The Overhead Squat
Updated: Jan 15
What is an overhead squat?
The barbell overhead squat is simply a squat performed with a barbell held overhead.
Overhead Squat Form
A well-executed overhead squat is performed with a wide grip on the barbell, extended arms with the barbell in alignment over the back of the head, a neutral spine, and sound lower body squatting mechanics (active feet and femurs tracking parallel with the feet). The barbell should remain fixed over the middle of the foot throughout the entire squat descent and ascent. The ideal depth of an overhead squat is achieved when the crease of the hip (where the top of the thigh meets the torso) passes below the knee (to be specific, the height of a line that is parallel with the ground and tangent to the top of the knee).
PVC Overhead Squat
The simplest way to set up for an overhead squat is to begin with a PVC pipe. First, find your grip width. Stand with the pipe in your hands with arms relaxed. Bend your knees and hips a little bit, and move the pipe into your hip crease, the place where your thighs meet your hips. Place the pipe in this crease, and then move your hands out equidistant from the center, and take a full hand grip on the pipe. This is a good general starting point. You can customize a narrower or wider grip if warranted.
From here, lift the pipe over the back of the head and press up until your arms are extended and straight. Don’t shrug up like crazy here. Keep tension between and below your shoulder blades. This will help to stabilize the load. Yes, it’s only a PVC pipe, for now, and to perform this movement well with the pipe, you must intentionally stabilize that light load. Eventually, if desired, you can add resistance.
Depending on your own unique anthropometry, the pipe will be somewhere between 2-10 inches above the back of your head. Keeping your arms straight and feet suction-cupped to the floor, sink your hips back and down and squat to your bottom position, and then stand back up. Congratulations. You performed a PVC overhead squat.
From here, you can accumulate repetitions (volume) over time, work towards improving technique and economy, and eventually build up to greater resistances starting with an empty barbell.
Empty Barbell Overhead Squat
The only difference between squatting with an empty barbell versus a PVC pipe is the initial set-up, and the stability challenges that added resistance provides. The barbell’s overhead positioning, grip width, squatting mechanics, and movement speed should not change. To set up for a loaded overhead squat, initially, you can take the barbell out of a squat rack in the back rack position and press it overhead with YOUR overhead squat grip. Then begin your squat.
What muscles does an overhead squat work?
This movement is a great test of an athlete’s mobility, balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. The overhead squat movement involves every joint and most of the soft tissue structures (fascia, muscles, ligaments, and tendons) in the human body. The prime movers of the overhead squat are the muscles of the hips and legs. The musculature of the torso, shoulders, and arms primarily stabilize the barbell overhead. Even the muscles of the hands and feet are heavily involved. The hands maintain a secure grip on the barbell, positioning the bar directly above the bones of the forearm. The feet maintain a solid base of support from which to balance the combination of body weight and overhead resistance.
Primary Joints Used in the Overhead Squat
The primary joints providing movement during overhead squats are the same joints that provide movement during the squat: the hips, knees, and ankles.
Upper Body Use in the Overhead Squat
The primary function of the shoulders during an overhead squat is to stabilize the barbell in the overhead position. The joints of the wrist, elbow, and spine (especially thoracic), remain in a somewhat fixed position and act as one long lever connecting the hips and the barbell, acting to stabilize the load overhead as the ankles, knees, and hip joints perform the squatting action. Lack of mobility in any of these joints can lead to seemingly endless movement faults, highlighting a multitude of mobility opportunities.
The shoulders must be rotated backwards into external rotation to allow the shoulder glenohumeral joint and scapula the positioning they need to maintain a stable position throughout the duration of the squat. This will be slightly different for each athlete. Often, coaches will cue this important set-up feature of the overhead squat with “armpits forwards”, “show your armpits”, “biceps up”, “shoulders back and down”, etc. These are all useful cues depending on what the athlete needs to hear to perform the action correctly.
Athletes can overdo the external rotation here. The goal is not to wedge the humorous into the back of the shoulder joint. This rigid position will feel stable, but will not allow for much deviation in balance to accommodate for the weight slightly shifting overhead. The goal is to open up enough space with thoracic extension and create enough scapular stability so that the shoulders can externally rotate with extra room to externally rotate further, if needed.
Benefits of Overhead Squats
Technically sound overhead squats express balance, flexibility, mobility, and coordination. When performed at heavy loads relative to the athlete’s strength, whole body strength adaptations occur. An added adaptation from overhead squats is the scapular stability from maintaining the barbell in the overhead squat. There are very few movements that directly challenge both the lower traps and rhomboids more thoroughly than overhead squats.
Coaches and athletes can also utilize the overhead squat as an assessment tool to draw out faults, diagnose problematic areas, and apply interventions. Some of the possible flaws and solutions are discussed below.
Overhead Squat Assessment
Simple tests can assess you for overhead squat readiness. The first assessment is a bodyweight squat because your body weight squat must be solid for you to attempt overhead squats. If you are sound here (not just passable – sound…otherwise you will find immediate restrictions), then you can check thoracic, scapular, and shoulder mobility.
Can you perform a behind neck press with a PVC pipe with a flat back, neutral head position, neutral wrists, and forearms stacked vertically under the bar? If yes, you’re ready to attempt an overhead squat with a PVC pipe.
This doesn’t mean that you will be immediately successful. There are still plenty of restrictions that could limit a full-depth, picturesque overhead squat despite passing the above two assessments. However, if you can get to this point of proficiency, you are ready to begin overhead squatting with a PVC pipe.
The Overhead Squat in CrossFit
Outside of the Olympic Weightlifting community, before CrossFit, overhead squats were almost nonexistent. Now, you can find workouts a number of days a year at thousands of gyms around the world that include overhead squats. For this reason, taking overhead squat advice from Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, can be worthwhile. He suggests that those who desire to improve their overhead squat should start with perfecting their bodyweight squat first and then start loading the overhead squat lightly. Simple. Definitely not easy. And if you want to make it to the CrossFit games, your overhead squat better be rock solid.
Overhead Squat Tips
Heart-breaking spoiler – IF YOU CANNOT OVERHEAD SQUAT WELL WITH A PVC PIPE BUT CAN PERFORM THEM WITH GREATER RESISTANCE, YOU ARE A TICKING TIME BOMB.
Here’s what is meant by that. Stabilizing a PVC pipe or light wooden dowel rod overhead takes minimal strength. People sometimes find light overhead squats to be more difficult than moderately loaded overhead squats. These people use a weighted barbell and pull that sucker way back to the end-range of their shoulder joint capsule to make up for poor thoracic extension, ankle dorsiflexion, long femurs, and a number of other mobility and anthropometric reasons. Perhaps they can overhead squat a decent weight for their body weight and sex, but if you ask them to grab a PVC pipe and perform an overhead squat, they reply “Oh, I can squat better with a bar”. Why? Compensation.
Compensation is troublesome because it can lead to injuries. Uneven wear and tear on your body always come out in the wash. If you cannot demonstrate a passable overhead squat with a PVC, you are almost guaranteed to injure yourself when performing this movement loaded and for many reps over future months and years.
The simple (and definitely NOT easy) solution here is to perfect your squat by correcting your muscle imbalances. Earn yourself an aesthetically-pleasing and health-enhancing overhead squat.
Before we delve into solutions for addressing overhead squat movement faults, first we must discuss some common mobility restrictions and what problems they cause during overhead squats.
Overhead Squat Mobility Restrictions and what they look like
It’s already a given that poor hip mobility restricts a bodyweight squat, so for athletes with poor hip mobility (if there is no pathological root to a movement flaw, mobility restrictions are most likely caused by muscle imbalances), a deep overhead squat is out. Find your specific deficits and correct them.
Poor ankle mobility limits deep overhead squats, especially if the athlete has relatively long femurs. Athletes with issues here tend to push their hips too far back because the knees are blocked from tracking forwards. This drops the torso towards the ground and transfers greater demand of overhead barbell stabilization to the thoracic spine and shoulders. Adding foot and lower leg strengthening can help create range at the ankle. Foot and lower leg strengthening can help athletes maintain an active foot position and may help prevent ankle pronation (ankles caving in) and subsequent knee valgus (knees caving in).
Poor thoracic mobility will show its ugly face when an athlete reaches the “sticking point” (somewhere close to the point during the squat where the horizontal distance between the hip joint and barbell is greatest). An athlete with restrictions here will round their upper back, perhaps aiming their chest at the ground, which places even more stress on the shoulders. Next, the shoulder blades elevate, and the shoulders most likely internally rotate to provide the new range of motion required to stabilize the barbell. There is no longevity performing overhead squats like this and will end badly in time. However, there is hope.
Similar to how many athletes think they can’t front squat with a proper rack position due to “wrist” issues (hint: 95% of the time, the wrist is not problematic), in the overhead squat, athletes say that they can’t perform this movement because it bothers their shoulders. Most likely, the shoulders are NOT the problem but instead have been the solution to stabilizing the barbell overhead after much of the force of the movement is shifted to them from poor ankle, hip, and thoracic function. Here, the shoulder – by lonesome itself – carries the burden that should be shared with the thoracic spine and scapula.
However, IF you happen to be in that five percent of the population whose shoulders lack the requisite range of motion or stability to perform this movement, assessing all the muscles that cross the shoulder joint for weakness is worthwhile. Strengthen the weaker muscles and you may find your stability and range improve.
PRO TIP: Stretching short muscles may NOT always be the solution to improve range. Think of it this way: what if your particular short muscles are just weak, and the body wants to keep them short to protect you from hurting them?
An elongated muscle may be more susceptible to injury. Your body is smart. It has had millions of years to figure out how to stay healthy and reproduce despite all the crazy stuff we do to ourselves. A potential solution here is to locate short or weak areas (sometimes muscles can be weak and long, too) through strength and range of motion testing, strengthen the weak muscles, and then retest.
How to get better at Overhead Squats
Keep the potential movement flaws and problems from above in mind when you sift through this section. With faults of any kind in human movements, I love to look at them with this perspective: if you were to perform that movement, just like that, for 10,000 reps, what would happen? Look deeply and honestly at yourself here.
The only passable answer is “all joints and tissues involved will be stronger and mobility will improve over time.” If the answer is “my knees will probably hurt” (caused by any knee action that is NOT a hinge), or “the shoulders will fall off the body and crawl away from me because I treat them so badly” (caused by anteriorly protruding shoulders, usually accompanied by a tragic lack of thoracic ROM from short and weak pecs and long, weak upper back muscles), then the consequent solution is to address those areas before loading them within that potentially problematic range and utilize movement regressions and appropriate loading until compensation is replaced by a sharing of the resistance throughout your entire structure.
Keeping the 10,000-rep rule in mind, there are seemingly endless faults for overhead squatting due to the complexity of this movement. Here are a few faults and some suggested fixes for them. This list of faults and fixes is not exhaustive or complete because there are many solutions to every single fault and are often specific to each individual athlete.
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