By Carl Valle
My least favorite exercise, but one that I have been incorporating more and more, is the overhead squat. In the past, I have had very few athletes use the exercise as a training modality, but now it’s nearly a staple. Overhead squats are like vegetables, in that we know they are good for us, but sometimes they don’t taste that great. Still, for our health, we have a responsibility to make sure our intake of them is high.The overhead squat does more than screen athletes or help with mobility. It’s a great checks and balances movement for an advanced S&C program, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Overhead squats are the only exercises I have a visceral, emotional response to, as I know they will not progress overnight. The overhead squat is a great exercise though, as it does more than screen athletes or help with mobility. While the benefits of the exercise were inflated for helping with core or trunk stability, to me it’s one of the best checks and balances movements for an advanced strength and conditioning program. If you want to have awesome movers, do the opposite of what people are attempting and learn from the best. I have spent an enormous amount of time learning from smart coaches who know their craft and this article shares a plethora of science and practice.
Why You Should Overhead Squat
One of the best teaching tools you can use in strength and conditioning is the overhead squat—period. It gives immediate feedback to athletes and exposes flaws or positive changes like no other exercise. For years, I hated but valued the exercise, as I personally wasn’t great at it. The overhead squat is the only exercise I don’t find enjoyable to do on my own, but it still deserves a special place in a coach’s war chest.
The overhead squat provides four benefits you should consider:
- It’s an amazing joint mobility screening tool for the entire body.
- It reinforces the perfect muscular balance for heavy training.
- It improves resilience of the entire kinetic chain, from feet to shoulders.
- It’s a coordination solution for those athletes who need a richer foundation.
I cling to these four benefits, as they remind me that you should never toss out the overhead squat because it is not a quick fix or an ego feeder. It takes a long time for a novice athlete to be great at it, which is why I love it. Unlike the trap bar deadlift, which seems to load up fast, or the goblet squat with its instant gratification, the overhead squat is the opposite. With all the talk about slow-cooking athletes, it seems that most of the exercises I see on social media are fast food: not very nutritious and poorly prepared.
Now comes the small disappointment of the exercise. It’s not an amazing trunk or core exercise, even with unstable training tools. For years, I found the overhead squat to be one of those exercises that, on paper, appears to be a stabilizer of the trunk, but in reality, it may be less valuable as you improve it. I remember having lunch with a few coaches, where we talked about walking the bar out during heavy squats and the possible muscle recruitment with snatches. In our mind and on paper, the exercises theoretically had potential, but it looks like the movement isn’t great for trunk recruitment.It’s not a primary lift or even a secondary lift, but the overhead squat is one of those movements that seems to serve as a backbone to more utilized exercises, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
I don’t want coaches to see electromyography as the judge and jury of exercise value, but muscle activity does deserve credibility. In a study comparing regular back squats to overhead squats with load, the differences were not thrilling, by any means. What sounded like a potentially amazing exercise for trunk stability was simply just part of the equation versus the entire solution for core training.
Video 1. Different athletes have different abilities. An athlete who has great mobility and training time will look far better than an athlete who is not built for deep squatting.
I do not want to overpromise the exercise—while I think adding the movement makes a big training difference with athletes, I do not claim it has great direct transfer to sports performance. If you are looking for something to make your athletes run faster or jump higher, this exercise is a poor fit. It’s not a primary lift or even a secondary lift, but it’s one of those movements that seems to serve as a backbone to more utilized exercises.
The exercise will not add muscle like squats and deadlifts, but it will teach the body to leverage those muscular systems. I have noticed that athletes who have great overhead squat sets become awesome lifters. You don’t need to be a hero or a textbook overhead squat model, just good enough so the other lifts are easier to perform with higher levels of technique and load.
Functional Movement Screen Fans Rejoice
What is tragically ironic is the doomed concept of demanding a screen but not following up after baseline. One of the reasons I didn’t promote the FMS (functional movement screen) was because several high-profile proponents didn’t screen their athletes at all, and if they did it was only at the beginning of the season. I employ several components of the FMS to gauge readiness to train with exercise familiarity and joint mobility, and I was surprised that the same coaches who demanded you get the certification were either not using it or not using it fully.
I wrote the article on movement screens a few years ago, and I do believe the overhead squat is gold for helping differentiate an ability to squat well and tells why an athlete may not be squatting with the necessary range of motion or motor control. While the FMS and its supporters claimed injury prediction, the research proved to be a different story. So why will I now go on record to support the movement as a way to build robust athletes when for years I criticized its merit? Two reasons: the lack of load with velocity and evaluation methodology.
The FMS was a movement screen—usually a slow or no-movement exercise—that hardly looked functional. Some of the screens were better than others though, such as the lunge and hurdle step, but the active leg raise and push-up test were more novel than predictive.
The overhead squat was a different story to me. It was awesome because it did exactly what it claimed to do, which was evaluate bilateral squatting, a foundational exercise that you must be great at. I found it strange that the star screen of a system didn’t have more of an ecosystem to support it. Gray Cook (in his book Movement) provided corrective exercises, but much of those techniques were derived from rehabilitation and were not team-friendly. His squatting progression using a Reebok Core Board was solid, but not very many coaches use it now. It may not be magic, but it did help athletes learn to squat better way before the kettlebell approach grew in popularity.
Roughly 10 years ago, Laree Draper, an editor and wife of famed bodybuilder Dave Draper sent me a copy of Cook’s Movement. I found the text thought-provoking and wonderfully well-written. Nearly everything I read made sense. It gave me more confidence with movement screens and inspired me to make an honest effort to keep screening even if the research showed little value as a prediction tool. To me, screening didn’t predict the future of athlete injury; it made a better training future so we could reduce injuries. I found chapter 9 on the overhead squat interesting and was surprised there wasn’t more discussion on Olympic weightlifting, as the exercise mirrored the descent of the snatch. Cook writes:
“An efficient pattern catches this weight, not a group of muscles. This amazing feat of power and skill cannot be done without near perfect flexibility and perfect application of coordination, quickness and power. This is mobility and stability at its finest, working behind the scenes so the prime movers get all the usual credit.”
Cook, with those penned words, captured the essence of a good overhead squat. And my only gripe is that the system uses a dowel and not a barbell. For me, that simple decision disconnected the entire rationale of weightlifting, that eventually an athlete must load the body to get the full benefit.
If I had to choose one screening system though, it would be the Physical Competence Assessment (PCA) over the FMS, honestly. If a coach was certified with the FMS system and could perform it with great competence, I would have them change the scoring system and track that movement along with jump testing, as I believe the two go together perfectly. It’s not that a great score predicts injury, but a change in score could show a joint is not functioning or that the training is working. If an athlete comes to a coach to work on movement quality and they show little change with slow and low-force motions, how can we trust that program to help athletes with speed and high-force actions?
The Difference Between Snatching, Jerking, and Overhead Squatting
My ability to coach the jerk improved because I was forced to improve. The near obsession with progressions, and now regressions, created more problems. I think we are either overcoaching or under-coaching now. Back in the day, I never hinged athletes; we would just do activities that placed athletes in environments to hinge better without any real need to regress. Now I jerk athletes because all the hype behind landmine exercises has left athletes unable to do anything without holding a bar stuck in a corner of a room.
If an athlete can’t jerk a decent load safely, overhead squatting tends to be even harder to do. The same goes for snatching. If they are unable to do a full snatch, I don’t lose sleep over it, but I still want to know why. Just as an overhead squat is a useful tool for coaches, so are the similar patterns of movement found in jerks and snatches.Just as an overhead squat is a useful tool for coaches, so are the similar patterns of movement found in jerks and snatches, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Most coaches will cover the differences and think about the commonalities of back and front squatting with the overhead squat. True, they’re very similar, but the deal breaker is the barbell overhead, not the squatting pattern. If an athlete has a poor upper back posture—read, kyphotic spine—it’s going to be really tough to for them to squat heavy in an overhead position. This is why I loathe the posture debate, as saying that posture doesn’t matter is hyperbole and I would love to take on that argument with a live, immobile athlete as a case study. The big difference is pain with the activities of daily living and real restriction from postural issues in sports training.
Most of the problems with the overhead squat are upper back mobility, middle back strength, and shoulder flexibility. Those areas are more likely to be modified by training than ankle range of motion and hip structure. Outside of an ankle sprain or beginner athlete, changing mobility in the ankle and having an athlete squat deeper isn’t going to come from wall mobility drills and fancy cues—it’s going to come from a lot of loading and time. Even years of good training and manual therapy will not change dorsiflexion much, so don’t expect a basketball player with poor ankle mobility to look like a member of the U.S. Weightlifting team.
Anatomy adapts, but it doesn’t reinvent itself or dramatically change. Having an athlete fluent in squatting from the front and from the back and being proficient in the weight lifts will make overhead squatting easier. The question is whether learning the overhead squat early will likely help other exercises. I don’t know, but it doesn’t hurt.
The differences between overhead squatting and jerking is visually obvious. The upper body is dynamic during the jerk, even if the contributions of the legs are the primary driver. A jerk can be squat or split style, but the depth is where the big difference is. As for the snatch, similarities exist concentrically when the athlete stands up, but eccentrically the similarities are small. It’s not that the catch is super demanding from an absorption perspective, it’s just that the lift is gradual and more controlled rather than rapid and bracing.
Finally come the front and back squats, obviously very similar from start to finish, but the upper body contribution dictates nearly all of the success. An athlete with good mobility using a front squat may look terrible back squatting if they have poor shoulder flexibility. An athlete may look fine back squatting, but overhead they are stretched beyond their capabilities. Thus, focusing on top-down considerations and not up the kinetic chain will help overhead squatting, provided the lower body is strong and an athlete has experience with the squat exercise.
Ways to Improve Your Overhead Squat
Thoracic mobility and shoulder flexibility will be the limiting factors, but motor control stitches together the strength and range of motion assets. Coaches who try to cue their athletes until they’re blue in the face must realize that if an athlete can’t do something automatically or with their current joint restrictions, words don’t work. If you can’t touch the net of a basketball hoop, a coach shouting cues will not get you to dunk no matter how loud or clever. I will be upfront: overhead squatting takes time and you can’t rush it.Overhead squatting takes time and you can’t rush it, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
There are some parlor tricks in “sports training” that look good in short social media videos, but they are simulations of the truth, not representations of what happens with athletes. It sounds disappointing, but the expected results are based more on the culture of the program, where athletes want to do whatever is needed to be great. The key to keeping athletes from being frustrated is not just instilling patience; it’s knowing how to keep the momentum going rather than grinding away for tiny changes.
Here are five areas you should focus on to develop a better overhead squatter:
- Middle back and shoulder strength -> Seated and standing cable-pulling exercises
- Proper rotator cuff conditioning -> Barbell and dumbbell complexes during warm-up
- Thoracic mobility and paraspinal strength -> Manual therapy and self-care work
- Specific muscular endurance and flexibility -> High-repetition and high-range squatting
- Total body coordination under duress -> Full overhead squatting for time under tension
The first thought after reading the list is that it’s rather obvious. Every athlete will likely need mobility, especially in the upper body and below the knee, but a good total-body training strength program should fix most of the limitations in range of motion that are soft tissue and positional-related. Kyphosis in the research has correlated poorly with shoulder injuries in some sports, but it’s just one variable I see that is everything in overhead lifting versus performance.
Athletes are great compensators and other variables such as fatigue and technique interact, so posture is not a crystal ball. However, if you hunch over the bar, going right above the head without torquing the shoulder joint will be unlikely. A lot of research was done on the overhead squat and the FMS, and it looks like some manual therapy can help improve the overhead squat movement based on a study published recently.
During World War II, the government made an enormous effort to prepare young men for war, and corrective exercises in the form of additional training were prescribed to those who screened poorly. The military minds knew, because of a big enough sample size, that those who were not prepared would face problems in boot camp or later in combat. In order to improve soldier health, they literally went back to the fundamentals during basic training and leaned on sport and physical education. Simple well-rounded movements, track and field, gymnastics, swimming, and even recreational games were planned and integrated. The results were mixed, as the entire operation was so large not all programs were on the same page. I do know that the Navy had a great program and I have used their thinking and approach to building a durable body, but an athlete’s structural balance matters too.
Conventional exercises like seated horizontal rows are great because they place athletes into a posture that is extended and arched, while isometrically bracing during heavy pulling. Less-conventional exercises such as pikes with physioballs and prone lift-offs can be modified so they are more effective and less likely to force an illusion of success. Neutral grip or bilateral vertical pulling is also part of the equation, as those patterns are mirrored in overhead squatting. My article on using the Quantum for overhead squatting and pressing went into barbell options, but dumbbells are perfectly fine for starting out. The ability to comfortably balance in a deep squat position is helpful to an athlete during the descent of an overhead squat, as they must be confident in what they can do while “in the hole” of the exercise.
Video 2. One stretch that I think is underrated is the breathing snatch hang, which is far more useful for athletes to get mobile and integrate their diaphragm than using flexion. Countless athletes fail to improve their overhead squat because they look to corrective exercises rather than connected drills.
The last recommendation is just putting in the time and practicing. While I am not saying all corrective exercises don’t work, you still need to put in the work with the regular movements and embrace the struggle. I wish everything was easy and the recommendations above would make athletes instantly become instructional video models, but anything that is worth doing requires sweat and time. Every other day or so, doing a set or two of weighted and modified overhead squatting patterns will improve your mobility. The key is to see the deficit between conventional and overhead squatting and learn to connect an overhead grip and work on reaching that standard.Some coaches claim that overhead squats make regular squats easier, but I disagree, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Some coaches have claimed that overhead squats made regular squats easier, but I disagree. I believe that good squatters help all squatting, but upper body mobility and strength are the keys to unlocking the movement pattern for skilled lifters. I do agree that back squatting becomes much easier, and those athletes who only front squat will see their back squat improve because of elbow position not interfering with depth.
Programming Overhead Squatting Patterns
You can spend a lot of resources on improving one exercise, and this is why I understand the plight of coaches who say they don’t teach kids to Olympic lift in big groups. I agree. The real point is the rate of advancement, as the rush of polishing an overhead lift will be different from athlete to athlete. Athletes who score really poorly—meaning they are in pain with very little symmetry and depth—will need to work with a sports medicine professional. Pain is something I don’t fear, but when pain exists with poor function and little range of motion, it’s too much for me to work with if they are in a group. If they are indeed injured and not rehabilitated properly, they need therapy, not wannabe corrective exercise.
My line in the sand is fairly simple: You need to be able to squat 90 degrees with your body weight. More than that and I am thrilled, but less than that makes me cautiously optimistic. Programming overhead squats is a potential organizational nightmare, as each athlete is likely different. So, with limited time, you can run out of minutes in the session before even starting to address overhead squat quality and loading. I make the overhead squat a priority for some athletes, some just need a refresher, and some I don’t bother because they are gifted and getting so much complementary support exercise it’s overkill.
Programming is about goals, time, and options. If you have an idea what a good overhead squat looks like and how it came to be, then it’s rather easy to work backward if the athlete is willing and you have a respectable amount of time. When athletes don’t have the energy and hours in the week to prepare for the training, we get into a world of creative and adjusted workouts that are so compromised it’s just babysitting with barbells.
Good planning means you know what to expect and have enough flexibility to adjust to unexpected changes. Based on the last few years, I have found that the exercises, progressions, sequences, and loading protocols work well. The table below is a good start, but feel free to experiment as much of what I have learned was just me trying to do a better job with the same exercises and training modules, while better organizing the process.
Wrapping up the training program, coaches need to be honest with the simple fact that all of this takes time. My biggest pet peeve with corrective exercises is that they seem to instantly work like magic on video, but rarely do we see a panoramic video of all of the beautiful overhead squats after months of treatments. Just rehearsing the overhead squat lift will improve the mechanics, but make sure you are mobile, strong, and skilled so that practicing doesn’t hit a wall. Adding the movement pattern to warm-ups or finishers is a great idea, rather than just staying stuck doing the same dynamic stretches and mini-conditioning bursts at the end.
Put Overhead Squats Back in Your Toolbox
I am confident that most of you will start using light loads and work on just teaching athletes to absorb forces and be aware of their balance and joints. If all you do is use 10 kilos and reach a fraction of your range of motion I am satisfied, as you don’t need to squat your body weight to make progress. On the other hand, if you can get a training effect with perfect form, I almost predict a resilience level from another world—provided all the other pieces are in place.
It may sound like a snake oil pitch, but the overhead squat can be done without any special equipment and you don’t need sports technology to find success with it. Personally, I am glad I found new respect for this exercise, as it’s not something you become great at overnight. I have also learned that the progressions and alternative exercises can improve the rate of learning so we can do this movement faster and better.