A Complete Guide to The Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat is a unique squat variation that could take your leg gainz to new heights. Learn the reasons for how and why you'd use this exercise.

You think you’ve seen every squat variation on the planet – right?

Though you may have become adept with front squats, back squats, goblet squats, split squats, Cossack squats, skater squats, and maybe even pistols and overheads, there’s one variation that deserves more of your attention – especially if you’re a lifter who can especially benefit from it.

The Zercher squat is more than just a badass movement – there’s a definite utility for lifters who may be limited in their variety for various reasons.

Since there are very few articles on the web that cover this lift, I’d be glad to oblige.

What is a Zercher Squat?

The Zercher squat is simple but brutal. The bar is held in the crook of the arms, rather than on the back or front of the body. This can be a lower back saver for many lifters, due to the fact that there’s no longer an axial load causing direct spinal compression.

Related: Squat Depth - How Deep Should You Squat?

To add to this, (without research to back this up) I’ve personally found that the closer to the midpoint of the body the load is placed, the easier it is to train the glutes and hamstrings.

More importantly, however, this has also just turned an axially loaded back squat into a front-loaded squat pattern. That can allow a lifter to better groove the pattern if they tend to struggle with lurching forward too far during back squats – the same way a goblet squat can help grease the groove.

How to Perform Zercher Squats

A Zercher squat is performed by setting the bar in the squat cage at about waist level. You get in close and position the load in the crook of the arms.

Make sure you’re in the middle so that the bar is centered squarely. Even a couple of inches either way will cause it to slide. You shouldn’t keep the elbows much narrower or wider than shoulder width, and I like recommending that the lifter interlace his fingers.

The knuckles should be facing the ceiling. Step back out of the rack and stand tall, keeping the weight close to the body.

Next, the mechanics of the squat itself aren’t that different from typical squats. If you’re someone who likes to break at the knees first, it may be a good idea to try more of a hip break during Zerchers. Again, during your descent, make sure the chest stays up and the knuckles remain pointed at the roof.

I recommend a stance that may be a touch wider than your typical squat stance, just so that the elbows have space to contact the inside half of your thighs at bottom depth. Also, keep in mind that the further away you keep the bar from your body, the more stress forces this will place on the lower back (and the more abdominal activity you’ll stimulate).

Focusing on sets of under 6 reps is probably smart, as this movement is a bit more taxing than the typical squat.

Extra Zercher Squat Tips

I’d recommend foam rolling, soft tissue work, and stretching to the TFL and hip flexors preceding Zercher squats. Pointing the toes outward slightly can also help the lift achieve the desired depth, simply due to the fact that this will open up the hip flexors so they don’t block you from getting down low.

Also, the first thing anyone who’s anyone usually complains about with Zercher squats isn’t the awkward newness of the pattern itself, nor the abdominal and back stress – it’s the amount of discomfort they can feel with having a heavy bar parked in the elbows to squat with.

Related: 4 Reasons You Can't Squat to Depth

In the past, I would solve this problem by wearing a hoody, and wrapping the middle portion of the bar in a towel. But the towel would slide, and it ultimately didn’t make much of a difference when the bar started getting heavy. By 225, it still felt like hell.

For that reason, I’ve found a great new use for fat grips. They create significantly more surface area so that the force is distributed across your joint a little more reasonably. Set the grips up where your elbows belong and you’ll feel much better.

How to Add Zercher Squats to Your Workouts

I’d recommend putting this lift closer to the beginning of your workout rather than toward the end. This is a physically taxing movement, and doing them when you’re fatigued or not all there neurologically isn’t ideal.

Resting as long as needed between sets is another smart directive. Implementing them into a leg workout may look something like this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Zercher Squat 5 5
Bulgarian Split Squat 3 10 Each
Heels Elevated Goblet Squat 4 10
A1. Single Leg Press 3 10 Each
A2. Smith Machine RDL 3 15

And Don’t Forget…

The Zercher squat is its own thing, but it doesn’t mean you can’t apply the Zercher carry position to other movements to get similar benefits. Here are 3 examples:

  • Lunges/reverse lunges
  • Farmers walk
  • Good mornings
Wrap Up

Breaking out of your comfort zone might mean more than just trying new exercises that aren’t in your workout. It could be as simple as just making a quick modification in load placement to an existing and well-known exercise – which is exactly what Zercher squats do.

There are many ways to receive a new stimulus to training, which can be just what the body needs to get over a plateau or find new territory in health and wellness. If the goal is truly to be doing this for a lifetime, then we can’t think as black-and-white as “increased weight lifted = progress”.

If we’re already strong, finding ways to make exercises more challenging without adding weight should be the new initiative. And they’ll make a real lifter out of you.

In the case of Zercher squats, I can guarantee that no one with a 405 pound PR is matching that with a bar sitting in their arms to do it!