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Long before Dan John invented the Goblet squat, there was another anterior-loaded squat being performed called the Zercher squat. Zercher squats were the brainchild of 1930s St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher, who according to training lore, didn’t have a squat rack where he trained.
Instead, he deadlifted the barbell from the floor and somehow wedged the barbell into the crooks of his elbows. From there, the Zercher squat was born.
Sounds painful, eh? But if you’re looking to build your quads, spice up your squats, and build some mental toughness, then consider the Zercher squat. This masochistic exercise covers a lot of bases and deserves a place in your training. Here we will explain what the Zercher squat is, how to do it, muscles trained, programming suggestions and a couple of must-do variations.
This movement differs from standard barbell squats because it’s held in the crooks of your elbows instead of on the front or back of your shoulders. This front-loaded position challenges your upper back, core, arms, and legs while dealing with holding the barbell in your elbows. This alone helps build some serious mental toughness.
This doesn’t change the squat pattern drastically, but it does encourage you into a more upright torso and a slightly wider stance to open your hips. This helps you get into a deeper squat. The Zercher squat is a lower-back saver for many lifters because there’s no direct load on the spine like with back squats.
Let’s start by saying this squat isn’t for the weak. Holding a loaded barbell between your elbows is seriously uncomfortable. But if you can stand it, this will build some serious mental and physical toughness in your training. Zercher squats allows for greater load than its cousin the goblet squat (but less than the front squat) for added strength.
This exercise builds serious upper-back strength as this is needed to keep the barbell in place and maintain an upright posture. Because of the upright torso and greater range of motion, it hits the quads harder. If there is no sissy or belt squat machine available, the Zercher squat is a great alternative.
Plus, Zercher squats train the biceps isometrically and not many squat variations do that.
Zercher squats target the lower body, particularly the quads. But holding the barbell in your elbows recruits upper body muscles too. Here are the muscles trained by the Zercher squat.
With all the uncomfortableness of Zercher squats, there’s got to be some reasons to do them and here they are.
If you’re new to performing the Zercher squat, here are a few things to watch out for so you can get all the benefits mentioned above.
Use Zercher squats as a replacement for your regular squats, performing these near the beginning of your training when you have the most energy. This is a full-body move that’s physically taxing and doing them when you’re tired is not ideal.
If you’re new to this move, start with 70% of your usual front squat weight to build core, upper-back strength, biceps strength, and better technique before adding serious load. Here are guidelines to building both strength and muscle with the Zercher squat.
There are two options here, either more sets, less reps or less sets and more reps. Because muscle is built in almost all rep ranges, it pays to vary your set and rep ranges. Do either three to five sets of 5 to 8 reps or two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
After you develop better technique with the Zercher squat, then it’s time to build some serious strength and toughness. Performing three to six sets in the 3- to 6-rep range works well.
Why let all the fun stop at the Zercher squat? This front-loaded position has carryover to other lower-body variations and other high-intensity training methods.
Here are a few variations to test yourself and few alternatives if this squat isn’t your cup of tea.
Zercher Split Squat
Split squats are already hard so why not raise the difficulty even more with this Zercher variation? By training one leg at a time, you’ll improve strength imbalances between sides and core stability and balance. This is a great accessory move to do after your heavy squats and deadlifts to shore up any weak points if they exist.
Tempo Zercher Squat
Slowing down the Zercher squat by lifting with tempo will increase the time your muscles are under tension. This increases your strength and muscle gains while recognizing weak points that don’t show up when lifting with speed. By slowing down you’ll increase the intensity with less load, which is a great way to ingrain good technique with the Zercher squat.
The Zercher position lends itself well to the carry family. This can be performed instead of your regular carry variation to build serious upper body strength, better posture, and to improve your conditioning. Adding this at the start or end of your squats will test your toughness.
Double kettlebell front squat
The double-rack kettlebell front squat feels like you’re being strangled because of the core and upper back strength needed to stay upright. This position fires up your anterior core, upper back, like the Zercher squat but without the uncomfortableness of wedging a barbell in your elbows.
If the Zercher squat really isn’t for you, you’ve got the king of all quad exercises, the front squat to go back to. The front squats have similar benefits and train the same muscles as the Zercher squat. But the greatest advantage of the front squat is the ability to add more load than the Zercher squat.