How to Do an Overhead Squat: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The overhead squat is one of those exercises that really does target the entire body. When done correctly, it can increase 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. But stick with it, as it has many benefits for your body.

Targets: Total body: Glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, core, shoulders, upper back

Equipment Needed: Barbell and plate weights

Level: Intermediate

How to Do an Overhead Squat

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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.

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. Position your hands slightly wider than you might for a back squat so that they're closer to where the plates are loaded.

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 set 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. To perform the lift:

  1. Shift 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 pushing too far back). Keep your core tight and your elbows fully extended. It's imperative 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.
  2. Squat down as far as comfortable while maintaining control, according to your mobility. 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.
  3. Press through your feet and use your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core to 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.
  4. Perform a complete set, then carefully bend your elbows and return the barbell to your shoulders. From here, rack the barbell safely.

Benefits of the Overhead Squat

The beauty of the overhead squat is that it helps you identify areas of weakness. Then you have the opportunity to slowly develop the strength and mobility to perform the exercise correctly.

The overhead squat is an excellent way to strengthen all the major muscle groups of your lower body. Unlike the air squat or the back squat, the overhead squat requires you to keep your torso more upright. This recruits the quadriceps more than other versions of the squat. The overhead squat also requires a substantial engagement of the core and upper body to stabilize the barbell overhead.

The overhead squat can make you better at exercises like the snatch or overhead press by building shoulder and abdominal stability. Incorporating overhead squats can translate to better performance in your chosen sport over time if you're a strength or fitness athlete.

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 leaning forward. 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.

Other Variations of the Overhead Squat

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 bar 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 more significant core, shoulders, and upper back engagement.

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

You can perform this exercise in different ways to meet your skill level and goals, accommodate the equipment you have available, or add variety.

Single-Arm Overhead Squat

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 are precisely the same, but instead of supporting a barbell overhead with both arms, you keep a dumbbell overhead with one arm at a time.

This weight offset 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. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.

  1. Hold a dumbbell with a firm grip. Brace your core and lift your chest.
  2. Drive the dumbbell straight above your head and lock your elbow.
  3. Stabilize your core and slowly drive your hips backward, bending your knees. Keep your core engaged.
  4. Slowly push back up once your thighs reach parallel to the ground. Return to the starting position. Keep the dumbbell locked overhead throughout the entire movement.

Overhead Plate Squat

Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Hold a weight plate in front of you with a solid grip, engage your core, and keep your chest up.

  1. Push the plate straight above your head, locking out your elbows.
  2. Drive your hips back, bending your knees and keeping your core engaged.
  3. Lower until your upper thighs are parallel with the ground or slightly below.
  4. Push back up slowly, returning to the starting position. Be sure to keep that plate fixed overhead throughout the entire movement.

Overhead Dumbbell Squat

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or a little wider. Hold two dumbbells in your hands and engage your core, chest up.

  1. Drive the dumbbells straight overhead and lock out your elbows.
  2. Slowly drive your hips back, bending your knees, keeping your core tight until your thighs are parallel to the floor or lower.
  3. Slowly push back up, returning to the starting position.

Common Mistakes

Be alert to these errors so that you can avoid them and perform the exercise safely and effectively.

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. It is noticeable when the barbell shifts forward in front of your body as you squat down. This throws 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 toward 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 gluteus 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, focus on engaging your glutes to pull your knees outward to keep them aligned with your toes as you move through the 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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is the overhead squat so hard?

    Overhead squats are challenging because the weight is placed above your head, changing your normal center of gravity. This requires your core to become more engaged to help stabilize you. Remember to use a lighter weight than you would for other types of squats. Practice with bodyweight using a broomstick to get the motion correct before adding load.

  • Do overhead squats build abs?

    Overhead squats will certainly engage and challenge your abs and entire core. This squat variation offsets your normal center of gravity, causing you to brace and tighten your core to stabilize your body. Using your core in this way will increase strength in your abdominals.

Try It Out

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

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3 Sources
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