Is the Zercher Squat for Pussies?
Those of you who have been following my work for some time know that I’m quite fond of the Zercher squat. While I don’t put it on the same level as the back squat as a “bread and butter lift”, I find it to be extremely effective to build the legs, core and upper back while also being effective at improving the squat and front squat.
Recently, Charles Poliquin posted a video (video’s link here) basically calling the Zercher squat a useless exercise and those who use it, idiots.
I want to start by saying that I deeply respect Charles. He is my mentor and I would not be here if it weren’t for him.
I also remember a conversation we had months ago where I told him:
“Charles I can promise you two things: One, we will not agree on everything. Two, even when we don’t agree I will always show you respect“.
My goal is not to showboat him or attack him.
I am writing this article to explain my point of view on the Zercher squat and why I think it’s a good lift. It is not directed at Charles, although the tone of the video did prompt my article. We remain in agreement on 90% of all training related issues and that won’t change, but Zerchers are an emotional issue for me, so here we go…
The main point of the video is that Zerchers are useless because they don’t overload the legs properly since you are limited by how much weight you can hold in the crook of your elbows. It also implies that no strong man uses them for training.
Here is my opinion on this subject.
ONLY WEAK IDIOTS DO THE ZERCHER SQUAT?
I first learned about the Zercher squat from Louie Simmons, yes that Louie Simmons… Louie Simmons, as in the Godfather of powerlifting, the greatest innovator that strength sports have ever known.
Not only do Louie and his lifters use the Zercher squat (as well as the harness Zercher squat) as a max effort lift, he also sees it as one of the best exercises to learn to squat properly.
To quote him:
“It teaches you exactly how to squat. It teaches you to push your knees apart. Push your chest up. Push your buttocks out. The whole nine yards“ (from boxlifemagazine, read here)
He also believes that the Zercher bottoms-up squat/deadlift is an effective way to strengthen your deadlift (https://www.westside-barbell.com/blogs/2007-articles/the-squat).
When Louie works with MMA fighters, the Zercher squat is one of his two main lower body lifts (the other one being the sumo deadlift).
Is Louie an idiot? Of course not, he is one of, if not the smartest man in strength training.
Is he weak? With all the records he and his lifters have established, if he is weak, everybody in the world is weak.
Another big proponent of Zercher lifts is modern-day Paul Anderson Bud Jeffries, who has squatted 1000lbs from the bottom position! He does a ton of heavy Zercher stuff, both full range and partials. Yet another example of a weak person doing Zerchers.
I was also pleased when I learned that my all-time favorite weightlifter, David Rigert, uses the Zercher squat in his training, doing as much as 200kg (440lbs) for 10 repetitions.
My friend Patrick Lemieux (Pat is the best strength coach you have never heard of. Everybody he trains gets super strong, but he lives is a small town and doesn’t get the opportunity to be seen.
He is just as good as the big names you know) uses the Zercher squat with the strongman competitors he trains. He said this about Zercher squats: “It’s a good exercise for strongmen, it can significantly improve the Atlas stone performance and is also great as a change of pace“.
And these are just a few examples. But honestly, the simple fact that I learned Zerchers from Louie should be enough to convince you that it is not a worthless exercise, quite the contrary.
Of course, the easy answer anti-Zercher zealots could use is to name all the strong squatters who DON’T use the Zercher, but that’s missing the point of the video.
The video basically said that Zerchers were useless. Useless means that nobody will get good results from them, which is not the case.
My point is not that everybody should do Zerchers, nor that Zerchers are superior to squatting. My point is that they are far from useless.
THE ZERCHER SUCKS FOR OVERLOADING THE LEGS… REALLY?
The main argument against Zercher squats is that they are an inferior way to overload the legs, the reason being that you are limited by how much weight you can hold in the crook of your elbows.
And I understand why someone would think that… especially if he has never trained seriously on it. After all, it is uncomfortable at first. And instinctively we think that the biceps are holding the bar, so we reason that our capacity to hold a heavy weight will be limited by biceps strength.
Anybody who has done enough Zercher squats to master the movement will tell you that biceps strength is not a limiting factor at all. The bar resting in the crook of the elbows does not push on the forearm to try to open it.
It is not super comfortable, I’ll give you that. But if you use elbow sleeves (or knee sleeves on your elbows) it is not more uncomfortable than a front squat or back squat. And if you consider that many big guys can’t front squat properly (they have to use a crossed arm grip) the Zercher can be a great option for them.
From experience, the Zercher also works great for lifters with longer limbs to hit the quads. For them, the Zercher will in fact be more effective than the back squat to focus on quadriceps development.
The reality, not the perception or theory, is that most people who give Zercher squats an honest shot will quickly be able to use as much weight, if not more, than they can on a front squat.
I can Zercher squat more than I front squat. And I’ve used the Zercher squat with enough clients to know that this is the norm, not the exception.
Strength coach/author Jason Brown did a 395lbs Zercher squat at a body weight of 200, which is more than his max front squat.
My friend, personal trainer and soft tissue specialist Matt Jeandel can not only Zercher squat more than he can front squat, but his max of 365lbs was close to his max back squat at the time!
I’ll play Devil’s advocate for a second: if you are a beast who back squats 800lbs and front squat 650lbs, you are probably not going to Zercher squat as much as you front squat.
You might do 500-550lbs or so (I’ve done in the high 400s when my back squat was 585lbs). But that’s still not a light weight and it will have a training effect on the legs. And even if you reach a point where your capacity to hold the bar is a limiting factor, you can use the Zercher to do more reps (e.g. Rigert doing 10 reps with 440lbs).
If we are to claim that the Zercher squat sucks as a way to overload the legs because we can’t use a lot of weight, then shouldn’t we say the same thing about front squats?
And if the Westside guys use it despite being monster squatters shouldn’t it tell you that it remains effective?
My experience has been that if you are working with someone who squats anywhere from 315 to 550lbs, you will be able to use enough weight on your Zercher relative to your front and back squat to make those legs bigger or stronger.
And as Louie himself said, beginners can also benefit from it to learn proper squatting form. The Zercher squat is easier to learn since the distance between the bar and the floor is shorter, therefore less reliance on balancing/stabilizing the body.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT LOADING THE LEGS
Even if Zerchers didn’t overload the legs effectively (which is not the case), saying that they are useless misses the boat completely. Only someone who has not done them for long enough to master the exercise and perform well on them would say that.
If you have never done a heavy Zercher, you have no idea how hard they are for your core. No exercise has ever worked my core as hard as a heavy Zercher squat. I’m talking about both obliques cramping because they are contracting so hard.
“Yeah but why not simply do planks to work on your core?”.
You can if that’s your thing, and they are a good teaching tool to learn to use your core properly. However, they are not as specific to the squat as the Zercher squat is and you can’t overload them enough to create the same intensity of contraction.
In a plank, the core is working as a stabilizer, which is what we need in a squat or deadlift, but the rest of the body is static. You learn to stabilize an immobile body, which is a good first step, but won’t readily transfer to dynamic performance.
“Then you can just do farmer walks“.
You should! Farmer walks are an amazing exercise indeed. They are a little more specific to the squat than planks (the body is moving, so you are stabilizing the core during a dynamic action) and you can create a greater overload.
But they are still less specific than the Zercher squat: in a farmer walk you are moving forward without bending the legs more than a few degrees.
“The front squat will do the same“.
Not if you front squat properly!
In a proper front squat (when you keep your torso upright), the barbell remains over the center of the base of support. In a back squat it is more toward the rear of the base of support, and in a Zercher squat the bar is more forward; it is toward the front of the base of support, sometimes out of the base of support completely.
So right off the bat, the Zercher puts the bar in a position that drastically increases the demand on the core. Even one inch makes a huge difference in tension.
On top of that, because the bar is held in the crook of your elbows it will tend to try to “pull your torso forward and down”. Preventing that also dramatically increases core contraction.
“Yeah but when I front squat I bend forward, won’t that also increase core activation?”
Those who bend forward in a front squat don’t know how to front squat. The torso angle should remain the same throughout the lift and you should be as upright as your levers allow you to be.
But I get what you are saying.
Yes, to an extent the front squat also increases core activation, although nowhere near the Zercher, but you need to have done both at a high level to know it.
And oddly enough, the better technically you are on the front squat, the less important core strength becomes. The more upright you are when you do the front squat, the less the core needs to work. Whereas even if you stay upright in a Zercher, you still get an increase in core contraction intensity because of the position of the bar.
The Zercher also works really well to strengthen the upper back function in the squat. In fact, when someone tends to round their upper back, or lean forward in a front squat, the Zercher is likely the best assistance exercise to fix that problem.
And lastly, as I mentioned earlier, the Zercher squat is a great exercise to drill proper squatting mechanics. You must push the knees out (otherwise the elbows might contact your legs), you more easily “sit back” and you have to focus on keeping the torso high.
As you can see, even if the Zercher squat was an inferior way of stimulating the legs, it would be far from a useless exercise. But as I explained, for the vast majority of trainees the Zercher squat will overload the legs properly.
Dr.Stuart Phillips made a comment about HIIT (high intensity interval training) that could also be applied to the Zercher squat:
“Not everybody enjoys HIIT, I get it, but to dismiss it (simply because you don’t like it) is simply ignorant!”
I’m a bit more diplomatic, so I’ll say that you have the right to dislike an exercise. But blindly calling it useless (literally meaning that it has no use for anybody in any situation) when all the facts point in a different direction is a mistake.
Hey, I hate heavy hip thrusts and I will never use them with my clients (I only use light hip thrusts for activation purposes), BUT I can admit that they can work and have their purpose. Even if I don’t use them, I will not call them useless.
The Zercher squat is unpleasant, but that’s not a reason to claim it’s useless.
I’ve always had great success with the Zercher squat. I use it with most of my clients, and when applied to the right situation it can be a very good assistance lift. It will never replace the back squat or deadlift, but who says it needs to? The big basics are here to stay. It doesn’t mean that other exercises cannot bring something to the table.
Find out for yourself: give Zerchers an honest try, as an assistance movement at first until you are comfortable handling heavy weights. Then let me know if they are worth it or not.