How to Improve Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is one of the most challenging exercises in any regime, whether it be for CrossFit or as part of a powerlifting or general weight training program. This is because it poses all the challenges of a standard squat but also further tests your balance, core strength, flexibility, range of motion, and overall stability.

It’s a punishing exercise that will often reveal many deficiencies in your squatting form as well as in your flexibility, strength, and balance. This makes the overhead squat a very underused tool, as people find it intimidating and difficult to improve.

However, this is exactly the sort of exercise you should be challenging yourself to conquer, as it will force you to grow and challenge your body and mind in a new way, which is one of the keys to the growth of both mass and confidence.

You may be thinking to yourself that your standard squat performance is good enough, why would you bother with something like the overhead squat? The truth is that this catches out many lifters, who believe that their existing squat strength will translate into easy overhead squatting.

This isn’t often the case, however, as the overhead squat tests many things, and puts a lot more focus on your form, technique, and core stability.

Unlike many weight lifting exercises, the overhead squat translates into real athletic performance, so it is especially important to take this exercise seriously if you’re an athlete or are trying to improve your overall athletic capabilities.

Just as the clean and jerk is one of the most explosive athletic exercises, the overhead squat is one of the best for balance and is actually a constituent part of the notoriously difficult clean and jerk. These exercises emphasize efficiency and transfer of energy in a way that static lifting often can’t and can really help you to break through a plateau in performance.

This also explains why these exercises are a staple choice among crossfitters, who place a premium on exercises that use explosive motion and energy transfer to increase their athletic performance.

Their goal is to improve the way that their strength and agility are coordinated between large muscle groups, smaller muscles, and connective/supporting tissues.

If you’re brand new to the overhead squat or are interested in trying to improve your form and technique, we’re going to help by first breaking down the exercise and explaining the technique, then identifying several issues that plague overhead squatters and ways to combat these.

By the end of this article, you will have an improved understanding of not only the techniques required but the pitfalls you will face and how to navigate them.

Without further ado, let’s look at the exercise itself.

The Exercise

As a total body exercise, few things compared to the overhead squat. In this section, we’re going to look at a step-by-step to make sure you’re performing the exercise correctly. Poor form is a surefire way to halt your progress or even cause yourself an injury. 

1. Get into position

Depending on how heavy the barbell is, you may be able to simply raise it over your head quite easily to get into the starting position. However, if you have quite a bit of weight on the bar, getting it over your head can be one of the most challenging parts of the whole exercise.

The safest way to get the bar into position, in this case, is to perform a clean, which involves using momentum to pull the bar up to the top of your chest using an overhand grip, and resting the bar across your chest at the top of the movement.

From here it should be quite simple to press the bar above your head with your arms locked into place and your shoulders back. In this standing position with the bar over your head, you are now ready to perform your first rep.

In terms of hand position, you want your hands to be quite wide, to give your shoulders plenty of room to move. Your feet should be positioned around shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly outwards. 

2. Begin the Squat

From the starting position, you can begin to squat down keeping your arms raised and the shoulders back. A steady and slow descent is key to not losing your balance. Be sure to keep the back straight and your core engaged. The hips should be neutral, without any tilt which can lead to injury.

Really the squat should resemble the same technique you would use for a typical squat, placing a little more emphasis on steadiness and control.Lower yourself down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, and then prepare for the next phase of the exercise.

3. Holding Position

Once you’ve dipped into the bottom of the squat, you’ll feel a lot of strain on your core as your body works to keep itself balanced. Focus on keeping yourself steady here, and prepare a solid platform for a clean press back to the starting position. 

The depth to which you squat is totally up to you, some people go very deep while others stop when their thighs are parallel to the floor. Obviously, the deeper you go the tougher the exercise gets. 

4. Push Back to Start

From the bottom, there’s only one way to go, and that’s all the way back up (providing you don’t bail out because of bad form or injury)

Keep the barbell high and your head up with your chest pushed out as you power back up. Keep the core engaged as you rise to prevent any tilting or unbalancing. 

5. Stabilize

At the top of the squat you’ll be back where you started and ready to start a new rep. Before you do so, however, make sure to stabilize yourself properly, ensure that your grip and feet are still correctly positioned, and take a breath if you need to. 

Problems and Mistakes to Address

If you’ve been sticking to the correct form and are still having difficulties improving your performance, there could be other more specific issues that need addressing.

In this section, we’re going to look at the common mistakes and issues people run into when trying to improve their overhead squat.

Develop your Core Strength

There’s no escaping the fact that core strength is key to maintaining stability in any exercise, but a maneuver like the overhead squat massively increases the importance of this. The fact that the weight is so far away from your center of gravity means that it’s much harder to keep it steady, and this puts an enormous strain on your arms, supporting muscles, and core. 

This is the big advantage of the overhead squat, of course, it develops these hard-to-target areas of the body and improves the efficiency of your energy transfer between the major muscle groups and these smaller supporting tissues. 

A lot of conventional workouts totally neglect this sort of total body development, which can leave even the most avid gym-goer surprisingly ill-prepared for overhead squats, particularly when using a considerable weight. 

The best way to try and catch up is to develop your core strength. This will give you a big boost and has the added benefit of often targeting a lot of the neglected supporting muscles buried in your torso that are so important to handling massive compound movements.

There are many exercises that will help develop the necessary strength, such as planks, X up’s and of course crunches. Investing in this will see your stability improve overall, and will improve your confidence too. It will help diminish the chance of injury through hyper-extension of the back or any sort of pelvic tilt which will lead to a more sustained improvement over time.

Test your flexibility and Mobility

Another key thing to develop is the range of motion in your shoulders, back and hips as this will help make the movements used in squatting far less uncomfortable. It will also reduce the risk of injury and can actually increase the efficiency of your other lifts as well as your overall athleticism. 

Flexibility training is used by most top athletes to help stave off injuries, and neglecting this will undoubtedly lead to restricted joint mobility and stiffness.

Of course, there are a few different ways to improve your flexibility, and developing it in the shoulders and hips will require a bespoke approach that is a little beyond the scope of this article, however, Yoga and Pilates are very popular methods of developing this area of fitness. 

It has the added benefit of being a fairly low-impact way to get your body moving and can be done quite easily on rest days to promote recovery and active rest.

Another thing to do if you’re a beginner is to use bodyweight squats or an unweighted barbell to help develop good form and the kinesthesis which will massively build your confidence. This will also help your hips and thighs start to get used to this movement, which can be quite foreign to some.

We spend a lot of our time sitting in the modern world, and this can lead to our hip flexors and tendons tightening or even shrinking, and this can make squatting very painful and difficult which will impede your progress.

Getting the hips used to this sort of strain will make your progress much faster when you start adding weight and other techniques to your squatting.

Don’t just Hold the Barbell - Lift it!

A common mistake when performing overhead squats is to allow the weight to simply press down on you. This is often done because holding the weight in place is challenging, so allowing our muscles to relax a little while squatting can make things seem easier. 

However, this just moves the workload to other areas and can make progressing seem very difficult. When performing overhead squats you should act as if you are lifting the weight, not simply holding it in place. You want your muscles to be activated and proactively driving the weight up instead of letting your joints take all of the strain. 

This will make your lifts cleaner and improve your overall form and strength. After all, the overhead squat is a total body compound exercise, so you should focus on treating it as such, not allowing your upper body to get away cheaply!Don’t Rush

Another key to a successful overhead squat is not rushing it at any point in the lift. This is dangerous at worst and inefficient at best, and it will massively slow down your progress.

Some people say that lifting fast improves your power performance, and while that may be so, it’s absolutely no excuse to let bad habits creep into your workout.

Rushing will make both sides of the squat less effective and will absolutely lead to a complete loss of progress and development.

It’s important to lower yourself into the hole in a controlled manner, not only because you’re holding a heavy object over your head, but because you want your body to actually work on the negative side of the lift for added efficiency. It’s this strain on the negative side of the lift that makes squatting so effective at building muscle. 

This extends to the ascent out of the hole too, pushing up and out in a controlled manner will make you safer and ensure your form is correct and stable. 

Use Pause Squats to Improve Strength

Pause squats are a neat additional exercise you can do to build the strength you need to power up out of the hole.

There are many variations of this exercise but they will all have a positive impact on your overhead squatting, by forcing you to develop endurance at the most difficult point in the squat and further developing the core strength and flexibility needed to be able to squat safely and efficiently. 

Be sure to keep strict form even when doing pause squats to avoid bad habits crossing over into your other techniques.