Legs

5 Benefits Of Zercher Squats For Lower Body Muscle Growth

benefits of zercher squats

The traditional barbell back squat is without doubt the most popular of the squat variations.  

Other different variations of squat include the front squat, the goblet squat and the more challenging Zercher squat.  


Recommended Reading – 6 Clear Front Squat Vs Back Squat Benefits


In this article we’re going to look at the benefits of zercher squats to find out if it’s worth doing along with a step-by-step guide on how to get it right first time.  

What Is The Zercher Squat?

The Zercher squat is a squat variation that requires you to hold the barbell at the front of the body and in the crooks of the elbows.  

This puts the weight load closer to the midline of your body and mimics the action of picking something up and lifting it.  

It was invented by the late strongman, Ed Zercher.  

Research indicates that Ed developed this squat variation due to having no access to a squat rack at the time.  

As of today, the Zercher squat is one of the official lifts of the USAWA.  

In its traditional form, the Zercher position would be achieved by deadlifting the bar to the thighs and then scooping it under the arms so that it rests in the crook of your elbows.  

The primary muscle groups activated when performing the Zercher squat are the quads and glutes with secondary muscles being the hamstrings, adductors, abductors, and calves.  

Your erector spinae will also engage helping you to maintain an upright position when squatting.  

What Are The Benefits Of Zercher Squats?

When compared to regular squats, there are several benefits of the Zercher squat as listed below:

Less Stress On The Lower Back

As the weight load is in front of your body and closer to your center of gravity, Zercher squats can be easier on your lower back when compared to traditional back squats.  

This can make them a good choice if you want to keep any heavy loads off of your lower back.  

Better Squat Technique

When performing traditional squats, it’s not uncommon to round your lower back, especially if you’re new to squatting and still learning proper form.

 However, this can result in injury.  

The squat position of the Zercher effectively forces you to adopt a more upright posture when squatting.  

This is better for spinal alignment minimizing the chance of lower back injuries.  

Improved Core Strength

The Zercher squat can be a great way of increasing the strength of your core muscles.  

When the barbell is positioned at the front, your core has to work hard to stabilize you so that you can perform the movement with correct form.  

​Better Quad Engagement

In Zercher squats, the front position of the barbell reduces activation of your hips and glutes whilst placing a greater emphasis on your quads.  

There’s also a high degree of knee flexion when compared to other squat forms.  

As you bend your knees more deeply, the quadriceps are required to work harder to extend the knee joint and lift the weight.

Increased Mid Back Development

When performing the Zercher squat, your shoulders blades won’t be pinned back (retracted) in the same way as a back squat.  

Instead, they’ll be slightly rounded forwards.  

This helps to increase mid back strength which is good for real world activities that involve lifting and carrying.  

When you improve the strength to your mid back, this can help to alleviate neck and shoulder pain whilst improving your posture and overall upper body strength.    

What Are The Drawbacks Of The Zercher Squat?

Now we know the benefits of the Zercher squat, let’s consider some of the cons.  

It Can Be Uncomfortable

Many people report discomfort or pain when performing the Zercher squat.  

This is because a loaded barbell rests in the crease of your elbows.  

It’s suggested that this pain can be countered by using some form of padding, such as a towel, between the bar and elbow joint or using an axle bar which has a larger diameter when compared to a standard Olympic barbell.  

​You Can’t Squat As Much

Compared to back squats and other squat variations, Zercher squats may not allow you to lift as heavy of a weight.

The awkwardness of the barbell placement can limit your ability to handle maximal loads.  

This can have an impact on strength and muscle gains, especially if you exclusively perform the Zercher.  

It Can Affect Breathing Patterns

When you perform a heavy weight back squat, it’s normal to take a deep breath in before descending.  

This creates pressure in your abdomen helping to stabilize you throughout the squat.  

However, it’s difficult to do this when performing the Zercher squat (and the traditional front squat).  

That’s because the barbell is pressing up against your chest and therefore preventing full expansion of your ribcage.  

It Can Put Stress On Your Elbow Joints

As the bar rests in the crooks of your elbows, this can put a lot of stress on the joints.  

So, if you have pre-existing elbow problems, the Zercher squat is probably best avoided.  

How To Do The Zercher Squat

We’ll go over the two different ways of performing the Zercher squat so you can decide which form is better for you.  

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Zercher Squat From The Floor

  1. Start with the loaded barbell on the ground and get into position as though performing a deadlift. 
  2. Your feet shoulder be under the barbell and shoulder-width apart.  
  3. Deadlift the bar to your thighs.  With the bar resting on the tops of your legs, hook your arms underneath allowing it rest in the crook of the elbows.  
  4. Push through your heels until you’re standing upright.  This is the starting position.  
  5. Engage your core muscles and push back your glutes so that your bend the knees and descend into the squat position. 
  6. Squat down until the bar touches your thighs.  
  7. From the bottom position, push your heels and power back up to the top.  

Zercher Squat From A Squat Rack

  1. ​Rack a barbell so it’s around mid-thigh height.  
  2. Keeping your knees close to the bar, squat down and scoop your arms under the bar so it sits on your elbow joints.  
  3. Pull your head and chest upright, your upper back should be slightly rounding forwards. 
  4. Push through your heels and ascend to a standing position. 
  5. Push your hips and glutes back, bending your knees squatting down until the bar reaches the top of your legs. Keep your head and chest up throughout. 

FAQ’s

Is The Zercher Squat Good For Beginners?

The Zercher squat is considered a challenging squat variation which may make it unsuitable for beginners.  

Squatting with a loaded barbell requires good biomechanics and excellent form to maximise the benefits of prevent injury.  

If you’re completely new to squatting, practice with bodyweight squats and then move on to goblet squats.  

The goblet squats requires you to hold a kettlebell, or similar, close into your chest making it very similar to the Zercher squat.  

This is a good way of adding resistance without the elbow joint stress.  

As your mid back becomes stronger and your squat technique is on point, then look at incorporating Zercher squats into your routine.  

Is The Zercher Squat Better Than The Back Squat?

The Zercher squat should not be considered better or worse than the back squat.  

It’s a very different exercise and depending on your goals and abilities will impact as to whether or not the Zercher squat is suited to you.  

For example, if you want to place minimal load on your lower back and work more of your quads, then the Zercher squat would be better.  

However, if maximum strength and muscle gains is your aim, then the back squat would be more beneficial as you’ll likely be able to lift much more weight when compared to the Zercher squat.  

Are Zerchers Bad For The Elbows

As long as you perform the Zercher squat with correct form and don’t overload your elbows with excessive weight, then the Zercher squat should not be bad for your elbows.  

As mentioned above, you can look to add some form of padding to limit any pressure or use an Axel bar in place of a regular barbell.  

​Final Thoughts

Even though the Zercher is a lesser-known type of squat, it’s a very functional exercise as it better emulates actions you may encounter day to day, such as lifting up heavy groceries or even your children.  

Whilst some view the Zercher squat as more of a parlor trick than a serious exercise for their strength training, we’ve demonstrated above that it certainly has it’s benefits.  

Remember though, than in order to develop a well rounded physique in terms of strength and muscle, keeping things varied is important. 

So be sure to make time for regular back squats as well as the Zercher squat.  

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