The Zercher Squat might be the most underutilized squat in existence, and for good reason: it's hard AF. Learn why you need to be doing them and how to incorporate them into your programming so you don't miss out on any gains!
The Zercher squat, named after St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher who competed in weightlifting events in the 1930’s, is a style of squat where the bar is held in the crook of the arms. At the time Mr. Zercher was training and competing, not only were people not using squat racks, they hardly existed. So he would deadlift the bar to his knees, hook his arms underneath, and begin squatting away in what we now know to be one of the most brutal and underrated variations of the squat known to man.
At first sight, the Zercher squat just seems like an odd and torturous lift reserved for only true masochists and the “functional training” crowd. However, upon further inspection, the Zercher squat - when performed correctly - might be one of the best squats for training the musculature of the lower body while integrating your core and keeping your squat looking like, well, a squat.
In this article, we’re going to take a close examination of all things Zercher squat from why you should be incorporating it into your training, how to perform it correctly, and how to troubleshoot some common errors.
When it comes to the exercises that you choose in the weight room, it’s important that you select movements that will allow you to drive load and move numbers in a forward direction while also choosing exercises that allow you to feel certain muscles while improving your movement quality.
You’re probably pretty familiar with this concept. You have your big main exercises often followed by accessory exercises to strengthen specific muscle groups, improve movement competency, and enhance those main lifts.
The zercher squat is one of those rare exercises that can fall into either category, but why?
When it comes to selecting exercises to drive strength and muscular adaptations you want to target the local musculature of the lower body without undue systemic stress or taxing muscles that might otherwise take away from the intended stimulus.
Your choice of exercises and how you perform those exercises can be a determining factor of how much overall work you are able to complete over time. The more total work you can do for the specific musculature that you’re trying to target, the more likely you are to experience increases in hypertrophy and your ability to produce greater amounts of force.
A limiting factor of doing the requisite volume to make further progress is that when performing certain exercises, you may be calling upon muscles that you are not intending to - causing further undue fatigue to the entire system. Your ability to tolerate stress has a ceiling, and if you can mitigate potential wear and tear while driving the muscular adaptations that you’re looking for, then you have yourself a home run.
When performing squatting activities, in order to target the musculature of the legs to their maximal potential, you need to achieve two primary objectives:
There are several factors that contribute to your ability to reach those ranges of motion. For starters, you are limited by your individual leverages. Someone with a short torso and long femurs, for example, is going to have a helluva time getting into the positions necessary to achieve a full range of motion squat, particularly with the bar placed on the bar upper back. In order to maintain their center of mass and keep the bar over their midfoot, this person will have to push their hips further back, limiting the amount of knee flexion and thus the total amount of stress placed on the musculature of the quads and instead of placing more of the stress on the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
If you are a competitive powerlifter, the back squat is a part of your sport and needs to be trained in a specific manner. However, if you are not a powerlifter and are just looking to get as strong and jacked as possible, there might be better options that will allow you to accumulate more total volume with less potential wear and tear.
The issue that arises with the back squat, is that depending on your leverages, you could be in essence just performing another deadlift. Chances are you are already hinging in your program and are squatting to get stronger and more muscular legs. The back squat may in fact just be redundant, doubling the amount of hinge volume in your program and not contributing towards the strength and muscular development of your legs to the degree that you would want it to. Add to the fact that every time you do back squat you are spreading the stress to other muscle groups and not the intended tissues, limiting the total amount of work you are able to accumulate due to excess fatigue.
Dr. Mike Israetel has pointed out that when it comes to fatigue there are 3 types we can experience: localized, or at the level of muscles we are trying to train, central or at the level of the brain, and your overall perception of the stress from that training, and axial or the stress placed on your spine and the muscles used to keep it upright. Good exercise selection comes down to selecting the appropriate variations that allow for a high degree of stimulus with a low amount of axial fatigue. The reason being that high amounts of axial fatigue will limit the total amount of work you can accomplish in a given set, training session, and mesocycle thus limiting your overall progress.
Depending on your individual leverages, certain types of squats will lend themselves to more or fewer amounts of axial fatigue depending on bar or load placement and the parameters to which you adhere to in terms of sensory-motor competency. Sensory being how a movement should feel and motor being how it should look.
When it comes to squatting for optimal efficiency for muscular development, we have a few objectives that we are trying to maintain from both perspectives.
On the sensory side, you want to be able to feel your heels and our abs without feeling your lower back.
On the motor side, you want to be able to keep your skull stacked over your pelvis and your pelvis directly under your rib cage without your skull moving forward or your pelvis moving into an anterior tilt. You should also be able to retract your rib cage or move your upper back. We’ll get more into this in just a bit when we talk about movement strategies and muscular orientation.
By including a squat variation that allows you to achieve a full range of motion while adhering to the sensory-motor guidelines and therefore accruing less total axial fatigue, you can increase the total amount of mechanical work on the intended musculature and therefore make further adaptations towards strength and hypertrophy. If you are a competitive powerlifter or just simply enjoy back squatting, you will still benefit from including other squatting variations in your training to improve movement competency and allow for more lower body training volume.
If you can give yourself more options in your training in regards to having different movement strategies, you will increase your likelihood of getting as strong and jacked as possible. Let’s explore just how you can do that and what I mean by movement strategies so that you can squat in a manner that will allow you to get the biggest possible bang for your buck.
When it comes to movement, we have two global strategies that we can use to influence joint positions and how our muscles are oriented. Put more simply, if you can select the right exercises with the right intent, you can put yourself in better positions to optimize range of motion and muscular recruitment.
These two strategies are expansion and compression. When you inhale air into your lungs you are biasing expansion and your ability to absorb force. The muscles surrounding the joints are also in an eccentric orientation. They are in a lengthened position, allowing movement to occur.
When you exhale air out you are biasing compression and your ability to produce force. The muscles surrounding the joints are in a concentric orientation. They are in a shortened position and are limiting movement from occurring.
So what does have to do with your ability to squat in a manner that is conducive to maximizing your ability to achieve a full range of motion while targeting specific tissues of the lower body? Well, if you can alter your strategy in a way that can eccentrically orient the muscles of the pelvis, you can open up movement capabilities that may not have previously existed, be able to adhere to the sensory-motor guidelines with more ease, and enhance your ability to do more total mechanical work with a high degree of stimulus and less overall axial fatigue. In other words, you get to do more of the work you need to do to make progress with fewer undesirable consequences.
So how exactly does a Zercher squat allow for these things to occur? For starters, with the Zercher squat, you are using an anterior loading placement. By having the bar placed in front of the body, you can better manage your center of mass, or have an easier time staying upright. If you were to lean too far forward, you would have to simply dump the bar, and while it’s still possible to hinge a little out of a zercher squat and use more of a compression strategy, it’s not as likely as with a back squat.
Second, because you are holding the bar in the crooks of your elbows, you have the ability to reach your elbows forward, which allows your rib cage to retract (move back) and further offsets your center of mass while integrating the abdominals. This creates a better “stacked” position that allows for optimal length-tension relationships between the pelvis and the surrounding musculature. This article from Justin Moore and Michelle Boland discusses this concept in depth.
The reason that makes the zercher squat such a great alternative or supplemental squatting exercise is that it puts you into a position to more likely to “succeed” (or achieve a “squattier” squat) than perhaps it’s posteriorly loaded counterpart. As mentioned above, due to the anterior loading of holding the bar in the crooks of your elbows, you’re instantly going to have an easier time managing your center of mass and maintaining sagittal plane competency.
However, that’s not to say that the Zercher squat can’t be screwed up, or rather, be performed in a way that does not allow for its efficacy to be fully materialized. In other words, you’re doing the Zercher squat for a specific reason with a deliberate intent and not just simply squatting up and down with a barbell in your arms.
It’s akin to Bruce Lee’s philosophy of punch not just being a punch, a kick not a kick when you first start practicing martial arts. That is until you master the movements over many years and thousands upon thousands of repetitions and then, yes, a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick.
So, let’s examine some common errors to avoid when Zercher squatting, shall we?
As mentioned earlier, the zercher squat is a rare beast in that it can be used by non barbell athletes as a main squatting movement or it can be used as a supplemental squatting movement to enhance biomechanics and all of the things discussed thus far.
We know that based upon this article where we broke down all things getting jacked, the Zercher squat is generally best trained in the 3-10 rep range, but where you place it in the training session and the outcome that you’re looking for can dictate how you adjust the different variables such as time under tension and total volume (sets and reps).
If used as the main exercise, you would likely utilize a normal or controlled eccentric followed by a powerful concentric. While reps would be in that 3-10 range, sets would vary depending on the phase of training that you’re in (accumulation vs intensification, for example) as well as the intended RPE of each set.
If used as a supplemental lift, reps would err towards the higher end, typically 6-10 with rest periods ranging from 90-180 seconds. The name of the game is volume accumulation and progressive overload throughout your training cycle. Your RPE should be a minimum of 7.5 per set, which means you’re working hard and fighting for those extra reps each week.
Special Consideration: Due to the demanding nature of the zercher squat and how it reinforces position, it’s a great candidate for a block of stato dynamic work. In this instance, you would maintain constant tension typically at a 2020 to 4040 tempo without locking out your legs for 8-10 reps. Rest periods would be ~1:1, and metabolic demand would be through the roof. This would inherently require a lighter load than what you would normally use (while being incredibly painful), so be forewarned!
So hopefully by this point, I have helped convince you that not all squatting is created equal and that your exercise selection will determine your outcomes.
No matter what you’re training for, you’re using squatting based activities to drive further structural and functional adaptations (ie get jacked and strong) while reinforcing sagittal plane competencies (keep your squat looking like a squat).
If you select the right exercise, you can minimize redundancies in your programming while getting the outcomes that you are looking for. The zercher squat might be your answer to experiencing squatting bliss without unnecessary compensations.
Kind of like having your cake and eating it too (just keep it to training days ;)).
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