The Zercher squat is a squat variation that challenges the quads, upper back, and core. It is a popular exercise among Strongman athletes, but more recently, it has been a go-to movement for powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Crossfitters.
So, why do this sometimes uncomfortable exercise?
The 7 main benefits of the Zercher squat are:
- Increases Quad Strength & Hypertrophy
- Easier To Train Deeper Squats
- Reinforces Upright Torso
- High Strength Transfer To Strongman Events
- Improves Everyday Strength For Real-World Activities
- A Solid Alternative To The Front Squat
- Increases Core Stability
While I’m going to explain each of these Zercher squat benefits in more detail, there are also 3 drawbacks of this exercise.
Beware: For most people, these drawbacks will actually outweigh the benefits.
As I’ll suggest, the Zercher squat should only be used by a specialized group of lifters and athletes. But the everyday gym-goer can likely get the same benefits of the Zercher squat by using other exercises and methods, which I'll share below.
Is the Zercher squat right for you? I've coached National-level athletes and never used the Zercher squat. And I've worked with up-and-coming lifters, and the Zercher squat was a pillar element of our programming.
By the end of this post, you'll know if the Zercher squat is right for you.
You'll also learn more about:
- What is the Zercher Squat?
- How to do the Zercher Squat properly
- Zercher Squat benefits
- Zercher Squat drawbacks
- Muscles worked during Zercher Squats
- Finally answer, should you do Zercher Squats?
Let’s dive in!
What Is The Zercher Squat?
The Zercher squat falls into an exercise category called an ‘odd lift’.
An ‘odd lift’ is a type of strength exercise that combines two or more exercises.
In the case of the Zercher squat, the lifter is both carrying the weight in their arms at the same time as they are squatting.
Another type of ‘odd lift’ is a Jefferson squat, where an athlete combines a deadlift and lunge into one exercise.
These sorts of exercises place a greater emphasis on the upper back, quads, and core muscles as the lifter is trying to prevent the torso from being ‘pulled forward’.
Unique to the Zercher squat, because the lifter is essentially ‘carrying’ the weight in their arms throughout the movement, the biceps and shoulders (front delts) are also challenged significantly.
Fun Fact: The current world record Zercher squat is 637 lbs. You may want to start a little lower, though, to perfect your form.
Read my full guide on the muscles used in the squat.
How To Set Up The Zercher Squat Properly
The Zercher squat will require a barbell, plates, and a squat rack.
Some people like to place padding on the barbell or wear a long sleeve shirt while doing Zercher squats in order to prevent the barbell from hurting or slipping from their arms.
Practice the set up with the barbell only just to ensure you have the basics of the technique mastered before loading the exercise.
Not going to lie: it will feel a bit awkward at first.
Step 1: Place The Barbell In The Crease Of The Elbow
The Zercher squat places the barbell in the crease of the elbow where the lifter ‘hugs’ the weight as close to their body as possible. A common technique is to overlap the hands to add additional upper body strength.
Step 2: Set Your Feet
Once in position, the lifter will assume their squat stance. Typically, the feet are slightly wider than a normal back squat. Lifters may have to play around with what feels most comfortable. But like I said, it’s usually a fairly wide stance.
Step 3: Squat Deep & Keep Upright Torso
The lifter will then bend at the knees to squat deep, while at the same time, trying to maintain an upright torso in order to prevent the barbell from pulling the body forward. The goal is to keep the weight on the mid-part of the foot.
The upper back may round slightly, but the mid back and low back should maintain neutrality.
Read my article on Is It Okay To Deadlift With A Round Back?
Step 4: Let The Elbows Fall Inside The Legs
The elbows will travel inside of the knees. If the elbows hit the knees, preventing the lifter from squatting lower, then the feet are too narrow. Widen the stance and try again.
Step 5: Stand Up & Repeat
Once the lifter has achieved a lower than parallel squat depth, they can drive their feet through the floor to stand up. The goal is to keep the chest up and the barbell tight to the body through the ascent.
7 Zercher Squat Benefits
Let’s now talk about the benefits of doing the Zercher squat.
Make sure you don’t skip the next section where I talk about the drawbacks. Even though there are several benefits, for most people the drawbacks will likely outweigh the benefits.
While I do think the Zercher squat can be a highly effective exercise, and you should definitely try it at least once, I believe there are other exercises that can provide the same benefit.
1. Increases Quad Strength & Hypertrophy
The Zercher squat will preferentially use the quad muscles over your glutes and hamstrings.
This is because in the Zercher squat the torso is encouraged to be in an upright position with the hips sitting directly underneath the torso.
As a result, the knees need to travel forward more versus the hips hinging backward, placing the knees at a greater angle at the bottom of the squat.
The greater the angle of the knees pushing forward, the more the quads need to work.
Check out my comparison between Zercher squats vs front squats, which is another great exercise for building quad strength.
2. Easier To Train Deeper Squats
The Zercher squat can be an effective squatting variation to help lifters achieve greater levels of depth than they otherwise would doing a back squat.
If you find that you lack mobility in the bottom of the squat, and it’s difficult to bring your hips below parallel, then the Zercher squat can be a quick hack to training at lower ranges of motion without requiring any additional mobility.
This is because the Zercher squat is a front-loaded variation that moves the line of force more in line with the knees. As a result, the hips and ankles, which typically restrict a lifter’s ability to squat deep, don’t need as much flexion.
If you struggle with getting to depth in the bottom of a squat, read my full guide on 9 tips to squatting deeper.
3. Reinforces Upright Torso
The Zercher squat will challenge your upper back and postural muscle groups in order to maintain an upright torso throughout the movement.
When you do the Zercher squat, you will be limited by the strength of your postural muscles as once they begin to fail, you will tip forward and the barbell will drop from your arms to the floor.
In exercises like the back squat, if you begin to lean forward because your postural muscles are fatiguing, then other muscle groups will kick in to compensate to help you complete the movement.
However, in the Zercher squat, your postural muscles are isolated to a greater extent and you won’t be able to rely on other muscle groups to support as much.
Read my article on How To Fix Leaning Too Far Forward In The Squat.
4. High Strength Transfer To Strongman Events
If you are a Strongman athlete, then the Zercher squat is one of the most specific ways that you can train for your competitive events, such as the Atlas Stone, Yoke Carry, and Conan’s Wheel.
In other words, if you train the Zercher squat, you can expect that movements involving the Atlas Stone, Yoke Carry, and Conan’s Wheel will become easier.
This is especially the case for these exercises because they require some elements of carrying weight in the front of the body, as well as holding weight in the crease of the elbow.
In fact, some Strongman athletes may not have access to equipment such as the Conan’s wheel in their training environment and so the Zercher squat is the only way to train for that event.
5. Improves Everyday Strength For Real-World Activities
Some people will see a benefit in performing an ‘odd lift’ like the Zercher squat because it mimics the strength required for their real-world activities.
There are several use cases outside of just training for Strongman where you will need to carry weight in front of the body or hold weight in the crease of the elbow.
For example, you may be a fire-fighter, nurse, or first responder who needs to carry a person who is unable to walk. You may also be a laborer needing to carry or hold objects in front of the body while walking or going up a flight of stairs.
As well, one of the reasons why Crossfitters have started to use the Zercher squat is because there is such a wide range of activities that they may be exposed to in their competitions, which may include carrying or holding weight in front of their body.
Another great exercise that's similar to the Zercher squat is the Cambered bar squat (click to read my full guide).
6. A Solid Alternative To The Front Squat
The Zercher squat can be an effective front squat alternative for those looking for additional variety in their training program.
Once people have mastered the front squat, they may want to move to a more complex variation such as the Zercher squat.
You would seek an alternative to the front squat if you’ve plateaued your strength or you’re simply getting bored with the current set of exercises.
I wouldn’t suggest learning the Zercher squat before the front squat. But, if you’ve mastered the front squat then the learning curve for the Zercher squat will be quite low.
7. Increases Core Stability
Any front-loaded exercise, like the Zercher squat, will increase the stabilization of your core, including your transverse abdominus and erector spinae.
These are the muscles that are activated the most in order to prevent your pelvis from going into an excessive tilt and prevent your spine from rounding.
Due to the pelvis and torso requirements of the Zercher squat, the core needs to work a lot harder to execute the movement effectively.
In fact, if don’t be surprised when after your first time doing Zercher squat that your core is extremely sore the day after, more so than doing weighted crunches or leg raises.
Read my article on Do Squats Strengthen The Core? (Research From 5 Studies).
3 Zercher Squat Drawbacks
Despite the benefits, the following drawbacks to the Zercher squat may cause you to think twice about doing this exercise.
Let’s discuss 3 reasons.
1. It’s an Advanced Exercise
The Zercher squat, while it may look ‘cool’, should not be the first exercise you learn in the gym.
There are several pre-requisites that you should learn before attempting the Zercher squat.
As an absolute must, you should already be comfortable performing front squats and conventional deadlifts. In addition, you may also want to consider learning the back squat, overhead squat, military press, and sumo deadlift prior to doing the Zercher squat.
The reason for this is because you already need to have superior motor control, lower body strength, balance, muscular coordination, and core stability to execute the Zercher squat effectively.
Once you develop these basic skills using other exercises, you can then consider trying the Zercher squat.
2. There May Be Other Squat Variations That Are Better
Depending on your fitness and strength goals, you may be able to get the same benefit as the Zercher squat with other exercises.
Any exercise in the gym should be programmed with the intent that it will drive you closer to your goals.
While I mentioned that the Zercher squat can increase your quad strength, postural integrity, and core stability, the Zercher squat is not the only exercise that can achieve these outcomes.
Other exercises that can work these same qualities are the: back squat, front squat, conventional deadlift, overhead squat, and lunge.
Many people find the Zercher squat awkward to execute. As such, you shouldn’t feel forced to perform this exercise knowing that you can achieve the same benefits with less complex exercises.
3. It’s Very Uncomfortable
There is no question that the Zercher squat can be an uncomfortable movement to perform.
The main point of concern for most lifters is the pressure they experience with the barbell on the crease of the elbow. If the load gets heavy enough, the pain can increase to the point where the lifter simply can’t place the barbell on the arm anymore.
Notwithstanding, if the barbell rolls forward on the arm because you were unable to maintain an upright torso, then it can be even more painful, leading to bruising or abrasions.
Finally, it is hard to breathe while doing the Zercher squat because the barbell is pressing up against the chest/abdomen area. This is not a problem when performing low reps, but if you are performing high reps, then it will be tough to catch your breath as the set goes on.
Read my article on Reasons Why People Pass Out From Lifting.
Muscles Worked During Zercher Squats
Zercher Squats are not your regular squats, they're a special kind that works many different muscles in your body.
The first time I tried them, I felt many muscles working together unusually, so this is really a full-body workout.
Here's a breakdown of which muscles are exercised during a Zercher squat:
Thigh Muscles (Quadriceps)
When you start going down in a Zercher squat, your thigh muscles or quadriceps get to work first. They help control the movement as you go down and push you back up. I remember feeling my thighs working hard from the beginning of the squat.
Back Thigh Muscles (Hamstrings) and Butt Muscles (Glutes)
As you go lower in the squat, your back thigh muscles (hamstrings) and butt muscles (glutes) join in. They help control the squat and keep your movement smooth.
Upper Back and Shoulder Muscles (Traps)
In Zercher squats, you hold the weight in front of you, so your upper back and shoulder muscles work to keep your body upright. I can feel my back and shoulders working to keep everything steady.
Stomach and Side Muscles (Core)
Your stomach and side muscles, or the core, work hard to keep your spine straight and balanced.
Arm Muscles (Biceps) and Front Shoulder Muscles (Front Deltoids)
Holding the bar in this squat also exercises your arm and front shoulder muscles. They help keep the bar steady. I felt a mild burn in my arms and shoulders as I held the bar close.
Your forearm muscles help you hold the bar securely. They work silently but are crucial for the squat. After my first set, my forearms felt the effort, showing how they played a role in this exercise.
Each time you do a Zercher squat, many muscles work together, making this exercise a total body workout. It's more than just a squat; it's an experience that exercises many muscles.
So, if you're looking for an exercise that works multiple muscles, Zercher squats could be a great choice!
Should You Do The Zercher Squat?
So, should you do the Zercher squat?
Once you have learned some of the basic prerequisite exercises (the front squat and conventional deadlift as a minimum), I think everyone should at least try the Zercher squat once.
It doesn’t have to be a movement that you leave in your training program year-round, but so long as you have a basic understanding of how the movement is performed, then you can use it as a variation sparingly when you think it will work you closer toward your goals.
For example, you can use the Zercher squat if you want to add a squat variation to your program that targets your quads, postural integrity, or core strength. However, keep in mind that it’s not the only squat exercise that can achieve this.
If you only try the Zercher squat once, and you never want to do it again, then that’s fine too. You won’t lose out on any strength gains as a result. In fact, I have developed National and World Champion powerlifters without programming a single Zercher squat.
With that said, if you are a Strongman athlete, I would program the Zercher squat regularly as it has a much greater carryover to the demands of your sport. This also applies to people who have an everyday use case for Zercher squats, such as firefighters and laborers.
Related Article: The Ultimate List Of 55+ Barbell Exercises (By Muscle Group)
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some additional questions I get asked about the Zercher squat:
How Much Should You Zercher Squat?
You should expect to lift about 15% less on the Zercher squat for the same sets and reps compared with your front squat. If you don’t know your front squat strength, then you should learn how to front squat prior to learning how to Zercher squat.
Is The Zercher Squat Dangerous?
The Zercher squat is not a dangerous exercise so long as you follow the technique best practices, which are keeping your torso upright, maintaining the barbell in the crease your elbows, taking a wider stance so your elbows don’t hit your knees while squatting, and keeping your balance over the mid part of the foot. The risks of performing the Zercher squat are bicep tears if the barbell doesn’t stay close to your body and damage to your quads if you drop the barbell forward by not being able to maintain an upright posture.
Can Zercher Squats Replace Back Squats?
No, you cannot replace the Zercher squat with the back squat. The Zercher squat is more of a knee-dominant exercise, whereas the back squat is more of a hip-dominant exercise. As such, the Zercher squat will emphasize the quad muscles and the back squat will emphasize the glute muscles.
Other Helpful Squat Guides
- Tabata Squats: How-To, Common Mistakes, & Workout Sample
- High Box Squat: 5 Reasons Why It Makes Sense
- Hatfield Squat: What Is It? Technique, Benefits, Muscles Used
- Cossack Squat: What Is It? How To Do It? Benefits
- Isometric Squat: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
- 4 Reasons To Do Safety Bar Squats (Plus, How To Program It)
- Partial Squats: Benefits, Muscles Worked, Are They Safe?
- How To Pause Squat (Technique, Benefits, Muscles Worked)
The Zercher squat has several benefits, including increasing quad strength, allowing lifters to train in deeper squat positions, reinforcing postural integrity, and developing core stability.
In addition, if you are a Strongman athlete or someone who requires strength capability in front-loaded positions, the Zercher squat can help transfer specific strength to those real-world activities.
The Zercher squat is similar to the front squat, and can be used as a squat variation or replacement for this exercise.