The Zercher deadlift is a rarely-seen exercise in most commercial gyms but remains a highly underrated exercise.
So, what is the Zercher deadlift? The Zercher deadlift is a deadlift variation that requires the barbell to be held in the crooks of the elbows. It places more work on the upper back muscles. This unique deadlift exercise is especially beneficial for combat sport athletes, wrestlers, and strongmen and strongwomen.
In this article, you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to set-up properly for the Zercher deadlift. I’ll also outline the advantages of adding this exercise into your program. Finally, you’ll learn about the 4 major drawbacks to avoid.
This exercise is often misunderstood, and I highly encourage that you review the main points in order to minimize your injury risk.
Overview: Zercher Deadlift
The Zercher deadlift is a deadlift variation that uses a different grip than normal, targets the lifter’s upper back muscles, and requires a longer range of motion
Unlike the conventional deadlift, the Zercher deadlift does not allow the use of the hands to grip the barbell. Instead, the lifter must wedge the bar in the crooks of their elbows. This way of holding onto the barbell is known as the “Zercher grip” — the same style of grip used for the Zercher squat.
To achieve this grip, the athlete must hunch their shoulders forward. Doing this will naturally round the upper back and place more work on the traps and rhomboids.
Finally, the act of doing the Zercher grip lengthens the range of motion. Compared to a conventional deadlift, the Zercher deadlift forces the lifter to squat lower to grip the barbell. On top of that, the bar ends up being lifted to a standing position about belly-button high.
When all these considerations are understood, the Zercher deadlift is considered to be more difficult than most other deadlift exercises since it needs:
• Greater amounts of upper body mobility
• Higher amounts of upper back strength
• More skill to pull off the zercher grip
Check out this comparison of the Zercher Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons to learn more about mastering the zercher grip.
Zercher Deadlift: Muscles Worked
The Zercher deadlift uses the following muscles:
• Trunk musculature (abs and lower back)
The Zercher deadlift mainly targets the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles). The amount of hip musculature involved in this exercise is substantial, due to the sizable hip extension requirements.
However, the quads contribute more in the Zercher deadlift due to the presence of more knee extension compared to a conventional-style pull. This is most obvious by the lower starting position in the Zercher deadlift.
The Zercher deadlift also needs the help of a variety of supporting muscle groups. Most notably, these are the traps, rhomboids, and lats.
Be sure to check out my Ultimate Guide: Muscles Used In The Deadlift to understand why the zercher deadlift is so useful.
5 Benefits of The Zercher Deadlift
The Zercher deadlift has extensive benefits for a wide variety of different lifters like powerlifters, general strength trainees, and combat athletes.
The benefits of the Zercher deadlift are:
• It can increase your upper back strength
• It can improve leg and back hypertrophy
• It can incorporate variety into your program
• It can be useful for combat sport athletes
• It can be helpful for strongmen & strongwomen
1. It Can Increase Your Upper Back Strength
Due to its unconventional grip style, the Zercher deadlift requires a unique type and amount of upper back strength.
The forward hunched position needed to grab and hold the barbell will significantly target the muscles of the upper back. However, these tissues will be stimulated while being in a continuously lengthened position.
This adaptation will be different from the results gained from a typical straight-back deadlift.
2. It Can Improve Leg And Back Hypertrophy
The Zercher deadlift has a couple of key aspects that make it decent at improving hypertrophy in the legs and back muscle groups.
First, there’s more knee and hip extension needed because of the lower starting position. This works greater amounts of muscle tissue compared to a conventional deadlift.
Additionally, the back muscles must work differently to maintain the barbell grip. The novel stimulus of the Zercher grip will make it more lightly to experience more hypertrophy with this deadlift variation
3. It Can Be Performed For Added Variety
Consistent, weekly training on the same exercises is usually the best way to progress with adding more weight, reps, or sets. That said, you’ll eventually stall on your lifting program — it’s expected and inevitable.
Even so, exercise variety should not be neglected. Enjoyment is the biggest indicator of sticking to your training program, so you should seek out exercises that you find fun to do.
Many lifters opt to do the Zercher deadlift because it’s unique and they’re excited to see what weights they can progress to lifting.
4. It Can Be Useful For Combat Sport Athletes
Combat sport athletes (mixed martial artists, wrestlers, and jiu-jitsu athletes) spend a significant part of their sport in a rounded back position.
Whether they’re leaning forward to apply pressure on their opponent or attempting a submission, the muscles of their upper arms and upper back will certainly be taxed.
Considering these demands, the Zercher deadlift is possibly one of the best deadlift variations for these groups to perform. Similar joint angles and muscle lengths will make a strength transfer to their sport more likely to result in better performance.
5. It Can Be Helpful For Strongmen & Strongwomen
In many strongman/strongwoman competitions, an atlas stone event is a common occurrence.
When comparing the Zercher deadlift and an atlas stone lift, there are many similarities: a lower hip position, a rounded back, and an unnatural arm grip.
Due to these comparable characteristics, the strength one gains from the Zercher deadlift will probably improve their performance more than a standard deadlift or squat.
4 Drawbacks Of The Zercher Deadlift
Although it has some solid benefits, the Zercher deadlift does have a few drawbacks.
1. Elbow Discomfort
Discomfort in your elbows due to the Zercher grip is quite normal.
While it’s the required grip for this exercise, the Zercher grip certainly isn’t a natural-feeling way to hold a barbell. Since few lifters will have experience with this grip style, it will take a couple weeks for the tissues of your elbows to adapt to the pressure.
2. Weak Upper Back
Upper back weakness is not uncommon for many lifters. In fact, it’s fairly routine for those who neglect to train their back or who choose not to deadlift regularly.
With the unorthodox grip required for the zercher deadlift, you might find it difficult to maintain the rounded back position for more than a few reps.
If this is the case, reduce your workload to 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps with a few reps in reserve at the end of each set. This will allow you to acclimate to the different lifting position and gives you space to ramp up the sets and reps in the following weeks.
Check out my other article on How Do Powerlifters Train Their Back if you need to strengthen that area.
3. Limited Weights
Similar to the point above, your upper body strength will largely dictate your success with this lift.
This is because the muscles holding the bar in the crease of your elbows are smaller than your legs. Your arm and upper back muscles will also fatigue more quickly than your legs — making them the limiting factor for this exercise.
4. Mobility Requirements
The starting position of the Zercher deadlift requires serious ankle, knee, and hip mobility. In addition, a reasonable amount of shoulder mobility is also needed.
For these reasons, athletes who struggle with mobility in the areas listed above might need to regress this exercise. The best way to adjust for poor mobility is to perform the zercher deadlift from just below the knees using a power rack.
Progressively lower the height of the bar 1-2 inches each week, until the barbell starts on the floor.
Check out my article on How To Increase Ankle Mobility (13 Exercises)
How To Do The Zercher Deadlift
At this point, you should know the benefits of the Zercher deadlift.
Now, let’s dive into the ideal technique for this exercise!
Step 1: Position Your Feet
Proper execution of the zercher deadlift begins with positioning your feet correctly.
Start by setting your feet in a wide deadlift stance. The distance between your heels should definitely be wider than your normal conventional deadlift stance. This will allow enough space for your upper body to hinge forward between your thighs to pick up the barbell at a later step.
Once you have your stance width, point your toes outwards by about 15-30 degrees. Finally, shuffle forwards or backward in order to have the middle of your feet centered directly under the barbell.
Having the bar over the middle of your feet is essential to staying balanced during the zercher deadlift. In fact, any movement of the barbell from here on out will negatively impact your performance during the exercise — do not move the bar until you’re ready to lift it off the floor.
Step 2: Squat Down And Hunch Forward
Next, you’ll need to squat down to get closer to the barbell.
Once you get into the bottom of your squat, push your shoulders forward. This should cause your upper back to round over and your upper body to hunch forward.
Step 3: Get Your Grip
At this point, it’s time to get your grip on the barbell.
To do this, make fists with your hands and sweep them underneath the bar. Then, curl your fists up towards you. Doing this should wedge the bar securely in the crease of your elbows.
This is optional, but some lifters don’t like keeping their hands separated. Instead, they prefer to bring their hands together and cover their balled-up fist with their other free hand to create a more unified grip.
Step 4: Get Tight
From here, the next step is to get as tight and braced as you can.
Since you’re deadlifting from a rounded position, it’s important to build as much tension before starting to pull the bar up off the floor.
Accomplish this by lifting your chest as much as you can without losing your grip on the barbell. You should also squeeze your armpits shut to ensure your upper body resists being pulled down by the weight of the bar.
Step 5: Push The Floor Away
Once you’ve braced tightly and are ready to lift, use the deadlift cue “push the floor away”.
As you stand up with the barbell, keep your arms jammed into your sides. Focus on trying to “squish” the bar with your arms, in order to keep it wedged tightly in your elbow crease.
Step 6: Stand Up Straight
Finally, complete the ascending phase by standing up straight at the top.
This lockout position should result in straight ankle, knee, and hip joints. Your glutes should be squeezed as you approach the top, and the barbell should stay close to you for this final step.
Squat the bar back down to the floor to finish the repetition.
Here’s 18 Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength (Science-Backed), make sure to check it out next?
Considering the unconventional nature of the Zercher deadlift, mistakes are very common.
Here are the most common errors in the zercher deadlift and how to avoid them.
1. Hips Too Low
When your hips are placed too low, you’ll get thrown out of position before the bar even lifts up off the floor. In short, you start pushing the floor away but your hips rise upwards before the bar begins to move.
Typically, this unexpected rising of your hips causes you to tip forward and tends to make the lift harder than it should be. This occurs most often when lifters try to “squat” the bar up using their quads, instead of trying to deadlift it with their glutes and hamstrings.
If you find your hips kicking up when doing the zercher deadlift, try setting them 2-3 inches higher than usual — this should solve the issue.
2. Ineffective Stance
This mistake has two versions: (1) when your stance is too narrow, and (2) when your stance is too wide.
Too narrow of a stance will make it difficult to wedge the bar into the crease of your elbows. There’s not enough space to comfortably place your arms between your thighs, so you end up narrowing your grip on the bar.
In turn, the barbell has a much higher risk of tipping over.
The other version of this mistake involves a stance that is too wide.
While there’s plenty of room to place your arms under the barbell without impacting your legs, your strength off the floor suffers. Basically, you have too much force being applied through the floor laterally (sideways) instead of directly through the floor vertically.
This usually results in knee valgus (when your knees collapse inwards) and a lower limit of the weight you can lift.
How To Program The Zercher Deadlift
If you’re a powerlifter or general strength trainee, the typical programming style for the Zercher deadlift is to incorporate it as a deadlift accessory.
Applying it in this way, the usual format is to perform the Zercher deadlift for 2-5 sets of 5-10 reps with 65-85% of your Zercher deadlift 1 rep max. If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter, feel free to lean into the higher end of the volume recommendations listed.
If you’re a strongman/strongwoman competitor or combat sport athlete, performing more strength-focus work on the lower end of the rep scheme would likely have more sport-specific transfer. For example, doing 3-6 sets of 3-6 reps with 80-95% of your Zercher deadlift 1 rep maximum.
Frequently Asked Questions
Over the years, I’ve received a variety of questions about the zercher deadlift. Here are the most common ones:
My elbows ache or bruise easily from the bar, what should I do?
If you’re using a standard barbell, you can swap it out for a thicker bar (like an axle bar). The increased diameter will help spread the pressure over a wider surface area and reduce your discomfort slightly.
What else can I do to avoid aching or bruising elbows?
In addition to switching the barbell, you can also wear a pair of elbow sleeves. The thicker the elbow sleeves, the more they’ll cushion the weight of the barbell. Here’s a complete guide on elbow sleeves if you’re interested.
Compared to a regular deadlift, what muscles does the zercher deadlift target?
The zercher deadlift targets more of the upper back muscles when compared to a normal deadlift.
Are dead-stop or touch-and-go reps better?
It depends on what goal you’re training for. Powerlifters and weightlifters tend to benefit most from dead-stop, while other strength sports allow touch-and-go reps. In either scenario, you should probably train in the way you’ll be tested during your competition.
Although it’s rarely seen in a typical gym setting, the Zercher deadlift can be a great deadlift variation.
It has sport-specific applications to combat sport athletes and certain strength sports. The Zercher deadlift can also provide a reasonable hypertrophy stimulus due to the added range of motion at both ends of the exercise. Additionally, it targets the upper back muscles to a greater extent than a standard deadlift.
Despite its less-efficient-looking mechanics, the zercher deadlift is totally safe when programmed with basic fatigue management principles in mind.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.