the joy of strength training


March 25th, 2008 at 12:27 am

How-to: Overhead squat

The overhead squat is one of the most challenging lifts in weight training, short of the olympic lifts themselves. If you want to try something a bit different, give it a go. You’ll soon find out what real core stability is!

What is the overhead squat?

overhead squatThe overhead squat is a deep squat performed while holding a barbell over your head with straight arms. It actually feels more like a snatch (one of the Olympic lifts) than a back squat. The fact that the bar is overhead rather than across your back changes the nature of the move significantly. For this reason, I prefer the term ‘snatch squat’ as I feel it is more descriptive, but ‘overhead squat’ is the more commonly-used name.

Why is it such a great exercise?

The overhead squat is a great assistance exercise for the Olympic lifts. In particular it teaches the correct position of the lower back for Olympic weightlifting. The move also works legs, hips and core very intensely so is effective both as an assistance exercise for the powerlifting squat and as a whole body exercise in its own right. It is quite a challenging exercise for someone who is used to more conventional, bodybuilding-style training, and so acts as a good introduction to the rigours of Olympic weightlifting.

How to perform the overhead squat

Whatever your strength level, it is advisable to practise this exercise without weight first, or with a very light weight – trust me! If you don’t know what to expect it is possible to overbalance when doing this exercise for the first time. However, if you take it slow and practice with a wooden stick or light bar, you will be fine.

Step 1: Starting position – bar overhead with arms locked out in snatch grip

overhead squat start positionThe overhead squat is performed using a snatch grip. This is a wide grip on the bar. Finding the ideal width grip is a process of trial and error. Those with long arms will have their hands right up against the ends of the bar. I am a not-particularly-tall female and I grip the bar just outside the smooth rings.

There is more than one way to get into the start position. The easiest way is to get the bar across your shoulders (i.e. in the position you would use for a back squat) using a rack and then perform a push press to get the bar up into position. Don’t forget to adopt the snatch grip before you press up! You can also snatch the bar into position – although of course you need to be competent at snatching in order to do this.

You should be standing with feet shoulder width – or even slightly wider – apart, toes turned out slightly. In other words, in your normal position for squatting. With the bar locked out overhead, you are ready to begin the squat.

Step 2: Squat down as far as you can, holding the bar steady overhead

overhead squat middle positionPush back from the hips, keeping your back slightly arched. Look straight ahead with chest up and out – this helps to keep the arch in the lower back. Keep your weight on your heels and descend as far as your flexibility will allow. If your back starts to round, this is as low as you can go. Keep your knees directly over your feet, not collapsing inward or bending outward.

As you descend, keep your arms locked out overhead. The bar should be held so that the weight is above your hips, either just behind your ears or even just behind your head. You should be able to feel when the bar is in the right position as it will feel balanced. It is important never to let the bar come forwards as it will pull you forwards and you will have to drop it! Also, if you have very flexible shoulders, you might need to watch that you don’t over-extend backwards and have the bar too far behind you.

To keep the bar in place, think about pulling your hands outwards. Imagine you are trying to stretch the bar or pull it in half.

Step 3: Reach squat depth

overhead squat bottom positionThe aim is to go as low as possible but your squat depth will be limited by your back flexibility. This will improve as you practise the overhead squat.

As with any kind of squat, your knees should remain over your feet and not collapse in.

If you are not used to squatting to this depth, think about letting your body hang between your legs, not behind them. Often the squat is taught with a narrow stance and only to a parallel position, but it is difficult to hit a deep position with a narrow stance so if you have been taught this way, experiment with a wider position. Also if you need to turn your toes out a bit more in order to sink your hips lower, this is not a problem.

Step 4: Push out of the bottom and return to a standing position, maintaining the bar overhead

Press your heels into the floor and use your hips and glutes to push up out of the deep squat position and back to a standing position. Keep your core strong, holding your upper body in position. Continue trying to pull the bar apart to maintain its position securely above your head.

How to use the overhead squat in your training

There are a number of ways you can use the overhead squat in your training:

  • As a warm up for Olympic lifts
  • As an assistance exercise for the Olympic lifts and the squat
  • As a core strengthening exercise
  • As a tough workout in its own right (e.g. 15 bodyweight overhead squats) or combining it with other exercises in a circuit

The overhead squat has been growing in popularity, due in particular to its adoption by Crossfit as a key exercise. It is a very versatile move to master.

Stumble it! Share Subscribe to this blog
  • 1

    awesome. I keep seeing this overhead squat around, with very little explanation of the benefits or proper form. Nice piece. Thanks.

    Rob on March 25th, 2008
  • 2

    Cheers Rob, glad you liked it!

    gubernatrix on March 25th, 2008
  • 3

    I think I might give this a go! It took me a long time to sort out my squat stance, I’m still working on it, but I’ve found training with a wider stances with my toes pointed slightly outwards helped.

    Rooroo on March 25th, 2008
  • 4

    Same here with the stance! I would definitely recommend the overhead squat for help with general squatting.

    gubernatrix on March 25th, 2008
  • 5

    Ha ha, I tried this last week for the first time, had only about 5kgs on the bar (dunno what the barbell weighs, it’s not an Olympic) and promptly fell on my bottom!

    A brush handle would be more my style for the moment. Thanks for the guide.

    Lisa on March 26th, 2008
  • 6

    Classic! First time I tried it I only went about halfway down and then thought ‘that’s enough of that!’

    gubernatrix on March 26th, 2008
  • 7

    Can you clarify the discussion of back flexibility? You state “the aim is to go as low as possible but your squat depth will be limited by your back flexibility.” Then you go on to explain how back flexibility relates to the angle of the shin (against the floor) at the bottom of the overhead squat.

    As I understand this movement, the goal is to have a stable low back (l-spine) and a flexible upper back (t-spine). Are you saying that more flexibility in the thorasic spine will increase the shin angle? I’m having trouble seeing how this could be. Or do you mean that hamstring flexibility is the key? I can see how tight hamstrings would cause instability in the l-spine (i.e. the butt-wink at the bottom).

    Of course, my confusion is informed by the way that my body seems to require a 45 degree shin angle in order to have anything approximating good form. This leaves my knees way out past my toes (in the sagital plane). I have not found a way to prevent this, and I do not know if it is a problem.


    Bonnie on March 26th, 2008
  • 8

    @ Bonnie: good point about hamstring flexibility, it is definitely important here and I should have mentioned it.

    I don’t do any specific stretches for this move, just the exercise itself – which is the easiest way for me to be sure I am stretching the right bits!

    gubernatrix on March 26th, 2008
  • 9

    On a related issue, Alwyn Cosgrove points out – using the overhead squat as an example – that problems with range of motion may not always be issues of mobility or flexibility. See the first item in this article:
    Something else to think about….

    gubernatrix on April 2nd, 2008
  • 10

    This is ridiculously challenging; definitely on my exercise radar now, though.

    lelak on April 16th, 2008
  • 11

    I love squatting, back squat, front squat but the overhead squat challenges me so much but I am determined to nail it. As far as I am concerned if I can’t Overhead Squat I won’t be able to snatch properly in the low position so it’s my aim to keep banging away until I get there. I get a few funny looks and sneers from the bodybuilders but funny enough I never see them squatting deep on the back squat, none of them do front squats and I have never seen any in the gym I go to even try an overhead squat.

    Sean on August 26th, 2008
  • 12

    @ Sean: haha, yes I get the funny looks too!

    gubernatrix on September 10th, 2008
  • 13

    […] How-to: Overhead squat […]

  • 14

    Awesome guide! Very informative!

    Tyciol on June 13th, 2009
  • 15

    Thanks Tyciol! Look forward to seeing you again 🙂

    gubernatrix on June 13th, 2009
  • 16

    […] I have written on the front squat and the overhead squat but not on the back squat or squatting in […]

    Mystery of the squat | Hard Sweat on September 16th, 2009
  • 17

    Fascinating … I have been powerlifting for two years, although I have been told I squat with a rather narrow stance and go very deep. I actually bottomed out into the safety chains on my first attempt at my last meet 10/17/09.

    I am going to try this, maybe as a precursor to Olympic Lifting.

    I have long arms and legs and a very short torso (used to run marathons) … any advice on style, or just “go for it”.


    Steve on October 27th, 2009
  • 18

    Yep, just go for it! You’ll find what suits you best. Have respect for this exercise and you’ll have fun with it too.

    gubernatrix on October 28th, 2009
  • 19

    […] Overhead squat […]

  • 20

    Is it just me, or in the first picture it looks like your toes are way past your toes.

    ben on May 6th, 2010
  • 21

    Yep, my knees are a bit past my toes. If you read my text I actually talk about this – see under step 3:

    “As with any kind of squat, your knees should remain over your feet. Ideally, your knees should not push out beyond your toes, but this is dependent on your flexibility. The more flexibility your have in your back, the more vertical your knees can be in the bottom position. You can see from the picture that my flexibility is a bit lacking here as my knees are slightly past my toes! But I know from my own experience that this improves with practise, so if your knees do come out past your toes, don’t let this stop you from practising the exercise as your flexibility will improve.”

    Given that those pictures were taken over two years ago I can indeed attest that flexibility improves as my position is now better. Maybe I should take another set of pictures.

    gubernatrix on May 6th, 2010
  • 22

    […] en god og letforståelig introduktion til overhead squat – klik her. from → Træning ← 100 push-ups på seks uger? Selvplaceret skulderklap […]

    Overhead squat « Modspil on April 6th, 2011
  • 23

    […] to grab a broomstick and practice your overhead squat. If you need a few reminders here’s a nice article on how to do […]

    Friday Homework | CrossFit Tameside on September 2nd, 2011
  • 24

    Sorry, you’ve lost me?! I like watching Olympic Weightlifting and im pretty sure I’ve never seen any records broken when the knees do not pass the toes, and this is always with a near vertical torso. Surely the knees over the toes only becomes an issue when it causes the individual pain? As long as the heels stay down and the knees dont collapse in (valgus knee), then go deep and work those hamstrings!!

    Allan on September 8th, 2011
  • 25

    Yes, I’ve been doing olympic lifting for a couple of years now (I wrote the article 3.5 years ago) and now I think it is a non-issue. Maybe I should update the article.

    Having said that, just because someone broke a record doing something, that doesn’t mean it is what everyone in the gym should do! Elite sports people aren’t training for long term health and fitness, they are training for gold medals. I wouldn’t, for example, have a normal gym goer bounce out of their squats just because elite weightlifters do it.

    gubernatrix on September 9th, 2011
  • 26

    Thanks for the update. Just to make it clear, i wasn’t suggesting everyone should perform OH squats that mirrors the bottom of a full snatch (although it would do no harm trying). I was just trying to point out that, if flexibility allows, then squat deep and heavy, and reap the rewards of this fantastic core exercise. Your article is very good and very informative. It is unfortunate that one small point may have limited the full benefits of this exercise. A small amendment is all that’s required.

    Allan on September 9th, 2011
  • 27

    […] don’t have rippling muscles and I struggle with some moves that seem easy (I’m looking at you, overhead squat!), but I can tell I’m improving. Coaches have commented that my form is getting better, I feel […]

  • 28

    […] Overhead squat: hold a barbell above head, with shoulders and elbows locked, and do squats while holding it there. wpa2a.script_load(); […]

  • 29

    […] Source […]

  • 30

    Thank you Sally, for a very useful step-by-step for an extremely challenging lift. I do a lot of powerlifting but have recently dabbled with other lifts…and I REALLY like the overhead squat (currently squatting 30kg…10kg on a 20kg bar).

    I would just like to make a small point about dumping the bar after this lift. It’s tough! When I had no weight on the bar, I would sort of squat/dip under the rack and put it back. I now find pushing it behind me, letting go and moving quickly forward feels right.
    It takes confidence to do it and you must ensure the area behind is clear so the bar doesn’t impede or injure your weights buddies. An added bonus – it’s very satisfying as the bar hits the ground and it looks impressive. No guys that I know of do this lift at my gym, and I have had the occasional ‘awesome’ or ‘good job’ comment from the boys. Nice to think my efforts are appreciated!

    Julie on August 16th, 2013


RSS feed for comments on this post | TrackBack URI