I will admit it right away: I hate overhead squats! On a scale from 0 to 10, the overhead squat easily scores at around 50!
Compared to the overhead squat, I feel a deep love for burpees. I think that tells it all!
Why do I hate the overhead squat so much? Because this exercise relentlessly shows me my deficiencies.
I lack shoulder mobility, ankle mobility, and lower back and hip mobility.
What comes on top of that, I am far from where I would like to be regarding weight.
A seasoned Crossfit coach just recently told me that I should be able to perform overhead squats with about half of my body weight.
But I can´t! That is why I hate the overhead squat and that is why I keep doing the overhead squat.
Because I want to become better and finally master this exercise.
One could say:” Nah – leave the overhead squat if you don´t like it…”
But – no – doing over head squats has such beneficial effects on your body, that I believe everyone should be doing this exercise in a more or less difficult variation.
All that said, let us dive right into the overhead squat. By the end of this article, I hope you will be convinced about just how great this exercise is.
Instructions - How To Overhead Squat
Let us have a look at how to properly perform overhead squats. There is rarely an exercise that needs such a wide range of motion in so many different areas of your body.
That is why you can´t just grab the barbell, put some weight on and do a barbell overhead squat right away.
The overhead squat needs proper preparation and the right warm-up routine if you want to make overhead squatting a positive experience.
Before starting with overhead squats, you need to prepare your muscles and joints for the upcoming task.
This might sound obvious, but I am pointing this out because nobody really talks about the preparation for overhead squats.
Most of the time it sounds like. “Grab the barbell and do this:…”
The basic warm-up can be some light cardio, like rowing at a medium pace, doing jumping jacks, or using the Ski-Erg for a couple of minutes.
Mobilize your hip by doing alternating spiderman stretches – 10 each side or another exercise that opens your hip.
Cossack squats are great for that purpose as well!
Take the PVC-pipe (which we will use later on as well) or a broomstick and perform 15 pass-throughs to increase your shoulder joint mobility.
Further activate your shoulders by giving your shoulders some stretching.
To do so, take a foam roller and place it on the floor under your lower back. Keep your core tight and do not arch your back.
Take the PVC pipe just as you would during the overhead squat and try to touch the ground with the back of your hands.
Keep in mind – do all this without arching your back!
This will open up your chest and shoulders and increase the necessary overhead squat mobility.
Also properly warm up and stretch your ankles, as you will see just how important your ankles are when doing overhead squats.
Perform some technically very (!) correct air squats and check your form there.
Start without Weight
Now, as you should feel warmed up and as your joints are prepared for the overhead squat, you can start doing some overhead squats using the PVC pipe or a broomstick only.
For the overhead squat, we will hold the barbell just like we do when snatching – we use a wide grip!
Keep your core engaged and your elbows fully extended.
Have somebody check your form and correct you if necessary.
Proper form is essential when doing this exercise, as you will place quite some stress on your body, especially when adding more weight.
Additionally, always make sure to have a stable stand. Your weight should neither be placed dominantly on your heels nor should it be on your toes.
Find the right balance.
Unless you are already very experienced you will now see where your issues with the overhead squat lie.
Your arms aren´t perpendicular to the ground? Then you are either lacking shoulder mobility, or you are leaning forward during the squat.
You can´t get low enough? Then you are lacking range of motion in your hips and/or ankles – start working on your mobility!
Now Add Some Weight
Once your squat movement pattern looks and feels right, you can start adding weight.
“Adding weight” could mean, changing from a broomstick to an empty barbell (20kg). For many, this can already be enough to begin with.
You can bring this weight into the overhead position by doing a snatch.
The more experienced athlete will now place the barbell on the rack at about chest height and put on some plates.
From here you pick up the barbell as you would when doing a back squat and with a quick push-press bring the barbell into the overhead position.
Now make sure to:
- place your feet shoulder width with your toes pointing slightly outward
- stay balanced, with your weight distributed evenly on your feet
- tighten your core and keep your chest down
- keep your torso upright
- keep your arms perpendicular to the ground
- look slightly up (don´t look at the ground!)
With your barbell overhead perform a deep squat movement and stand back up. While standing up make sure to press your knees outward and do not let your knees cave in!
After the Overhead Squat
Rehearse how your overhead squat felt.
Did you feel any pain somewhere?
How deep was your overhead squat? Could you go lower?
Did you manage to keep the bar overhead in the right place?
Could you keep balance all the time?
Did you keep your back straight and your core tight all the time?
Were you able to keep an upright upper body during the entire movement?
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Why is the overhead squat so hard?
Overhead squats are so challenging because they require a great deal of strength, balance, and flexibility to be performed correctly.
Unlike the air squat, front squat, or back squat, overhead squats require you to hold a weight overhead with your arms fully extended. This places a significant amount of stress on your upper back, shoulders, and core muscles, which must work together to stabilize the weight and maintain proper form.
Additionally, overhead squats require a great deal of balance and coordination to perform correctly. As you lower your body into the squat, you must keep the weight directly over your head and in line with a virtually vertical line from the center of your feet all the way up through the center of your weight. Do all this while maintaining a stable base with your feet.
This can be challenging for individuals who struggle with balance or have limited flexibility in their shoulders or hips.
Furthermore, overhead squats also demand a high level of mobility and flexibility in your ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. These joints need to have a full range of motion to perform the exercise correctly without compromising form or risking injury. If you have limited mobility in any of these areas, it can make the overhead squat much more challenging.
This also explains, why overhead squats are also mentally challenging. Many athletes avoid overhead squats because they clearly show any deficiencies in range of motion one might have.
Benefits of the Overhead Squat
The overhead squat is a fantastic exercise that offers a ton of benefits for the body.
One of the biggest advantages of this movement is that it improves mobility in multiple areas of the body.
By performing overhead squats, you can increase mobility in your shoulders, thoracic spine, hips, and ankles. This is because the exercise requires you to maintain a stable position with your arms extended overhead, which can help improve your shoulder mobility.
At the same time, the deep squat position required for this movement helps to increase hip and ankle mobility.
Another great benefit of the overhead squat is that it can greatly improve stability in these same areas. By holding a weighted barbell overhead while performing the squat, you challenge your core and shoulder stability.
This means that your body has to work hard to maintain a stable position, which in turn helps to strengthen the muscles in your shoulders, hips, and ankles.
But that’s not all! The overhead squat is also an excellent exercise for your entire body that works a wide range of different muscle groups. This includes your shoulder, quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core, and back muscles.
By engaging so many different muscle groups at once, the overhead squat helps you build overall strength and improve your athletic performance.
The primary shoulder muscles used during the overhead squat are the deltoids, which are the main shoulder muscles responsible for raising the arms overhead.
The anterior deltoid helps to lift the arms, while the lateral and posterior deltoids assist in stabilizing the shoulders and maintaining proper alignment throughout the movement.
In addition to the deltoids, the rotator cuff muscles are also activated during the overhead squat. These muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis, which help to stabilize the shoulder joint.
By regularly performing the overhead squat, you can improve the strength and stability of these shoulder muscles. But at the same time, the overhead squat improves your overall shoulder mobility which – all in all – prevents shoulder injuries.
The back muscles worked during this exercise are the upper trapezius, the rhomboids, and the latissimus dorsi.
The upper trapezius is located in the upper back and helps to support the shoulders during overhead movements.
The rhomboids are situated between the shoulder blades and work to retract the shoulder blades, which is crucial for good posture.
Finally, the latissimus dorsi, which is the broadest muscle in the back, helps to stabilize the shoulder joint during overhead movements.
By engaging these muscles during the overhead squat, you will improve your overall back strength, which leads to better posture, reduced risk of injury, and improved performance in other exercises.
One of the key areas that the exercise targets is the core.
The core refers to the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, and hips, which work together to stabilize the spine and pelvis.
If you got a weak core, overhead squats will help you target this weakness.
During the overhead squat, the core muscles play a vital role in maintaining proper posture and balance.
As you lift the barbell overhead and lower into a squat position, your core must engage to keep your spine in a neutral position and prevent excessive forward or backward lean. Additionally, your core helps to stabilize your pelvis and prevent your hips from shifting to one side or the other.
To improve your strength in the core, the overhead squat is a great exercise to include in your training program.
By challenging your core muscles to work together in a coordinated fashion, the exercise will help you develop greater overall core strength and stability.
The quadriceps, or front thigh muscles, are the primary leg muscles used during the overhead squat.
The hamstrings, located at the back of your thighs, also play a significant role by helping to control your descent and maintain proper balance.
Your glutes, or buttocks muscles, work together with your hamstrings to stabilize your hips and prevent your knees from collapsing inward.
Lastly, your calf muscles, located in the back of your lower leg, help stabilize your ankles and keep your heels on the ground.
Overhead Squat Variations
Broomstick Overhead Squat
As we already pointed out, for many new athletes a weighted overhead squat might be too challenging.
Especially those who are completely new to this exercise might lack the necessary body awareness and maybe also the faith to bring a heavy weight overhead and perform a full range of motion weighted overhead squat.
Here the broomstick overhead squat is a great squat variation. With a broomstick – or a PVC pipe – you can mimic the barbell overhead, but without the load overhead.
The movement pattern is still the same and in fact, this overhead squat variation can be quite challenging when done right.
Several proper repetitions will get you sweaty – believe me!
Plus, mobility deficits will show up in this variation just as they would in the weighted version.
But it’s always nicer to find out about a limiting factor without a heavily loaded barbell over your head.
Single-Arm Overhead Squat
The single-arm overhead squat can be either done with a kettlebell or a dumbbell and a lot of people find this exercise a little easier than barbell overhead squats, once they found out about a little trick that lets you perform the squat movement easier.
In order to perform the single-arm dumbbell overhead squat you start in a position with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Again, find a well-balanced position before you pick up your dumbbell and bring it over your head by doing a dumbbell snatch.
Now lock out your elbow, and keep the dumbbell lined up with a virtually vertical line that starts from the mid of your foot and extends all the way up and through the middle of your dumbbell.
Ideally, your dumbbell should move on this line down and up throughout the whole overhead squat movement with as little deviations as possible.
Engage your core, start by moving your hip back and then lower down into the squat position and come back up.
Now, the little trick that will help you perform this motion easier: you may rotate your upper body slightly in the direction of your dumbbell-holding arm.
This is a good explanation of this trick:
The single-arm dumbbell overhead squat is also a great tool to identify existing imbalances. If the exercise feels much different when performed with your right arm overhead, when compared to your left arm, then you might already get a great clue where a possible problem lies.
Pause Overhead Squat
The Pause Overhead Squat will see you pause a few seconds at the lowest point of the whole movement.
This is a good variation if you want to build confidence and get a better feeling of the squat depth and the lowest point of the whole movement.
Anderson Overhead Squat
As the overhead squat is quite difficult for beginners, one could also consider doing the Anderson Overhead Squat.
Here you will place the barbell in a squat rack at a height that reflects about the height of your low squat position during an overhead squat.
Now wrestle yourself under the barbell and set up in a low overhead squat position. This is your starting position.
From here perform the standing-up portion of the overhead squat and then slowly lower the weight back down, until it rests in the squat rack again.
How should a Beginner Overhead Squat?
The most important thing for beginners is: be familiar with the movement before adding weight!
Work on your mobility in your shoulders, hips, and ankles.
Use a PVC pipe or a broomstick to familiarize yourself with the overhead squat.
Seek advice from somebody who knows this exercise and who will support you in your learning process.
In order to check, if you have the mobility and the right technique to start trying the overhead squat, try the Crossfit Squat Therapy:
Stand in front of a wall at a distance of about a foot from the wall, with your arms straight above your head and your elbows locked.
Now perform an air squat with great form.
Can you do this without losing balance?
If so, reduce the distance to the wall and repeat. If you can perform an air squat with your toes touching the wall, you most probably have no issues with mobility and squat form.
Common Overhead Squat Mistakes
Starting with Heavy Weights
As already pointed out above, the overhead squat is a very complex exercise that needs preparation. Do not try to do overhead squats without a proper warm up and pre-workout routine!
If you are not yet 100% sure about your overhead squat then use an empty barbell as a starting weight.
If that is still too much, then it is absolutely ok to use a broomstick or a PVC pipe.
Rolling your Shoulders Forward
“Active shoulders” is the keyword here. What does that mean? With your arms stretched out over your head, keep your shoulders down and the armpits facing forward.
Do not roll your shoulders forward as this will result in a forward-bent upper back position as a starting position which is something we do not want.
Looking at the Ground
Find a spot to look at which is somewhere in the distance and slightly above. Do not look at the ground as looking at the ground results in a tendency to lean forward and finally lose balance.
Leaning Too Far Forward
As we are talking about leaning forward: this often happens when athletes do not start their squat movement by first moving their hip back but instead perform a parallel movement by bending their knees and moving the hip back at the same time.
This lets your upper body lean forward and it also makes it harder to move your hips below parallel to the ground.
Don´t let Your Knees Collapse Inward
Keep your knees and toes in line! Do not let your knees collapse inward as this will place a lot of stress on your knees and might cause injury in the long run.
Always remember to push your knees outward.
Some athletes already have a tendency of outward-facing knees. For those of course the opposite applies: do not overdo it! Rather try to keep your knees in line with your toes!
Arching your Back
Often seen as a result of too much weight. Athletes try to compensate by rolling their shoulders forward, pulling their traps up, and thus arching the upper back.
This again leads to a forward-leaning position which leads to increased stress on your shoulders and a loss of balance.
Overhead Squats are a great exercise for the entire body and once you have overcome the fear of being shown where your deficiencies are and once you have accepted to put some work into eliminating your deficiencies you will see huge progress!
The overhead squat is a complex exercise and mastering this exercise means one step further toward your goal of an extensive skill set.