With the rising popularity of CrossFit and weight lifting, you’ve likely seen the overhead squat somewhere. It has fantastic benefits for everything from your calves to your traps; however, it can be intimidating if you haven’t mastered it (or even tried it, for that matter!).
But that doesn’t mean you should toss it to the side. Whether you are an experienced lifter or a beginner, this full-body mobility exercise should be a part of your program.
If the back squat is the king of building lower body muscle, the overhead squat is king for highlighting any movement flaws. Unfortunately, that means most people abandon it too soon, frustrated by their lack of mobility and a longer learning curve.
That’s where I come in. I’m here to teach you why you should be patient with this exercise, keep practicing it, and be rewarded for your efforts by reaping all its benefits.
Table of Contents:
- What Is The Overhead Squat?
- How To Perform The Overhead Squat
- Common Mistakes To Avoid
- Overhead Squat Muscles Worked
- Overhead Squat Benefits
- Overhead Squat Variations, Alternatives, & Progressions
- Overhead Squats Programming Tips
What Is The Overhead Squat?
The overhead squat is a squat variation performed by lifting the weight overhead, keeping it in that position, and squatting with it. It’s most often done with a barbell, but there are many other progressions and variations to fit whatever your training level.
Even though it is a compound exercise, it doesn’t provide the same strength benefits as the back squat. While the back squat is superior for load and building strength, the overhead squat acts more as a full-body mobility exercise. It does wonders as a functional movement screen for your body and highlights muscle imbalances in your squat form.
That makes tight hips and ankles, poor thoracic extension, and shoulder flexibility common issues when practicing this movement. Even though these are the main limiting factors, you can still find a regression that works for you as you improve your mobility.
Remember that mobility doesn’t come after one corrective exercise session. Instead, mobility is built through building a better range of motion and learning to control it. The overhead squat does precisely that for your squat pattern.
Once you understand what you need to work on, practicing it as if it were a golf swing is the way to go. Use it as a warmup, to build functional strength, or to build your conditioning and endurance with higher reps. Either way, it has a place in your workout split.
Correct Overhead Squat Form
The overhead squat can be intimidating, and it’s important to know that this movement has a learning curve. Make sure you start at whatever level you need to and don’t jump under a loaded bar if you’ve never done it before.
Like any other exercise, if you can follow some specific details and guidelines, you’ll find success.
How to do the Overhead Squat:
- Set up under the bar as if you’re going to do a high bar back squat. Start with feet shoulder width to hip width apart.The bar should be resting on your upper traps, and your elbows should be pulled under the bar, pointing down, not behind you. Use a wider grip than your back squat stance as if performing a snatch.
- Slightly extend your wrist so that it is not locked out. Take a deep breath to brace your core and dip your hips slightly to press the weight overhead while locking your elbows out. Think of sliding your back down a wall and powerfully driving the bar upwards.
- With your feet just outside hip width in a regular squat stance, begin your descent and keep the bar above your head and in line with your midfoot. Slightly hinge at the hips to engage your posterior chain as you squat down as deep as you can maintain the bar in the same position overhead.
- Once you reach your end range of motion, pause for a second. Your knees should be in line with your feet and slightly over your toes, and your head should look straight forward with an upright upper body.
- Drive up from the bottom of the squat, ensuring your hips and chest rise simultaneously. Stand back to the starting position and repeat.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
Take care to avoid these mistakes, especially when just getting started with the overhead squat.
1) Leaning Too Far Forward:
To overhead squat correctly, maintain an upright position and safely keep the bar overhead, ensuring you do not lean forward. If you don’t hinge at the start to engage the posterior chain, you’ll likely fall forward.
Other times, this mistake is caused by poor shoulder or hip mobility, tight ankles, or a weak core.
2) Knees Caving In:
Knee valgus, or when your knees collapse at the bottom of the squat, is often a sign of weak or inactive glutes. Ensure your posterior chain is engaged to help extend the hips and abduct the legs on the way up.
A few sets of bodyweight squats with a band around your knees or ankles can help engage the glutes and prevent this issue.
3) Losing Core Stiffness:
If you feel your back hyperextend at the bottom, it could be several things. Your core could be too weak to handle the load, or your hips could be rising before your chest does.
Either way, maintain that upright posture, and don’t let your back hyperextend. If you find core stiffness is the issue, keep your overhead squat load low, and start incorporating plank variationsto increase your core strength.
4) Starting At The Wrong Progression:
Most people get right under a bar with some weight on it and wonder why they can’t complete the lift.
Even if you’re a seasoned lifter but new to overhead squatting, try some of the progressions we list in this article before you add load to a bar. As you work to get the correct form, it’s even a good idea to just use your body weight.
Remember, it’s more of a mobility exercise than a strength exercise.
Overhead Squat Muscles Worked
The short answer? Everything! This exercise is slightly different from most in your strength training program. Movements like a single-arm dumbbell row or a lying hamstring curl have an obvious purpose for what they are building.
The row would build the lats, and the lying curl hits the hamstrings. These are examples of open-chain, single-joint, kinetic exercises that effectively isolate a muscle group.
On the other hand, the overhead squat is a closed kinetic chain exercise, which means it works multiple joints through the movement. These muscles include the neck, shoulders, lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, knees, and feet/ankles. As such, you need intense coordination from your entire body to work together as a cohesive unit during the lift.
This movement isn’t necessarily a huge muscle-building option, but it will help you discover energy leaks and the areas you need to bring up to speed. That makes it terrific for teaching the body to work together, building serious core strength, and targeting some imbalances you may not have noticed.
Overhead Squat Benefits
Let’s take a look at some of the best benefits of overhead squats.
1) Identify Weak Links And Improve Mobility:
The number one benefit of this movement is that it will immediately shine a spotlight on the area lacking mobility or strength.
Often, tight hips or ankles hinder someone’s ability to sit deep into their heels. Poor thoracic extension will make it tough to maintain an upright position. No matter what it is, the overhead squat will point it out.
The cool thing is that the more you practice the overhead squat, the more mobile your entire body gets. After weeks of working at it, I guarantee you’ll notice a difference in yourankle and hip mobility.
2) Better Quads:
As keeping the bar overhead necessitates an upright torso, this exercise will give you fantastic quad development.
Remember, you won’t be able to load it as heavy as a back squat to build muscle, but it still does a great job of targeting the quads to strengthen knee flexion and extension.
3) Increase Focus And Coordination:
This lift will require extra attention to detail since almost every muscle is involved in maintaining position.
Everything from your feet to your shoulders will need to be engaged to prevent form breakdown. There is no way to cheat this exercise and do it with sloppy technique.
4) Improve Posture:
Practicing this movement is going to have a direct impact on your full-body mobility. Your shoulders need to be strong and mobile enough to stabilize the weight overhead.
Improving your thoracic extension and hip and ankle mobility will immediately improve your posture. In a society where excessive sitting is the norm, any movement that trains proper posture and builds core strength is an excellent addition to your program.
5) Strengthen Other Lifts:
The stronger and more stable your core and shoulders get, the more weight you can handle. Remember, your core is the foundation of your house, so strengthening your base with the overhead squat will allow you to get under more weight.
Overhead Squat Equipment Variations
Regardless of whether you have a barbell, dumbbells, a resistance band, or even a broomstick, there is a multitude of equipment options you can use to perform the overhead squat. Here’s a look.
- Broomstick, towel, PVC pipe:These are all great starting points for your overhead squat as they allow you to hold something overhead without adding significant load to the movement. Think of these as the necessary training wheels that teach you how to ride a bike.
- Resistance band:This is a fantastic option for adding light resistance to your overhead squats. Stepping on a band and holding it overhead will pull your body down, forcing you to maintain the upright position.
- Weight plate:The next step in the progression is holding a weight plate with both hands overhead. With the hands closer, this will challenge your shoulder mobility, but the plate is easier to hold.
- Dumbbells:Whether using one or a set of dumbbells for an overhead dumbbell squat, this progression allows you to add more resistance and challenges your overhead mobility even further. You can even turn it into a single dumbbell overhead squat.
- Kettlebells:A kettlebell overhead squat will have the same effect as a dumbbell, but the weight distribution around your hand will feel different.
- Barbell: The final step in the overhead progression is the barbell overhead squat. This allows the most load to be added to the movement.
Overhead Squat Alternatives
If you’re not ready to dive into a full overhead squat, or you just want to mix things up, try these alternatives.
1) Overhead Lunge:
This single-leg lunge exerciseis still fantastic for building core strength with an overhead position. It’s going to develop total body coordination and stability while fixing imbalances.
The added challenge of walking forward during the reps helps improve proprioception. Plus, holding the load overhead will also work the upper back.
How to do the Overhead Lunge:
- Grab a weight plate or set of dumbbells and press overhead, locking your arms out.
- Brace your core and keep the weight directly above your head while you step one leg forward, and as you plant that foot, begin to bend your knees and sink into a lunge. At the bottom, both legs should look at a 90-degree angle.
- Exhale and drive your front foot through the floor while keeping your arms straight overhead and bring yourself back to the upright standing position before stepping into the next lunge.
2) Zercher Squat:
The Zercher squatis a cross between a weighted carry and a squat. Even though it’s not an overhead position, this squat position challenges your core strength as the bar rests on the crook of your elbows in front of your body.
Additionally, the need for an upright posture gives you similar quad benefits as the overhead squat.
How to do the Zercher Squat:
- Load your barbell, place it in the crease of your elbows, and interlock your hands or make a tight fist with each hand.
- Lift the bar off the rack and assume your normal squat stance with feet just outside hip-width apart.
- Keep an upright posture and squat as deep as possible to maintain this position with your upper body. Keep your mid and low back neutral, and push up with your arms as you squat. Your elbows should travel inside your knees. If they hit the knees, widen your stance more.
- Drive your feet through the floor to stand up and repeat.
Overhead Squat Progressions
Don’t attempt any of these advanced progressions until you’ve mastered the basic overhead squat form. But if you’re ready for a challenge, these moves are for you!
- Pause Squat:Once you have added weight to the barbell overhead squat, you can challenge yourself with pause squats to build strength at the bottom. Squat down and pause for 3-5 seconds before standing up. This is going to be even more challenging for your core to maintain that upright position.
- Tempo Squat:Another option you can add with pauses is slowing down your tempo on the way up or down. This is another way to challenge your motor control and strengthen your position during the overhead squat.
- Close Grip Overhead Squat:This will be the most challenging variation because once you bring your hands in closer, you will need even stronger and more mobile shoulders to maintain that position. Try this with dumbbells first before progressing to close-grip barbell overhead squats.
Overhead Squat Programming Tips
Ready to add these bad boys, or a variation or progression of them, to your program? Here are my suggestions on how to do so. As a warmup mobility exercise, try 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps using an empty bar or PVC pipe
For improving muscular strength, try 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps adding weight to a barbell or using dumbbells. For muscle hypertrophy, try 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps. For muscle endurance and conditioning, try 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
Here are some of the more commonly asked questions about the overhead squat.
What is an overhead squat good for?
The overhead squat is fantastic at increasing full-body mobility and strengthening the core to stabilize the spine in an upright position.
How should a beginner overhead squat?
Try starting with a wall squat and then a PVC pipe until you can add weight to the overhead squat movement.
Why are overhead squats so hard?
Your mobility limits them, and since it is a closed-chain exercise, it involves multiple joints and muscle groups working together. If something is tight, the entire chain will not be able to work together as it needs to.
How wide should your hands be for an overhead squat?
Slightly wider than your standard back squat. Your pinkies should be near the ring at the end of the bar.
What can you do instead of overhead squats?
You can train in the same position with overhead lunges and build core strength with an upright torso with Zercher or Anderson squats.
The Overhead Squat: Key Takeaways
The overhead squat can be incorporated into all kinds of workout routines, whether you’re just casually hitting the gym to feel good or are a competitive Olympic weightlifter.
While challenging, with consistent practice and focus on mobility, mastering the overhead squat can be extremely rewarding. It’s important to remember, however, that the loaded overhead squat is an exercise earned and developed over time. Before adding resistance, it’s crucial to ensure you have a solid grasp of the proper technique.
But once you have mastered it, the possibilities for creating engaging and dynamic workouts are endless.
Ready to tackle another challenging squat variation? Check out our article on how to Master the Pistol Squat.
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