Once upon a time, overhead squats were mostly used by olympic athletes. However, thanks to the meteoric rise of CrossFit, overhead squats are now commonplace in all kinds of strength and weight training programmes.
This is good news, and bad news.
Good news because overhead squats are incredibly beneficial for core strength, balance, stability and strengthening the bottom position of the snatch.
Bad news because, well, they’re hard. To perform the lift correctly, you need high levels of coordination, mobility and balance.
Thankfully there are some overhead squat tips that I’m about to share that can help you lessen the learning curve, and maybe even turn that feeling of dread into one of quiet, confident joy.
What is the overhead squat?
To start off, let’s clear up the overhead squat for those who might be new to it.
The overhead squat is a squatting exercise where a barbell is held overhead at all times. Whereas in a traditional barbell squat the bar would rest on the upper back or be held across the lower delts, in an overhead squat it’s held above the head from beginning to end.
It’s because of the bar being overhead that the overhead squat can significantly increase core, shoulder and upper back strength whilst enhancing balance and mobility. It’s also a great way to reinforce the correct squatting form.
Why is the overhead squat so difficult?
If you hadn’t guessed, what makes the overhead squat so daunting is the fact that it requires so much upper body strength and balance in order to stay upright.
Perhaps what’s more difficult is that the correct upright body posture is only able to be achieved if you can push your knees forward. If your knees don’t travel past your toes, you won’t be able to correctly perform the overhead squat.
Lifters can also find it difficult to hold the bar overhead depending on their thoracic spine mobility, and depending on their shoulder rotation may also find it heavy going to keep the bar up and steady.
However, there are solutions to common overhead squat problems and the answer is a combination of technique cues, mobility work and accessory exercises. For shoulder complaints for example, lifters can add in exercises that aid shoulder mobility like wall angels or band pull-aparts. If they feel off balance in the overhead squat, thinking about ‘pulling the bar apart’ and bracing the core can improve the movement instantaneously.
So although the overhead squat is difficult, the bottom line is that it’s not impossible. Lifters can overcome the obstacles standing in their way through performing accessory movements that target the individual elements preventing them from successfully performing the exercise.
How do I get better at overhead squats?
Now for the crunch part. These X tips can help you to focus on individual aspects of the overhead squat that may be making it a dreaded time, instead of an empowering one.
Use a stick or a PVC pipe
Getting used to the overhead squat takes time, and practice. If you’re brand new to the overhead squat, a barbell (even with no weight) might be too uncomfortable a place to start.
To that end, use a PVC pipe or a wooden stick – even a broomstick will do. Not only will this help you get used to the technique, it can also be a useful way of establishing the most comfortable hand position for your bar.
To find your hand position, stand up straight holding your stick and raise your elbows out to your sides. Both of your arms should position themselves at a 90-degree “L” shape. If possible, measure the distance between your left and right hand or ask someone to do it for you. Then, mark the distance on your faux barbell. Now you can place your index finger on that line when it comes to grabbing the bar during your overhead squat.
If you find yourself falling forward when squatting, try widening your grip slightly.
Practicing the overhead squat with a broom, as demonstrated here by one of Strength Ambassador’s personal trainers, Sarah Hilton!
2. Check your wrist position
Just like finding your hand placement, finding the right wrist position is important when it comes to the overhead squat to avoid wrist pain or discomfort.
Sometimes this is caused by having your grip too wide, because you’ll have too much pressure between your thumb and your wrist.
If you experience either discomfort, pain, or instability in the wrists when the bar is overhead your wrist might be too vertical or ‘stacked’ over your forearm. A vertical wrist means the back of the hand is in line with the back of the forearm.
You can fix this by dropping your knuckles towards the floor and allowing the wrist to extend backwards. Try it first with your non-weighted bar or broom.Turn your palms up to the sky and try to pull the bar apart so that your lats engage and your elbows lock.
The bar will then sit more on the heel of the hand. You should be able to get all of your fingers around the bar in this position. If you can’t,bring your hands a little closer together.
Hand and grip positioning can make a big difference in all kinds of lifts. I previously wrote about how to use the hook grip in your next deadlift which is worth checking out if you’re struggling with other grips like mixed grip.
3. Screw in your feet
Not literally, of course. What we mean by screwing in your feet is envisioning yourself pushing your feet into the ground so that you stabilise your core and body.
Tuck your pelvis, engage your core and glutes and then envision yourself channeling your weight down through your feet into the floor, externally rotating all three points of your feet as you do so – like a screw.
Externally rotating your feet promotes stability in the hip pocket and pelvis, and it also helps prevent your knees from caving inward to create a much more stable foundation.
Practicing deep squats can help you with the bottom position of the overhead squat, and you can find out how to perform them here.
4. Engage your core
Engaging your core as you overhead squat is crucial for maintaining strength and stability throughout the exercise, but also for preventing injury.
As you inhale, brace your core and then squat. Maintain your core throughout the movement and push your knees out to bring your hips underneath the bar. This balances your centre of gravity, preventing you from tumbling backward or lurching forward.
5. Use a bottom-position checklist
The bottom part of your overhead squat can either make, or break, the rest of the movement because it is responsible for maintaining a stable foundation in which to lift up from.
So, before doing anything you can pause in the bottom position and quickly run through this checklist. Mentally check whether:
- Your elbows are completely locked out
- Your wrists are extended
- Your eyes are looking straight forward
- Your knees are in line with your feet
- You’re breathing steadily
That last one might seem an odd thing to check, but breathing techniques during lifting ensure that your body is receiving the oxygen it requires and that the blood circulating through your body is properly oxygenated, which purges the body of any waste.
Don’t give up. The overhead squat might feel overwhelming when you first get to grips with it, but it is manageable and any lifter can do it with enough practice. Remember to add in accessory exercises if you are struggling with a particular element of the lift, and make sure to double check both your hand and wrist placement as well as your form. To execute a successful overhead squat everything needs to be working in perfect synchronicity to power the full body movement.
Are you practicing for a competition? Or just interested in olympic lifting, weightlifting or strongman training and would like to learn more? Then sign up to one of our strength classes where you can train from the comfort of your own home, or from our strength hub. All with experienced and expert guidance.