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.

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

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about how, why, and who should do Zercher squats!

Zercher Squat Overview

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 brief overview on what Zercher squats are and why they really matter:

  • Places the barbell in the crooks of bent elbows rack position, which forces the lifter to maintain upright, rigid torso and involves greater amounts of upper back, quadriceps, hip, and even biceps strength.
  • Although not a competitive style of squatting in powerlifting, powerlifting, and often other sports, this movement is highly functional for everyday life, strongman, and individuals with squat mobility and/or lower back limitations.
  • Lack of upper back and/or quadriceps strength can make this lift very challenging on a lifter. Those who fail during deadlifts and back/front squats due to spinal and/or upper back rounding can greatly benefit from this exercise.

Zercher Squat Muscles Worked

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

Zercher Squat Benefits

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. 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. 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. 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.

Who Should Zercher Squat?

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.

To reiterate, individuals who should Zercher squat are:

  • 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.
  • Individuals looking for increased quadriceps hypertrophy and strength development can use this movement to maximize knee flexion and upright torso positioning.
  • Individuals with problematic lower back concerns, as this front loaded positioning can minimize shearing forces on the lumbar spine due to a more upright torso angel.
  • Most humans can benefit from learning how to move with odd, heavy objects (bars, stones, logs, bags, etc) in the Zercher position, as it can increase real-world strength, movement integrity, and diversify one’s fitness.

Zercher Squat Mechanics and Technique

The barbell placement (supported in the crooks of the elbows) is a key differentiation of the front squat when compared to other styles of squatting. By placing the barbell in the crooks of one’s elbows, the lifter must maintain a rigid and upright torso positioning, one that is often limited by upper back strength and proper knee flexion mechanics during the squat. This bar placement will increase the need for a more upright torso (increase thoracic extension strength and postural stability), upper body and core strength, and high amounts of loading stress placed upon the back, glutes, quadriceps, and biceps (which should be taken into account).

In the above video, you can see how the lifter must maintain a rigid and upright torso position with the barbell supported in the crooks of bent elbows, ensuring a strong, back dominated rack position (as well as the biceps). The torso is help in a rigid upright position, with the lifters taking a slightly wider stance to allow for the elbows to pass down through the hips, which also will increase hip mobility and strength. Upon the descent into the squat, the lifter braces their core, packs their back, and allows the knees to bend, loading the quadriceps. Slightly pausing, stabilizing, and ensuring a vertical ascent from the squat will minimize unnecessary bicep strain and stress since the back and legs will primarily move the load. Failure to have adequate upper back and quadriceps strength and/or sound squat patterning and mobility will send the lifter’s hips back too far (either on the way down or have them shoot up too fast on the way up) and/or forward rounding of the upper back resulting in excessive elbow and biceps strain and potential failure of the movement.

Zercher Squat Video Tutorial

In the below video tutorial, Meg Gallagher, aka “Meg Squats”, walks us through how to properly set up, align oneself, and train the Zercher squat.

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. Some thing 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.

Zercher Squat vs Front Squat

In an earlier article, I actually went pretty in depth about the distinct differences between the Zercher vs Front squat. Many coaches and athletes may not know too much about the Zercher and its application to back strength and posture, as well as its ability to transfer well to strongman and such sports as wrestling, labor, etc.

When looking at the loading distributions, both place a high degree on the quads and upper back, if done correctly. The application to weightlifting movements is won by the front squat, however the Zercher squat could be an interesting alternative for lifters looking to diversify their squat game. Loading is often lower with Zercher squats vs front squats, as the rack positioning in the biceps of the Zercher can become quite uncomfortable to leaner athletes, and is something to consider it you are to go heavier.

When determining which to choose (I firmly believe varying your squat game can only help your overall performance and ability to adapt, however you should also have one or two that are your staple) you need to look at the goal of that specific training block. Is it sport specificity? Muscle growth specific to the quads? What about squatting but also minimizing lumbar strain? All of this is covered more in detail in this Zercher Squat vs. Front Squat article.

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:

  • 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.

  • Front Loaded Bag/Stone/Anything Squat: 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…

  • 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.

Featured Image: @syncro_tf on Instagram

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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