The Zercher is a squat variation invented and popularized by the strongman and powerlifter Ed Zercher known for his straight-to-the-point attitude and incredible strength to bodyweight ratio. The bizarre cloak covering the exercise makes the movement risky in the eyes of the crowd. But is this really the case?
The Zercher squat isn’t more dangerous than a regular barbell back squat. In some regards, it’s even safer because it’s easier to bail out in case of failure. As with other exercises, proper lifting technique is key to reducing the risk factor.
One of the most frequent mistakes is lifting needlessly heavy weights in a pointless attempt to satisfy the ego. If you respect your limitations and remain conservative, the Zercher squat is not a scary movement.
What Are the Most Vulnerable Body Parts During a Zercher Squat?
Forearms. A properly performed Zercher squat requires the lifter to hold the bar in the crook of the elbows. Consequently, the inner parts of the forearm close to the elbow joint are the major points of contact and the first zone to take a beating. Many people get fairly large bruises after their initial Zercher squat sessions. For the most part, that’s a normal response because the area and the skin covering it have not adapted to the stress yet.
A regular barbell back squat is uncomfortable at first too. The bar irritates the traps and may even cause swelling. After a while, however, the skin thickens and the discomfort drops to more bearable levels. The Zercher is no different except that the hot region is elsewhere. [the forearms]
The spine. Another area that could enter a hazardous position is the back. When the weight gets heavy, lifters tend to lean forward – a reaction witnessed during the sticking points of the front and back squat too. This happens because the body is trying to activate the strength reserves of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) to compensate for leg and back weakness.
Bending over during Zerchers can cause excessive strain on the spine and the arms. To avoid this problem, select a lighter weight and avoid super low reps. There is no need to max on Zerchers as they are an accessory lift in most cases. But even if they are your main lower body exercise, testing your 1RM doesn’t serve a greater purpose.
Knees. As with any other squat, the Zercher has the potential to irritate the knees. However, this shouldn’t happen if the fundamentals of squatting are respected. Before all, don’t allow your knees to cave in. They should be pointing in the same direction as the toes.
If you have long femurs, your knees may travel past your toes. That’s fine as long as your feet are strongly planted on the floor and the weight is balanced over the middle of the foot.
Breathing. The position that the Zercher squat puts you in makes it harder for the ribcage to expand. As a result, the body has a difficult time supplying and receiving oxygen.
What Equipment Can a Man Use to Make the Zercher Squat More Comfortable?
The following equipment could reduce the discomfort during Zerchers:
- Fat grips or thick bars
Fat grips (thick rubbers) wrapped around the bar increase the contact surface and “dull the edge”. Thicker bars with diameters larger than normal do the same.
- Foam pipe insulation/Swimming pool noodles
Swimming pool noodles or foam pipe insulation can serve as cushioning too. Cut them with a paper-knife across their full length and clip them on the bar. Wrap the edges with duct tape to prevent the contraption from falling off or sliding.
- Use the classic “tampon” pad
Most “blue pill” gyms offer squat bar pads that hardcore lifters rightfully consider a joke. Nonetheless, they can be useful for Zerchers.
- Elbow sleeves
Another option is to rely on elbow sleeves originally designed to keep the joints warm during upper body exercises. To reduce the discomfort even further, you could wear a shirt with long sleeves too. A sweatshirt made of thick cotton is a good choice.
- Zercher squat harness
Louie Simmons from Westside barbell is a fan of Zerchers. He engineered a harness that removes the stress on the elbows. There are other versions too.
FAQ: What about a towel or a shirt? A towel wrapped around the bar is another way to soften the blow, but it’s inferior to the other suggestions as the barbell can easily slide out.
What Are the Main Benefits of Zercher Squats?
The Zercher squat is not a crazy popular exercise, but it offers a series of advantages:
- Zerchers can be done without spotters or sophisticated equipment.
A regular barbell squat requires a power cage. Meanwhile, the Zercher is suitable for solo mode.
Of course, a squat rack with safety pins makes the Zercher safer and more comfortable but is not an indispensable tool in this case. The original Zercher variation was done without any equipment other than a barbell. The lifter would deadlift the weight to their knees and then squat under it. The method is inconvenient, but it’s a good option to have when your lifting equipment is limited.
Note: If you don’t have a rack, you could use two stable platforms.
- Less complicated than other squat variations
A classic barbell squat is more technical than the Zercher. There’s a reason why Rippetoe has dedicated 100s of pages to the back squat. Most people need them.
- Brutal midsection development
You know how the 5×5 zealots always tell you that squats and deadlifts work your abs? Well, the Zercher squat will hit your core 10 times harder. People have reported serious oblique cramping from Zerchers.
- Great carryover to the deadlift
The Zercher is the squat variation that offers the highest carryover to the deadlift.
- The Zercher does not require tremendous flexibility
The back squat demands shoulder mobility that some lifters don’t have. The low bar version, in particular, is notorious for wrecking shoulders and elbows. The front squat, on the other hand, can overstress your wrists and makes breathing difficult because the bar is crushing your throat. The Zercher eliminates all of that.
- Great range of motion
The Zercher makes it easier to squat deep with decent form; it teaches the lifter to keep their knees out during a squat too.
- Upper back development
The muscles supporting the thoracic spine work extra hard to keep you standing tall. The Zercher will develop your mid-traps too.
- Experts swear by it
In 2012, Pavel Tsatsouline classified the Zercher squat as the Best Squat Exercise.
Can the Zercher Replace the Classic Squat?
It depends on your goal. If you want to become a good squatter, you need to squat as the CNS and the body have to adapt to the specific demands of the exercise that you want to excel at.
But if you don’t care about becoming a good back or front squatter and lift solely for the physical benefits, the Zercher can work too. It can stimulate just as much overall growth.