Zercher Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons

4 main differences between the Zercher squat and front squat

When lifters seek to build their quads without having to lift maximally, they often turn to the zercher squat and front squat.

So, what are the differences between the Zercher squat vs front squat? Zercher squats and front squats both use a barbell, but differ in its placement on the lifter. Zercher squats have the bar held in the crooks of the elbows using a half-bicep-curl position. Front squats require the lifter to hold the bar on the front of their shoulders throughout the movement. 

In the article below, I’ll elaborate in greater detail how both of these exercises differ. 

You’ll learn how and why you should incorporate these exercises into your routine, along with when to work them into your program. Finally, I’ll also walk you through how to perform each exercise safely, so you can maximize your results and minimize your injury risk.

Let’s get started!

What’s The Difference Between a Zercher Squat and Front Squat? 

zercher squat and front squat key differences that you should be aware of in order to grow your legs as much as possible

Despite the zercher squat and front squat being similar exercises regarding the muscle groups they target, there are some key differences that you should be aware of in order to grow your legs as much as possible. 

Personally, I think these exercises can be substituted for each other in most cases. The main exception is when one of these squat variations is more applicable to the lifter’s sporting demands — in that case, the more applicable exercise should be selected.

However, most lifters will see similar gains from both exercises and can likely make them interchangeable based on personal preference.

There are 4 main differences between the Zercher squat and front squat.

1.  Bar Placement

zercher squat requires the lifter 
to wedge the barbell in the crooks of their elbows while the front squat demands that the athlete place the bar on the front deltoid

Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat requires the lifter to wedge the barbell in the crooks of their elbows using a half-bicep-curl position, placing the bar close to the lifter’s sternum.  It is much harder on the arms to hold the barbell in place while squatting when compared with the front squat.

Front Squat

The front squat demands that the athlete place the bar on the front deltoid when their arms are raised — often called the “front rack position”. This position usually has the bar make contact with the collarbones and (sometimes) the lifter’s throat.  

2.  Mobility Demands

front squat requires significant flexibility compared to the zercher squat

Zercher Squat

Since the barbell is simply held in place using a half-bicep-curl, the flexibility required is quite low and should be manageable for even the most inflexible lifters.

Front Squat

On the contrary, the front squat requires significant flexibility — particularly in the wrists, triceps, and lats.

For lifters who have limited mobility in these areas, the front squat positioning will be a big challenge on its own. If the lifter must use an Olympic grip on the bar, dedicated mobility work will almost certainly be required. Otherwise, many lifters with lower levels of mobility will perform a front squat with straps (click to read more about this variation).

If you need a mobility routine before squatting, check out my article on How To Warm Up For Squats.

3.  Muscles Worked

zercher squat provides a greater amount of work to the biceps, upper back and abdominals while the front squat focus remains on the quads, glutes, and adductors

Zercher Squat

The zercher squat works the quads, glutes, and hamstrings via the abductors. Additionally, it provides a greater amount of work to the biceps, upper back and abdominals. 

Front Squat

The front squat, the focus remains on the following muscle groups: the quads, glutes, and adductors (a hamstring muscle). While the upper back, core, and biceps also get worked, they’re taxed via the front rack position.

4.  Sport Specificity

front squat is highly specific to the sport of olympic weightlifting and should almost certainly be prioritized over the zercher squat for weightlifters and crossfit competitors

Zercher Squat

In the zercher squat, the lifter must display serious upper back, core, and bicep strength. These qualities are often highly sought-after in athletes who compete in Strongman/Strongwoman, and combat sports.

As a result, the zercher squat might be a better choice for competitors in the sports mentioned previously — since it more closely replicates the positions that they’ll find themselves in during their sport.

Front Squat

In the front squat, the athlete ends up in the same position as during the catch position of the clean and jerk. 

Because of this, the front squat is highly specific to the sport of Olympic Weightlifting and should almost certainly be prioritized over the Zercher squat for weightlifters and CrossFit competitors.

Zercher Squat

The zercher squat is a barbell-based compound exercise that targets the quads, glutes, biceps, and upper back.

How To Do A Zercher Squat

how to perform a zercher squat

Here’s how to perform a zercher squat:

  1. Using a rack, place the bar just below the height of your sternum
  2. Get close to the bar and get into a half-squat position
  3. Wedge the bar in the nook of your elbows and clasp your hands together
  4. Ensure that the bar is right up against your body and locked in position 
  5. Stand up to lift the bar from the rack
  6. Take a couple steps back, and set your squat stance 
  7. Bend at your knees, while trying to stay upright
  8. As you descend, keep your arms bent in the same half-bicep-curl position
  9. Stop once your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly below
  10. Push the floor away to stand up

Want to learn more about the zercher squat? Here’s 7 Benefits of The Zercher Squat (Plus 3 Drawbacks)

Technique Tips For a Zercher Squat

Here are some zercher squat tips to help you with your technique: 

  • Use a wide spectrum of reps. Like any compound exercise, the allure of loading up the weight in the <6 rep range and going for an all-out set is tempting. That said, sub-maximal sets in the 6-12 rep range is a better way to amass a large amount of volume to help build your legs.

  • Test out different arm angles. When you try the Zercher squat for the first time, it’s common to feel some discomfort in your forearms. However, you’ll get used to the pressure of the loaded barbell within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, experiment with holding your arms at different heights: some lifters prefer keeping their hands lower (about the height of your sternum), whereas others will keep their hands closer to their chest — try out both to see what feels most comfortable for you.

  • Experiment with various hand positions. There are a number of different ways to position your hands during the Zercher squat: separately in fists or with open palms, together with fingers interlocked, and together with one hand over the other. As with the arm angle, try a set with each variation to find the one that feels most natural to you.

Common Mistakes When Doing a Zercher Squat

most common faults in the zercher squat

The most common faults in the zercher squat are:

  • Taking too narrow of a stance. Due to the way the bar is held during the Zercher squat, a narrow squat stance will cause your forearms to make contact with your thighs. While this might be unlikely to cause you to misgroove your reps, it will most likely cause you to cut your depth short. Ensure to widen your stance enough so that your forearms and elbows don’t make contact against your legs.

  • Sitting back too far. Similar to the front squat, the Zercher squat has you hold the bar in front of your center of mass. As a result, your knees must go farther forward to keep your balance and help you stay more upright. If you sit your hips back too far, you’ll be forced to lean further forward than you need — possibly resulting in the bar rolling out of position.

Muscles Used: Zercher Squat

muscles used in the zercher squat

The muscles used in the zercher squat are the: 

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstring
  • Calves
  • Biceps
  • Abdominals
  • Back Muscles (erector spinae, rhomboids, traps)

During the Zercher squat, the lifter is mostly performing knee and hip extension. These actions are carried out by the quads and glutes, respectively.

However, the hamstrings (via the adductor magnus) also help out with hip extension on the ascent and the calves assist in knee extension.

Any remaining muscle groups (biceps, abdominals, back muscles) work to keep the barbell from rolling out of the crooks of the elbows, or work to keep the lifter upright throughout the exercise. 

Benefits of The Zercher Squat

Some of the benefits of the Zercher squat are: 

  • It teaches you to squat correctly. If your foot stance is too narrow, then your elbows and forearms will make contact against your legs in the bottom position, limiting your squat depth. Once you get the appropriate stance width, you’ll find it easier to hit depth when you shove your knees out in the bottom portion of the lift.

  • It strengthens your upper back. In most lifters, the round-back pattern is observed when sets are taken near failure. Since the bar is carried in front of you, your upper back will become stronger over time — likely reducing the amount of chest-fall in your other squat variations.

  • It reminds you of the squat fundamentals. To pull off the Zercher squat correctly, you’ll need to do the following: stay balanced in your midfoot, remain upright, open your hips, and keep your knees out. The Zercher squat tends to do a great job of reminding lifters when they’re lagging with one of these squat fundamentals.

Related article: 9 Squat Accessories To Improve Strength & Technique

Cons of The Zercher Squat

some of the cons of the zercher squat

Some of the cons of the zercher squat are: 

  • Your forearms might be uncomfortable. Since you’ll be cradling the barbell in the crook of your elbows, the weight will be resting against your forearm bones, muscles and connective tissue. The pressure from the bar will likely give you discomfort at first; to mitigate this you can wear a thick long-sleeve shirt or elbow sleeves. Alternatively, you could use an axle bar or put fat grips (click here to see today’s price on Amazon) over the bar to increase the surface area and decrease the pinpointed pressure.

  • You’ll be limited in weight (at first). When you first try the zercher squat, you’ll likely have to lighten the load considerably compared to your standard squat due to the lagging strength in your biceps. After a few weeks, your bicep strength will improve and adapt to the demands of this exercise and you’ll be able to lift more weight.

Front Squat

The front squat is a squat variation that places the barbell on the front of the lifter’s shoulders throughout the exercise.

In the front squat, the barbell’s placement on the front delts forces the lifter to keep their knees farther forward in order to stay balanced in their midfoot, and to avoid having the bar slide off their shoulders.

While this exercise will highly target the quads and glutes, it will also put a significant demand on the abs and upper back muscles to keep the bar in the front rack position.

How To Do A Front Squat

how to perform a front squat

Here’s how to perform a front squat:

  1. Using a rack, place the bar at shoulder height
  2. Wedge the bar in the crook of your shoulder
  3. Place your hands just beyond shoulder-width and try to get the base of your four fingers around the bar
  4. Drive your elbows up, so that your triceps are parallel to the floor
  5. Stand up to lift the bar from the rack
  6. Take a couple steps back, and set your squat stance 
  7. Bend at your knees, while trying to sit between your thighs to stay more upright
  8. Stop once your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly below
  9. Push the floor away to stand up

Ready to master the front squat in every way? Check out my complete guide to the front squat here.

Technique Tips For a Front Squat

some front squat tips to help you with your technique

Here are some front squat tips to help you with your technique: 

  • Vary your rep range. It’s tempting to just load up the weight and stick to the 3-6 rep range for this exercise. However, sets of 6-12 reps are a fantastic way to accumulate lots of volume that will really grow your legs.

  • Find a grip that works. If you constantly get sore wrists from the Olympic-style grip, there’s nothing wrong with putting straps on the bar and holding them instead of the barbell itself. Alternatively, you can perform the cross-grip with your hands resting on top of the barbell.

  • Stretch out your forearms. Performing some forearm (and wrist) stretches will go a long way in aiding your front rack position. As you warm-up with the empty bar, add in some stretches between your sets — your future self will thank you.

Common Mistakes When Doing a Front Squat

most common faults in the front squat

The most common faults in the front squat are:

  • Doing an Olympic grip at any cost. Unless you’re an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit athlete, it’s not mandatory for you to use the Olympic grip. As a bare minimum, try to get at least 2 fingers (usually your index and middle fingers) around the bar to hold it in position on your shoulders. Getting all 4 fingers isn’t absolutely critical.

  • Going too close to failure. Even for lifters experienced in the front squat, it’s very difficult to maintain proper technique as you approach failure. Since the limiting factor will be your upper back strength, your torso will tend to collapse forward no matter what you do. Try to avoid this, so you don’t compromise the integrity of your technique.

Muscles Used: Front Squat

muscles used in the front squat

The muscles used in the front squat are the: 

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Abdominals
  • Erector Spinae (lower back muscles)
  • Traps (lower, middle, and upper)

In the front squat, the lifter is predominantly performing knee extension and hip extension. These two actions are produced by the exercise’s main movers: the quads and glutes — respectively. 

That said, the hamstrings assist in extending the hips and the calves also kick in to help out with knee extension.

Any remaining muscle groups have a minor (but still essential) role in helping the lifter stay upright and/or keeping the bar in position. These include: the abdominals, erector spinae, and the entire trapezius muscle group.

Benefits of The Front Squat

Some of the benefits of the front squat are: 

  • It improves your mobility. Over time, simply holding the bar in the front rack position will increase the flexibility in your wrists, triceps, and lats. While this is most relevant to Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes, almost all lifters could benefit from being slightly more mobile — especially in their upper bodies.

  • It builds your quads. Thought the back squat would build your legs more than the front squat? Think again. A study by Gullet et al. (2008) found that the front squat was just as good as the back squat for recruiting muscle mass. From the results of this study, we can infer that neither exercise has the upper-hand in stimulating hypertrophy, even though you can lift much more with the back squat.

  • It places less compressive force on your knees. If you have ligament issues in your knees (partial/full tears), then the front squat makes an excellent squatting variation. It was Gullet and colleagues in 2008 that noticed there were much less compressive forces and extensor moments in the front squat compared to the back squat.

Want the benefits of the front squat, but crave more exercise variation? Open my article on 10 Highly Effective Front Squat Alternatives (With Pictures) in a new tab to read it next!

Cons of The Front Squat

some of the cons of the front squat

Some of the cons of the front squat are: 

  • Your shoulders might ache. If you’ve never done front squats, then you’ll find that the weight of the bar might cause some discomfort on your shoulders — don’t be too worried though. Within a couple weeks, you’ll adjust to the front rack position and the nerves in your shoulders will get accustomed to the pressure of the barbell.

  • Your throat might be constricted a bit. The front rack position often causes the barbell to press slightly into your throat throughout the exercise. This sensation can make it feel like you’re choking. To give yourself a little more breathing room, keep your neck and head pushed slightly back.

Zercher Squat vs Front Squat: Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions that lifters have asked me over the years when comparing the zercher squat vs the front squat:

Won’t I Be Weaker With The Zercher Squat?

A common criticism of the Zercher squat is that since the exercise is limited by how much weight you can hold in the crooks of your elbows, you won’t be able to effectively work your lower body.

However, the front squat suffers from the same argument: the weight you lift is limited by how much weight you can support on the front of your shoulders.

The real answer is that strength is specific. If you train specifically to improve your front squat, you’ll get better (and should be stronger) with the front squat. Dedicate an entire training cycle or two to the zercher squat, and you’ll likely see serious gains on your zercher squat performance.

When incorporated appropriately into your program, you should be able to zercher squat as much as you front squat. In fact, some athletes can actually zercher squat more than they front squat. For strength, it all depends on what exercise you prioritize.

Should I Be Worried About Clicking/Popping in My Knees During These Exercises?

A number of lifters might hear some clicking and popping noises as they squat, especially in the knees. This is likely due to crepitus; when air seeps into the soft tissues of a joint and the air escapes by “popping” when the joint bends.

Luckily, crepitus is almost always harmless. If it happens consistently and you find it annoying, try “spreading” the floor with your feet or adjusting your toe angle slightly.

Final Thoughts

Not sure whether you should do Zercher squats or front squats? Your exercise selection decision will largely depend on what you’re trying to achieve.

Use Zercher squats if you’re a combat sports athlete, or Strongman/Strongwoman competitor. 

Use front squats if you’re an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit athlete. 

If you’re just looking to add some lower body muscle mass, pick whichever one feels the most comfortable for you and get stronger with it.

If you liked this comparison article, you might enjoy my other exercise comparisons on:


About The Author

Kent Nilson

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.