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?
The 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
The 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
Push 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
The 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.
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