Bored of the same old barbell movements? The overhead squat is a technique-focused strength exercise that targets your entire body.
There are more squat variations out there than you can count on two hands, from barbell back squats to pistol squats and cyclist squats. If you’re a lower-body devotee, you probably already know just how many ways there are to make the most of this movement.
But often, squat variations are mainly focused on engaging the muscles in your legs, such as your glutes and your hamstrings, and they might neglect some parts of the upper body. This is why the overhead squat is such a great movement to learn, particularly if every day is leg day for you and you’re trying to ease yourself into some more upper and full-body-based strength movements.
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“Overhead squats are one of the best strength and functional exercises we can do because there isn’t one muscle chain or area that isn’t being used in the entire movement,” explains Danielle Ren’e Gaskell, a qualified personal trainer and the co-founder of the CrossFit Streatham and CrossFit Tooting gyms.
Intrigued? Here’s a guide to incorporating the overhead squat into your workout routine.
What is an overhead squat?
“The overhead squat is a strength-based barbell movement,” Gaskell explains. It’s similar to a traditional barbell back squat. The difference is instead of holding the bar on your shoulders, you hold it above your head.
Here’s how to do an overhead squat:
- Set up a barbell on a squat rack at just below shoulder height.
- Put your head underneath the barbell and sit the barbell on your shoulders, lifting it off the rack and taking a few steps back.
- Stabilise your feet so they are around shoulder distance apart and slightly turned out.
- Move your hands to a comfortable position on the barbell – this is usually slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Brace your core and press the barbell overhead – your arms should be straight with the bar aligning just behind your head.
- Keeping your arms locked out and your core tight, squat down as far as is comfortable. Push your knees out and keep your chest lifted.
- Press through your feet and lower body to stand back up and repeat. Or slowly bring the barbell back down to the back of your shoulders – make sure to keep a bend in your knee when you catch it – and re-rack the bar.
What are the benefits of overhead squats?
“The overhead squat is like an MOT for the body,” Gaskell says, explaining that it often highlights weaknesses in the body and issues with form.
“As a coach, I use the overhead squat to look at the pattern of a client’s body so I can spot areas that might need work,” Gaskell adds. The movement might reveal issues with hip mobility, for example, if you can’t squat very low, or a lack of upper-body strength, if holding the bar above your head feels particularly challenging compared to the squat.
According to Gaskell, overhead squats engage every single muscle in the body. “The upper-body presses into the bar to ensure the bar doesn’t drop down, the middle of the body – between the ribs and the hips – creates a brace for stability, and the lower-body moves like an elevator,” she says.
As well as strengthening the entire body, the overhead squat can also improve your technique for other strength movements, like barbell snatches and strict presses.
Are overhead squats suitable for beginners?
The overhead squat might look a little scary, and it definitely feels like a foreign movement when you first do it. Despite this, Gaskell says it is suitable for beginners. “You can start using a PVC pipe instead of a barbell and squat against the wall for stability,” she suggests.
However, if you’re very inexperienced with strength training, you can start by breaking the movement down. Practice traditional squats, first with your bodyweight and then a dumbbell. When you feel more confident, use a barbell to get comfortable with that position. You can also practise strict presses, a simple movement involving moving a weight from your shoulders to an overhead position. Again, start by using dumbbells and move on to a barbell as you get more confident with the strict press. This will help you become comfortable with the position your upper body is in during the overhead squat.
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How to perfect the overhead squat
First things first, let’s make sure you’re doing the overhead squat safely. According to Gaskell, this means ensuring your arms are locked out at all times while moving. “If you do need to drop the bar and fail the rep, quickly move your body forwards and let go of the bar behind you,” Gaskell advises.
However, you should never try to max out the weight while doing an overhead squat. In fact, Gaskell says you should start by putting minimal weight on the bar. “You won’t hit the depth of the squat if you rush the weight,” she says. “The overhead squat is probably one of the most technical strength-based exercises so the weight is less important and it probably won’t correlate to the weight you can lift in other movements, like traditional squats and deadlifts.”
The overhead squat requires very good mobility, so make sure to stretch before practising this strength movement. You can also work on some of the movements you do in an overhead squat in isolation. “Practise strict presses from behind your neck,” Gaskell advises. Traditional back squats will also improve your overhead squat.
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