If you’re reading this then there’s a good chance you live your life in relative comfort. From the ergonomics of the chair you’re sitting in right now, to all the hidden cup holders in your car that protect from spillage—good design is everywhere, allowing us to do things in relative ease and convenience. While this isn’t necessarily a contemporary phenomenon, it’s easy to see the trend over the past few decades slowly moving towards more, better, comfort. Whether it’s in the name of efficiency or safety, our world has become more user friendly than ever before.
And obviously, this has extended into the gym. Everything from grip plates to various padding has made the gym into a more accessible place for all people to benefit from, regardless of ability or experience. Posture and ergonomics are important even when you’re sitting in an office, let alone when you’re squatting your body weight. However, at the same time there are many who would argue that there’s something to be said for the “toughness” that this hyper-user-friendly world is losing out on. The saying, “hard on the training ground, easy on the battlefield” perfectly illustrates why grit is important when it comes to tackling the toughest of life’s problems.
This is, to some level, the role of the iron temple. By pushing your body to its limits, you’re able to chisel the physique and gain the strength that you’re looking for. “But what about training toughness?”, you might be asking. Enter the Zercher squat. While this uncommon and uncomfortable squat variation isn’t necessarily a bread-and-butter lift, the benefits it’ll bestow on you will not only show in your lower body development, but also in other exercises and your functional fitness. Although it shares a lot of similarities with traditional squats, it differs when it comes to the positioning of the bar. Much like the front squat, the Zercher places the weight on the anterior. However, rather than racking the bar on the anterior delts, the Zercher squat places the barbell in the crooks of the elbows. We can thank its namesake, Ed Zercher, for this demanding lift.
Ed Zercher was one of the strongest men in America during the height of his weightlifting career in the 1930s and 40s. He was known for his no-nonsense attitude towards lifting, which was reflected in his gym. Zercher’s gym was extremely bare bones when it came to the equipment we’re used to these days, but it was also full of wrecking balls, anvils, and other machinery—resembling a junkyard more than a gym. Lifting lore states that Zercher didn’t even have a squat rack in his gym which forced him to improvise. Thus, the Zercher squat was born.
Since the 1960s the lift has been sanctioned by the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association (USAWA), although it’s not seen very often by the regular gym-goer. The rarity of this lift isn’t entirely due to its awkward positioning. Some have leveled criticisms against the Zercher based on the argument that you can’t put as much load on as with a regular back squat or even a front squat. And of course, a lighter load means that your legs aren’t getting as good of a workout. Not only is this arguable, but there are also some significant added benefits of the Zercher squat. Rest assured, after reading through the benefits of this lift, you’ll be left wondering why you haven’t been doing it already.
While the lift was created by a strongman, the Zercher squat can also benefit those who have mobility issues or are just working to perfect their squat form. Since this squat requires a lower range of mobility than a classic back squat or even a front squat, it’s perfect for people with orthopedic issues and a wide range of body types. For example, people with long legs, those with an amplified forward curve in their upper back, or those with limited mobility in their hips, shoulders, or ankles. The Zercher squat is also a boon for those who want to perfect their squat form. The exercise forces you to push your knees apart, push your chest up, and push your buttocks out—in other words, the most essential parts of any squat. Therefore, while definitely an uncommon lift for many beginner gym-goers, the Zercher has definitive benefits for those who are trying to brush up on their basics.
Since the barbell rests in the crooks of the elbows, postural strength and the upper back are stressed to a much higher degree than in other squat variations. You’ll be forced to engage your upper back to avoid rounding the shoulders forward and keep the weight closer to your body. With the higher involvement of the traps, rhomboids, and rear delts, your front squat and deadlift can also benefit. On the other hand, the Zercher squat is much easier on your lower back than traditional squats. This is because not only is the bar in front of the lifter but also because the weight is closer to the middle of the spine rather than the top of it. This leads us into one of the most important benefits: the unparalleled activation of the core.
As mentioned above, the fact that the load is towards the front forces you to work your core overtime in order to stabilize the body. In fact, this little-known lift might be one of the best exercises you can do to work your core. Since you’re forced in an upright position, your anterior stabilizers need to work extremely hard in order to keep you balanced. The Zercher even trumps the front squat in terms of core activation. In a proper front squat, the bar should be at the top and center of the base of support (your spine), and the better you are at front squats, the less energy you put in to keep the barbell balanced in that position. On the other hand, with the Zercher the weight is moved forward in relation to your base of support. This means that your core needs to strain in order to keep your body upright and avoid having your torso pulled forward and down.
Even when it comes to planks, the Zercher reigns supreme. While these may be a good way to learn how to use one’s core properly, you can’t “overload” a plank to the same effect as overloading a bar. Furthermore, a plank only works to stabilize an immobile body. If you’re working to transfer that stabilization to a movement, then it might not translate as well as you’d hoped. “What about the farmer walk?”, you might be asking. While this exercise is helpful in learning to stabilize the core during a moving action, it still doesn’t have that same degree of movement in the legs as a Zercher squat. Many people struggle with the proper use of their abs when it comes to squatting, especially when the weight gets heavy. The Zercher squat provides an avenue through which to properly practice core activation in all manner of squats.
But as we all know, the meat of the matter when it comes to squatting is whether the legs and the posterior chain are effectively activated. As we mentioned above, some argue that the Zercher prevents high-level powerlifters from properly loading their legs—however, with proper technique you should be able to match or exceed your front squat with the Zercher. As with any squat, the brunt of the work will be carried by your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. However, since you’re able to go lower in a Zercher than in a front squat due to higher degrees of knee flexion, you can expect more engagement and development in this muscle group.
Even while your glutes, hamstrings, and quads are being taken through the ringer, the Zercher will go one step further to test your smaller stabilizing muscles. With your elbows bent around waist-weight, it’s important to activate your hips and knees during the lift to make sure there’s a good range of motion and to prevent your elbows from bumping into your knees. You’ll start to feel a massive difference in your stabilizing muscles of the hips, adductors, and abductor groups.
And last, but certainly not least, the Zercher squat is uncomfortable. Much like the front squat, the Zercher is a movement which prevents you from fully expanding the ribcage. As a result, it becomes more difficult to pull in a breath of air. At higher reps, this can become extremely difficult to keep up metabolically. However, this can be a benefit for those who are training for sports such as wrestling, boxing, and MMA.
But more than restricting airflow, the Zercher is uncomfortable with the positioning of the barbell. It’s recommended to wrap some padding around the bar or wear knee pads around your elbows, at least as you’re beginning. And once you start going through the movements, you’ll feel the lift punishing your core, leg muscles, and back. This grueling squat is a sure-fire way to test your grit—and push it beyond its limits. If you’re not convinced yet just know that Louie Simmons, the godfather of powerlifting and owner of one of powerlifting’s most exclusive clubs, is a big proponent of the Zercher when it comes to training his lifters.
Before you dive into the Zercher squat there are a few things to keep in mind. While the lift is uncomfortable, it should never be painful. If it is painful, then it’s probably a good idea to stop the movement and find out why. Also, it’s recommended to use a towel or some kind of padding when you do the lift since there’s a significant amount of discomfort working on your inner elbows.
Step 1: The movement can either be begun from the ground or a barbell in a squat rack positioned at about waist-height. If you’re going to be squatting from the ground, then you’ll need to begin the movement by deadlifting the bar to a point a little above the knee. When you’re doing this movement it’s important to focus on activating the lower quads rather than the kneecaps. Once the bar is above the knee, it’s time to slowly squat down and balance the bar on your thighs. Sliding your arms under the bar, make sure that it ends up resting in the crooks of your elbows. If you’re using a squat rack, then you can simply squat down and position the bar in the inner elbow.
Step 2: Your elbows should be about shoulder-width apart, knuckles facing the ceiling, and your palms facing in towards yourself, like a bicep curl. It’s advised to clasp one of your fists with the opposite hand in order to prevent the barbell from rolling out of your forearms. However, it’s not recommended to interlock your fingers for safety reasons.
Step 3: Keeping the bar tight against your body, position your feet at a stance slightly wider than your shoulders with your toes angled out 20 to 30 degrees. This will differ from lifter to lifter.
Step 4: As you descend, actively try to keep the bar as close to the center of your body as possible. Make sure to not let your elbows fall away from you, and keep them inside of your knees.
Step 5: At the bottom position your elbows should be in contact with your thighs, going as low as you can—at least parallel. Make sure your knuckles are still pointing at the ceiling.
Step 6: To stand, drive up by activating the glutes and pressing through your heels. Keep in mind to push your knees outwards as you’re driving upwards.
It’s important to remember that your hips shouldn’t rise faster than the shoulders. Lastly, keeping the toes pointed outwards when performing the lift will open up the hip flexors and stop them from cutting into the hamstring's range of motion.
Setting goals is the first step to success, so it’s important to know what you’re working towards and properly manage your efforts so you can get there faster. Just like everything else, the Zercher squat can work for you if you give it a chance and properly program it into your routine.
If you’re using the Zercher to develop your postural integrity when it comes to front or back squatting, it’s important to keep the loads light to moderate. With 3 to 4 sets of around 10 reps, it will allow you to focus on the integrity of the movement.
The lift is also a monster in terms of strength training for powerlifting. It’s recommended to do 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps with heavy a load. On the other hand, if you’re looking for size, the muscle hypertrophy route is the way for you. 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps with moderate to heavy loading, keeping rest periods between 40 and 75 seconds, will help you in looking absolutely jacked in no time.
What’s another way to truly test your grit? How about making the Zercher squat even more difficult. If you’re looking for that extra challenge, or just looking to flex next time you’re in the gym (provided you know what you’re doing), feel free to try some variations of the lift. For example, the Bulgarian split squat has you squatting with one leg elevated on a bench behind you. Add in the Zercher hold of the bar, and you have a recipe for even more activated stabilizers, a tighter core, and bigger quads.
Or you can add chains into the mix with the Zercher box squat with chains. Since the amount of chain off the floor lengthens as you come to an upright position, the resistance also gets higher and higher. This type of lift helps you develop a better lockout strength at the top of the squat. Adding the Zercher hold into the mix will guarantee that the tension in the quads will be constant through the entire lift.
While the gym is all about the physical body in a very literal sense, most gym-goers will tell you that their mental health also sees an improvement from working out. Increasingly loading more stress and tension on the body until it gets stronger is a test of toughness. It takes discipline and moxie to reach your lifting goals, and the mind is just as important of an aspect to consider.
The Zercher squat, if done properly and routinely, will be a test of not only your physical grit but also your mental. And while the benefits of this training will become obvious in the gym, they’ll extend much further than that. Paired with proper nutrition and rest, the Zercher will give you an edge on the competition and power you through to your goals. We all know that life isn’t always very comfortable, and sometimes we feel unprepared. During these times it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve gotten, the training we’ve completed, and the trials we’ve endured. And hopefully, that will remind us of our fortitude.