Squats are arguably the most important exercise in your workout arsenal. They are THE best exercise for developing lower body strength and size, provide a kick-ass butt workout, burn calories like a furnace, and are also a functional movement pattern that most of us perform many times a day.

There are several different types of squat including front squat, back squat, and Bulgarian split squat, but without doubt, the hardest squat you can do is the overhead squat.


A post shared by EHPlabs (@ehplabs) onDec 19, 2017 at 2:24pm PST

The overhead squat, as the name suggests, involves performing a squat with the weight held overhead at arms’ length. For the reasons discussed below, this makes the overhead squat not just tough but virtually impossible for many exercisers.

Many programs (CrossFit for one) utilize the overhead squat and it has become an increasingly mainstream exercise in the last few years. But does that mean you should be doing it too? Let’s take a look!

Why do the overhead squat?

The overhead squat is an intrinsic move on Olympic lifting. It’s actually the receiving position in the snatch once the bar has been lifted over your head. Assuming you successfully get the bar over your head, the overhead squat is the difference between a successful lift or red lights on the platform. If you have aspirations of being an Olympic lifter, the overhead squat will be a mainstay of your workouts.

The overhead squat is also a tremendous core stability exercise. When you hold a weight overhead, you lengthen the distance between the load and the fulcrum (your hips) significantly. This makes the weight hard to control and you’ll have to use your natural weight lifting belt (your core) to stabilize your spine. This means that, as well as providing your legs with a good workout, the overhead squat will also strengthen your midsection.


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Holding a weight overhead is tough on your shoulders too. You’ll develop great shoulder stability as you squat more and more weight.

Squatting with a weight overhead also requires and develops tremendous flexibility and mobility. You cannot lean as far forward as you would in a back squat so your hips must be flexible to squat with any meaningful depth. Also, keeping your arms extended overhead and the weight over your feet requires excellent shoulder and thoracic spine mobility. All in all, the overhead squat is like trying to do a tough gymnastic move with weights.

Finally, and closely linked to the above paragraph, the overhead squat is a frequently used movement screening test that highlights mobility and flexibility issues. Used by physical therapists and personal trainers, the overhead squat reveals flexibility and mobility limitations that can then be addressed with targeted stretching and strengthening exercises.

A full explanation of the overhead squat screening test and how to interpret the results is beyond the scope of this article but some of the things that it will highlight include:

  • - Heels lifting – tight calves, poor ankle mobility

  • - Loss of neutral spine – tight hip flexors and hamstrings, lack of core strength

  • - Knees collapsing inward – weak abductors, tight adductors

  • - Unable to fully extend and hold arms overhead – tight lats and pecs

  • - Weight travels forward during the squat – immobile thoracic spine

  • - Unable to stabilize the weight – weak shoulder stabilizers, boor balance

Learning the overhead squat


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If you want to try the overhead squat for yourself, don’t use even an empty barbell – a typical Olympic barbell weighs 20 kg/45 lbs. Even this weight could cause you injury if you are unable to perform the exercise properly. Instead, use a PVC tube or a broomstick.

Warm up thoroughly making sure you stretch your calves, hips and hamstrings, and also mobilize your thoracic spine and shoulders. This increases your chances of performing this exercise with some semblance of decent form!

Grasp your “bar” with an overhand grip. A snatch grip is pretty wide – the bar should be about hip-height with your arms straight. This normally equates to about 1.5 shoulder-widths apart. This is a good place to start for most people as a narrower grip increases the mobility demand on your upper body.

Raise the weight overhead so it is just over the back of your skull. The weight should only be slightly behind your head and not way back past your heels. Make sure you extend your arms rearward rather than hyperextend your spine.

Pull your shoulders down and “stack them” to generate tension in your upper back. Keep your wrists straight. Look straight ahead and imagine you are pulling the ends of the bar apart.

Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Don’t be tempted to go wider – doing so might allow you to squat deeper but this simply circumvents poor hip flexibility. Turn your feet out slightly.

Keeping your chest up and the weight over your feet, inhale, push your hips back and squat down. Push your knees out as you descend to create space and also recruit your adductors or inner thigh muscles. You should be aiming to descend until your hamstrings and calves meet but allow your personal flexibility to guide you. Keep the bar over your shoulders which should, in turn, be over your feet. The moment the bar moves forward or backward of your shoulders/feet, you will have lost the weight if it were heavy. Make sure your feet stay flat and your weight is toward your heels. Stand back up and exhale as you pass the sticking point of the exercise – typically half way.

Don’t be surprised if the first time you do this exercise you cannot perform a single rep – even with a PVC pipe. This isn’t a strength issue but a flexibility and mobility issue – both of which can be remedied with some appropriate stretching and mobility work.

A great way to get better at the overhead squat is to do them often. They are, in themselves, an excellent way to develop better mobility and flexibility. Use them in your warm up for your normal leg workout and also perform them as back off sets after your heavier exercises. Use a light weight and focus on technique before load and intensity.


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If even a PCV bar proves problematic, use a resistance band instead which will help teach the “pull the bar apart” aspect of the exercise. If even that is too tough right now, do prisoner squats – bodyweight squats with your hands touching your temples and your elbows pushed back. Do this exercise in front of a wall to prevent forward lean and to develop better mobility for overhead squats.

So, does all this mean you NEED to be doing overhead squats? Like all things exercise-related, the answer is – it depends. Overhead squats inevitably lead to using less weight than for back and front squats so if training strength or muscle size are your thing, that is not what you need. However, if you are looking to develop better mobility and flexibility, strengthen your core, get a tough workout using lighter weights or are a budding Olympic lifter, the overhead squat is for you.

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