Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Zercher Deadlift

Aris DeMarco

Of all the many ways to pick a barbell up off the floor, the zercher deadlift is perhaps the most dangerous, and definitely one of the hardest. It's a way of making a simple act unnecessarily difficult; kind of like putting a feral cat in the tub before taking a bath. It's basically the 'overly manly man' of deadlift variants.

...you get the idea. 

Ed Zercher was a lifter in the 1930s and quite a strong one at that. According to Rogert Lapointe, in one weightlifting competition Ed managed the following numbers--

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.
--Weighing only 156! 
(Check out my past blogs on continental weightliftingMaxick, and Bob Peoples for more)

Zercher's lower body strength was even better than those numbers suggest, however. 

Wally Strosnider writes: "Ed trained a lot of different lifts. He did Hip Lifts, Harness Lifts, One Hand Deadlifts, One Finger Deadlifts, Bent Presses, Side Presses, Crucifixes, Two Hands Any How (actually the name of a lift), and more... Ed would lay on his back on the platform, place an Olympic Bar on his bare feet and do Leg Presses - full and deep. I saw him do 250 lbs. for 100 reps at a meet at the state pen. I saw him do reps with the bar loaded to 250 lbs. and his 225-lb. son-in-law sitting on the bar. Ed was in his late 60's at the time."


The barbell leg press, which was actually fairly commonly done at the time; was one way Zercher had of building leg power without a squat rack. I haven't tried it and don't intend to, but it appears that heeled boots, spotters, and ridiculous hip flexibility are necessities to perform that lift, as well as a honey badger's attitude regarding life. 

Ed patronized another variety of lifting, however, one that retains his name to this day--he took to lifting barbells in the crook of his elbows instead of in his hands or on his shoulders. 
The 'zercher lift', a USAWA/IAWA competition lift, involves sumo deadlifting a barbell, resting it on one's thighs before sliding one's arms under the bar and squatting it up from a dead stop. Here's Ric Garcia adeptly demonstrating that movement: 

As can be seen, it is a fairly drawn-out lift and involves a satisfying effort of coordination. It's also harder than it looks at first glance... the lack of stretch reflex from the 'dead stop' makes the squat portion quite difficult. 

Here I am in the start of the 'squat' portion. Way more than I can actually Zsq, by the way.

It's an excellent lift to teach grinding a lift without any momentum; wedging between the bar and the floor, and hinging properly at the hips. Due to the bar being a bit closer to the lifter's center of gravity, and not being restricted in its placement by an individual's shoulder mobility; the Zsq is quite a valuable teaching tool. Strongfirst teaches the Zsq (taken off the racks, and starting from the top) as one of its primary barbell squatting variants, along with the front and back squat. I'll leave it to Pavel to describe the benefits of the Zsq in full: http://www.strongfirst.com/the-best-squat/.

The zercher deadlift (which I've also seen referred to as the 'spider lift' and 'mansfield lift') is basically the same thing, but picking up the barbell in the crooks of your arms from the floor instead of your legs. Think about that for a second... it is an incredibly awkward lift. First, it drastically extends the range of motion of a normal deadlift--for me, it's roughly equivalent to doing a 16'' deficit deadlift; or starting with the bar 8 inches below floor level. And, of course, 'lockout' has the bar quite a bit higher than a normal deadlift as well. Second, it requires the lifter to assume a rather uncomfortable hunched-over position. Some degree of spinal flexion is unavoidable, and a lot of hip (flexion) and ankle (dorsiflexion) flexibility is required to even reach the bar. 
What's it look like? Here's my best ZDL to date: 

300x1 weighing 138, which is actually not bad.

And here is a picture of Pavel Tsatsouline doing a ZDL in Stuart McGill's lab: 

As is readily apparent, the position for the ZDL is perhaps best described as 'compromised'. The vast majority of people will not be able to perform this lift safely with heavy weights. Two simple tests:

1. Put a pair of 45s--or bumper plates of any weight--on a barbell, squat down, slide your forearms under the bar, and wedge yourself tight under the bar. If you cannot do this comfortably (i.e. without over-stretching anything), you should not try heavy ZDL. 

2. Have you adapted to loading your back in a position of flexion? Unless you have done specific work towards this purpose, or are a very strong grappler (accustomed to lifting opponents at odd angles and without a flat back) or a strongman (accustomed to lifting atlas stones), or perhaps have a history of manual labor (and no back pains or injuries as a result) you should not try heavy ZDL.

2a. If you have tremendous hip flexibility and excellent T-spine mobility in flexion, you may be able to perform the ZDL with a neutral lumbar region. Do not try to do so unless you are accustomed to deadlifting heavy with a neutral low back and 'relaxed' upper back, as David Hansen and Konstantin Konstantinovs do; and have the flexibility to maintain this position for the ZDL. 

The ZDL will always have some degree of risk due to the rather extreme position, but if you keep the above in mind the danger should go way down. A few years back, a few people on an internet message board had a very motivated competition to get the heaviest ZDL possible. Safety? Ha! They liked to say that 'Crom will protect us'. As it turns out, none of them got injured and some of them went quite heavy--400 @ 220, I believe, and 352 @ 180 or so. I believe the former person had a long history of manual labor, though, and the latter was a grappler. This adaptation to loaded flexion is more likely to have protected them than Crom, but it's a nice idea nonetheless. Anyhow....

Who/what is the ZDL good for? I'm not sure if it's really worth doing for anyone, though it could be an exercise for grapplers in the offseason--bodyweight on the bar x5 slow and controlled reps with a 'silent set-down' might be a good goal. Pavel wrote someplace that Alexander Karelin did ZDL with 440 for sets of 10, which is rather sobering. The ZDL could also be a useful accessory for strongmen competitors who do not have access to atlas stones. After all, the ZDL resembles nothing so closely as a stone lift from the ground: 

Bryce Lane on the ZDL: 
"...It takes wild flexibility and some degree of reckless courage.... Gave it a shot. 300#/3r from the floor. Not so elegant on the last one though. Using a thick bar helps comfort, it also makes it easier to roll out of your arms... I just try to keep it as close to me as possible so the leverages is better and it won't roll so easily. Brian Amundsen worked up to the mid-300s on this lift to help his stone lifting a few years back."

Brian Amundsen:
"I've done 345 in the spider deadlift/zercher deads. After a few sessions getting down to the bar is not too hard. I worked up to the mid 300s... was pulling mid 500s at the time. If I could do... 405x5 I'd think the carryover would be similar."

Louie Simmons:
"Zercher lifts will build every squat and deadlift muscle in your body with the exception of your hands... Ed Zercher intended for the bar to be lifted off the floor in the crook of your elbows. At 181, I made 320 off the floor and an official deadlift of 670 in 1973. But at 198, I could no longer bend over far enough to hook the bar in my elbows" (Westside Barbell Book of Methods pg 179). 
I believe Louie classified the ZDL as a special exercise for the deadlift, but I'd have to go back and re-read WSBBBM to check. He also invented a zercher harness for... ahem... larger lifters to get some benefits of doing the zercher squat/deadlift. 

Adam Glass: 
"Start light and work up... your back will round over some just like picking up anything in real life. This is an essential drill for grapplers."

Ben Edwards: 
"I used to be very flexible when my bodyweight was 150lbs (until I was 25 years old) and this was a strange lift that I was way above average on the first time I tried it.  I know I did over double bodyweight the first time I tried it, but I don’t remember if I hit 315lbs or 325lbs at 150lbs bodyweight.
Never “trained” the lift, but I do recall doing it maybe a half dozen times from 1993 to 2001.  I saw a guy in the rec center here in Lawrence (KS) doing it back in 1993.  He was about 6′ and probably close to 250lbs.  Over 50 years old, but he never told me exactly how old he was.  Very muscular guy.  He called it a “prisoner lift” – which is what he said it was referred to as when he was serving a prison sentence in the 80s.

[He did] 315lbs for a single as a “warmup” lift in the Zercher Deadlift,[which was] remarkable.  He moved the bar so fast with 315lbs on it that the bar jumped off his elbows at lockout.  Given the ease of the lift, all of us in the weight room were surprised when he dumped the bar (no bumper plates) from above waist height.  Then he loaded the 90lbs back on and left the weight room for so long that I thought he had gone home for the day... about 30 minutes later he strolled back in (he addressed the room and said that he had “fallen asleep” in the locker room) and did an ugly Zercher Deadlift with 405lbs.  It was an amazing lift.  One I will never forget witnessing."

The strongest ZDLs I've seen online come from a quadzilla named Matt Hastie. Here's 440x5, he also has a video of 400x10 and claims 510x1. No idea of bodyweight. 

Technique for the ZDL? There isn't a whole lot, but for those of you who believe you can perform the lift safely (or don't, but are using substances impairing your better judgement) here are some pointers. If you've ever lifted atlas stones, most of these cues will come pretty naturally to you:

-Put your feet somewhere around the stance you use for your conventional DL. Turning your feet out more than your normally would is probably a good idea, it'll help get your knees out of the way. The bar should definitely be right up against your shins... leverage is everything with this lift. 
-Wedge your elbows in along the insides of your legs and get the bar on the meat of your forearm right below the inside of your elbow. A lot of chalk here will help keep the bar from rolling away. Don't use a towel or pad unless you want the bar to slip. You'll get some interesting bruises the first time but it doesn't hurt as much as you might think. 
-Get TIGHT. Push your feet into the floor, maximally depress and protract your scaps, squeeze your glutes and clench your fists. Try to 'connect' your abs, lats, glutes, and erectors. Hollow position!
-Start slow. Definitely do not yank the bar off the floor. Begin by 'pushing your feet through the floor', but try to get your hams and glutes to take the brunt of the load. Optimal leverage will be different for everyone; for me my hips are actually above my shoulders when the bar leaves the floor. 
-Once the bar gets above your knees think of rowing it back into your belly with your lats. This seems to be the most dangerous portion of the lift, as the bar tends to drift out in front. Don't let this happen--get it in close to your stomach and only then push your hips forward to finish. 
-Do not drag the bar up your legs or rest it on your thighs. 
-Do not try and put the bar down slowly from the top. Just drop it and make sure it doesn't hit your knees on the way down. 
-If you are ever in any doubt of completing the lift, just drop the bar. I haven't had a heavy weight pull me out of my braced position with this lift but would not like to find out what happens if it does....

For those of you who do not plan on doing heavy ZDLs but have read this far: 

I've got a little something for you too. It's a warmup drill that kinda mimics the ZDL and will help stretch out your hips and hamstrings by adding an extra step to the goblet squat. Basically, do a prying goblet squat: 

But as you 'pry' at the bottom, place the bell on the ground. Slowly raise your hips while keeping the bell on the ground, and your elbows inside your knees. When you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings, curl the bell back up to the top position and slowly hinge forward to stand up (think of a barbell good morning). From the top: 
-squat down
-pry back and forth
-bell down
-raise hips
-bell up
-hips forward

Potentially, reverse the movement from there: 
-with the bell held at the top...
-hinge back until your elbows touch your knees
-slowly lower your hips into a full squat
-raise hips again and hinge forward to finish

I'm not sure what to call it (goblet good morning?), but 'discovered' this move when I was fooling around with ways to make the ZDL useful and... I really like it. I'm going to be incorporating it into my warmups from now on. 
(If my explanation isn't good I can take some pictures/videos when I get a free moment). 

As always--hoped you enjoyed the article. I've been frightfully busy as of late but learning a lot, much of which will be the subject of future blog posts. 


  1. Great article, Aris! Quite good reading. The tip on "rowing" the weight into the body will save a lot of missed lifts. The other tips are priceless too.

    -Ben Edwards

  2. Have you seen eric bugenhagen do this lift? Crazy dude

  3. Great article. Great lift. Cheers!