If one were to leaf through books pertaining to the history of strength training, they would find myriad exercises that would seem outlandish by today’s standards, like the Steinborn squat or the health lift (precursor to the deadlift). Truth is, many of the old-time strongmen relied on these exact same movements to build up their strength, the levels of which remains impressive to this day. One of the better examples of this is the Zercher squat.
Named after the American strongman Ed Zercher, this squat variation sees the lifter squatting with the barbell not on their back but cradled in their arms. Legend has it that Zercher came up with this exercise due to his gym being bereft of even a single squat rack, so he decided to deadlift the barbell to his midsection before squatting with it.
You don’t need to find yourself in a similar predicament before deciding whether or not to use the Zercher squat in training; it’s great as a primary or accessory movement! Performing the Zercher squat requires the lifter to achieve and maintain full-body tension while practicing proper body alignment and mechanics. Failure to do so will make even the lightest of loads feel and look awkward.
Location and equipment courtesy of TripleFit
People who back squat are prone to exhibiting one of two major flaws in the upper body: remaining excessively upright or “folding over” at the torso. For the lower body, some may have trouble activating their abductors and opening their knees. In both instances, using the Zercher squat makes for a great corrective tool and teaches the lifter proper sequencing and stability. The anterior positioning of the barbell also requires the core musculature to work harder in order to maintain balance, making it very much like a front squat except without the ankle and wrist mobility demands.
When it comes to supporting the barbell, there are two main ways to do it. The original approach calls for the forearms and elbows to be position like straight hooks. However, newcomers to the movement may find this too uncomfortable. The alternative is to pivot your hands inwards, so that one clasps the other. This position creates a greater sense of stability, which can give you the mental assurance required to perform the Zercher squat confidently. Crossing at the forearms is not recommended as it slightly displaces the shoulder, making it prone to imbalance tightness.
The Zercher squat can be loaded either heavy or light, although it is always recommended to build up familiarity at lower loads before progressing to heavier weights. Longer-limbed lifters will especially enjoy this squat variation as it allows them to overload their legs at a higher load without feeling it in their lower backs. The use of extended tempos is particularly useful when it comes to fully realising the benefits of Zercher squats, especially at the bottom position. On a final note, lifters with not-so meaty arms might want to consider using a bar pad or a rolled-up towel to provide some cushioning around the bar. You wouldn’t want to walk away with bruises after training!