Know Your Exercise – Part 5: Zercher Drills
This is the fifth in a series of blogs in which we analyse some significant weight training exercises that somehow miss the attention of exercisers! The exercises are challenging – but then, the very objective of exercise is to CHALLENGE yourself. Do you not want to increase intensity through execution of exercise variations?
Manisha Nath, a super strength athlete and GĀYO Master Trainer introduces us to the Zercher “drills” –
- Zercher Squats
- Zercher Deadlifts
- Zercher Lunges
We use the label “drills” because we aim to cover through this humble blog all three aforementioned exercises.
St. Louis is a vibrant city in the middle of the USA. Located at the “sangam” of two magnificent rivers – the Mississippi and Missouri – it is famous for its fiercely loyal sports fans and blues music scene. In recent times, the city’s iconic Gateway Arch has become another touristic destination.
In the 1930s and 40s, Ed Zercher was a well-known strength athlete, resident of St. Louis. Famed for his hard core, “no frills, no fuss” training, he was one of the strongest men in USA during his athletic career. The United States All-Round Weightlifting Association (USAWA) has logged Zercher’s weightlifting career: “Hovering between 150 and 160 lbs (his) 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”
Reportedly, Zercher’s gym contained not even one squat rack. He needed to be inventive when it came to strength exercises for the lower body. He decided to deadlift the barbell into his mid-section and begin squatting that way. This happened in the early to mid-1930s.
The squat is the KING of EXERCISE. There are many variations and some of them are included in our student library of over 550 exercise videos. Once you master the Squat and its variations, you will start to enjoy leg workouts! Don’t forget to master the hip hinge and glute bridges before you start with load bearing squats.
Watch Manisha demonstrate and guide you through the fabulous Squat variation that definitely deserves more attention in the weight training rooms across the world – yes, even in St. Louis – the Zercher Squat. It is tough, challenging and therefore exciting!
The Zercher Squat zooms in on the muscles of your legs, upper back, and core.
Let’s reiterate the technique –
- Execute this variation by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Pick up the barbell and rest it in the crooks of your elbows.
- While keeping an erect torso position, flex your knees and lower the torso until the backs of your legs are parallel to the floor at the bottom of the squat. Remember to inhale through this negative phase
- During the negative and positive phase of the rep, brace your shoulders, chest and hips and engage your core.
- Pause for a second at the bottom position.
- To generate the upward movement, push your feet into the ground to initiate the knee extensions which will make you rise. Emphasize pushing through your mid foot and heel while keeping your toes engaged.
- As you begin to stand, keep your chest high, squeeze your glutes, and allow your knees to straighten and your hips to travel forward.
The Zercher Squats positively contributes to the improvement of your lower body strength. It activates muscles throughout your posterior chain including your hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles while simultaneously inducing the concentric contraction of the quadriceps.
This exercise increases your upper back strength. By engaging the upper back and shoulder muscles, it facilitates muscle size and postural strength more than a standard bodyweight squat.
Equally importantly, it improves your core stability: it activates the anterior stabilizers throughout the range of motion, particularly core muscles like the transverse abdominis.
A Zercher Deadlift is always lifted from the floor. Imagine – picking up the barbell in the crooks of your elbows, not with your fingers and lower arms!
Manisha demonstrates and patiently explains the technique of this challenging Deadlift variation.
Let’s revise the technique here.
- Start from a conventional deadlift pose. When approaching the barbell, your feet should be slightly wider than your hips. Squat down as low as you can. Relax your upper back and let it round.
- Slip your elbows under the barbells middle (which will be between your legs) and rest it on your thighs.
- Before beginning to lift, inhale deeply. Do not let your back shift while under tension.
- Keep your core contracted and deadlift the barbell fully to your upright position.
- Stand all the way up from the squatted position, then lower yourself to a squat again and go through the steps in reverse. Remember to return the barbell back to the ground in the exact reverse order.
If this Deadlift is not a common exercise, it is because is TOUGH!. Add to it the fact that nobody in your gym does it and so you do not have an opportunity to witness it in-person.
The Zercher Deadlift improves the body posture. Because of this increased strength and postural awareness, the exerciser gains more power and control in other strength lifting movements including the front and back squats as also the classic deadlifts.
Improving Squat Motions
The Zercher Deadlift ergonomically constrains your body into the most comfortable posture for squats. Some strength gurus actually use this exercise for beginners or in post-injury rehab.
Quad and Glute Activation
The upper body apart, Zercher Deadlifts also increase quadriceps and glute activation which is great choice for “glutes-centric” weight training.
Harder Core Engagement
Given the range of motion and intensity of the multiple-joint movement, your core works more intensely while performing the Zercher Deadlift than its traditional variations. If you fell your core is not as engaged in regular deadlifts or squats, this variation will offer a core challenging workout.
Manisha demonstrates and patiently explains the technique of this super compound movement for the lower body.
We advise you to master the basic lunge technique before progressing to this variation. And this presumes you will have mastered the hip hinge and glute bride variations well before starting squats and lunges! Our Academy students will of course have practice the lunge variations in class with the help of the exercise videos that we provide.
The Zercher Lunge effectively exercises the lower body. It improves functional biomechanics. Manisha says: “It activates the upper back and lats muscles. This is a critical but commonly overlooked component of correct and safe lunge and split squat mechanics.” The reason? The front loading of the barbell on the middle arms pulls directly on the upper back and thoracic spine. If the exerciser does not create adequate thoracic spine extension and “squeeze” the lats, the barbell will pull down (and over) the torso over causing it to collapse and lose her / his position. Failure to maintain a neutral spine also makes it nearly impossible to maintain a proper hip hinge position throughout the lunge. The hip hinge is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to improving mechanical efficiency: it places appropriate stress on the supporting musculature including the glutes and, in general, posterior chain while taking stress off the low back and knees.
With the weight loaded to the anterior of the abdomen, the Zecher Lunge improves core stabilization and neutral spine positioning during the movement. A braced spine and tight core are two other elements to improve lunge mechanics. Study Manisha’s demo which emphasizes the hip hinge position and keeps the exerciser from hyperextending the lower back that may result in an overly upright posture.
A correctly executed Zercher Lunge also significantly loads the hip joint of the leading leg. It is perhaps the single most effective weighted lunge and split squat variation in this regard. Many lifters place too much weight onto the quads and knee of the leading leg by allowing the hip and knee of that front leg to travel forward. While some lunge variations allow this “play”, it is virtually impossible with the Zercher Lunges as the exerciser will be pulled over by the front loading. In sum. the Zercher Lunge teaches the lifter to load the front hip while maintaining a “calibrated” forward lean and hip hinget throughout the range of movement.
Although the loading parameters make the Zercher lunge relatively difficult to implement with heavy loads, even lighter weights will cause the entire lower body including the glutes, quads, and hamstrings to receive intense stimulation. Several sets of 5-8 repetitions will more than suffice for crushing your legs and correcting your lunge and split squat technique. Super-setting these with plank variations can also help reinforce a tight core and rigid spine.
By the way, the heaviest Zercher Squat is 289.21 kg (637.61 lbs) Herbert White III (USA) on 10 March 2019. There is a whole lot of Zercher Lifts’ records waiting to be broken .. you interested to break them?!
Do let us know! Let’s share the joy of weight training!