Zercher Deadlift; What Is It, How To Do It, Muscles Worked, Benefits & Drawbacks
The Zercher deadlift is one exercise that should have a front seat on your exercise regimen round table.
Unfortunately, this workout isn’t as popular as it should be.
And honestly, I feel we do this workout a big injustice by not embracing it as much as we should.
Mind you, it’s not even as difficult as some of the workouts we grind out every day. What gives? Why is the Zercher deadlift being pushed to the back burner?
Is it that most gym rats don’t know about it, or do they not realize (or simply ignore) just how effective this impressive powerhouse of a workout is?
If this exercise is new to you, you have landed right where you need to be. In this post, I will take y’all through all things Zercher deadlift, and break it down enough to get you started on your best foot.
Let’s dive in and dissect the lowdown of this amazing exercise.
What is the Zercher deadlift?
Before we get ahead of ourselves here, let’s first understand the Zercher deadlift.
Also known by its abbreviation, ZDL, the Zercher deadlift gets its name from the guy who inspired it – Ed Zercher, a strongman in the early 20th century – 1930s to be more precise.
In December 1934, The Arena and Strength reported that Edward Zercher had set a two hands deadlift record of 536 pounds, using a bodyweight of 165 lbs. Today, Ed Coan is widely regarded as the greatest powerlifter of all time – he holds over 71 world records.
The ZDL differs from your average deadlift performed on Smith machine with smith machine bar. Here, you hold the bar in the crook of the elbows. And yes, it seems kinda unconventional if not more of overkill. I know I said it’s not as difficult as some of the workouts we burst through all the time. I lied 😉
Don’t get it twisted, this exercise is simple, not easy (it can get brutal at high reps) – I will show you how it’s done in a few. It takes quite a great deal of strength to pull off, which makes it more suitable for serious athletes looking to take their game to the next pedestal.
Another thing I have to mention here is that the Zercher deadlift and Zercher squat are two different workouts, albeit the fact that you hold the bar in the same way.
Don’t mix up the two as most gym bros do, with the Zercher squat, you squat with the weight, and with the deadlift version, you start the move from the floor. It's also not recommended to perform squats and deadlifts on the same day. It's best to allow your muscles time to recover in between workouts.
How To Do The Zercher Deadlift
Here’s the fun part, if you are burning to give the Zercher deadlift a shot, this is how to go about it;
- Start by assuming that conventional deadlift pose, with the feet slightly wider than the hips, squatting down as far as you possibly can. Keep your upper back relaxed and rounded.
- Slip your hands under the bar at the center, all the way to the hook of your elbows. Rest the bar on your quads.
- Breathe in to stabilize your back and prevent it from shifting under the tension.
- With your core engaged, deadlift the bar to an upright position, standing from the squat position until you’re fully upright.
- Squat to the starting position as you reverse the steps to return the bar to the ground.
That’s one rep.
Repeat for the desired number of reps or sets as desired.
Here's how to do Zercher Deadlifts
How Much Should I Zercher Deadlift?
This will depend on your fitness level. If you are a male beginner, shoot for around 104 pounds, an intermediate lifter should be able to Zercher deadlift 224 pounds, while advanced and/or elite lifters can hit above these weights depending on their fitness level.
However, the average Zercher deadlift weight for a male is around 224 lbs for 1RM.
Female beginners should go for around 55 lbs, and intermediate ones should aim for around 127 lbs, with the average within 127 lbs (1RM).
*For more details on how much you should Zercher deadlift on parameters of weight or bodyweight ratio, refer to the tables below;
By Bodyweight Ratio
By Bodyweight Ratio
Different Lifter bodyweights
110 - 120
130 - 140
150 - 160
170 - 180
190 - 200
210 - 220
230 - 240
250 - 260
90 - 100
110 - 120
130 - 140
150 - 160
170 - 180
190 - 200
210 - 220
230 - 240
250 - 260
The overall weight includes the weight of the bar, which is usually around 44lb, but you can figure out exactly how much your bar weighs by the bar type.
Muscles Worked by Zercher Deadlifts
What makes Zercher deadlifts worth the time and effort are the results you can get out of this workout. In a nutshell, here are the primary muscles you get to work with this exercise;
- Trunk musculature – muscles in your lower back and abs
- Latissimus dorsi (lats)
You also get to work your hips and improve your knee extension thanks to the contribution of your quads.
The lats (mostly both upper and lower lats), rhomboids, and traps are more of supporting muscle groups, but hey, the important thing is that they get recruited.
Benefits of Zercher Deadlifts
There’s a hoard of perks to achieve with this workout, which ranges from burning calories to toning and seeing impressive muscle growth.
Get to burn more calories
One thing you can bet on with this exercise is that you are likely to achieve an impressive level of calorie burn. And it’s all thanks to the way you hold the bar. This means your muscles stay engaged throughout the entire move.
The amount of calories you can burn this way is insane.
You hit a variety of muscles
Besides the primary muscles used in Zercher deadlifts (the ones we’ve mentioned above), you also get to work other secondary muscles.
Since you hold the bar in the hook of the elbows, instead of having it sitting on the shoulders, you are also engaging your upper back and bicep muscles.
The biceps specifically do some serious haulage to keep the bar in position, which means with a high number of reps, you can still hit your muscles quite intensively.
You get to work your quad and glutes
What I love the most about this deadlift is how it not only works the upper body but also employs your lower body.
Among the most essential lower body muscles are the quads and glutes, the former makes you look strong, and it makes you strong indeed. The latter offers more than just strength, especially for the girls, having solidly toned glutes helps get rid of mom butt, build a bubbly butt, and get a round booty.
Better core strength
With your core engaged throughout the move, you should be able to build a great deal of core strength from doing Zercher deadlifts.
The workout puts your core in a position where it has to contract a bit harder to keep you stable. This is one the effective exercises that help you lose belly fat, tone your core, and potentially even sculpt out some 6-pack or 10-pack abs.
The benefits roll over to other workouts
The squat is among the workouts that you are likely to see improvement in after doing enough Zercher deadlifts. It's possible to perform squats every day after doing this exercise couple of weeks.
Although you can also do Zercher squats, this workout in particular compels the body into a posture you would assume when doing squats.
If you are recovering from an injury, or you’re a beginner who finds the squat too tough, then this workout can make for a perfect start.
Zercher Deadlift Drawbacks
Great as this workout is, it still harbors a fair share of downsides that you should be on the lookout for to stay safe.
Some discomfort on the elbows
Some people experience a certain level of discomfort in the elbows during or after this workout. After all, the way you have to hold the deadlift bar weight for this exercise is not quite the natural way of holding a barbell – neither is it for most other workouts.
However, although it might be uncomfortable at first, you will most likely get used to it over time as your elbows adapt to the new pressure. Also incorporating a Theragun into your pre- and post-workout routine can help your elbows recover quickly and provide pain relief.
Weakness in the upper back
This not only happens for Zercher deadlifts, lifters doing even doing T bar row end up with the same problem quite often if they neglect this area.
The odd configuration in which you have to hold the bar doesn’t help, especially when it comes to keeping your back rounded. So the best way out of this is to keep the number of sets and reps low. And if possible, do several reps in reverse towards the end of each session.
You Can’t Lift Much
Well, you can lift quite a lot this way, but you might be unable to deadlift as much as you would in a conventional deadlift.
As we have mentioned above, you are holding the bar in a rather unorthodox position.
With the weight nestled in the crease of the elbows, you have a different configuration that puts the load more on your upper body muscles than on your legs, and the weight is pulling you forward.
Now, your legs can take on a lot more weight, and your hands and upper body are likely to be fatigued rather faster. Hence, you might have to be limited as far as the weight you can deadlift.
Are Zercher deadlifts safe?
Yes, Zercher deadlifts are safe, but only as long as you’re doing the exercise right. The same goes for pretty much any other workout really, even the easiest of shoulder, chest and legs workouts can turn catastrophic without proper form.
That said, here are some mistakes you need to avoid to stay safe when doing Zercher deadlifts.
Mistakes to avoid when doing Zercher deadlifts
These will vary depending on your fitness level, but even seasoned nerds are likely to make mishaps occasionally, right? So yes, keep an eye out for these;
Loading too much weight – especially if you’re a beginner
If you load up on too much weight, too many things could go wrong. First, you are likely to cause injuries to your muscles, such as sprain on tendons or the potential to hurt your back.
Another risk you take by loading up too much weight is compromising your form. Several risks come with poor form.
Assuming the wrong form
Using the wrong form, whether during Zercher deadlifts or any other workout, exposes you to plenty of risks. You could also cause unnecessary strain on different parts of your body.
Doing (way) too many reps
There’s a great deal of risk associated with overdoing your workout – it’s called overuse injury. Some fitness buffs like pushing the limits with single-set training. The idea is to push yourself till you can’t go on anymore.
You sure can do this, but I’d strongly advise against it if you’re only starting – it’s better left to elite lifters whose bodies can withstand such strenuous undertakings.
Even so, I wouldn’t recommend doing workout six days a week if you haven’t before, you need to ease your body into the new challenge instead.
Make sure you don't workout 7 days a week to have enough rest days in between to allow your muscles enough recovery time – which is also crucial for muscle growth.
Not Warming Up
This goes not only for the Zercher deadlift workout but also for pretty much any other workout whether it's one punch man workout or full body workout every other day.
And it would be ignorant not to do some warming up before getting down to this exercise. After all, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on this.
Even if it’s several jumping jacks or jumping rops, a few minutes on your spin bike or treadmill, a few stretches, or several reps of bodyweight workout. This isn’t a must, but yes, some cool-down moves after your workout also go a long way.
Avoiding these mistakes will not only make your workouts that much safer, but it will also help you rake in more gains.
Zercher Deadlift FAQs
If you still have some more questions about the Zecher deadlift workout, here are some more answers;
Is a Zercher deadlift the same as a regular deadlift?
Not quite the truth. Although both these exercises are great for working muscles in the lower body, the Zercher deadlift is way better for working more upper back muscles than the conventional deadlift.
How can I avoid bruising my elbows during Zercher deadlifts?
Bruising or aching can result from this exercise when using the standard bar. If that’s the case, using a thicker bar (an axle bar would make for a great alternative here) can help.
The secret is in the wider diameter, which helps distribute the pressure exerted by the bar over a wide surface area thus preventing unwanted bruising.
Is there anything else I can do to alleviate the bruising?
Besides using a different bar, a pair of elbow sleeves does help, too. Since they are quite thicker, elbow sleeves provide much-needed cushioning thus preventing bruising from the bar.
Should I use dead-stop or touch-and-go?
This is all down to what you are aiming to achieve. If you’re a powerlifter or a weightlifter, then use the dead-stop. If you are training for other strength sports, then touch-and-go reps are the ones for you. The idea is to train the same way you intend to lift during the competition if that is what you’re training for.
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Hi there! I'm Ben, main author and chief editor at Fitlifefanatics.com. I have been obsessed with Strength Training and Fitness for 16 years now.
My passion for living a happy fit lifestyle is what made me realize that fitness is what I wanted for my future.
I went on to earn my Masters in Sports Training & Biomechanics.
My passion for Strength training & fitness and my love of helping others is what made me start Fitlifefanatics.
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