Mentioned at various points on this particular site, the Zercher Squat has been described by many as one of the most effective but painful methods of building big quads. Uncomfortable to the nth degree, this lift isn’t exactly the most popular amongst gym goers. A point which leads us into today’s post. Why invent such a painful method of lifting? When did it come about and why has it remained with us today?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Zercher Squat was named after St. Louis strongman Ed Zercher who operated mainly in the 1930s and 40s. Known for his no nonsense attitude to training, a point epitomised by his bare essentials gym, Zercher was one of the strongest men in America during his athletics career.
In a fascinating callback, USAWA have detailed the great man’s career on the weightlifting circuit. Hovering between 150 and 160 lbs. Ed’s numbers were impressive to say the least. At the Fifth Annual Western AAU Weight Lifting Championships he boasted the following:
- One Hand Snatch 120 lbs.
- One Hand Clean & Jerk 130 lbs.
- Two Hand Military Press 170 lbs.
- Two Hand Snatch 145 lbs.
- Two Hand Clean & Jerk 200 lbs.
Total 765 lbs at 156 lbs!
Not bad eh? So whatever way he trained certainly seemed to work for him.
Creating the Zercher
Back to his no-nonsense, bare essentials training…
According to training lore, Zercher’s gym contained not one squat rack, meaning that he needed to be inventive when it came to matters of the lower body. Unlike Milo Steinborn who effectively flipped a barbell onto his back, Zercher decided to deadlift the bar into his mid-section and begin squatting that way. This happened in the early to mid-1930s.
A picture painting a thousand words and all that, a video must be much more valuable. With that in mind, Louie Simmons impressive lifts with the Zercher demonstrates tight form under considerable tension.
Why and How did it Become Popular?
Without any sound proof to the contrary I believe the lift’s popularity stemmed primarily from Ed Zercher’s high status within the American weightlifting community. Zercher was known to others such as Peary Rader, discussed elsewhere, and even became a member of the Amateur Athletic Union at the mid-century point.
Here he was able to discuss lifts with others, and by the 1960s, the Zercher Lift had become a sanctioned USAWA lift. A status it enjoys to this very day.
How and When Should it be Used?
Before we conclude today’s short post, it should be noted that this lift is not without its dangers and indeed its detractors. A good insight into this comes from Ironhistory.com where forum members highlight the danger this lift can provide to both lower back and bicep health.
From my own experiences, this lift was effective but exceedingly painful at times. The lower bar position forced me to brace my core much more regularly than I had been doing. Similarly it prevented me from cheating too much on the ascent of the lift. That being the case, it also resulted in two baseball like bruises on my inner elbows. Regardless I’ve turned to this lift in the past when shoulder injuries prevented regular squatting patterns or there’s been a need to freshen things up training wise.
In any case, I’ve found that low to medium reps i.e. 1-6 tends to work better, certainly on the mental side of things. One training partner used to swear by 20 rep Zercher Squats. To me that is akin to torture. So everyone has there one pain thresholds.
What about you? Have you used the Zercher Squat in the past? If so, let us know in the comments below.
As always… Happy Lifting!
Eric Bugenhagen owns the Zercher now.
Hi Sam, that’s awesome, thank you for the update!
Zercher squats are almost painless if you use a thick axel bar and wear elbow sleeves.
Nice one Doug! Hadn’t considered that at all. Right before Covid my gym got in axel bars so that is definitely something to try. It’ll be easier than bringing in a huge towel in the gym!