All About The Zercher Squat, Lifts, and Carries

So you want to know what a Zercher Squat is and why anyone would want to do them. Fair Enough.

Here’s what you need to know about Zercher Squats.

If not evident by the name, it’s a squat variation.

Named after Ed Zercher, an Olympic weightlifter from back in the 1930s. For his size Zercher was strong and known for unusual feats of strength.

As the story goes, Ed didn’t have a squat rack. So, he loaded weight while the bar was on the ground. Thus he had to start his lifts from here. This caused him to bearhug the bar, and thus the Zercher position is born.

So, “Zercher” refers to the grip and location of the bar. So, you could do Zercher holds and carries. You’re not limited to squats.

To get into the Zercher position you hold the bar in the crook of your elbows.

the Zercher Position

So why bother?

There are a number of reasons Zercher squats aren’t popular.

First, we have squat racks. So we don’t have to load and lift weights from the floor. Then there are the other issues with the Zercher position.

  • It hurts.
  • It’s brutally hard.
  • It hurts.
  • You don’t know how effective it is.
  • Resting a heavy bar in the crook of your elbows isn’t pleasant.
  • It will feel awkward.

AND It hurts.

I won’t think any less of you if you use one of these.

So, why would anyone put themself through this?

What’s the point of Zercher Squats?

Good question.

But, to be honest I can’t think of any.

However, coach Christian Thibaudeau loves them. Listen to what he has to say…

Sure they promote trap development.

But shrugs, cleans, and cable lateral raises are among the best trap exercises. So, if you don’t like any of those and want your traps to grow, maybe Zercher squats and carries are for you.

The Zercher position gives some extra love to more than the traps and upper back. Your biceps, core, glutes, and those quads get more stimulation than they would in a front squat.

I should also mention that Zercher style exercises are a great alternative if you have some kind of hand, wrist, or shoulder issue that doesn’t allow you to get in into proper positions.

Even after trying different hand positions and grips.

Better Front Squats

Powerlifting legend Louie Simmons loves the Zercher Squat for better squats…

It teaches you exactly how to squat. It teaches you to push your knees apart. Push your chest up. Push your buttocks out. The whole nine yards.

The Zercher Squat also has carryover to activities of first responders, laborers, and strongman movements…

The best use of Zercher squats is as an assistance exercise for front squats.

If your weakness in the front squat is “losing” your upper back on the way up – your upper back rounds and the bar drops forward if your weakness in the squat is your mid-section

A strong upper back is necessary for front squats. Zercher squats defiantly deliver on that front.

I don’t know if its the pain, but Zercher squats help you drop lower and get in a nice squat position. This means the hamstrings and glutes have to work harder.

Be Warned

Some say the real benefit of a Zercher squat is a reduction in spine compression. But the risk low back injury increase.

So, is the Zercher Squat dangerous?

Like any exercise, there is an element of risk. Because of the position of the bar, the weight tends to pull you forward. When this happens the low back wants to round. And that’s not something we want under load.

If you maintain proper technique it’s perfectly fine. Therefore, I recommend your keep your relative intensity at 85% and below. Or an RPE of less than 9.

How to Zercher Squat

Megsquats has a great in-depth video on the Zercher Squat

  • Set squat rack just above waist level.
  • Protect your arms. Wrap the bar with a towel, bad or sweater.
  • With your arms slightly wider than shoulder width squat down and grab the bar in crook of your elbows.
  • Either clasp your has together or cross your arms and hold the bar tightly to your chest.
    • Another hand option is to make two thigh upward curled fists. Either method you choose, keep the bar close to your body.
  • Stand up and step back.
  • Just like with any squat variation, place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your chest up, tighten your core and squat.
  • Control your decent. You don’t want your elbows smashing into your knees.
  • Repeat for programed reps.

NoteYour upper back may round slightly. But, your mid back, all the way down to your low back, maintains neutrality.

Common Mistakes

  • Rounded Back – The biggest mistake is allowing the low back to round. Avoid this at all costs.
  • Narrow Stance – Knees and feet need to be wider than the hips to allow your elbows to go between your thighs.
  • Sitting Back – To keep your center of gravity your knees have to come more forward. Sitting back like powerlifters do in a low bar squat is a big mistake.
  • Quick Hips – It’s not uncommon in any squat variation to see the hips rise first and let the chest dip forward. Big no, no. Stay tall and drive your feet through the floor.

Note: Keep the weight centered over the mid-part of the foot. But this will happen if you keep an upright torso and the bar close to your ribs.

Muscles Used

You name it. The Zercher Squat works it. Form your toes to your traps this killer hits every muscle except for triceps and chest..

  • Quadriceps
  • Upper Back
    • traps
    • lats
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Abdominals
  • Biceps

Primary Muscle Groups

Like any squat variation, the primary movers in the Zercher Squat are the the quadriceps and the glutes. While the quadriceps muscle group is comprised of 4 individual muscles and all contribute, the rectus femoris is the most significant contributor.

The glutes fall into the same bucket as the quads. The gluteus maximus is the largest and gets the most attention of the three glute muscles.

How to Add Zerchers to Your Workout Program

So, you know how to Zercher Squat… aren’t deterred by the warnings of discomfort, and still want to give this beast of an exercise a go. Well, here are a few ways to incorporate Zerchers into your workout.

Start light and easy.

Before you load the bar up and jump into Zercher Squats, considering using them to warm-up for your back or front squat session.

Another option is drop it in anywhere you have a single leg exercise. I like Zercher split squats first. The load is light meaning less pain or discomfort. If any at all. And they’re easy to balance.

Nothing needs to change with respect to sets and reps. It’s business as usual.

Once you’re comfortable with the lift it’s time to take advantage of it’s variations and use it on a regular basis.

They work best as an assistance exercise.

Because you can’t handle the load of a traditional squat, Zercher squats work best after you’ve finished your major exercise on leg day. Then move on to Zercher squats for more volume. Sets of 8 – 15 reps are awesome. Play with tempo. Descend under control, add a pause at the bottom, or incorporate both.

If taking the tempo or pause route, cut the reps. Sets of 4- 8 is plenty. This approach helps strengthen your core and back.

If you’re doing them on a full body day they can act as your major leg exercise for the day. In this case the reps will fall in the 6 – 12 rep range. And again, I’d probably go with a single leg exercise.

You can finish off your workout with a superset that includes Zercher Carries for 20-30 meters for 4-5 sets. Don’t have any room? March in place for 30-45 seconds. Carries help improve your work capacity, cardio and core strength.

Pair your carries with something like curls, crunches or push downs to bring up lagging body parts.

⇡Click image above for free ab workout.⇡

If you want to increase fat loss and increase your conditioning pair your carries with a KB clean & press, KB swings, jump rope, or the dumbbell squat to press.

Different Zercher Lifts

So you’re a gluten for punishment and can’t get enough of this lift. Well you’re in luck. there are plenty of other exercises you can utilize the Zercher position.

  • Target your low back and hamstrings with Zercher Good Morning.
  • Walk with it in the the Zercher Carry.
  • Just hang out with your friends with the Zercher Hold.
  • Take the hold to the new level for buns of steel with the Zercher March.
  • Lunge. Forward, reverse, or the best, Walking Zercher Lunge.
  • Two variations of the Zercher Split Squat. Front foot elevated and rear foot elevated.
  • Just say not to the Zercher Deadlift.

The Zercher Carry

If I had to do one Zercher exercise, the carry is my top choice.

Watch this clip as John Meadows does Zercher Carries.

The Zercher Carry Glute March is another variation worth trying. The two key differences between the Zercher Carry and Zercher Glute March:

  1. The march is done in place. With the Zercher Carry you across the gym or parking lot.
  2. With the Zercher March you have resistance attached at your hip. Think about a belt squat or use a thick resistance band.

Zercher Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

Zercher Goodmorning

Not Ready

So, you want to give the Zercher position a gap but don’t feel ready?

Try these alternatives. They’ll get you comfortable and ready to tackle any lift in the Zercher position.

  • Goblet Squat/Lunge
  • Front Squat/Lunge
  • KB Rack Position Lunge/Squat

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