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Zercher Lifting: The Lost Art of Getting Massive

I love Zercher lifting in all it’s ten million forms and permutations, and there are a lot of them! This group of exercises has sadly fallen into obscurity in recent years, and even when they are done as part of a program people do them with weights so ridiculously light they may as well not have bothered. That’s not to say you should over-shoot your abilities to satisfy some arbitrary strength standard, just lift like you mean it!

Anyway, Zerchers. The legend goes that famous strongman Ed Zercher (who may pop up in a later installment of Badass INC.) invented the exercise that would later bear his name in his dungeon basement gym because of the lack of a squat rack, along with the free standing leg press (he would balance a bar weighing hundreds of pounds on his feet, lie on his back, and press it). Truly this man didn’t like doing things according to the norm. He was, however, strong as a goddamn orc with bicep tendons you could hoist an elephant with – and a lot of that strength stemmed from his odd-lifts, not least his own Zercher Lift.

The “pure” Zercher Lift is performed like this (taken from the USAWA rulebook):

“The bar starts on the platform and at the lifter’s discretion the bar is deadlifted to a position where it may be supported on the knees or thighs. Feet placement is optional, but the feet must be in line with the torso. The lifter will then bend down, with the bar resting on the legs, to a position in which the lifter is able to secure the bar in the crooks of the elbows. The lifter will then stand erect with the arms bent and the bar fixed at the articulation of the upper and lower arms.  The lifter’s arms may be inside or outside of the legs. The hands may be locked together. Once the bar is motionless, the legs straight, the body erect with shoulders upright, an official will give a command to lower the bar. The bar must be returned to the platform under control for the lift to be complete. It is acceptable to drop the bar once it is below the level of the knees provided that the hands follow the bar to the platform.”

Basically – deadlift the bar to your knees, rest it on your thighs, and use that as a platform to get your arms underneath and squat it up to full lockout in the crook of your elbows. Nothing to it!

This exercise will add extra depth to your squat which is never a bar thing, build your mid-back and core up to a strength comparable with a slab of steel, and pretty much works every other muscle in the body to some degree. If you’re interested in strongman but lack the specialised equipment needed to train for it Zercher Lifts are a great substitute for atlas stone lifting, and also condition your forearms for the conan’s wheel event. Massive win.


As well as the pure Zercher Lift there are a tonne of different variations you can do to spice things up or train different portions of the full exercise to eliminate your weaknesses and start shifting epic weights. Some of them are just great alternatives to regular exercises you might be doing as part of your regular gym training. Give them a try!

Zercher Squats

This one is a really good alternative to traditional squats. Simply rack the bar at the correct height (this might take a little trial and error as your arms will have a tendancy to drop lower during the set), secure it in the crook of your elbows, lift it out, and squat down untill your elbows touch your knees. Keep the bar tucked into your body and resist the temptation to let it fall forward.

Bottom Start Zerchers

These are probably my favourite Zercher variation. Set the pins in your squat rack so you’re below parallel squat depth and perform a zercher squat as above. These are incredibly tough since you have no elastic recoil to help you squat the weight up, it’s done from a dead start through a huge range of motion. Brutal. Once you lock it out squat it back down to the pins carefully. These are a fantastic exercise for getting used to deep squats.

Zercher Lockouts

Incredibly similar to the bottom-starts, but you set the pins a lot higher so the ROM is almost nothing – six inches is fine. What you lose in ROM, though, you’ll more than make up for in extra weight. The whole goal of lockouts is to condition your body and mind to handle weights far heavier than you could ever lift in the proper exercises – after doing lockouts with two to three times the weight you use for full Zerchers when you do go back to the lighter weight it’ll feel like nothing on your tendons and your mind.

Zercher Deadlifts

Don’t do these. They’re risky, dangerous, possibly stupid. But by god they’re awesome. If you were to ignore these warnings start LIGHT for the love of god. While a little round-back lifting is normal in the land of Ed Zercher, your back will be like a boomerang all the way through this exercise and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. Be careful.


To be honest you can plug these exercises into any exercise routine. Anywhere you need a lower body exercise like a squat, deadlift, or good morning these exercises can be substituted either as your main exercises in programs like 5/3/1, Westside, or Starting Strength. You can also go lighter and use them as accessory movements in those same routines, or do them for hypertophy. Do 3 sets of 10-15 on Zercher Squats and watch your mid-back and quads bulge through your clothes.

Zerchers are an old-school way of building real, usable strength. If you want to try something different or have to train with limited equipment they won’t let you down. Remember – average training builds average strength, if you want exceptional strength you have to train for it.

Do something different today. Do some Zerchers!!


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