Can Zercher Squats Replace Back Squats?

| by Truth Seeker |

Short answer: Zercher squats are a potent lower body exercise despite their lack of fame. In some cases, they could effectively replace the classic back squat. However, the two lifts are not entirely interchangeable because of their unique characteristics.

What Are the Main Differences Between the Zercher Squat and the Back Squat?

  1. Back angle

If you draw a perpendicular line from the barbell to the floor during any squat, it will pass right over the middle of the foot. This is the only way for the lifter to remain stable.

To satisfy this requirement, the back angle changes during every squat variation.

In the case of Zerchers and front squats, the back angle is significantly more vertical than it is during back squats.

A more vertical back results in:

  • More stress on the upper back
  • A longer range of motion (a deeper squat)
  • Greater knee travel and quadriceps activation

  1. Bar position

The back squat offers a more comfortable bar placement – on top of the traps (if you’re squatting high bar).

Conversely, the Zercher requires the lifter to hold the weight in the “crux of the elbows” a.k.a. the elbow pit.

The second position is more painful and can cause bruising of the forearms. Zercher squats are uncomfortable largely due to this factor.

  1. Hamstring engagement

The back squat places more stress on the hamstrings due to the more horizontal back angle.

Contrariwise, the more vertical back angle during Zercher squats shortens the hamstrings at the hips and limits the stretch of the muscle and its contribution to the lift.

In general, however, neither of the lifts is an optimal leg biceps exercise. If you want to build the hamstrings, Romanian deadlifts and leg curls would give you better results.

  1. Core engagement

The Zercher is hard on the core even when the load isn’t that heavy. You’re more likely to get sore abs from the Zercher than the back squat.

For that reason, many consider the Zercher a good accessory exercise for those trying to get their mid-sections stronger for regular squats and deadlifts.

  1. Upper back engagement

The Zercher squat increases the involvement of the upper back tremendously because the weight is in front of you.

The spinal erectors, the traps, the rhomboids, and other small muscles have to contract incredibly hard and then maintain an intense isometric contraction throughout the entire lift.

The back squat works your upper back too but not nearly to the same degree.

  1. Arm engagement

The stress on the arm flexors during Zerchers is far greater. They have to remain tense the entire time (isometric contraction) to prevent the bar from sliding.

  1. Breathing

Zercher squats compress the ribcage and make it difficult to get enough air in.

Consequently, high-rep back squats are easier than Zerchers.

  1. Load

The back squat allows you to lift heavier weights for the following reasons:

  • A shorter range of motion (you can’t go as deep)
  • A more comfortable bar position
  • Less upper back limitation
  • Higher hamstring engagement
  • Greater stretch reflex at the bottom (the hamstrings elongate and “catapult” you)

However, you can still move serious weights with the Zercher squat.

Many lifters’ Zercher squats catch with their front squats and even surpass them.

And a front squat is usually around 70% of one’s back squat (estimation).

  1. Equipment

The back squat requires a lot more equipment for safe training – you would need a power cage/squat rack with the safety pins ready to catch or a squat stand with spotters.

The Zercher is far less pretentious. A squat or a power rack would still be useful but are not necessary. You can do the movement by positioning the barbell on two platforms.

And if you choose to go the minimalist way, you can do a Zercher by deadlifting the bar to the knees and squatting under it. It’s not the ultimate Zercher experience, but if you’re pressed for gear, it can do the job.

Furthermore, it’s safer to do a Zercher squat without spotters or a power cage because you can just drop the weight and jump back in case of failure.

Nonetheless, it’s still preferable to avoid missing a rep to reduce the risk of injury and the stress on the CNS.

Zercher Squat Back Squat
Vertical back angle Heavier weights
More upper back engagement More hamstring engagement
Greater core activation Easier to do for high reps
More stress on the elbows More comfortable
Little equipment Requires a squat rack
Looks weird in the gym Socially validated

In what situations can the Zercher squat replace the back squat?

  1. Limited equipment

If you don’t have the necessary gear to safely back squat, the Zercher presents an opportunity to get some leg volume in.

  1. Insufficient quad development from back squats

People with a short torso and long femurs often have trouble feeling their quadriceps working during regular back squats, especially the low bar version.

This happens because men with long femurs and a short torso have no choice but to back squat with a greater forward lean than people with short femurs and a long torso.

The more horizontal back angle shifts an extra portion of the stress to the posterior chain. As a result, the quadriceps receive less stimulation.

One of the remedies is to do leg presses and/or implement a squat variation that places more stress on the legs.

The most common options are:

  • Front squats
  • Zercher squats
  • Hip belt squats
  1. To develop extra upper back strength (assistance exercise)

The Zercher squat and the front squat have a decent carryover to the deadlift because they strengthen the core and the upper back – the ensemble of muscles which often give up during heavy deadlifts attempt and cause back rounding.

  1. To reduce the stress on the lower back

The Zercher squat is harder on the upper back than the back squat, but it’s easier on the lower back.

During Zerchers the weight is held lower – a peculiarity which results in less torque on the lower back because the lever is shorter.

  1. When you have poor upper body flexibility

The classic front squat done with a clean grip requires wrist flexibility that few lifters have. Hence why many bodybuilders rely on the cross grip.

The back squat, especially the low bar version, demands shoulder mobility that could be out of some people’s reach.

The Zercher squat, however, has no similar requirements and can be a good option for people who can’t do other squats due to insufficient suppleness.

FAQs

Do Zercher squats carry over to the back squat?

If you’re doing both exercises in a routine, there will be some carryover. However, if you only do Zercher squats and expect to one day try a back squat and hit insane numbers, the plan will not work because of the different motor patterns.

If you want an exercise to help another, you still have to perform both movements.

Are Zercher squats dangerous?

Just like every exercise, they come with some risk, but in general, they are not that scary. You can read more on that topic here.

What’s biggest downside of the Zercher squat?

I can think of three:

  • Forearm bruises
  • Troubled breathing (the weight is putting pressure on the diaphragm)
  • Social criticism

As they say, people are social animals. You’re a lot more likely to remain consistent with a lift when there’s a trend behind it. Zerchers are not popular among the so-called normies. They’re hardcore brah territory.

Is the Zercher squat harder to teach than the back squat?

Not really. Similarly, to the front squat, the Zercher is a “self-correcting exercise”. If your back rounds, you’re instantly going to miss the lift.

Meanwhile, learning how to maintain hamstring tension at the bottom of a back squat requires a decent amount of work.

Can I implement classic back squat routines with Zerchers?

You could, but high tonnage routines may result in elbow problems and bruised forearms. For example, running Smolov or even Smolov Junior with a Zercher squat could be too much, although I’m sure that some crazy people have tried it.

In general, the classic back squat is a healthier choice when going for ultra-volume.

Otherwise, more conservative programs work just fine even with Zerchers.

How heavy should I go?

There’s no point in maxing out on Zerchers. It can be done, and some dedicated brahs do it, but the value of insanely heavy attempts is dubious. After all, the Zercher squat isn’t a competition lift, at least not officially. It makes more sense to keep the reps higher than 4.

Example Routines

Option 1: Bro Routine – Chest, Lats and Arms Focus

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Chin-ups – 5xF* Zercher squats – 2×5, 2×8 Romanian Deadlifts – 1×6-8 + 2×8
Dips – 5xF Incline press – 3×8-12 Dips – 5xF
Hanging leg raises – 3×10 Hanging leg raises – 3×10 Chin-ups – 5xF
Biceps curls – 3×6-12 Biceps curls – 3×6-12 Leg curls – 2×8
Hammer curls – 3×6-12 Hammer curls – 3×6-12 Biceps curls – 3×6-12
Triceps extensions – 3×6-12 Triceps extensions – 3×6-12 Reverse curls – 3×6-12
Triceps extensions – 3×6-12

*5xF stands for 5 sets to failure but without form breakdown.

Option 2: Minimal Equipment Bro Routine (barbell + chin-up bar)

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Chin-ups – 5xF* Zercher squats – 2×5, 2×8 Romanian Deadlifts – 1×6-8 + 2×8
Decline push-ups – 5xF Decline push-ups – 5xF Decline push-ups – 5xF
Hanging leg raises – 3×10 Hanging leg raises – 3×10 Chin-ups – 5xF
Barbell curls – 3×6-12 Barbell curls – 3×6-12 Leg curls – 2×8
Hammer curls with a towel* – 3×6-12 Hammer curls with a towel – 3×6-12 Barbell curls – 3×6-12
Triceps extensions – 3×6-12 Triceps extensions – 3×6-12 Hammer curls with a towel – 3×6-12
Triceps extensions – 3×6-12

*If you don’t have dumbbells, you can do hammer curls by pushing a towel through a barbell plate or a kettlebell and then use the towel as a handle. Make sure that the towel is strong enough. Otherwise, the weights may fall on you. Your grip will be challenged too.

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6 comments

  1. Brett

    Can Zercher squats build the biceps?

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      I don’t think so. There’s no range of motion, and you’re not lifting the weight with your arms. They are just “a rack”. But there is some biceps involvement.

      The stone carries that you recommended do a lot more for the biceps.

  2. Honest Truth

    How do you feel about hack squats? I have a bench press at home and I use it for them as well. Hack squats feel really good and my mid back/upper back get sore and they work my grip also. I’m surprised I don’t hear more people talking about them, they are my favorite squat variation. The Zercher is uncomfortable on my forearms so I avoid it.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      What kind of hack squats? Behind the back barbell pulls?

        1. Truth Seeker Post author

          They look awkward, but if you like them, there’s no reason to stop doing them.

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