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October 30, 2021
Experienced lifters are always looking to add variety to their routines and try new things to overload their muscles and improve their strength. This is the kind of attitude that you can bring to your own workouts by adding unique squatting techniques like the Zercher Squat.
There are a surprising number of ways to do squats and all of the various squatting variations stress the muscles differently. You can still use traditional back squats for the bulk of your squatting practice, but consider adding some unique squatting variations like the Zercher to your routine for improved growth, strength, and balance.
Zercher squats are a huge divergence from the usual squatting technique and it brings with it increased focus on the quads, core, upper back, and arms. It of course is also effective for your glutes, which can actually be a problem area even for people who are strong enough to move around a lot of weight when they are squatting.
A Zercher squat is a regular squat but with a different load positioning. Rather than having the bar on your back, you hold it in the crease of your elbows at about lower chest-upper ab height with your arms flexed. It is essentially a variation of the front squat, which means it works your muscles in similar ways. Nevertheless, it has some important differences that we will discuss.
First, let’s go over how to do a Zercher Squat correctly.
You will need to start out small with Zercher squats to be sure that you have the technique down right. There is a different balance to squatting this way and some people are surprised by how much time it takes for the body to adjust to this new way of squatting. It's also quite difficult to hold the bar in this position.
To do the Zercher Squat:
1. Scoop the bar with your arms while it is on the rack. Make sure that the bar is placed securely in the bend of your elbows. You want your elbows to be tight to your sides with your arms crossed over the front of the bar. Make sure your elbows are body-width apart. The bar should be held close to your sternum. You can clasp your hands together or leave them apart.
2. Lift up to take the bar off the rack, then step two steps back. Ensure your core is tight, scapular is retracted, and chest is up. Also, make sure your arms are flexed strongly so the bar will remain secure.
3. From the standing position, squat down as low as you can with your hips directly beneath you. Your torso should remain upright. You will want to be sure that your elbows are not hitting your knees or thighs at the bottom. Keep them up. If your elbows are contacting your knees or your thighs, you are leaning forward or going too low into the squat.
4. Once you have reached the full depths of your squat, push hard through the heels of your feet and stand back up. Keep your back straight and your core tight as you do this. Think of pulling your chest upward as you stand back up.
Make sure that you are very aware of your positioning when you first start doing this exercise. You can look at yourself in a mirror if you are not sure if you are doing the movement properly. Be aware of back pain or knee pain. You should start light and work your way up in weight so that you develop good form. It can be very easy to become unstable in this movement early on before you have gotten used to the exercise.
This is not the easiest movement to get used to but it is really straightforward once you have it down. These form tips and tricks will help you to be sure that you are going to get the maximum benefit from Zercher Squats being added to your routine.
Move slowly. Think about resisting the weight of the bar as you lower yourself down in the squat. If you are falling to the bottom of the range of motion of your legs, you can actually damage your hip flexors and hurt your lower back. Each part of the movement should be controlled and steady.
Make sure that you position your hands and your elbows properly so that you are not straining your arms or back. You want to feel like the bar is comfortably locked into your chest and that you can keep it there with your torso upright. If you are struggling to keep the bar level and tight to your body, you might have too much weight on the bar.
The tension of this squat should be felt in the quads, the arms, and your core. If you are not feeling the activity in all of these muscle groups, you are probably not doing the exercise in the proper form.
Keep your core tight. Don’t let your chest tilt down at the bottom of the squat and be sure not to throw yourself backward as you stand up. You want to be lifted straight up and down as you are doing the Zercher squat.
Don’t raise at your hips too fast when coming up from the squat. Drive force from the heels, performing knee flexion first and then hip flexion. There is no need to bounce up from the squat.
Clasp your hands together if you need to have some more stability when you are setting up to take the bar off the rack. This can prevent issues with the bar slipping or tilting as you take the weight onto your arms. Also, keep your arms flexed very tightly. Think about it like you are showing off your biceps by flexing them. Finally, make sure your lats are packed down as this will help with keeping your core, arms and back solid and tight.
TLDR - FORM:
You can also use a Smith Machine to do Zercher Squats!
The Smith machine will allow you to place less focus on your core/upper body and more on the quads. It's a good way to practice the movement before moving up to a free barbell.
Here are some of the main benefits of the Zercher squat.
#1 - Builds Muscle
The Zercher squat allows for a wide range of motion, maximizing stretching and contraction tension. This is essential for building muscle. A large range of motion with lighter weight will always trump a short range of motion with heavier weight when it comes to hypertrophy.
#2 - Build Strength
The Zercher squat will build strength in your legs through isotonic contraction and serious upper body strength through isometric contraction. Together, this is going to boost your overall strength. People who do Zercher squats regularly will see big improvements in back squats, front squats, and deadlifts.
#3 - Increased Quad Strength & Size
Although this is a compound exercise, the Zercher squat hits the quads in an almost isolation manner, similar to the front squat and hack squat. While the back squat is great for overall leg development, as you get to be more advanced, you will need more specificity to overload certain muscles. In the case of the quads, that specificity comes in the form of exercises like the Zercher squat, which do a great job of overloading this specific muscle and upping the total volume needed for it to adapt and grow.
#4 - Increased Core Strength and Stability
Due to the way that you have to hold the bar, you will get a ton of core activation. Out of all the squat variations, the Zercher squat is the hardest on the core, which means if you want to build core strength and stability (and who doesn't), it's great.
#5 - Allows for a Deeper Squat
Due to the mechanics of the movement, you can get really deep into a Zercher squat, safely, without putting stress on your lower back. Training deeper is always great for the strength and hypertrophy gain department.
Like a front squat, the Zercher squat allows you to sit almost directly straight down rather than shooting your hips back as you squat down. This means there is more range of motion at the knees, or in other words, the movement activates the quads to a higher degree. Whereas with a traditional back squat the activation is more evenly spread across the quads, glutes and hamstrings (especially a low bar back squat).
Nevertheless, there is still hip flexion and extension occurring, of course, so the hamstrings are activated. And, the glutes are still stretching and contracting fully (if you squat deep), so the glutes are highly activated too.
However, if you want to clearly define the primary muscle targeted, then it is the quadriceps. The Zercher squat, like the front squat, is a quadricep-dominant movement. It is meant to hone in on the quads, making it a good squat variation to do in addition to the more well-rounded and powerful traditional barbell back squat which allows for heavier loads.
The reason the quads are the main target with the Zercher squat is because the load positioning places the most tension on the anterior side (the quads) and the knees will be moving through the greatest range of motion. With a Zercher squat, you can get real deep, while keeping your knees in line with your toes, which allows your quads to get complete stretching and contraction tension...
The calves act as a stabilizer muscle, but the muscle is also activated in an isotonic manner (lengthening and contracting) through ankle dorsiflexion.
The biceps are working as a stabilizer to keep the bar in place. As you probably know, the biceps main action is elbow flexion, so with the Zercher squat, your biceps are working isometrically to hold the position of the load (the barbell). The heavier you go, the harder that is to maintain that flexed arm position.
The abs and back are working as a stabilizer to maintain spinal stability and to keep your torso upright. This is true with any barbell squat, but it is particularly difficult with a Zercher squat due to the barbell’s positioning. With a Zercher squat, your torso should be almost completely upright, which is made possible due to the load positioning, but still it requires a strong core and back, especially as you start to use heavier loads. Like any squat, your abs and erector spinae are working hard to maintain spinal stability and avoid torso flexion. And your scapula stabilizer muscles (rhomboids and traps) are fighting to keep your chest up and posture upright too, by pulling your shoulder blades back and in. Overall, the Zercher squat really requires a strong back and core to do with good form and any considerable load, and if you do the Zercher squat regularly, as you progress, you can expect to build a stronger back and core.
All in all, the Zercher squat is a big compound movement that works many muscles through isotonic and isometric contraction, yet also does a fantastic job of honing in on the quads in an almost isolation manner.
We will now list the muscles, bolding the ones that are activated to the highest degree:
Now, let’s look at the anatomy and function of the quads a little closer, as the quads are the primary focus and reason to do Zercher squats, with the core and back being the added bonus. Understanding the muscle group will help you to best hone in on it.
Your quadriceps femoris (aka quads) are made up of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
All four muscles insert into the patella via the quadricep tendon.
Rectus Femoris: The rectus femoris is located at the middle of the anterior thigh. It crosses over the hip and knee joint, running perfectly straight down the leg. It's main responsibility is to flex the thigh at the hip joint and extend the leg at the knee. The rectus femoris is the only quadricep muscle to act on two joints.
Vastus Lateralis: The vastus lateralis is the largest and most powerful quadricep muscle. It originates at the femur (upper leg bone) and swoops down the outer side of the anterior thigh into the patella. It's main function is knee extension and stabilization.
Related: Top 12 Vastus Lateralis Exercises
Vastus Medialis: The vastus medialis runs the entire length of the femur on the inner side. It is also known as the tear drop muscle, as it forms a tear drop shape just above the knee on the inside of the thigh. Its main responsibility is to help extend the knee and aid in tracking the patella.
Related: Top 15 Vastus Medialis Exercises
Vastus Intermedius: The vastus intermedius lies underneath the rectus femoris on the upper two-thirds of the anterior thigh. It is the deepest muscle that comprises the quadriceps and hardest to stretch. Like all the other vastus muscles, it originates on the femur and inserts into the patella. With that, it's main job is knee extension.
All in all, the muscles that comprise the front of your thigh (your quads) are the muscles that allow you to run, climb, and lift your legs in the air when you jump. These muscles are critical to your ability to perform actions that require explosive power like squatting or jumping. You need to be sure that you develop the muscles on the front of your thighs enough that you can support healthy workouts, both with and without weight.
Even runners, gymnasts, and cyclists need to work on developing these muscles for optimal fitness and reduced injury. There is nothing that is better for your core and your balance than to have strong thigh muscles on your side. Zercher squats, among the other squat variations, are a great way to make sure that your legs are strong enough to hold up to the demands that you are placing on them when you are working out or engaging in your favorite activities.
Note: Always remember that you need to also do exercises that work the back of the thighs (hamstrings) as well for balance. If you only work the fronts of your thighs, you can open yourself up to injuries related to weak hamstrings that cannot support your body’s needs. Strong quads need strong hamstrings for support, and vice versa.
Out of all the muscles in your body, the quads are one of the muscle groups with the greatest growth potential.
The two largest muscles of the quads (the vatus lateralis and the rectus femoris) are both predominantly fast twitch muscles (approximately 70% fast twitch muscle fibers).
Fast twitch muscle fibers have 25-75% more growth potential than slow twitch muscle fibers.
As for strength, fast twitch muscle fibers generate far more power and strength than slow twitch muscle fibers, which are made for endurance.
So, you can understand why the quads can grow and get stronger extremely well if you train them hard.
If you work hard, most people's quads can see insane gains.
You should remember that the size of your muscles can be genetic to a certain extent. Some people have a limit to how much mass they can put on when working to develop their muscles. You might not be blessed with naturally large thigh muscles and you can improve them through working out properly, but you may not get the size that you were wanting at the end of the day. Making sure to use any squatting technique properly will ensure that you will get the maximum results for your efforts, even if they do not meet your ideal goals in some cases.
If you want to work on developing your quadricep muscles correctly and efficiently, you need to remember that you have to balance rest periods with working out and also maintain the right diet and training regimen. The key factors to growing muscles properly and quickly are:
When it comes to intensity, you need to work through various rep ranges with different loads. You should be training your quads in 3-8 rep ranges with heavy loads, 8-12 with moderate-heavy loads, and 12-15+ reps with moderate-light loads. As the quads are predominantly fast twitch muscles, make the majority of your weekly volume on the heavy to moderately heavy side.
As for volume, it depends on your fitness level. You may find that 6-10 sets per week is enough as a beginner, but as you get more advanced, you may need to increase it to 10-15+ sets. These can be split into different workout sessions. Your quads can handle quite a bit of work, but you should avoid overdoing (i.e. 20+ sets a week is too much).
Doing just one or two exercises will not help your body to develop size and you will also limit your ability to guide your fitness to balance out your body. You should always look at the process of training these muscle groups as essential to your overall fitness but you cannot make them the sole focus of your workout efforts. Making all of your workouts focused on the legs and the upper back will only lead to injury and frustration.
Making sure that you are using many different exercises to train these muscle groups can also help with improved results and you will find that well-rounded training can develop them far more quickly than just doing the same few exercises over and over each time you work out. These are large muscle groups that take time to grow but you can get big results from them if you take the time to train them properly.
You will also see better results when trying to grow these muscle groups if you are supporting your efforts with a proper diet. Correct eating can help you greatly in your fitness goals and you will find that diet is just as important to your muscle growth goals as any exercise that you decide to do.
This is a really great exercise to work into your fitness program, even if you are a runner or a cyclist and are not interested in developing large muscles or improving how much weight you can move around while you are working out. You will get a lot of benefits from this exercise that are not available with other squats and lifts and you will love that this is a compound exercise that gets a lot done for your needs.
You will want to consider adding this movement to your routine no more than two times a week due to the compound nature of the move and how taxing it can be for your knees and core. You will get a lot of really great results out of this lift without having to do it all the time when you hit the gym.
Generally speaking, we suggest adding the Zercher squat to your routine once a week and doing 3-5 sets. Think of it as a supplemental lift that you do in addition to back squats. It's the same like you would a leg press or lunges.
This is a great lift to add to any fitness program when you are trying to increase flexibility as well as strength and when you are looking to work out effectively and efficiently. Compound exercises that work your core are often the best ones that you can choose for maximum results and the Zercher Squat is a really great compound exercise for any workout goal.
When first starting out, go light and focus on good form. Do sets of 5-8 reps. Once you nail down the form, you can play around with rep schemes. Zercher squats can be effective for both size and strength in the 5-12 rep range. Aim to use a weight load that challenges you in this rep range.
If you are not sure how much weight to lift when squatting, you should think about your skill level and your goals. You want to be sure that you will not cause an injury when you are working out and you want to think about how much muscle you are trying to build.
You should always start out small with this lifting technique and you can add weight as you try to add size or just to increase the degree of difficulty for your lifts. You might never move a lot of weight in this move because of the balance aspect of it and that is fine. The effectiveness of the lift will not be impacted by how much you move as much as by how correctly you move through the lift.
You should not aim to move as much with the Zercher Squat as you would with a regular squat. Your weights might be vastly different for each of these movements and there is nothing wrong with that.
The front squat and Zercher squat are very similar. Basically, a Zercher squat is a variation of the front squat. Both are front loaded squats, just with different positions. With the front squat, you have the bar held up at shoulder level, whereas with the Zercher squat, it is in the creases of your elbows at upper core/lower chest level.
Both the Zercher squat and front squat will allow your torso to remain upright and the emphasis is placed on your knees (and thus quads). You can really get a large range of motion to maximize stretching tension and contraction tension in your quads. This makes both squat variations quad-centric.
With the difference in load position comes some slight differences in the affect of the exercises:
In the end, both are quad focused squat variations, so you should choose the one that feels best for you in terms of comfortability and effect on the targeted muscles. You can also switch it up, alternating between front squats and zercher squats per week or even training cycle.
Related: Front Squat vs Back Squat
Can the Zercher Squat be a Main Lift?
While the Zercher squat could be your main lift for a while, most consider it as an assistance lift to improve the quadriceps strength and size. It is typically done in addition to back squats for those who need more specificity and volume on their quads. The back squat is the best squat when it comes to strength training because it allows for the heaviest loads and activates the leg muscles more evenly. When it comes to strength training, using heavier loads is vital as that's what builds serious overall strength.
Are Zercher Squats Good For Beginners?
While it is possible to reduce the difficulty of this lift by using the unweighted bar or dumbbells, this is a complex move that requires some practice and might not be best for beginners. If you have never squatted before, you might want to start out by squatting using a regular method and then move on to add this squatting technique to your regimen.
Are There Variations of the Zercher Squat?
The Zercher load positioning, which keeps the barbell in the bend of the elbows and arms flexed, can be used for lunges and good mornings too! And, of course, you can do Zercher squats with a Smith machine, EZ bar or even sandbag as well.
What do I do if the Zercher Squat Hurts my Arms?
This is a common complaint, and for people with previous elbow or arm injuries, this squat might not be a good fit for their needs. You will have better luck with a long-sleeved shirt or you might always be more comfortable with a thicker bar. Using some of the variations that include other equipment but the same lifting motion can also increase your overall comfort with this lift.
I Keep Tipping Forward-How do I Stop This?
You will likely need to reduce the weight that you are lifting and you should look at yourself in a mirror as you perform this movement. Consider decreasing the depth of your squat for a while until you are comfortable with the balance of the movement. Often some time and practice are needed to help make this movement feel natural and comfortable.
Is a Goblet Squat the Same as a Zercher Squat?
Yes, the goblet squat is considered to be a similar movement to a Zercher squat as it is a front loaded squat. You can use this as your practice squat to get comfortable with the Zercher’s motion and balance before adding in the bar. You might find that the goblet squat can be a really easy way to do this squat if you do not have access to a full rack for lifting at your gym.
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