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Raise The Bar: How To Master The Overhead Squat

If you’ve tried the overhead squat, you know it’s a challenging lift. Use this movement guide to learn helpful cues and correct common issues!

As a trainer, I come across too many people who want to build their body with shortcuts and cheats. Cutting technique corners is one thing, but ignoring important exercises is another. Gym rats usually shy away from movements that exploit their weak links, sticking to staples like the biceps curl. If you want to strengthen your weaknesses, challenge your entire body, and unlock new growth, the overhead squat is a killer place to start.

Overhead squats are arguably the most technically demanding movement in weight training, along with the Olympic lift variations. They have tremendous positive effects on mobility, squat depth, back strength, and stability, especially where it translates to other lifts. You have to practice the overhead squat to master the movement, but it's damn hard.

That's where I come in. This step-by-step guide to the overhead squat will help you master the movement and correct common problems. Keep in mind that the overhead squat is not a movement to approach lightly. If you have a history of shoulder issues, impingement, or terribly poor range of motion due to some limitation, don't play around with this exercise.

Overhead Squat Cues

Before you simply press a barbell overhead and squat as deep as you can, keep these three cues in mind:

1 / Grip

Different grips make muscles work in different ways. A narrow-hand grip allows for much more shoulder mobility and flexibility, which is crucial for powerful overhead squats.

For general purposes, I recommend a grip that creates a 90-degree angle at the elbow when the arm is bent and the bar an inch above your head. Use a closed-grip with your thumb around the bar and grip it tightly. Think about squeezing the life out of the bar. Tightness is the key.

When the bar is overhead, your elbows should be completely locked out; no "soft" joints. Focus on applying outward tension to the bar. This allows the muscles in the upper back and rear shoulders to contract and create much more shoulder stability to avoid an irregular bar path.

2 / Bar Travel

In every vertical pushing or pulling exercise (squat, deadlift, high pulls, standing press, cleans, snatch), the bar must travel in a straight line when viewed from the side. As you progress through the overhead squat, the bar will appear to travel backward, to a slight degree, relative to the head and chest position.

The goal is to keep the torso as vertical as possible to create the least shoulder compromise. Maintaining the bar's path over the middle of your feet will be sensitive to how mobile your shoulders are and how well you can extend your spine as you descend.

3 / Squat

The same cues apply to the overhead squat as with any squat variation. However, it's a good idea to focus on a knee break over a hip break because of the position of the load. This means that you should start your descent at the knees, not the hips. Control your descent and maintain tightness in the upper back and posterior chain through the movement.

More than likely, your depth will be compromised because the lift asks for more hip mobility. Your back arch will disappear quicker into the descent because the hands are positioned overhead, which makes you lose tightness and compromise depth. To increase your range of motion from the start, lift your heels 1-2 inches by standing on thin plates.

Overhead Squat Issues

Most guys who focus on getting bigger aren't worried about flexibility or mobility. The overhead squat asks for both to be on their A-game. Poor mobility and an inadequate range of motion in the upper body usually stymie good performance in this lift, so let's correct two of the most common problems.

1 / Poor Shoulder Mobility

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint. The head of the humerus fits into the glenoid fossa similar to the way a golf ball sits in a tee. The range of motion the shoulder is supposed to go through, known as circumduction, is absolutely huge. Training the muscles on both sides of the shoulder (front and back) can lead to proper muscle balance, but unfortunately, most guys don't train for balance.

Most guys train the mirror muscles—chest, delts, and arms—much more than they should. As a result, the upper back muscles get no love. The subsequent tightness takes away from the shoulder's ability to rotate properly. That voids a lifter from getting the bar into the right starting position, let alone staying there while squatting.

Quick fix: Work first on muscle flexibility in the chest and shoulders by way of static stretching, and then focus on tissue quality and mobility work. Foam rolling and trigger-point rolling the chest and shoulders, coupled with shoulder "dislocates," shown in the video below, are key to increasing shoulder range of motion. Don't forget to attack your upper back and pull your upper body into balance!

Lee Boyce on OH Squats

Watch The Video - 02:22




2 / Poor Thoracic Extension

The thoracic vertebrae, or T-spine, compose the middle segment of your vertebral column. The T-spine is most responsible for mobility and trunk movement. When the T-spine can't extend, it affects several processes like scapular retraction, back activation, and shoulder rotational mobility. To correct poor thoracic extension, you need to "release" the pecs, intercostals, and even the lats, while activating the traps.

Quick fix: Focus on thoracic spine extensions using a foam roller. The roller placed under the shoulder blades allows you to "open up" the tissue on the front of the body, including the pecs and abdominals, to encourage better flexibility. Plus, it teaches the spine to extend manually. Next, activate your lower traps by performing trap 3 raises (see video). This helps you keep the ribcage high when performing other standing exercises like squats or standing presses.

Lee Boyce Trap 3 Raises

Watch The Video - 00:10




Lift It!

The overhead squat is complex, and there are many steps to remember. Above all, make sure you have a solid foundation to even try the lift. By focusing on the cues above, working on your tissue quality, and improving your mobility, you'll be primed to master the lift.


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About The Author

Lee Boyce is the owner of Boyce Training Systems, and is a fitness author and strength coach based in Toronto, Canada.

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Molinski44

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Molinski44

These make me hella nervous...

Jun 17, 2013 8:30pm | report
 
docjugraj

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docjugraj

it puts alot of pressure on the scapula,

Jun 17, 2013 9:28pm | report
 
Enso

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Enso

Pressure is not bad if you are in proper position. That's how you build strength.

Jun 18, 2013 11:09am | report
mcorem

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mcorem

Good article

Jun 17, 2013 9:34pm | report
 
elmeato

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elmeato

If you are doing this exercise for the first time, use a towel. Get the posture right and then gradually move on to bars and weights. All the best.

Jun 17, 2013 10:43pm | report
 
Stummi386

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Stummi386

What is honestly the point of doing this, when you can just place the bar on your traps, with more weight on it, and squat it, in much safer fashion?

Jun 18, 2013 5:17am | report
 
emccall3

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emccall3

I can think of a few things off the top of my head:
1: Shoulder Stability.
2: Shoulder, Upper Back, Lower Back and Hip Flexibility.
3: Coordination/Proprioception
4: They look cool.
and finally, 5: They're hella fun, duh!

Jun 18, 2013 6:27am | report
Ikeman83

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Ikeman83

This lift is a key component of the Full Snatch, as well as the Clean and Jerk.

You can't do Olympic lifts without the Overhead Squat.

Jun 18, 2013 5:24pm | report
fredzz1003

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fredzz1003

nice article
thanks :)

Jun 18, 2013 9:01am | report
 
dustinlapray

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dustinlapray

Definitely take them easy until you get the form down. I started with just the bar, had to convince my body it was OK to drop down. After a few sets, I increased the weight and it felt amazing, a head-to-toe exercise. #win

Jun 18, 2013 12:10pm | report
 
lifthard72

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lifthard72

I do these things twice a week with snatches and flexibility training!

Jun 18, 2013 1:32pm | report
 
HotStrawberry

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HotStrawberry

Would it be okay to do this in the Smith Machine?

Jun 18, 2013 10:46pm | report
 
BeingBrandon

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BeingBrandon

That's a really interest idea to keep the bar directly over your feet while learning the balance

Feb 7, 2014 9:00am | report
benjianderson32

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benjianderson32

"They have tremendous positive effects on mobility, squat depth, back strength, and stability, especially where it translates to other lifts" that's great so do squats why is this better than regular squats?

Jun 25, 2013 3:27pm | report
 
wrlord

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wrlord

Who needs to do this bizarre and dangerous exercise? Perhaps elite athletes, people in Mr. Boyce's shape, who can derive that extra 2% from doing it. But most trainees are putting themselves at extreme risk (back, shoulders, hips and knees) for little benefit. They don't add mass to their legs doing this, since its impossible to do this exercise with anything approaching normal squat weight. They don't get more core stability than they would doing something much safer. This just isn't something the average schmuck, let alone the beginning schmuck, should be doing.

Article Rated:
Mar 8, 2014 4:22pm | report
 
ddellipaoli

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ddellipaoli

I will certainly not argue with your statements, it is a very advanced exercise but exposes mobility weaknesses that you should be working on to stay safe in your other exercises.

Most importantly, some people lift for aesthetics, some overall health, some for performance or even a combo of all 3 but at the end of the day to be able to barely OHS with a pvc pipe to adding plates on a bar is an accomplishment, and its all about small changes that make up a big change.

Jul 17, 2014 8:52am | report
SnapyNapy

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SnapyNapy

great lift, difficult to master... but that guy is photoshoped with that much weight in that position

Apr 8, 2014 11:54am | report
 
Showing 1 - 17 of 17 Comments

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