The Overhead Squat
When people talk about the squat, they usually mean the classic, true-and-tried back squat, and sometimes, the front squat enters the conversation. But outside of CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting circles, the overhead squat (OHS) rarely gets a mention.
However, that is a shame, as the overhead squat is one of the best exercises you can do in the gym; not only for strength, but also for assessing and developing your mobility, improving your posture and injury prevention.
Dan John talks about the day he “discovered” the overhead squat as “the single greatest athletic learning experience of my career” Coach Charles R. Poliquin is a fan. The Chinese Olympic coaches swear by it.
Just to give you an idea, here’s Lu Xiaojun, one of the best Olympic lifters of all time, performing the overhead squat from the bottom with 220 kilograms or 485 pounds.
And here’s what it can do for you:
What The Overhead Squat Isn’t
I know that some people are already questioning my words since I said that the overhead squat builds strength. “It doesn’t overload the legs!” is their argument and they are absolutely correct. The overhead squat is not an exercise you should use for building leg strength and it is not meant to be one. It is not a primary strength builder, but a mobility, stability and balance developer first.
What the overhead squat is and who is it for
- A panacea for whole body mobility (or as close to one as you can get). It develops ankle, knee, hip, spine and shoulder mobility all at once.
- A great builder of whole body tension. Not only is the OHS a great builder of mobility, it is also perfect to build strength and stability in the new range of motion. To do it at all, you need to be tense from your feet to your hands: your whole body has to be linked or the weight will unbalance you.
- Size and strength builder for the traps, shoulders and arms. While it does work the legs to a degree, it will leave most if its impact on your upper body. It builds strength isometrically in the shoulders and traps and packs on size in those areas as well. When you get past the beginner stages and start using serious weights, you will quickly notice just how much work those muscles are doing.
- All people who want to be strong, flexible and athletic
- Athletes who need full body tension in their sport (AKA all athletes)
- Those wanting to get into Cross Fit or Olympic weightlifting.
The Overhead Squat As A Diagnostic Tool
In my opinion, overhead squats should be mastered first before having people do front squats and eventually, the back squat.
The reason for this is that it is much harder to cheat on it, as any mistakes in alignment will be quickly apparent after you drop the weight. The front squat and especially the back squat are much more lenient and you can get away with less than perfect form.
As a diagnostic tool, the OHS is on par with the standardized and widely used Functional Movement Screen.
If we start from the ground up, the OHS tests ankle dorsiflexion. That particular range of motion is critical for the squat pattern and stops a large percentage of people from performing it correctly. The OHS has been found effective in assessing ankle mobility.
Next up, the knees. Medial knee displacement, more commonly known as knee collapse, is a big problem when squatting heavy. Again, the OHS was found to have “substantial reliability” when it comes to assessing risk for knee collapse.
The hips are of utmost importance when it comes to any kind of squatting. The OHS works much the same and can be used to test lumbar rounding (the dreaded “butt wink”) under greater stability demands. If you can do the OHS (even with a lighter load) correctly, you can also do other squat variations.
Depending on your style of OHS (more upright vs. more leaning over), the need for shoulder flexion could be increased even more. All of this is what makes it such an excellent exercise for both stabilizing the shoulder and packing on some serious size around it.
Injury prevention comes as a consequence of developing sound movement patterns by performing this exercise correctly on a regular basis.
How To Perform The Overhead Squat
The overhead squat is performed with a barbell held overhead, usually with a wide grip (called the snatch grip after the Olympic lift). It can be done with a regular slightly-wider-than-shoulder width grip, but you have to be very flexible.
There are two ways to get the bar over your head:
- the first is to perform the snatch and the second one is to un-rack the bar in a back squat position and press, push press or jerk it to the overhead position.
- The second method is more useful as you get to heavier and heavier weights, but in the start, either can be used as needed for convenience.
After you are set up with the bar over your head, you initiate the movement by bending your knees until you hit depth, then return to the starting position.
Notice how I didn’t give you many cues on how to perform the lift. That is because any mistake in your form will be self evident when you drop the bar. You won’t have time to think about cues when you are under the bar, using every ounce of your strength to keep your whole body tight. And as a side note, over-coaching a movement from the beginning is not always the best thing to do: sometimes, doing it first and seeking cues later, once you get a feel for the exercise – and ideally, after a competent coach has taken a look at you – will bring you better results. In any case, beginners (and all lifters for that matter) should do this lift at an appropriate distance from other people and breakable objects while making sure to only use bumper plates.
You know what? If you’re having problems, just take a look at this chart made by the NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). It gives a complete overview of the mistakes you can make during the OHS and sample exercises you can use to correct them. Swell.
Since this is an exercise that is heavily taxing on the body, you should do it early in your workouts. As far as sets and reps go, keep the reps relatively low, although some people go to as many as fifteen (as Dan John tells in his excellent piece on overhead squatting.
It is also an excellent warm-up movement and can be done every day with light loads to focus on form practice. In fact, it is one of the best ways to warm up for heavy squatting: try to replace a lighter set or two in your next back squat session and see if it makes a difference.
Tips To Help You
Bend the bar
To make your overhead position more stable, try to break the bar in half. You won’t be able to, but doing so will tighten up your lockout and make you stronger in the position.
Don’t shrug, don’t pack
Some people cue to either shrug the shoulder as hard as you can while some advise to pack them instead to have more bone-on-bone support. You should do neither and instead try to find a balance that works for you. Everyone’s shoulders are different and a cue of “shrug” can be the best thing for someone and an injury waiting for another. Try it both ways and see which one feels more stable.
Train your upper back
There can never be too much upper back work in your program. Not only will it help to prevent imbalances (if bench and other front-focused exercises are a big part of your program), it will also improve all of your overhead work.
Train the bridge
The bridge is a common gymnastics element, but almost no one trains it outside of those circles. Yet it is a stretch that takes care of multiple commonly tight areas: the hip flexors, and important for the OHS, the thoracic spine and shoulder flexion under load.
Overhead Squat And Out
If you are looking for a bang-for-your buck exercise that can take care of strength, size and mobility in one sweep, look no further.
The overhead squat will develop balance, coordination, mobility, stability, strength and an iron will all at the same time. Give it a try: include it in your program for the next three months and I can guarantee you will see an increase in your performance and the way you look.
About the Author
Klemen Bobnar is a freelance health & fitness copywriter and blogger. He is a content contributor at Kickasshomegym.com and loves to talk training, nutrition and the mental game of improving oneself.