The overhead squat is one of the most involved movements you could possibly do with a barbell. It involves every muscle from your calves to the traps – which is one of the reasons it’s become so popular.
However, this also introduces a ton of difficulty and complexity. Today we’re going to discuss the challenges it presents and how you can overcome them to make the most of the overhead squat in your own training.
If you’re sick of missing overhead squats, read on and master the most challenging form of squat there is!
- What Muscles Does the Overhead Squat Work?
- What are the Benefits of the Overhead Squat?
- How to overhead squat with proper form
- Our Final Thoughts
What Muscles Does the Overhead Squat Work?
When you’re overhead squatting, it’s hard to find a muscle you’re not using. Every muscle in the body is working to do something – even if it’s just controlling your descent. The wide-ranging, total challenge of this movement is the best and hardest thing about it.
It’s a movement of stability and balance, as well as strength. It also requires a stronger overhead position than almost any other movement and challenges it in both directions! Often, the lowering portion of the movement is the harder part.
Leg and Hip Strength: It’s Still a Squat
Naturally, you’re going to work the legs. This is a deep knee bend movement and will train the quads – especially since the knee travel has to be greater to keep your torso upright. In this way, it’s comparable to a front squat for its effect on the legs.
Equally, the movement of the knees and hips, as well as the torso angle requirements, make it a great movement for training the hips. It’s great because it demands the three main roles of the hips all at once: controlling the position of the knees, keeping the chest up through hip extension, and stabilizing the spine.
These are key for any other exercises you’re going to do, but they’re inherently valuable for controlling the hip. It’s a key skill and your health and physique will benefit from this versatility!
There’s a much smaller training effect on the legs than you’d get in a front or back squat. It’s important to remember this isn’t the best way to train your legs since they’re never going to be the part of the exercise that fails, so your ability to load is limited.
However, the hips will be taking a lot of the weight. It’s a significant task to actively and deliberately overhead squat. It should never be an accidental or careless movement – the hip flexors and hamstrings should be working hard to keep you upright and in good positions.
Equally, your upright position should come from actively involving the glutes. This means building more glute strength and size, which is always useful for strength training – and big butts work whatever your sex.
Overhead Stability and Scapula Strength
The overhead part of overhead squats makes them an invaluable tool.
The snatch-grip overhead position works muscles that are easier to ignore in other forms of squat. It trains the traps, rhomboids, lats, and triceps in a way you’re not going to experience in a front or back squat.
The upper back tightness should be universal across squats, but the involvement of the traps, shoulders, and triceps are unique to overhead squats. They’re also some of the muscles that benefit most from control and stability.
Adding these additional challenges to the exercise – and focusing on stability and control when you perform it – can strengthen neglected muscles. Obviously, it’s not going to give you a pump in the same way as a press or row, but it’s about stabilizing yourself, rather than moving through ranges.
Core Stability in the Overhead Squat
Finally, the influence of the overhead squat on the core and the lower back can’t be overlooked.
It’s a significant training tool for the core – whether you’re loading with pauses, slow eccentrics, weight, or more reps. There’s no way to get around the intricate balancing and stability of the overhead squat that demands an active core.
If you’re looking to keep your core strong and unmoving for your other squats, the overhead squat is an interesting variation. The overhead position of the barbell changes how you move and forces you to remain deliberate with your core.
It’s never a bad time to have a stronger, more controlled trunk.
What are the Benefits of the Overhead Squat?
Improving Your Overhead Strength
This is the clear reason to practice your overhead squats. They provide a significant stimulus for the strengthening of the overhead support muscles.
The upper back and triceps need to be strong and controlled for better health, longevity, and performance. You’re not going to develop a strong upper back without challenging it in every direction: overhead squats provide an interesting and overlooked isometric (squeezing to prevent movement) way of training.
This is why movements like carries are great in strongman. It’s a kind of training that is central to the role of the shoulder girdle and the arms, but it’s not one that is often trained. It also allows you to load the overhead position more heavily than you might be able to with other movements.
The combination of greater loads with a fundamental position is what it’s all about: these are the essentials of better compound movements and better results.
Improved Overhead Stability and Control
Training for stability isn’t always sexy or exciting, but it is foundational to the more exciting and glamorous adaptations you’re searching for.
Stability in fundamental positions – whether that’s in the hips or the shoulders – is key to better health and long-term results. It’s been shown to reduce the risk of injury in joints, as well as being a key player in your ability to perform 1-rep maxes.
As far as we’re concerned, improving your 1RM and reducing the risk of injury are the two key benefits you should look for in training. It means short- and long-term results: improving your ability to perform movements, but also your ability to train consistently and sustainably into the future.
Improving Your Snatch Bottom Position
This is a key aspect of why the overhead squat has become popular: it is a key movement in CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting.
In CrossFit, this movement is contested sometimes. This makes it a necessity: you can’t be a good CrossFitter if you’re not familiar with an overhead squat. This is the most immediate reason to be concerned with the overhead squat: it could be a competition movement!
There’s no clear idea on how much the overhead squat helps the snatch, but it is important to be able to overhead squat effectively. It doesn’t seem to be a limiting factor in the snatch for most athletes, but among beginners, it can be useful to improve positional awareness, strength, stability, and flexibility.
In this way, it’s a great exercise to use in the early days of training weightlifting movements. If you’re in CrossFit and you don’t get much time to practice the weightlifting movements deliberately, it can be an easy way to build some of the general qualities and positions in your WODs.
The overhead squat is thus a great choice for its carryover to competitive movements: whether it is one, or it’s your way of getting familiar with the positions you should be in during a snatch. This is even more pronounced if you’re going to add pauses and combine it with snatches or snatch balances.
Challenging Full-Range Movements are Great!
The involvement of every muscle in the body, in some way or other, is one of the selling points for the CrossFit applications.
In many ways, this mirrors other key movements that are popular in CrossFit. In the same way that the pull up is the longest pull and the thruster is the longest push, the overhead squat is one of the clearest examples of extremely compound movements.
It’s a way of involving the largest number of muscles through one of the heaviest loads with a significant range of motion. This is another principle of good preparation for anything and it provides a significant challenge – which is usually enough to make it a popular exercise in CrossFit!
If you like challenging yourself, this is one of the exercises you’re probably going to love. There’s no way to cheat an overhead squat: you just have to take your time and get good.
Building your Mobility, Flexibility, and Balance
If you’re attempting to build better overall mobility and positioning, the overhead squat is an excellent movement. It forces a number of positions in the body that you need to work on: a tight back, well-controlled hips, a proper overhead position, and deep knee/ankle/hip flexion.
These are worth developing by themselves, but they also contribute to pretty much every other form of movement you could want to get good at.
Mobility is the result of building better range of motion and controlling it. The overhead squat is a great way of doing this: the weight forces you to remain active and deliberate, while the movement itself forces you through full ranges of motion.
This kind of controlled full-range movement is a heavier form of the features of weighted stretching. Much like other, lighter forms of weighted stretching, the overhead squat presents the same benefits and challenges.
It’s a great way of adding significant range to your ankle-knee-hip end ranges. These controlled movements do tons to help your stability and mobility: factors in better technique, health, and performance.
The overhead squat is just ridiculously versatile!
How to overhead squat with proper form
Setting Your Posture for Overhead Squats
The first and most enduring challenge of an overhead squat is the posture. The position of the core, hips, and back are the most obvious challenge.
They lean heavily on doing everything else right, but you can’t adjust them on the fly. You need to get these set up properly from the start or you’re only going to be able to compensate. Setting the posture at the start also makes every other aspect of the movement more coherent and reasonable.
The correct position is active hips, a tight core, and a strong upper back. The intention is a strong back-arch that you can hold through the whole movement without losing control or compensating due to mobility restrictions.
If you exaggerate this back-arch, it’s easy to pull out on the way down into the squat position. Practice setting this arch of the core and upper back with a PVC pipe or dowel rod, and figure out where you can sustain it. This is going to be your overhead squat posture.
Try to get to a neutral spine with a slightly arched upper back, with the shoulder blades tucked back and down to keep everything tight and unmoving! The less movement in this region through your squat, the better!
Positioning the Barbell Overhead
Once you’ve set the trunk position, you need to set the overhead position to support the weight.
This is going to be a progressive process of adjustments to find what’s most comfortable for you. Set the shoulder blades as mentioned above: tucked down and back with active traps and lats. You need a strong shelf to support big weights!
From here, the important thing is to keep the weight of the barbell centered overhead just behind the ears. The bar should never be allowed to drift forwards, or you’re already out of position. For this reason, it’s important to keep pressure upwards and slightly backwards against the bar.
You should actively squeeze the shoulder blades together throughout the movement and think about keeping the upper body entirely immobile throughout. It should never be the focus of the movement, but it should also remain entirely stable.
If the arms bend, the exercise may as well be failed. You can’t press a snatch and you shouldn’t get into the habit of doing it here. If you’re using your arms, you’ve done something wrong somewhere else – and should lower the weight and practice more!
Getting the Right Stance and Controlling the Hips
Getting into the correct stance is both crucial and heavily individualized. We can’t tell you exactly which foot position is going to be most comfortable for you, but there is one.
This position adjusts according to your individual profile of strengths and mobility. If you’ve got horrible flexibility then you’re going to need to work through that with mobility work and repetition.
However, you should take time to figure out the stance that works best for you. How do you know which stance is best for you? Here are some important principles:
- Get Comfortable: your stance needs to be somewhere you’ll feel comfortable holding a ton of weight. It’s going to be important that you don’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable in the stance for the overhead squat.
- Keep your knees, hips, and feet aligned: you need to be able to keep your knees/ thighs parallel with your feet at all times. The moment the knee points inside of the toes, something’s gone very wrong. Stance changes can help here.
- Keep the hips on: if you can’t keep tension in the hips throughout the movement you’re going to struggle to load it consistently. This is one of the key benefits, so take the time to practice each stance and see which your hips are most active in.
- Keep your heels down: as in any squat, rolling off of your heels, or letting the feet roll inwards, is a sign it’s gone wrong. Stance adjustments can help here.
- Dropping the torso: if you’re leaning forwards, it could be a mobility issue, or your stance could be too narrow. You have to open up your hips enough to sink into your squat position without tipping forwards: if the bar or your chest move, it’s gone wrong!
These are simple principles and they’ll see you right. IF you’re struggling, get a video of your movement and see which of these are going wrong – they’re the big changes you need to be conscious of.
Starting the Overhead Squat: Electing Your Position
As you begin the movement, as any squat, you need to elect your torso position. This is going to be required to sit into a deep squat with a strong and active lower body. If you’re not electing a position, you’re going to have it decided for you by the limitations of your strength and mobility.
The correct torso position is a balance between intentionally inclined to remain constant, and upright enough to keep the bar locked in a stable overhead position.
The best way to get familiar with this is a very gentle hip hinge at the start of the movement. This should involve easing your hips back until your weight distribution is towards the rear of the foot, but the entire torso is still relatively upright, and the back/core/hips are tight and active.
Here’s a primer on how to hip hinge that sets out the essentials of the movement cue:
The key points are to keep the hips and torso moving as one, rotate the knees out, and send the hips back slowly. This is a position you’re not going to be super familiar with, so take your time and get used to it through repetition and slow, deliberate practice.
Descend Deliberately with Control
As you lower yourself in the overhead squat, the focus should be on keeping your knees out, torso stable in position, and remaining active throughout. The overhead squat has a larger requirement on deliberate movement on the way down, so you need to really focus on it.
Keep your weight distribution stable throughout the movement as you squeeze down into the bottom position. You can’t rush here – think about keeping the knees rotated out and slowly bending them while you pull them up to your chest.
This kind of movement keeps you balanced – but you’ll also have to actively keep your hips turned on and avoid falling forwards/ backwards. This is a matter of balance and stability and it comes from practice and repetition.
This is also one of the reasons we recommend always pausing or slowly descending with overhead squats. The familiarity with the position is the main factor in the value for long-term training or carryover to the snatch.
The Bottom Position of the Overhead Squat
The bottom position requires all the postural focus and intention that every previous step has demanded. It’s a challenge to the hips, core, upper back, shoulders, and triceps.
It requires you to consistently and actively apply pressure to the bar and the floor. It’s also totally reliant on being active with your posture and knee-hip-shoulder position.
The intention and practice of the movement are all you can do. You’ll feel the stability in some reps and less in others, and work to make stability consistent. Try to make the bottom position perfectly stable: no movement anywhere.
This can be challenging but it’s why you start with lighter weights and build up slowly by adding repetitions, time, and very gentle increments to loading.
Standing Up – The Easy Part?
The process of standing up is usually pretty simple – it’s the bit you’re probably most familiar with. The important points are simple: keep the chest up, apply pressure through the floor, and maintain balance with the barbell.
If you can do these bits, there’s almost no way to get it wrong. You’ll be able to feel the balance of the weight overhead.
Remember, however, that if you have to take a step to correct yourself in an overhead squat you may as well have missed the rep. The intention is control over the weight, stability throughout the movement, and carryover to other exercises.
Theirs is no reason to ever step out an overhead squat. If you’re doing this consistently, you need to review your technique and/or reduce the weight to focus on practice, rather than weight. Ego can get in the way, but the intention is to contribute to better stability, balance, and strength in these key positions.
Compromising movement quality should never happen in accessory exercises.
Our Final Thoughts
The overhead squat is a challenging movement – and that’s part of the appeal. It’s a common accessory exercise for weightlifting but is contested in its own right in CrossFit.
The versatility of the movement is key to its benefits and its challenges. Take your time: prioritize the stability and movement quality of the movement – pauses, slow-eccentrics, and combinations with snatches and snatch balances.
These all contribute to the best results. If you’re not a CrossFit competitor, you should always pause your overhead squats – and, even in CrossFit, paused overhead squats should be the key training tool.
If you’re ready for the challenge of Overhead squats, you may well be ready for the results they can provide. It’s a great exercise if you apply it properly and take the right mentality: it’s a way of challenging and developing yourself, not an ego lift!