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Smith machine Zercher squat: Learn how this underrated leg exercise separates the men from the boys

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Out of the many Smith machine quadriceps exercises, the Zercher squat is the toughest movement by far. So unsurprisingly, it's also the least performed. Especially among so-called "bodybuilders" that are only too happy to tell you that they're training for size—not strength.

The truth is that the Zercher squat will get you jacked and fit like no other leg exercise—if you do it correctly. In fact, you can squat deeper on Zerchers than on any other squat variation. So please, spare me the "I'm training for size, not strength" BS.

Do them on the Smith machine if you want to tax your legs without frying your core. But be warned, doing Smith machine Zercher squats in a hardcore gym might earn you a new nickname and a spot on a gym fail compilation.

You can dodge this side-effect, most likely, by squatting deep. Everyone respects a deep squatter—regardless of the equipment that they're training on. So go deep or go home.

"The Zercher squat can build quads better than the front squat. It can jack up your traps better than shrugs. It can give you a core of steel faster than most ab work."
Christian Thibaudeau
Strength Coach & T-Nation Author

Smith machine Zercher squat exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Spinal erectors, traps, hamstrings, calves, abs
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, weightlifting belt, squat shoes
  • Exercise purpose: Build size in the quads and glutes, improve upper back strength, and increase work capacity.

How to Smith machine Zercher squat

Here's the proper way to do squats on Smith machine stations for maximum leg activation and athletic performance.

Step 1 — the setup

  1. Set the Smith bar to waist height. Then, squat underneath it with a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance so that the barbell is in line with the crease of your hip (while you're in the squat position).
  2. Extend your arms underneath the bar and then rotate your wrists so that your arms are in a neutral position.
  3. Now elevate your arms until the bar is resting in the crux of your elbow.
  4. Curl your fists towards your head, as if you were doing a hammer curl (but with your arms straight out in front of you).
  5. This is the starting position.

Note: You can also cross your arms at this point by placing each hand on its opposite shoulder. However, I feel that the neutral grip that I've just shown you offers more stability, which is the name of the game when it comes to effective Smith machine training.

Step 2 — the descent

  1. Push your feet into the floor for maximum stability and then make sure that your spine is neutral and that your eyes are looking straight ahead.
  2. Contract your glutes and abs as you unrack the bar by pushing forcefully through the floor.
  3. Now descend down by breaking at your hips first and then allowing your knees to travel outwards. You know that your form is on point when your elbows are just inside your knees at the bottom of the squat.
  4. Squat as deeply as you comfortably can while maintaining a neutral spine.

Step 3 — the ascent

  1. Push through the floor—explosively—by keeping most of the weight on your midfoot and heels.
  2. As you explode up, make sure that your elbows and neck are in neutral positions. This ensures that you don't round your lower back.

Note: You'll naturally push through the balls of your feet to an extent, too. But avoid letting your heels come off the ground, which is an indication that you've gone too deep or have poor ankle mobility.

Zercher squat form tips

Brace your core

young man performing barbell squats

If you don't adequately brace your core here's what happens: your Zercher squat essentially turns into a Zercher deadlift.

This is actually another Zercher variation (and a good one at that). However, the extra back activation provided by Zercher deadlifts comes at the expense of leg stimulation, which obviously defeats the purpose of squatting.

Instead, you want to make sure that your upper back, abs and glutes are tightly contracted before you begin the first rep. This prevents the bar from pulling your torso forwards, which leads to more muscle recruitment in the quads, and eventually, bigger, stronger legs.

Break at the hips first

athletic woman exercising her legs

Despite absolutely smashing your quads, Zerchers aren't like front squats or hack squats in the sense that you break the knees first. In fact, doing so will greatly limit your range of motion, and thus, your muscle growth.

By breaking at the hips first, you can squat deep, comfortably. Since the bar is resting in the crux of your elbows, the resistance is already centred over your thighs—breaking at the knees in an attempt to tease out more quad stimulation will only cause you to lose your balance. And less balance equals less strength, which as you know, equals less muscle growth.

Push your knees out

people at an exercise class

If you use the neutral grip that I recommended above, then pushing your knees out is a piece of cake.

When you allow some slight knee flare, you're opening up your hips and giving your elbows room to manoeuvre. In other words, your elbows won't hit your thighs and impair your range of motion.

Squat deep

woman performing a deep barbell squat

The beauty of Zercher squats is that they allow for effortless deep squatting because the bar is less likely to topple forwards compared to the likes of back squats. So as I said in the intro, go deep or go home.

Recommended training gear for Zercher squats

1. Knee Sleeves

man doing squats in his beast gear knee sleeves

Zercher squats tax the quads more than virtually any other type of squat. As a result, it's crucial to invest in the proper training gear if you want to ensure that your knees stay healthy in the long term.

These Premium Beast Gear Knee Sleeves support your patella and provide your joints with more stability so that you're less likely to get injured. They also enable you to recover faster and get back in the gym sooner by promoting blood flow and reducing swelling.

These Knee Support Brace Compression Sleeves are also a good option if you're on a budget. They have a non-slip fit to prevent them from sliding down your legs during intense Zercher training. Plus, the 3D circular technology contours to the human knee by offering more snug support near your actual knee joint (and a wider fit near the thighs). Naturally, this makes them extremely comfortable for squats.

2. Elbow sleeves

If you're fairly lean, just pressing on the crux of your elbow feels uncomfortable. So it's extra important to protect this vulnerable area with either a thick bar pad or some dedicated elbow sleeves.

man putting on his iron bull elbow sleeve

These Iron Bull Strength Elbow Sleeves, for example, do a great job at providing rugged support without limiting your flexibility. As a result, they enable you to squat comfortably, but they also don't restrict your ability to get into the proper upper body Zercher position.

I also like the Urban Lifters Elbow Sleeves for heavy lifting because the 7mm padding provides loads of protection for my rather small joints. I don't see them degrading in quality, either, because they've got sturdy double stitching in all the key areas.

3. Squat shoes

adidas powerlift weightlifting shoes

Personally, I like to squat barefoot when I can. But some modern gyms are so rigid with so-called "health and safety" that they think squatting barefoot is a crime.

So most of the time, I end up squatting in my Addidas Powerlifts so that I can maintain proper posture. Compared to running shoes, which cause my ankles all kinds of trouble, these weightlifting shoes help me transfer tons more force to my squatting muscles, which makes a big difference while I'm pushing out of the hole.

Zercher squat muscles worked

Quads

close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

It's a well-established fact that deep squats maximise quad activation. So with Zerchers being the squat variation that allows for the deepest range of motion, they naturally also provide the greatest quadriceps stimulation.

Glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

The glues are very active during Zercher squats because you typically use a wider stance than with regular squats. Best of all, this extra glute activation doesn't come at the expense of quad stimulation, which is a common side effect of other squat variations.

Abs

bodybuilder flexing his upper body

There are few compound exercises that work the abs as hard as Zercher squats. And yes, even on a Smith machine you still need to contract your abs hard to keep the bar upright.

Traps

bodybuilder flexing upper body muscles

Like the abs, the traps and the rest of your upper back—lats, rhomboids, rear delts—all work intensely to keep your thoracic spine neutral, which prevents the bar from toppling over.

Obviously, these muscles have less work to do on the Smith machine variation, which might actually be a good thing if you're bodybuilding since you can more easily focus on your legs.

Spinal erectors

Shirtless athletic man turned back on white background.

The erector spinae helps to stabilise your spine under heavy loads. It's highly active during any compound exercise.

But thanks to the unique bar placement, I find that my lower back is slower to fatigue on Zerchers than on other types of squats. This means that I can get more reps and add size to my legs faster.

Biceps

bodybuilder doing cable curls

Doing Zerchers is a great way to improve your biceps endurance because your bis have to contract isometrically to keep the bar upright.

Hamstrings and calves

bodybuider training his hamstrings

Like your back and biceps, your hamstrings are calves help to stabilise the weight during Zercher squats. However, you won't really feel them working since they're not getting much of a stretch or contraction.

Hidden Zercher squat benefits

Increased work capacity

Muscular crossfit athlete exercising with kettle bell

Zercher squats are a top choice among athletes because they improve your conditioning more effectively than virtually any other type of squat.

Since you're squatting lower and your arms are closer to your torso, your ribcage has less room to expand, so your lungs naturally have to work harder to get the oxygen that they need [1].

As a result, you develop a long-lasting work capacity while building powerful legs, which are two attributes that almost any athlete needs.

Stronger upper back

bodybuilder showing off his muscular back

To succeed in the land of the Zerchers, you'll need to keep your torso straight like a plank. Now, that torso can bend at the hips a little bit, but your actual spine should never round. Of course, mastering this form is easy with no weight. But add in a loaded barbell, and things get a whole lot tougher [2].

So here's a quick tip: think about raising your elbows to the sky—as if you were doing a front raise with bent elbows. Try it now. I bet your chest raised up too, didn't it?

If it did, then congratulations! Because you've already mastered the upper half of proper Zercher squat form. But why is this so beneficial?

Well, let me put it to you like this: by engaging your upper back muscles to stabilise your thoracic spine, you naturally develop greater control of your upper back musculature. This control carries over to virtually all your other exercises: front squats, back squats, rows and even bench press. And it makes you much stronger.

Bigger biceps

muscular man looking at his biceps

With Zercher squats, every day is arm day. Even though your biceps are only getting worked isometrically, it's still enough stimulus to spark new growth, and it'll definitely improve their endurance [3].

I know that endurance might not seem like a big benefit if you're a bodybuilder, but it actually is. The more endurance your biceps have, the more reps and sets you can do. And we all know that training volume—the combo of reps and sets—is the main driving force behind muscle growth.

Improved mental toughness

man wearing black boxing gloves

I'm not going to sugar coat it. Zercher squats suck!

At first, anything over 5 reps will feel like high-intensity cardio. And without a decent pair of elbow sleeves, your fragile arm bones will be begging you to stop.

And most people do, which is why they never achieve a great physique. But by pushing past the pain, you instantly separate yourself from the 99% of gym-goers who'd rather do half rep back squats to satisfy their egos. Don't be like them.

Better squat form

man performing deep squats

As I learnt from Christian Thibaudeau, Zercher squats actually make you a better back squatter because they necessitate textbook squat form by design [4]. If you don't allow your knees to drift out, your elbows will hit your thighs, turning your Zercher squat into some sort of weird Zercher rack pull off your legs.

Zercher squat alternatives

Smith machine sissy squat

Doing a sissy squat on your Smith machine is a great way to isolate your quads and make them grow.

If you're an athlete that requires explosiveness, though—don't bother with them. Because they encourage you to be quite static, in my opinion. Plus, without some good knee sleeves, sissy squats can be quite tough on the patella, which as an athlete, you want to protect at all costs.

Goblet squat

Successful goblet squats require you to keep your chest up, back straight, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell with your arms and above all, squat deeply. As a result, they're just about the best accessory movement for getting stronger at Zercher squats.

Barbell Zercher squat

Bodybuilders can get away with doing the Smith machine Zercher squat all their lives. But athletes without injuries should start on the barbell version from day one because it activates more core and upper back muscles [5].

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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