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How to Zercher Squat, Muscles Worked, Benefits and Technique Tips

Add variety and skill to your arsenal of training exercises.

Time to add to your training knowledge and learn how and why to use the Zercher Squat.

What is the Zercher Squat?

The Z Squat is a lesser-known type of squat that involves holding the barbell in the crook of the arms, out in front of the body.

It is popular with Strong(wo)men and it can be performed without a squat rack.

The Z Squat tests and improves the quads, upper back, and core. 

Why are they Called Zercher Squats?

The movement is called the Zercher Squat because it was named after Ed Zercher, who invented the movement.

He was a well-respected Powerlifter and Strongman from the 1930s that loved to experiment with many different kinds of odd objects and weights, from anvils to wrecking balls.

According to Barbend, Zercher has impressive numbers when it came to his lifts.

  • Harness Lift: 2,150lbs (1940)
  • Roman Chair Lift: 610lbs
  • Leg Press – Unsupported: 600lbs for 10 reps

How to do the Zercher Squat

The following instructions will teach you how to perform the full Z Squat from a rack.

  1. Set the barbell in the rack slightly below your elbow height
  2. Step forward into the bar so that the metal touches the crease of your elbows
  3. Bring your forearms and hands upwards so the weight rests in your arms.
  4. Keep your elbows locked in place
  5. Walk your hips under the barbell
  6. Inhale, brace and lift the bar upwards and away from the support of the rack
  7. Take two steps backwards
  8. Break at the hips and squat
  9. Squat until your elbows touch your thighs
  10. Squat the weight back up to the starting position
  11. Repeat for the desired number of reps

Note: You may grip your hands together or have them separate with your palms facing upwards.

Muscles Worked by the Zercher Squat

The Zercher Squat works all the following muscles:

  • Quadriceps
  • Upper Back
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Abdominals
  • Biceps

Benefits of the Zercher Squat

These are many benefits of the Z Squat.

You Can Perform it without a Squat Rack

The Zercher Squat is a great way to Squat if you don’t have a rack. You will need to Deadlift the weight up into the starting position then position your arms correctly.

The Zercher Squat Will Improve your Squat Movement

It is impossible to perform the Z Squat without an upright position. This forces the body to work to maintain a straight back, a high degree of knee flexion and solid hip positioning.

Build Strength and Muscle

The Z Squat will help build strength and muscle. Just like any well performed Squat, the variation created by Zercher can significantly strength your body and gains.

The quads are worked exceptionally hard by the movement. This is great for both hypertrophy and strength depending on your aims.

The Zercher Squat Reinforces Bracing and Tension

There is really no way to perform the Z Squat without bracing correctly. A weak midline or mis-timed breath will result in a failed lift. Because of the barbell’s placement and centre of gravity we sub-consciously contract in all the right places.

This has huge carry over potential for other strength exercises.

The Zercher Squat Makes You Tough

Make no mistake this is a brutal exercise.

It feels uncomfortable to cradle a heavy barbell in the crux of your arms. You must focus mentally as the load is awkward and the positioning takes time to get used to.

But because it is hard it will tax you mentally and physically and help you become a better athlete.

It’s Actually Pretty Safe

Although uncommon and seemingly odd, the Zercher Squat is surprisingly safe.

If anything goes wrong at any point you can simple drop or (preferably) lower the barbell to the ground.

You don’t need spotters for the Z Squat.

What Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations should I use for the Zercher Squat?

The Z Squat can be programmed in many different ways to achieve varying goals.

How to Improve Movement with the Zercher Squat

If athletes are injured or cannot place the barbell on their back for any reason, the Z Squat can be used instead.

3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions with light to moderate loads are advisable.

Make sure to move in a controlled way and pay attention to tempo. Rest appropriately between sets so that you can control the barbell and movement properly at all times.

How to Improve Strength with the Zercher Squat

Programming strength training with the Z Squat is similar to how you would program with the Back Squat. Obviously you must reduce the weights as it is much easier to support the weight with your back than your arms.

Keep to sets of 3-5 reps with long rest periods.

How to Build Muscle with the Zercher Squat

Higher volume will build muscle using the Zercher Squat. Think 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps. Keep rest periods no longer than 45 to 90 seconds.

Zercher Squat Variations

There are many great Zercher Squat variations.

Try introducing bands and chains and use pause squats and deficits to keep the stimulus varied, fun and challenging.

Here are a few you can try:

  • Zercher Carry
  • Bottoms Up Zercher Squat

Zercher Squat Alternatives

These Zercher Squat Alternatives will help you if you want to Zercher Squat but cannot perform the movement exactly as prescribed for whatever reason.

Any Type of Front-Loaded Squat

You can rack almost any kind of object or weight into the same position and use it as a Z Squat alternative. Pipes, logs, anvils (Zercher style) etc

Double Kettlebell Front Squat

Rack two kettlebells in the front position and squat. This is an excellent way to challenge and enhance your core strength, arms, grip and back positioning as well as the stimulus placed on the lower body.

Front Squat

Although the weight is racked higher on the shoulders and upper chest, the Front Squat does provide a roughly similar stimulus to the ZSquat.

front squat vs Zercher SquatSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc
Push your limits

Are Zercher Squats Better than Regular Squats?

No. Zercher Squats are different. The Back Squat is one of the most important exercises in any athlete’s training arsenal but the Z Squat is a great accessory lift to further compliment and augment the benefits of the Back Squat.

back squatSource: Stevie D Photography
Strength and poise

Are Zercher Squats Harder?

Z Squats are hard. They place more stress on the arms for example but you will not be able to move as much weight as you would with the regular Back Squat.

Do Zercher Squats Work Abs?

Yes, Z Squats do work abs. As a Squat, they tax your core and force you to maintain a stron body position at all times. This will enhance your core and abs.

Top 10 Hardest Bodyweight CrossFit Workouts

Which is Better Front Squat or Zercher Squat?

If you have solid front rack positioning, Front Squats may allow you to train the quadriceps and hips to fatigue with heavier loads than Z Squats.

How Much should You Zercher Squat?

You want to aim to lift at least 15% less with the Z Squat than you would normally do with the Back Squat.

Is the Zercher Squat Dangerous?

No, the Z Squat is not dangerous when it is performed correctly.

Remember to always keep your core tight, your body braced, maintain an upright torso position and move in a controlled and confident way.

Warm up properly and load the Z Squat conservatively until you feel more comfortable with the movement.

The Z Squat

If you enjoyed reading about the Z Squat, try this article:

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