You love to squat, I love to squat. Everybody loves to squat! Okay that last bit may not be entirely true but hey, one can dream right? One of the things that make the squat such an effective exercise is its ability to recruit a vast number of muscle groups in a single movement. And if you think that’s challenging enough, try doing it with some weight overhead!
Performing a normal squat requires a good deal of strength, balance and coordination. With the overhead squat, this requirement is amplified significantly. By placing the load overhead, the moment arm is lengthened significantly, resulting in forces having a greater influence over the movement of the object (ie. easier to be thrown off-balance).
The nature of the overhead squat also requires a fair amount of hip and ankle mobility for it to be performed correctly, even more so than the back squat. The role of the upper body in the squat is even more apparent in this variation. Not only must the arms keep the load overhead in a fully extended fashion, but the shoulders, trapezius and back muscles must also work in synergy for the load to be correctly and safely supported. For this reason, the overhead squat is one the main movements used in scoring with the Functional Movement Systems when it comes to assessing movement capability.
Location and equipment courtesy of TripleFit
Beginning the overhead squat starts by positioning the load overhead. If you’re unfamiliar with the snatch (or its variations), the load can be positioned on your back (like a high-bar back squat) while employing a wide grip and pressing/push-pressing it up. In the top position, be sure to internally rotate your shoulders so that your elbows are facing out at the sides. This will allow you to activate your trapezius muscles to help support the load better. From here, hinge slightly at the hips before squatting straight down. Remember to spread your knees in order to provide enough space for your hips to descend. Complete the movement by engaging the hips and standing straight up.
Despite its status as a screening tool, the overhead squat can also be used in strength and conditioning routines. Weightlifters often learn and practice the overhead squat due to its application to the snatch, one of the two official competition lifts. CrossFit WODs also periodically feature overhead squats; it can be a very metabolically demanding movement to perform in certain situations. Casual lifters on the other hand, might find the uses of the overhead squat to be fairly limited.
The inherent instability of the movement means that the load will have to be reduced significantly for those who are new to the exercise. Many often start out with a technique barbell or a PVC pipe to build confidence and technique before moving on to the real deal. Mobility demands mean that not everyone will be able to perform the movement initially, or at all. Joint restriction by way of bony limitations will make it nigh impossible to perform a deep overhead squat without some level of compensation elsewhere in the body.
The overhead squat works best when performed in sets of no more than 5 reps. They can also be performed as part of a complex (e.g. snatch push-press + overhead squat, power snatch + snatch + overhead squat, etc.) to either build confidence in the overhead position, or to accumulate additional training volume. Some lifters (myself included) also like to use the overhead squat as part of our warm-ups. Whichever you choose to do, prioritise movement quality before adding weight. The last thing you’d want is for a loaded barbell to come crashing down on you!