Overhead Squat Exercise Guide

The overhead squat is a total body exercise that can be beneficial for strength, power and fitness athletes. Movements like snatches, jerks, high bar back squats, overhead carries, and other functional exercise are all impacted by an athletes ability to (1) stabilize a load overhead, (2) properly control the core under load, and (3) display strength, mobility, and balance.

Therefore, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the overhead squat in greater detail and offer coaches and athletes a more definitive guide that discussed:

  • Overhead Squat Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Overhead Squat
  • Muscles Worked by Overhead Squat
  • Overhead Squat Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Overhead Squat Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do the Overhead Squat

1.
Establish Position

Start with the barbell placed overhead, with the grip set wide.

The grip is typically taken with a snatch grip, however this can vary based on the goal, athlete’s mobility, and strength.

The key is that the barbell should be placed over the back of the neck, with the biceps in line with the ears. The wrists should be slightly extended, with the elbows straight and ribs pulled in (neutral spine).

2.
Begin Descent

As you begin to descend, be sure not to extend the lumbar spine, but rather keep the core braced and the hips neutral (as opposed to anterior or posterior tilting of the pelvis).

This squat should be patterned in the same manner a high bar back squat would.

3.
Maintain Control and Position

Once you have reached full depth (which can be slightly different for everyone), the hip crease should be slightly below the knees, with the full foot down.

The lifter should keep the core tight and be sure to actively push against the barbell to keep it into the correct positioning overhead (see step one).

4.
Drive Up and Stand

From here, work to keep the barbell overhead and the chest up as you ascend out of the squat.

Be sure to keep the core tight and actively push up against the barbell to aid in standing up from the overhead squat.

5.
Stabilize and Repeat

Once you have fully extended the knees and hips, stabilize the core and shoulders and repeat for repetitions.

Be sure to keep the upper back and shoulders stable by actively pressing upwards through the barbell.

Muscles Worked – Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is a total-body exercise that not only challenges the lower body, but also the upper back, shoulders, and core. Below are the primary muscle groups targeted by the overhead squat.

Shoulders

The shoulders are highly involved in the overhead squat, as they must work to keep the barbell overhead (with the assistance of the triceps) and stable throughout the entire movement. The shoulders work in an isometric fashion to stabilize the load overhead.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps are highly involved in the overhead squat. Due to the vertical torso positioning, the lifter must go into deeper knee flexion, requiring them to ascend with higher amounts of knee extension to remain in position (rather than allowing the hips to push back, shifting weight into the hamstrings).

Trapezius

The trapezius muscles (upper traps) provide stability and strength while the load is overhead. Without adequate trapezius engagement and barbell placement, the shoulders could be stressed excessively, making it key that the lifters have engaged traps in the overhead squat.

Core

The abdominals, obliques, and lower back are all involved in stabilizing a lifter as they (1) support a load locked out overhead, (2) as they move throughout the full range of motion in the overhead squat, and (3) to remain braced and stable in the bottom of the overhead squat.

4 Benefits of Overhead Squat

Below are four (4) benefits of the overhead squat that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing overhead squats into a training regimen.

Upright Torso in Squats

The overhead squat challenges a lifter to remain in an upright position in the squat, making it challenging on the quadriceps and upper back muscles (to resist the hips from shooting upwards, similar to a low bar squat angle). This can be helpful for lifters looking to increase squat patterning and strength specific to the snatch, as well as enhance squat patterning for high bar back squatting.

Overhead Stability

The overhead squat is a challenging movement that requires shoulder mobility and stability. By performing this movement, a lifter can increase upper back strength and enhance shoulder stabilization that can then be applied to movements like overhead presses, jerks, and snatches.

Improved Snatching Abilities

The overhead squat is a key strength movement for the snatch, as a lifter must be able to assume a low and stable overhead squat position to increase their ability to secure a load overhead. The lower and more stable the lifter can receive the snatch, the more weight they will be able to lift due to them not having to pull the bar as high.

Core Engagement

The core (obliques, abdominals, and lower back) are all highly involved in core stabilization during the overhead squat. This is exercise can help lifters learn to properly brace the core and resolidify proper hips/spine positioning (assuming the are taught this first).

Who Should Do Overhead Squats?

The overhead squat can be highly beneficial for all strength, power, and fitness athletes. The below groups can benefit from learning and performing this movement due to the various reasons listed below.

Overhead Squat for Strength Athletes

The overhead squat can help strength athletes increase shoulder strength and stability, enhance squat patterning, and can be helpful to increase ankle, knee, and hip mobility. While this movement is not specific to the sport of powerlifting and strongman, it can be a helpful exercise to increase movement integrity, core strength, and shoulder stability.

Overhead Squat for Weightlifters

The overhead squat is a critical movement for the snatch. Overhead strength, vertical torso positioning, and stability in the bottom of the overhead squat can increase a lifter’s ability to assume a low and stable receiving position and enhance the ability to confidently and quickly get into a snatch receiving position. In addition, this movement can help to increase squat patterning for other squatting movements.

Overhead Squat for CrossFit/Competitive Fitness Athletes

CrossFit and fitness athletes can increase their weightlifitng abilities, overhead strength, and squat positioning by mastering the overhead squat, making this a fundamental squatting movement. If someone has issues snatching (full snatch), where their power snatch is more than ~85-90% of their full snatch, this could suggest poor overhead squatting abilities.

Overhead Squat for General Fitness

The overhead squat is a total-body squatting movement that can increase upper back, shoulder, and core strength, while also reinforcing proper squatting technique. The ability to perform an overhead squat correctly is also a good test of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder mobility and midline control.

How to Program the Overhead Squat

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the overhead squat into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program overhead squats.

Movement Integrity – Reps and Sets

This should be done with an empty barbell or PVC pipe, to pattern proper extension of the elbows, wrist alignment, and barbell placement

  • 3-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Strength – Reps and Sets

For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 2-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-10 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes

Muscle Endurance- Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.

  • 2-3 sets of 10+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Overhead Squat Variations

Below are three (3) overhead squat variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.

Pause Overhead Squat

The pause overhead squat is done similar to other pause squat variations, and can be a great way to increase control, core stability, and balance in the bottom of the squat. In addition, it will teach lifters to remain engaged with the core and upper back muscles when paused and challenge them to increase concentric strength getting out of the squat.

Tempo Overhead Squat

The tempo overhead squat is done similar to other tempo squat variations, and can be done at set cadences to increase time under tension, increase a lifter’s movement control and strength at certain positions, and address sticking points or technical breakdowns in the overhead squat movement.

Clean Grip Overhead Squat

The clean grip overhead squat is a overhead squat done with a clean grip (also can be done with a jerk grip) versus a wider grip, like the one taken in a snatch. The narrower the grip, the more overhead mobility is needed. In addition, narrowing the grip will increase upper back, shoulder, and trapezius involvement, making it a good variation for lifters looking to maximize upper back strength in the squat.

Overhead Squat Alternatives

Below are three (3) HSPU alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase explosiveness.

Single Arm Dumbbell Overhead Squats

The single arm dumbbell/kettlebell overhead squat is a movement that can increase unilateral overhead stability, core strength, and be useful for function fitness. Additionally, it can help lifters train similar muscle groups and joint actions while still increasing the body’s movement and stability in slightly different patterns.

Overhead Lunge

The overhead lunge can be done with any type of lunge movement (walking, reverse, bulgarian split squat, etc). This is often a movement that can be used as a regression for some lifters who may have issues assuming a full overhead squat (bilateral). Lastly, overhead lunges, when walking, can further increase core and overhead stability.

Anderson Squat (Overhead)

The Anderson squat can be slightly modified to be also used with the overhead squat movement, which can help to increase overhead and core strength and stability, and increase a lifters ability to remain in control and in tension at deeper positions in the overhead squat. This can also be helpful for lifters to establish better balance in the bottom of the overhead squat (in terms of foot pressure).

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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