Zercher squats are very different from traditional back squats.
Performing squats with a loaded barbell in the crooks of your elbows brings even more muscle groups into play.
You’ve taken the squat out of the realms of just being a lower body movement.
When you have heavy loads that far forward it’s more difficult to remain in an upright position.
Not only is there greater emphasis on your quads and core muscles, but the need to keep an upright torso position is going to have the whole front of the body firing as you lower yourself into the squat.
The benefits of Zercher squats make this a must-have exercise in any training routine.
You are going to work not only your upper back and lower back but your whole posterior chain.
Your quads, core strength, and even your biceps and deltoids are going to be twisted when you do Zercher squats.
So if you want more bang for your buck when it comes to training your legs, then Zercher squats are going to give you just that.
The setup is pretty straightforward.
It can be done without a squat rack but only if you are confident to power clean the bar up into position.
If you are doing it with a squat rack then the starting position is very similar to a normal squat, only you want the barbell set up a lot lower so you can walk and take the bar in the crook of your elbows.
Now that you have the bar in a Zercher hold step your feet out to just outside shoulder width.
Because of the placement of the bar, you will want to have your feet a little wider than normal to allow for your elbows at the bottom position of the squat.
Now, you’re going to have no choice but to keep your core braced and ready, with heavy weights in front of your body like that, it’s going to try to pull you forward.
Take your time and build slowly into any new movement.
Why Is It Called Zercher?
Zercher squats are a squat variation you don’t see as often as traditional squats.
Getting their name from St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher, legend has it, Ed came up with the movement after he stripped his gym right back to the basics.
With no squat bar in his gym, he was forced to get creative.
And after setting up the barbell in the crook of the elbow, the Zercher squat was born.
Now I honestly can’t tell you how many functional movements have come from strongman competitors but with the way in which they train I have a feel strongman may have had quite a big impact on the way we exercise now.
Are Zercher Squats Better Than Regular Squats?
If strengthening your legs is what you are chasing then you can’t look past a back squat.
You can squat with a much heavier load when you train back squats.
But then overhead squats are a great exercise for improving mobility.
But if we are looking at the number of muscles worked then Zercher squats are best. So it’s going to come down to your goals.
For me I like to get as much as I can out of exercise, I’m a bit greedy like that.
I don’t have a barbell though, I mostly train my legs with bodyweight movements like pistol squats and I use kettlebells.
I will often do front squats and goblet squats with kettlebells.
Both these exercises are very similar to a Zercher squat.
If I had a barbell in my collection of equipment then Zercher squats would be my choice for sure.
As matter of fact, as I sit here writing this article I’m thinking of how I can do Zercher squats with a resistance band.
Resistance bands are one of my favorite ways to train.
You can get a copy of my Ebook Train wherever the f*ck you want for free here. It’s all about training with resistance bands from anywhere.
So without actually trying it yet, I know you could easily stand inside a band and loop it into the crooks of the elbows to perform a Zercher squat easily at home, or anywhere you want!
Here’s a full body workout you can do at home with just one resistance band!
What Muscles Do Zercher Squat Work?
Zercher squats are going to build strength in all the same primary muscles you use in squats and more.
When done with proper form Zercher squats are a great way to hit:
Quad, glutes, hamstrings, calves, biceps, abdominals, deltoids, and your back muscles.
So a lot.
If you’re trying for all-around functional performance and improvement then compound exercises are what you should be doing more of.
When you train more muscle groups in each exercise all those little muscles are getting a great workout as well.
So instead of doing 8 different exercises on leg day, Zercher squats might just be the one leg exercise to rule them all.
These days if I were to got get a workout in at a commercial gym I wouldn’t bother going over to the leg machines.
I would probably do sets of deadlifts, Zercher squats, and a lunge variation and go home feeling pretty content with that leg session.
And you could also count that as core and almost a back session as well!
I have a few clients that a wanting to build bigger legs, and for that reason, I need to back-loaded squats with them.
Overall strength improvements aren’t their goal, size is.
So we mostly do front-loaded squats. Some front squat or goblets, but mostly Zercher squats.
When you front-load a squat you give your quads so much more work to do.
And all that extra work is what’s going to help you build big tree truck legs!
Here’s an article I published recently on 5 Kettlebell Movements to build big legs!
Are Front Squats Harder?
With a front squat, you can go heavier.
The weight of the barbell is up higher, on your chest, so you aren’t being pulled forward as much.
Front squats are also a good move to bring into your training if you want to improve your cleans.
There’s no point do loads of back squats if you’re working on a new 1RM clean.
You need to know you can catch that weight so you need to be doing front squats.
But with a long sleeve shirt or a barbell pad, the crease of your elbow might tell you that the Zercher Squat is harder.
It is a lot of pressure to put into a space of your body that doesn’t typically get a whole lot of action so prepare yourself for a bit of pain there the first time you try them.
One thing I have noticed with front squats though is people with tight triceps and lats can have a really bad time trying to set up for them.
This is why you see people doing a front squat with their hands crossed over the bar.
They are too tight to get their elbows up high and in front of them, where they are supposed to be.
So another one of the benefits of the Zercher squat, you don’t need to have the mobility that you need for other front-loaded variations.
If mobility is an issue read this article on the difference between passive and active stretching.
So next time you’re in the weight room why not give Zercher squats a try.
They are becoming one of the more popular exercises for improving not only the lower body but upper body strength also.