shoulder and wrist mobility needed when compared the the front and back squat, allowing even less mobile athletes and clients the ability to do some real-world squat training.

Zercher Squat Exercise Guide
Zercher Squat Exercise Guide

Zercher Squat Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are four sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the Zercher squat specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coach and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The Zercher squat can be done to increase squat performance and patterning with lifters who may otherwise have issues placing a barbell on the back.

  • 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled speed (focusing on proper eccentric/lowering of the weight), resting as needed
  • Coaches can also include pauses and tempos to further enhance movement awareness in the squat.

Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The Zercher squat can be used to develop maximal strength, such as for powerlifting and strongman athletes.

  • 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed
  • Coaches can also use bands, chains, and other Zercher variations (concentric squats, pauses, deficit, walks, etc) to further enhance strength.

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The Zercher can be done for higher volume with moderate to heavy loads to increase muscle hypertrophy and general strength of both the lower and upper body muscles. The below guidelines can be used by coaches to program Zercher squats into most training plans.

  • 3-5 sets of 6-10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads OR 2-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads to near failure, keeping rest periods 45-90 seconds

Muscle Endurance- Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

For those looking to increase quadriceps, core, upper body, and posterior chain muscle endurance, the Zercher squat can be trained in higher repetition range is to increase muscular endurance and fatigue resistance.

  • 2-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads, keeping rest periods under 30-45 second

3 Zercher Squat Variations

Below are three (3) common and effective Zercher squat variations to build strength, muscle mass, technique, and movement integrity.

1. Zercher Carry

In addition to the Zercher squat, Zercher carries and/or holds can be programmed to help reinforce upper body strength and posture strength (necessary for heavier Zercher squats). You can simply add this to the beginning of a Zercher squat session (or end), asking athletes to hold/walk for time/distance

2. Bottoms Up Zercher Squat

The bottoms up Zercher squat requires a lifter to lift the Zercher squat from the bottom position, performing just the concentric aspect of the lift. This can be helpful for lifters who lack contractile strength and/or have poor postural control/strength and the bottom of the Zercher squat.

3. Tempo Zercher Squat

The tempo Zercher squat can be done to increase time under tension, improve movement patterning, and reinforce positional awareness and strength in the Zercher squat.

3 Zercher Squat Alternatives

Zercher squats are a good alternative to front squats or as standalone movements. Often however, Zercher squats can be painful, with many lifters opting out of them, and/or from a plethora of reasons. While these individuals should try their best to progress and work through some slight beginner discomfort, they could also try some of these alternatives that provide some of the similar benefits:

1. Double Kettlebell Front Squat

Simply rack two dumbbells in the front position (see video below) and perform in similar fashion. Due to the kettlebells being independent of one another, their is a unique challenge to controlling the back and torso positioning.

2. Front-Loaded Squat (any)

Handing odd objects in the arms while squatting is a challenging back, leg, bracing, and upper body taxing lift. The barbell may be uncomfortable, therefore a lifter can try to use a heavy sandbag, log, fatbar, slosh-pipe, of human…

3. Front Squat

When looking for a similar movement that challenges the legs and posture in a similar fashion, look no further than the front squat. This movement offers many of the same squat loading and mechanics as the Zercher squat.

Final Words

The Zercher squat is not just a lower body exercise. For many lifters, poor back strength and postural awareness can create spines that resemble turtle shells rather than upright torsos. The Zercher squat, aside from being a good movement to gain strength in the quads and hips, can also target the muscles and movements needed to stay upright in front and back squats. This movement can be used in most training regimens, however the lack of practical application to movement specificity to Olympic weightlifting can be a limitation that coaches need to be aware of.

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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