How to Do an Overhead Squat

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Overhead Squat

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Total body: Glutes, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Core, Shoulders, Upper Back

Equipment Needed: Barbell and plate weights

Level: Intermediate

The overhead squat is one of those exercises that really does target the entire body, and when done correctly, it can provide increases in strength, flexibility, and mobility that you can transfer to other exercises and everyday life. The challenge with the overhead squat is that it often highlights weaknesses in squat form, including hip and ankle mobility. This can make the exercise feel awkward to perform, especially as you're learning the proper mechanics. Also, because you're holding a barbell overhead as you perform the squat, you may discover you don't have the shoulder mobility or core strength to do the exercise through a full range of motion.

Don't let the feeling of awkwardness stop you from incorporating the move into your workout, though. The beauty of the overhead squat is that by helping you identify these areas of weakness, you're given the opportunity to slowly develop the strength and mobility to perform the exercise correctly. In time, this will make you a better athlete (if you're pursuing athletic activities), or it will simply make you better at moving fluidly through everyday life while reducing the likelihood of injuries associated with muscle imbalances, immobility, or weakness.

If you're just getting started, you may want to skip the heavy resistance and opt for an unloaded barbell or even a broomstick or PVC pipe to see how the exercise feels. You'll hold the barbell overhead, with your elbows locked and your arms forming a "Y" angled out from the shoulders, before moving through a full squat. What you'll probably notice pretty quickly is that holding a barbell in this fashion forces you to keep your torso more upright and stable than when performing other squat variations. This places more load on the quadriceps, rather than the glutes, while also necessitating greater engagement of the core, shoulders, and upper back.

Initially, try including the exercise with light resistance as part of an active warmup for a lower-body strength training routine. As you master proper form and are able to move through a more full range of motion, start adding resistance and include the movement as part of your strength training protocol.

Benefits

As with all squats, the overhead squat is an excellent way to strengthen all the major muscle groups of your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and even your calves. Unlike the air squat or the back squat, though, the overhead squat requires you to keep your torso more upright in order to sufficiently support the barbell overhead. This ends up engaging the quadriceps to a greater degree than you do with other versions of the squat. If you're looking to develop strength through your quads, adding the overhead squat to your routine is a great way to increase strength while performing a compound exercise, rather than using isolation exercises, like quadriceps extensions to achieve your goal.

Beyond hitting the lower body, though, the overhead squat requires a substantial engagement of the core and upper body, too. To stabilize the barbell overhead, you must use your abdominals, spinal erectors, shoulder stabilizers, traps, delts, and triceps. Even though you aren't actively moving these muscle groups through a range of motion as you squat, the simple act of correct stabilization enhances the type of strength that can help protect your muscles and joints from injury. This is similar to how the plank exercise helps strengthen and protect the low back from injury by developing the core stabilization that prevents unwanted movement of the spine.

By developing shoulder and abdominal stabilization, the overhead squat can also make you better at exercises like the snatch or overhead presses, where you need to maintain stabilization while moving through a range of motion. If you're a strength or fitness athlete, incorporating overhead squats can translate to better performance in your chosen sport over time.

Finally, if you have poor mobility of your hips or ankles, the overhead press can help you identify these areas of weakness. During a traditional squat, you can compensate for these weaknesses by leaning forward excessively from the hips as you squat down, allowing you to "cheat" the movement. But while performing the overhead squat, you have to keep your torso upright and tall to maintain the stability of the barbell overhead. This prevents you from leaning too far forward.

As you squat down, you'll discover very quickly whether your hips and ankles are mobile enough to allow you to move through a full range of motion without this forward lean. If not, you'll either be forced to cut the range of motion short, or you'll risk dropping the barbell in front of you as it shifts too far forward in front of your body as your torso leans toward the ground.

By gradually working on the overhead squat with proper form, you can increase flexibility and mobility through your hips and ankles, eventually allowing you to move through a greater range of motion.

Step-by-Step Instructions

To do an overhead squat, you'll need a barbell. Depending on your strength, mobility, and comfort level with the movement, you may or may not need plate weights to add extra resistance to the exercise.

  1. Stand tall, your feet roughly shoulder-distance apart, your toes angled slightly outward. Place the barbell across the back of your shoulders, resting on your traps, as though you were about to perform a back squat. Position your hands slightly wider than you might for a back squat so that they're closer to where the plates are loaded.
  2. Take a deep breath in and brace your core to help keep your spine stable. Keeping your torso upright (don't tip forward from the hips), bend your knees and drop your hips a few inches. In a powerful movement, extend your knees and hips as you drive the barbell up over your head, fully extending and "locking" your elbows at the top. Allow your wrists to bend back slightly to prevent the barbell from rolling forward over your thumb joint. Check to make sure the barbell is positioned more or less directly over the center of your feet. You don't want it positioned too far backward or forward, which can mess up your center of gravity and lead to problems during the squat. This is the starting position.
  3. Keep your core tight and your elbows fully extended, then press your hips back slightly and start bending your knees, squatting down as if you were trying to sit on your heels (keeping your hips from pressing too far back). It's very important to keep your chest up, your gaze straight ahead or angled slightly upward, and your torso as erect as possible as you squat down. If you lean forward from the hips, the weight will also shift forward and you're likely to lose your balance or make other form mistakes to compensate for the misalignment of weight. You want the weight to remain "stacked" directly over the center of your feet throughout the squat. Inhale as you squat down.
  4. Squat down as far as you comfortably can, even to the point where your glutes are almost grazing your heels. This, of course, depends on hip mobility, strength, and flexibility. If you can't get to the "ass to grass" position, simply go as deep into the squat as you can while maintaining perfect form. It's okay if your knees extend past your toes slightly at the bottom of the exercise, just make sure your knees angle out so they're aligned with your toes and not caving inward.
  5. Use your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core as you press through your feet and fully extend your knees and hips as you return to the starting position. Exhale as you rise to stand. Perform the movement steadily, keeping your knees angled out slightly in alignment with your toes.
  6. Perform a full set, then carefully bend your elbows and return the barbell to your shoulders. From here, rack the barbell safely.

Common Mistakes

Leaning Too Far Forward

Probably the most common mistake seen with the overhead squat is a forward tip of the torso during the downward phase of the squat. This is typically due to limited mobility of the hips or ankles, or a weak core, and is obvious when the barbell shifts forward in front of your body as you squat down, throwing your center of gravity off balance, placing you at risk for dropping the barbell.

The goal is to keep the barbell "stacked" over your feet throughout the movement, which means your torso must remain upright. If you feel like you're off-balance, or if you notice in the mirror that the barbell has shifted in front of your shoulders, reduce your range of motion and focus on keeping your core tight.

Even if you just squat down a few inches, pressing your hips back as you try to "sit" on your ankles, you can gradually increase your range of motion with time. It's better to start with a small range of motion and proper form than risk injury by leaning forward as you squat.

Allowing the Knees to Cave Inward

Knee valgus, or the inward collapsing of the knees as you squat, is a common issue seen with all squat variations. It's often due to a lack of engagement of the glutes, particularly the glute medius. Watch yourself in the mirror as you perform the exercise. If you notice, especially as you transition between the downward and upward phase of the squat, that your knees collapse toward your body's midline, you need to focus on engaging your glutes to "pull" your knees outward to keep them aligned with your toes as you move through the squat.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you're brand new to the movement, you may not be ready to use an unloaded barbell. This is particularly true if you have any mobility issues through your shoulders or hips and aren't ready to support additional weight over your head. Instead of using a barbell, try using a PVC pipe or a broomstick instead. This will allow you to start mastering proper form while working on your mobility without the risk of dropping the weighted barbell. Simply perform the exercise exactly as you would with a barbell, but with the broomstick or PVC pipe.

Up for a Challenge?

Once you've mastered proper form with the barbell overhead squat, consider trying the single-arm dumbbell overhead squat. The squat movement and core/shoulder stability is exactly the same, but instead of supporting a barbell overhead with both arms, you support a dumbbell overhead with one arm at a time. This helps develop unilateral (one-sided) shoulder stability, reducing the likelihood that your dominant arm compensates for weaknesses present in your non-dominant arm while doing the barbell overhead squat.

Safety and Precautions

Performed with proper form and an appropriate level of resistance, overhead squats can be appropriate for almost everyone. The challenge, of course, comes with the fact that this is a full-body exercise that requires coordination, control, a baseline level of strength, and good mobility and stability of all the major joints and muscle groups. If you're going to try the exercise for the first time, significantly reduce the weight you would use when performing a traditional squat, or simply use a PVC pipe or broomstick to get accustomed to the movement. Watch yourself in the mirror, and if you notice any of the common mistakes, reduce your range of motion and focus on keeping your shoulders and core stable as you gradually develop greater mobility through your shoulders, hips, and ankles.

Finally, if you experience any sharp or shooting pains, stop the exercise. You can always perform other squat or lunge variations to develop strength through the same muscle groups if those exercises feel more comfortable to perform.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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