We explored the techniques, kinematics, and benefits of Zercher squats in the previous article. This post will discuss the Zercher squat vs the back squat.
Rather than quoting the scientific literature for subtle differences between the movements, I thought we could briefly explain the differences between the setup and movement for the two exercises, followed by looking for real-world examples of who is Zercher squatting, who is back squatting, and why they are doing it.
During the Zercher squat, the lifter cradles the barbell in the crooks of their elbows. The bar is secured via a half bicep curl, locking the bar close to the sternum.
It is very tough on the arms, shoulders, and torso to hold the barbell throughout the movement compared with the back squat.
There are two barbell positions for the back squat, high bar and low bar.
High bar squats involve the bar sitting on top of the lifter’s traps. The lifter usually sets up with quite a narrow grip, depending on their mobility.
Low bar squats involve the bar sitting lower down the lifter’s back. An excellent physical cue is to feel the bar on the back of the shoulders rather than traps. Lifters typically adopt a slightly wider grip for low bar squats.
The Zercher squat predominantly loads the front of the thighs, upper back, and arms. There is significant core activation during the Zercher squat.
The back squat develops overall leg strength and activates the posterior leg muscles (glutes, hamstrings) more significantly than the Zercher squat.
Although there’s a level of the torso and arm activation that develops strength, it is inferior to the Zercher squat in this department.
It’s common knowledge within strength training communities that squatting with the bar in front of the body, such as Zercher squats, is far less impactful on the knees of the lifter.
It is common to see lifters with knee pain transition from the back squat to a bar in front adaptation.
Several studies back up this belief and the following is a series of statements made by Gullett et al in 2008 .
“Compressive loading on the knee joint is an important variable when good joint health is a concern. Osteoarthritis results from deterioration or loss of the cartilage that acts as a protective cushion between bones, particularly in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips.”
“Similarly, chronic excessive loading on the knee joint, through heavy weight-bearing exercise, could likely have the same result. Thus, by decreasing the compressive force encountered while performing squats, the risk of osteoarthritis and the pain associated with this degenerative disease may be reduced.”
“The front squat was shown to be just as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with significantly less compressive forces on the knee.”
How Many Lifters are Doing Zercher Squats Compared to Back Squats?
As I said in The Ultimate Guide to The Zercher Squat, you see far more people in the squat rack with the bar across their shoulders than with the bar cradled in their elbows. I wanted to try and quantify that statement.
To get an idea of the numbers, we will explore data gathered by the website www.strengthlevel.com. This database records total daily reps for many exercises, as recorded by their users.
You can also compare exercises by the total number of reps and average weights lifted by gender and experience level. Although these figures are not definitive, I believe they give us a basic idea of the actual numbers.
www.strengthlevel.com report total recorded reps as follows:
Back Squat – 1,704,549
Zercher Squat – 5,027
Back Squat – 363,018
Zercher Squat – 469
We can see the disparity between the back squat reps and the Zercher squat reps.
For males, there were 99.7% fewer overall Zercher squat reps recorded than back squat reps.
For females, there were 99.9% fewer overall Zercher squat reps recorded than back squat reps.
To put that into a little more perspective, in the case of males, for every 1000 reps recorded across the two exercises, 997 of them were back squats, and just 3 were Zercher squats.
For females, only 1 Zercher squat rep was recorded, compared to 999 back squat reps.
What Sort of Weight are They Lifting?
The recorded weight per rep is interesting. We see an average drop of 12% in total weight from back squat to Zercher squat for males and a decline of 15% for females.
Back squat – 284.3lb
Zercher squat – 251lb
Back squat –161.4lb
Zercher squat – 136.8lb
So far, this information correlates with my thoughts that fewer people Zercher squat than back squat and the weights they lift are lighter.
However, we want to know who’s Zercher squatting and why.
I believe the next piece of information, extrapolated from the data, opens our next chapter quite nicely.
Who is Zercher Squatting?
“The bodyweight of men entering Zercher squat lifts on Strength Level is on average heavier than those entering squat lifts.”
“The body weight of women entering Zercher squat lifts on Strength Level is on average heavier than those entering squat lifts.”
As I said earlier, this data is not definitive and t extrapolated from a study performed under strict clinical conditions. There is also a significant disparity between the number of lifters recording data on the site, comparing Zercher squats to back squats.
However, this is the data we have to work with, and we will do our best to observe trends.
The first trend is that Zercher squats appear to be performed by heavier individuals, both male and female. We observe a fascinating stat when comparing the weights.
Both male and female data show a difference of 5lbs bodyweight between those who entered Zercher squat data and those who entered back squat data.
I would love to see some research into whether heavier means stronger in this circumstance. I have my thoughts on this. I’d love to hear yours.
I hesitate to say this, and it is purely my personal opinion. But I would quietly state on the record that lifters who choose to Zercher squat tend to be bigger and stronger than those who purely back squat.
We also see athletes from different sports choosing to Zercher squat.
Why Zercher Squats?
Let’s step away from the figures for a moment and start exploring some real-world examples of why people are Zercher squatting.
We discussed the principle of specificity in the Zercher Squat vs Front Squat article. Essentially specificity means “to get good at something. You need to train in specific ways to get good at whatever it is you want.”
Here are some examples of athletes and coaches applying the principle of specificity to Zercher Squats.
Powerlifting legend Louie Simmons, is a fan of the Zercher squat.
“My all-time favorite and I feel a major part of our success (at Westside Barbell) is the Zercher squat. These are done off the floor or in a rack with a wide or close stance. This exercise will build every muscle in the body.”
Renowned MMA S&C coach Phil Daru lists the Zercher squat as one of his top five exercises for MMA performance.
“Zercher Squats are the most grappler friendly style of squatting you could do”.
If you didn’t see the recent UFC fight between Dustin Poirier and Conor Mcgregor, you more than likely heard about it. Here is a video of the victorious Poirier performing Zercher box squats during a strength and conditioning session.
The world’s strongest man competitor, Nick Best, who is also a world record holder for the farmers walk with 125kg handles, is one strong guy. This is Nick performing a heavy adapted Zercher squat using a harness.
I have also read numerous anecdotal reports from the Dragons Door Kettlebell community that they use Zercher squats to improve their performance in the barbell deadlift.
Bodybuilders often use the Zercher squat at a certain stage of their leg development, when they wish to focus more on the anterior muscles (quads) and less on the posterior (glutes and hamstrings). They will otherwise be judged negatively for having overdeveloped glutes.
Who is Back Squatting?
Let’s face it; most people squatting with weights are performing the back squat. If you browse www.strengthlevel.com you will see that the back squat is the technique used for the overwhelming majority of squats.
I’m sure you can formulate your own anecdotal opinion just by thinking about your local gym and how often you see people back squatting compared to other variations.
Back squats are the most prescribed version of squats for exercise programmes.
Why Back Squats?
I’ve heard them referred to as the king of exercises. I’ve read interviews where famous strength athletes call them their “desert island” exercise.
Back squats are without doubt one of the greatest “bang for bucks” exercises known to man.
They enable you to handle the most weight of any squat variation and are the go-to move for developing the highest levels of overall strength and power.
Numerous athletes use back squats in the pursuit of sports performance gains.
World-class strength and conditioning coach Jerome Simian discusses the overwhelming benefits of the barbell back squat for athletes.
“Acquiring the ability to do a strict full squat will help improve the hip, pelvis, and spine relationship. It means the relationship between the stiffness and the strength of the different tissue around those joints is balanced.”
Should I Zercher Squat or Back Squat?
Again, this is very much a question of specificity if you want to improve a particular sporting or strength-based activity or personal preference if your goals are less specific and involve more general overall strength gains.
- If your goal is to achieve consistent and measurable development of overall leg strength and torso conditioning, I would advise you to back squat regularly as part of your routine.
- If you are looking for a simple but effective strength and conditioning exercise, I would recommend the back squat.
- If you want to develop the quads more than the glutes and hamstrings, then the Zercher squat is an excellent alternative to the back squat.
- If you are looking for the incredible combination of leg strength with brutal isometric arm and torso strength, whether as a strongman, powerlifter, combat sports athlete, or to mix up your training with a fresh approach, try the Zercher squat.
- If you find that back squats aggravate your knees or lower back, the Zercher squat may help to alleviate the pain while still allowing you to squat.
If you are reading this article, chances are you already squat! The fact that you already participate in the holy grail of lifts, whether back, front, Zercher, or any other variation, means you are taking a massive step in enhancing your health, fitness, and strength.
Hopefully these articles have raised your awareness of the Zercher squat and possibly prompted you to add them to your routine, maybe to change the angle of attack slightly, or help alleviate a chronic injury.
I hope you enjoyed the deep dive into the Zercher squat, now go and enjoy getting under the bar and Zercher squatting!
 Gullett, JC, Tillman, MD, Gutierrez, GM, and Chow, JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res 23(1): 284–292, 2008