Upon first glance, the Zercher Squat seems like a really strange exercise. St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher created many unusual and cruel exercises and the Zercher Squat is perhaps his most important gift to the world of the Powerlifting. Zerchers home gym, i.e. his basement, looked more like a junkyard of rack machines and old barbells than it did a fitness gym. It was here, in this mad lab of muscle, that the Zercher Squat was born.
The majority of power squat exercises require the placement of the barbell across either the back or the front of the shoulders. The Zercher Squat on the other hand, requires the barbell to be positioned (or held in this case) on the interior bend of the athlete’s elbows, or ‘crook’ of the forearms. This exercise is extremely effective for building leg strength but also produces muscle gains in the back and shoulders, most prominently in the trapezius and latissimus dorsi – your ‘traps’ & ‘lats’ respectively. It is these gains in back and shoulder strength that ultimately separate the Zercher Squat from all other squats.
Zercher Squat Basics
There are many variations to the classic Powerlifting squat, but maybe none as overlooked and underrated as the Zercher Squat. Zercher Squats are good for strengthening the abdominal muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, hip flexors (psoas muscle), extenders, calf muscles and the back, yes, the back. Many describe the sensation of the Zercher Squat as “attempting to pry a heavy load off the ground.”
The stabilizing force of the Zercher Squat focuses acutely on the trapezius muscle – the large back muscle spanning from the neck to the mid back section – and to a lesser extent, but still actively engaged, the latissimus dorsi. The shoulder girdle and upper body are maintained by the trapezius muscle squeezing the barbell against the chest, and the core of the body stabilized by the abdominals and ‘lats.’ So although the Zercher squat doesn’t explicitly target the trapezius in the squatting movement of the exercise, it is a great exercise to add to your squat routine if you’re also looking to build strength and definition in your ‘traps.’
During sets of Zercher Squats, the traps beg for mercy while they contract to pull the shoulder blades back. This is because the Zercher Squats produce continuous tension while the barbell is lodged in the bend of the elbows and the upper body fights to maintain perfect posture during the execution of the full range move.
Strongman competitors are well known for their highly developed traps (and general back strength for that matter), and are frequent practitioners of the Zercher squat because the exercise provides great competition-specific training with regards to the movements of events that require the Strongmen to reach down, pick up, and carry heavy loads.
Zercher Squat Benefits
Adding Zerchers to your squat routine will not only improve leg strength, but also your all around ‘functional strength’ because the tension generated by this compound lift is distributed over a wider range of muscle groups compared to isolation squats, requiring the different muscle groups to work in harmony as a team to execute the exercise.
Dominant hip action is reinforced in the Zercher Squat and requires the athlete to remain in an upright posture during the entire movement, facilitating a larger range of motion compared to many squats and promoting ‘full squat’ principles. Removing the barbell from the back eliminates compressive forces on the spine which many will find relieving. For this reason, Zercher squats are an excellent substitute for Back Squats on weeks or cycles of ‘deloading’ where you’d still like to get a lighter leg lift in.
The Zercher Squat forces the core of the body to work overtime through the full mechanics of the movement by way of the abdominals and back muscles that are responsible for stabilizing the weight during the squat. Isolation squats, like the Back and Front squats, on the other hand don’t target back muscles the same way as Zercher squats (and other compound squats), making the Zercher Squat extremely efficient and building core body strength.
With the barbell weight loaded anteriorly (front of the body) the body is forced to maintain a straight, upright posture by placing an emphasis on anterior stabilizers like the abdominals. If you are looking to further develop the definition and strength in your hamstrings and glutes, the Zercher Squat places increased levels of activity on the posterior chain of these muscle groups.
Zercher Squat Technique & Form
Beginning the Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat starts inside the squat rack where bar should be racked somewhere between your hips and chest, wherever you feel most comfortable engaging the bar. Once you establish your position, step into the bar with your hands clinched together and lock the bar on top of your forearm in the ‘crook’ of the elbow bend where your forearm and upper arm connect. With the hands fastened tightly together (clasping one hand around the opposing fist, knuckles turned up to the ceiling) shrug your arms firmly against your body to lock the bar into position. You are now ready to step away from the rack and begin the squat.
- With the bar wedged firmly in your forearm (Right & Tight), step away from the squat rack and stand tall with your back straight.
- The squat mechanics from the waist down remain the same, however, before initiating the squat make sure you are in a medium shoulder width stance (meaning slightly wider than shoulder width) with your toes pointed slightly outward. This will force your knees outward, taking pressure off them during your acceleration phase, and consequently keeping your hip flexors open to allow for maximum range of motion in the squat. Closed knees, close the hip flexors and limit the full motion of the squat.
- Initiate the squat by pushing the hips back slightly and begin your descent while maintaining a perfectly straight back (arching the back slightly will help to keep it straight). Your head should be looking straight forward and your knuckles continuously pointed to the sky. Squat down past 90 degrees so your knees are perfectly perpendicular to your toes (right over your toes in a straight line).
- Squeeze the glutes and accelerate vertically by driving the ball of your foot through the floor. Your knees should naturally flare out slightly has you rise back into starting position with your body perfectly straight.
- Repeat reps as prescribed in your workout.
Front Squat vs. Zercher Squat
Developing a formidable squat routine is paramount for any sport specific or Crossfit athlete looking to increase his or her leg strength, power and/or simply to bulk up. Although the bar positioning and squatting angles of the zercher are somewhat similar to those of the Front Squat, the overall gains to functional strength are greater in the Zercher due to the squat’s compound elements.
We previously described Front Squats as isolation squats, focusing solely on leg strength but also generating thoracic tension, the resistance against the body’s spine that is inherent to all forms of squatting. Due to the barbell placement on the deltoids and clavicle bone in the front of your body, Front Squats alleviate much of the thoracic tension placed on the spine in Back Squats. The Zercher Squat removes even more thoracic tension than the Front Squat while inducing more back and stabilizer strength than the Front Squat.
In Front Squats, lighter weights are still challenging because the barbell positioning, in conjunction with the medium – wide shoulder width stance (whichever your prefer), facilitates a deeper range of motion in the squat. The province of the Front Squat is to generate force against resistance from a deep angle by utilizing the quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors (psoas) in an explosive vertical movement. The mechanics of a Front Squat establish leverage for vertical acceleration by starting in a controlled descent, often times down into a ‘full squat´ (especially if you are observing the wide shoulder width stance), before accelerating back up.
Zercher Squat mechanics on the other hand prescribe squatting at a constant, slower speed. Unlike Front Squats, Zercher squats build strength through a controlled descent against varied resistance, the cause of which is due to the unique positioning and stabilization of the bar which in turn, limits the athlete’s force of acceleration back up compared to the Front Squat. However this acceleration against varied resistance creates more functional strength due to the increased demands of stabilizing the body against resistance. With the barbell racked across the front of your body, Zerchers require a broader range of muscles and place even more of an emphasis on the core stabilizers than the front squat.
The primary muscles used to power all squat exercises are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. In a Zercher Squat, you not only realize benefits to the major thigh muscles, you further compliment these gains in strength with composite groups of muscles that must all work synchronously with the lower body, leading to improved endurance, functional strength and overall flexibility in comparison to the Front Squat.
The majority of the exercises that you perform require the use of lower back and abdominal muscles. The Zercher Squat places even more emphasis on your core by requiring the abdominal and lower back muscles to remain flexed, contracting throughout the entirety of the movement in order to support the body and keep it in the proper upright position.
Zercher Squats not only improve core strength by stressing body focus on proper form and leverage, they are also an outstanding compliment to many additional forms of functional strength training; making the squat a welcomed addition to all Crossfit WODs. For instance, many athletes will cycle the Zercher squat in and out of their squat routines to complement deadlifting performance when they plateau and can’t breakthrough their PR. However you plan to use it, remember that this squat isn’t about building all out leg strength, its objective is total body anaerobic strength training and should be practice as a compliment to all other exercises in your squat routine.