Everything You Need to Know About the Zercher Hold

Everything You Need to Know About the Zercher Hold

The zercher hold is a powerful tool that may just be what’s missing in your training toolbox.

It involves holding a barbell in the crook of the elbows with the arms flexed, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. This is a tough load placement variation that will quickly highlight any deficits in postural strength and stability.

As uncomfortable as it sounds, the benefits speak for themselves. Think of it as a front-rack hold on steroids, with even greater upper body and anterior core engagement.

The zercher hold is most commonly used in squats, but you can also use it for deadlifts, good-mornings, and any other exercise involving a frontal load, such as lunges or loaded carries.

The Set-up

Setting up for this lift is simple and can be done in two ways.

The most practical option is to set the bar on pins at just below chest height. That way you can easily rack and unrack the barbell, as you normally would out of a rack.

The alternative is to set the bar directly on the floor or on low boxes. In this scenario, you’d then be starting the lift from the bottom position.

In the end, whichever set-up you choose will come down to your equipment availability and how you intend on performing the exercise.

This lift isn’t for the weak-minded, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use a bar pad for elbow protection, or even wrap a towel around the bar if you don’t have access to one.

The Benefits

Upper Back Strength & Hypertrophy

As previously mentioned, the zercher hold offers many of the same benefits as the front-rack hold used in front squats.

However, because the bar isn’t sitting on your shoulders but instead being actively cradled in your arms, there is much higher recruitment of the biceps and upper back musculature.

All the main players that assist in proper posture will be called upon, including the rhomboids, trapezius and rear delt muscles.

Get Stronger in the Squat & Deadlift

In addition to targeting specific muscles, the increase in postural strength and awareness seen in zercher lifts can do wonders for other strength lifts, including both the back and front squats, as well as deadlifts.

Having trouble keeping your chest up? Try zercher holds for time, or zercher carries for distance.

Improved Squat Mechanics

The zercher hold naturally forces your body into the best position for squats. This can be a great teaching tool for beginners and those coming back from injury, or for those who would simply like to reinforce correct movement patterns.

Beneficial for Taller Lifters

Due to the position of the load in relation to one’s center of mass, the zercher makes for a great back squat alternative for lifters with longer limbs and sub-optimal leverages.

If you struggle with the back squat but find it easier to front squat to proper depth and with little to no discomfort, the zercher squat may be a good option for you. 

Increased Quadriceps & Glute Engagement in Zercher Squats

If you’re anything like me and many (if not all) of our female clients, you not only want to BE strong, but you also want to look the part.

Zercher squats allow you to squat deeper than front squats, which increases engagement of the quadriceps and glutes, making it an excellent choice for glute-focused leg training.

Increased Anterior Core Activation

If you’ve ever done heavy front squats, you know it lights up the front of your core like nothing else.

The zercher hold is no different, but it may actually provide a greater stimulus when it comes to developing core strength and anti-flexion stability.

Decreased Stress on Lumbar Spine (Zercher Squat)

Due to the barbell being positioned closer to one’s center of mass, there is a decrease in shear stress placed on the joints of the lower back.

Another way in which zercher squats may save your lower back is through the increased need for bracing that’s naturally imposed on the lifter. This can lead to a more neutral spinal alignment at the bottom position, which is where most lifters tend to lose tension and spinal stability.

If you have trouble going heavy in axially-loaded lifts such as back squats and deadlifts, the zercher squat may just be the answer to effective full-body training while staying clear from injuries.

Decreased Need for Upper Body Mobility

Though the front squat is a hell of an exercise, many lifters struggle with the front-rack position due to limited wrist mobility and shoulder flexibility.

The zercher squat can be a great alternative as it can be safely performed even with upper body mobility restrictions.

The Risks

Let’s face it, strength training ain’t no walk in the park. Because this is a rather unconventional barbell position, many trainers may be quick to yell out “bUt yOuR BiCeP tEndOns tHO”.

In reality, the zercher hold likely poses no real risk of tendon injury if programmed with caution, and the risk is practically nonexistent if you use a bar pad.

Other than that, you may find that your back rounds when doing zercher deadlifts from the ground, but that’s a risk that can be easily avoided by shortening the range of motion or by simply doing another exercise variation. 

Programming the Zercher Hold Into Your Training

Zercher lifts performed for strength should take priority early on in your training sessions, ideally as the main lift of the day. These can be programmed for 3-5 sets of anywhere from 3 to 6 repetitions each.

If your goal is hypertrophy-focused, lighten up the load slightly and go for sets of as high as 10 or 12 repetitions each.

Keep in mind that, similarly to front squats, upper back and core strength will be the limiting factor in your performance. However, don’t let this deter you from using the zercher hold in assistance exercises such as single-leg movements (split-squats, lunges) and hinge variations (good-morning, kneeling squat).

Switching up the load position can have a dramatic effect on not only the newly-recruited muscles, but also training enjoyment and mental fortitude. If anything, a little variation can keep your workouts fun and refreshing when you’re in need of a boost.

To your strength,

Coach B. 

About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.

Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.

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