5 reasons to add the overhead squat into your trainingOctober 30, 2020 | by Ashley Capewell, Strength & Conditioning Coach
For those that are unfamiliar with the sport of Olympic weightlifting, it’s a sport in which athletes face off to lift the most amount of weight within two different lifts: the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk. Each movement has its own set of rules and techniques within the constraints of the sport.
For those that understand the sport, you can appreciate the synchronization of raw power, graceful performance and incredible mobility. While Olympic weightlifters are undoubtedly some of the most powerful athletes in the world, they also require the elegance and flexibility of a gymnast or dancer.
The sport also comes with its core movements. One of these movements can be beneficial to anyone’s training, whether a frequent weightlifter or not: the overhead squat (OHS).
The overhead squat is the catch position for the Snatch. It requires a great amount of mobility, stability and strength throughout the entire body to be performed well.
The overhead squat can be performed as a stand-alone movement and is one of the most effective ways of improving strength, stability and mobility through the shoulders, core, hips, knees and ankles.
Here are five reasons you should take a leaf from the book of Olympic weightlifting and add the OHS into your training:
1. Perfect squatting form
Overhead squats are a great tool to practice your squatting technique. Although it may look different to a common back squat, the only real difference is the arm position and the placement of the bar. In theory, everything from the shoulder down should be the same.2
An overhead squat requires a balanced position with the knees over the toes, a stable lower back, and an extended upper back for you to be able to perform the movement. If any of these points are missing, the bar will end up on the floor.3
Because of this, the OHS creates good habits whilst squatting, which can transfer to your other lifts.
As a coach, I often use overhead squats in my athletes’ warm ups because it forces them to perform a near perfect squat.
Once you have mastered the overhead squat, movements like front squats and back squats become easy.
2. Advanced core strength
Any time you are required to stabilize your upper body with a load above your head, your core is working overtime. Do this whilst performing a squat and your core becomes a vital pillar of stability to transfer force from your feet into the bar.
The better you get at the overhead squat, the deeper you will be able to squat overall and the heavier you will be able to lift. As a consequence, the demand on your core muscles increases with every kilogram. It is impossible to perform the OHS without bracing your core and stabilizing your trunk.
With a stable trunk position, you will learn how to transfer force through your legs and into the movement without any energy leaks.
3. Thoracic stability
In this modern age, many people suffer with stiffness in the upper back and the thoracic spine. We spend too much time in slouched seated positions whilst working at a desk, driving and catching up on our favourite TV shows. Because of this, the slouched position becomes the norm and we rarely get into an extended position.
Working on the mobility of the shoulders and upper back will help resolve some of this stiffness, but it is only part of the picture. As we improve the range of our shoulders and upper back with stretching, we need to create stability within this newfound range.
The overhead squat requires a strong squeeze from the upper back to create a secure platform for your shoulders to stabilize the weight above your head.5 This isometric contraction creates strength and stability in an extended position, which has the potential to improve your posture and mobility in your upper back.
4. Leg strength
As mentioned previously, the overhead squat forces you to have good form whilst squatting. Because of this, there is a smaller margin of error when loading the legs.
Have you ever performed a back squat and felt like your lower back or hips are doing most of the work? When you practice the overhead squat and slowly add weight to the lift, you can be sure that the load is hitting the quads.1
Although the weight may not be as heavy as back squats and front squats, the load is much more focused on the quads because of the upright torso angle required to complete the lift, as opposed to back squats which require more flexion from the hips.
5. Hip, knee and ankle mobility
Have you ever felt like you can get into a deeper squat and hold a better position when you have some weight on the bar? If so, you have the adequate flexibility to perform a perfect squat, however you might be lacking a bit of stability to hold yourself in position into that deeper range.
Because the overhead squat requires almost perfect positioning to be completed without dropping the bar, when done correctly, the load will assist in forcing you into a deeper squat. There is a body of research that supports the use of loaded stretching to improve the flexibility of muscles and increase the range of movement at the joint. The deeper loaded position will help build stability in those end ranges, and in time improve your ability to freely sit into the bottom of a squat with little effort. This will improve the mobility at your hips, knees and ankles. 4
Tips to get you started
Initially, the overhead squat can be quite an intimidating movement to try. With bars and weights above your head, that’s understandable. But, it’s actually an easy place to start if you are getting into weightlifting.
Choose a light bar or even a PVC pipe to start, and use a box or a bench as a guide to sit on to. Make sure you are holding your position well and you are able to keep the bar above the crown of your head with your chest up and arms straight.
As you get more comfortable, choose a slightly lower box or bench to aim for, but maintain a strong and stable position throughout the movement. Over time, you will become comfortable and be able to load the movement progressively, adding just 1-2 lbs each week.
Everybody could benefit from practicing overhead squats, you just need to find your starting point. Whether that’s a PVC pipe, a full Olympic barbell or anywhere in between—that’s up to you.
Interested in learning more about Olympic weightlifting, and how to lift safely and impactfully for your training? Book a complimentary phone consult with one of our strength & conditioning coaches today, to see how our team can help you reach your goals.
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- Bautista, D., Durke, D., Cotter, J. A., Escobar, K. A., & Schick, E. E. (2020). A Comparison of Muscle Activation Among the Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Back Extension and Plank. International journal of exercise science, 13(1), 714–722.
- Comfort, P. & Kasim, P. (2007) Optimising Squat Technique. Strength and Conditioning Journal: Dec, 10-13
- Joseph, J., (1988). Exercise Techniques: The overhead Squat. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal: October Volume 10 – Issue 5 – p 24-27
- Page P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International journal of sports physical therapy, 7(1), 109–119.
- Rodrigo, R.A. & Swinton , P ., (2014) Electromyographic and Kinetic Comparison of the Back Squat and Overhead Squat, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28(10):2827-2836
- Hasegawa, I., (2004) Using the overhead squat for core development. NSCA’s Perform Train J 3(6):19-21.