If you love lifting and you’re looking for a new challenge, then you could tick that box by getting into the overhead squat. The overhead squat has to rank near the top of the list of supremely challenging exercises.
If you’re a competing Olympic lifter looking for tips on your overhead squat, then this article isn’t for you. There are plenty of great articles about training for the overhead squat and improving your overhead squat by people who specialise in Olympic lifting. And if you’re looking for a detailed breakdown of the overhead squat and Olympic lifting in general, then ‘The Complete Guide to Olympic Weightlifting’ by Greg Everett is an excellent and detailed reference on the topic.
Why is it so challenging?
For a start, you need mobility just about everywhere – ankles, hips, spine and shoulders. Most of our clients – at least when they start with us – don’t have the flexibility to be able to perform an overhead squat.
We are FMS certified practitioners and we perform a movement screen with all our new personal trainer clients. If you’re familiar with FMS you’ll know that the overhead squat is one of the tests. We’ve only ever had one new client who scored top marks. We’ve had more who can do it with their heels raised but the majority cannot perform it at all. It’s simply that they are not mobile enough in one or more of the areas mentioned above.
Stability and balance
If you’re mobile enough to do an overhead squat with a broomstick then it’s relatively straightforward to squat deep and keep the stick overhead. Once you start squatting a load, however, it’s a different story. The load suddenly increases the challenge enormously.
Simply holding a weight overhead requires the core to work hard and the shoulders to stabilise any movement forwards and backwards. But perform a squat, with the angle of the torso changing throughout the movement, and you’ll find you need to concentrate a lot harder. It reminds me of squatting on a BOSU. You squat tentatively and most of your body is continuously twitching and adjusting to avoid tipping over and spilling the load.
The good news is that you get better at it. You become more stable and less tentative.
It’s not really leg strength that’s the issue here. It’s unlikely you’ll develop this lift sufficiently to challenge your legs. If you’re overhead squatting decent weight then the chances are you’re an Olympic lifter and can clean and jerk significantly more.
No, it’s shoulder strength that is challenged more. At least if you’re doing these for reps. In fact, I used to do overhead squats to train my shoulders. If I had a break of a few weeks and came back to them I could guarantee that 3 sets of 10 reps at 60kg would have my shoulders sore for days. I couldn’t do that now, by the way. My right hip is knackered. Not from dodgy lifting I hasten to add!
What’s it good for?
That’s a good question.
Clearly if you’re into Olympic lifting then it’s a must-do assistance exercise. If you want to snatch then you have to be comfortable overhead squatting.
If you’re a recreational lifter then you might like to do the overhead squat for a number of reasons.
- It presents a supreme challenge.
- It’s another whole-body exercise you can add to your repertoire, enabling more variety in your workouts.
- It’ll maintain your flexibility in the ankles, hips, spine and shoulders.
- You’ll develop strong and stable shoulders.
- You’ll switch on and develop just about every muscle associated with stability and balance.
- It’ll make you a better lifter in your other lifts.
- Your nervous system will get thrashed, which is great for helping the hormonal response to your lifting session.
- It’s quite cool to be able to do it, and very satisfying.
And it’ll make you puff pretty hard!
Why do I do it from time to time? I just like doing it. I like being able to do it and it’s a skill I don’t want to lose. And when I get my hip fixed I’m hoping to return to Olympic lifting, so doing it will help me keep my eye in.
Developing the required mobility
A lot of people require weeks or even months of work to develop the required flexibility for the overhead squat. Developing general mobility is a huge topic. Your individual needs are specific to you and, if you’re not sure what they are, you may need a sports therapist or personal trainer. We’ve written before about developing flexibility post-workout.
I’m not going to attempt to summarise all the things you may need to do to get ready to overhead squat. Instead I’m going to provide an abbreviated rundown of mobility drills required to be able to do the overhead squat.
Some good articles
There are plenty of posts out there on developing mobility to get into the deep squat. Here’s one about developing the deep squat. And here’s a post about the deep squat hold, which I also demo in the next video.
The deep squat hold
In the video, you’ll see a short progression to the final position. Just to be clear, the final position I demonstrate is an assisted deep squat hold. It’s assisted because I have trapped my hands under my feet. This allows me to more easily straighten my back and stretch my adductors. It’s a good stretch but it won’t necessarily help you develop the required mind-muscle connection and strength required to hold the deep squat unassisted. If you can get into the position shown then you just need to practise taking your hands away from under your feet and holding it.
Upper back and shoulder mobility
There are numerous exercises you can use to develop these areas. The best choice will depend on your particular flexibility issues. In the main video below I show a couple of useful drills that should work for most people. You can use these both as general mobility development drills and as part of the warm up to mobilise the upper back and shoulders.
With the stick drill, if you can’t get the stick behind your back then just get it as far round as you can. Thoracic spine mobility may be part of the reason you can’t get the stick back. So keep working on your upper back mobility and keep trying to get the stick a little further each time. You’ll do better when your body is warm. So, use this stretch after a workout to develop your flexibility, and use it as a mobiliser before you do a session of overhead squatting.
A simple progression towards loaded overhead squats
Develop the required flexibility
We’ve covered that! It should also be a given that you look after your rotator cuff. That means easing any tension that might compromise shoulder posture, such as tight pecs, and regularly performing rotator cuff strengthening exercises. Once you have the required mobility and stability, it’s time to squat.
Use a heel block and a broomstick
Use a block of some sort to raise the heels. For the bar, use something with no weight such as a stick. If you can’t achieve a squat then this is the first drill to work on. Work hard on developing your flexibility until you can do this for reps
Use a broomstick without a heel block
Once you can do it with raised heels, have a go without the blocks. You’ll note that I have lifting shoes on. They have a raised heel. All Olympic lifters use a proper lifting shoe with a raised heel, it helps them get deep in the squat. The flatter your shoes, the more likely you are to squat with a rounded back and for your torso to be bent over. If you can sit tall in a deep squat with a straight back and flat shoes then hats off to you.
Use a bar without a heel block
If you can do a broomstick overhead squat without a heel block, then you shouldn’t need to use a raised heel with a bar. Go straight to a bar without a heel block. You may find that you simply cannot squat without the heel block but you feel confident about your ability to overhead squat with a load. In this case you could try loaded squats with a heel block. Just note that if you want to do the Olympic lifts, you’re going to need to squat without a raised heel.
Start with a light bar. You can get Olympic bars that weigh 5kg that are for training the Olympic lifts. Our lightest bar is 12kg but the one I am using in the video is the standard 20kg.
If the step up from broomstick to bar is too much then try sliding small plates onto the broomstick until you approach the weight of the lightest bar available to you.
Progress to a 20kg Olympic bar.
Use a loaded bar
It goes without saying that you should progress within your capability. In the video the loaded bar is 40kg, which is challenging enough when you’re 3 years out of practice!
Elite level Olympic lifters can snatch well over 200kg. That’s not just an overhead squat, it’s a deadlift, followed by heaving it quickly enough and high enough that you can get under it with straight arms. That’s verging on heroic! It’s a great spectacle, especially if you have done overhead squatting yourself and you appreciate how challenging an exercise it is.
How do you get the bar overhead to start a set?
- Take it from a rack onto the back of your shoulders and push press it into position. If you’re planning to place it back on the rack rather than dumping it on the floor then watch your fingers when you put it back!
- You can clean it, jump it over your head to the back of your shoulders, then push press it into position. That’s what I did to shoot the video. There will be a limit to how much weight you can use doing this as the jump over the head is awkward and not a strong position.
- You can position the bar at the right height in a power rack so that you start the squat from a dead stop at the bottom. In other words, you get under the bar while it’s in the rack so that you are in the overhead squat position, then you squat it up. This is tough. Without the momentum and stretch reflex of the negative portion of the rep, it requires a good deal of focus. If you’re in a gym that has all the training kit for Olympic lifting then you can also do this off jerk blocks rather than a power rack.
- Snatch it! You’ll have to be a pretty competent Olympic lifter to do this!
Want a new challenge? The overhead squat will challenge your flexibility, your balance and your strength. It’s very satisfying to be able to do it and it’s an exercise that will help you with your other lifts by maintaining your flexibility and strengthening a lot of muscles associated with balanced strength. What are you waiting for? Go and add the overhead squat to your repertoire and reap the rewards.