The overhead squat is a challenging exercise to perform, as it requires the development of mobility and stability in the shoulder joint, core, and hips on both the flexed and extended side. This challenging movement pattern will also improve your overhead mobility by strengthening your shoulders and surrounding structures that serve as “couches” for your arm.
They also work to develop strength in and around the shoulder blades, which helps with stability and mobility of the shoulder joint, leading to less pain when moving and lifting.
Compared with the traditional squat and the front squat the overhead squat has been shown to increase knee, ankle and spinal extensor muscle activity significantly more. It has also been shown to increase trunk muscle activity significantly more compared to the traditional squat and front squat while increasing activation of the hip extensor muscle group significantly more than the other two variations.
Overhead Squat Muscles Worked
Although the overhead squat is more difficult to perform than the traditional back squat, it is no less a great all-around exercise. Due to its unique movement requirements, this lift works a much greater number of muscles than other squat variations.
Here are the muscle groups that get worked when performing an overhead squat:
The quadriceps take the brunt of the load, as they have to extend at the knees while stabilizing the knee joint. They also help to maintain balance over the feet and provide stabilization to prevent unwanted movement in other joints.
The gluteus maximus is recruited heavily during this lift, as it is tasked with extending the hips and keeping the torso upright. The gluteus medius and minimus are also heavily recruited during this lift due to their role in hip abduction and internal rotation. Not only do they provide stability for the hip joint, but they are also important flexors of the medial thigh, which helps with lateral movement of the leg.
The core is heavily involved due to its role in stabilizing the torso. In order to prevent excessive movement of the spine while lifting, the abdominal muscles and lower back must brace together in order to create a stable platform.
The upper back muscles are also heavily involved in improving spinal stability during the lift, especially during the initial pull from floor level. This is because, when lifting the barbell off of the floor, there is a significant amount of rotational movement at upper joint surfaces.
The trapezius muscles are responsible for bracing the shoulder blades together and sliding them through their natural movement patterns. They also assist in stabilizing the spine during the initial pulling phase of the lift, especially at upper torso positions.
The deltoids (shoulder) play a large role in stabilizing the humerus (upper arm). They also assist with abduction-adduction motion of the upper arm as well as stabilizing the shoulder joint.
The forearm muscles play a multitude of roles in the overhead squat, from stabilization of the wrist and elbow joints to gripping the barbell itself. The large majority of forearm and grip muscles are recruited during this exercise, most notably the flexor carpi radialis and palmaris longus.
Overall the movement activates most of the muscles used in a normal squat but with more load and more resistance.
How To Do The Overhead Squat
The ability to effectively overhead squat requires a great deal of mobility and stability in order to achieve a high level of performance.
Here are the steps to perform an Overhead Squat
- Start with your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart.
- Hold the barbell at shoulder-width.
- In a controlled motion, squat down until your hip are lower than your knees.
- Pause at the bottom, then slowly shift your weight back towards the heels of your feet as you return to a standing position.
Perfecting the technique and movement patterns required to perform this lift is essential for injury prevention and performance gains. Proper technique in all lifts will ensure the best possible results.
There are three things to watch for when developing overhead squatting abilities: shoulder mobility, shoulder stability and core stability.
Shoulder Mobility: The glenohumeral joint is one of the most versatile joints in the body, allowing full range of motion throughout flexion, extension and abduction-adduction. However the shoulder lacks stability in extreme external rotation and supine positions.
In other words, if you don’t have proper overhead mobility, you won’t be able to get the bar overhead without compensating. If you do poorly at stretching your shoulders and thoracic spine, the joints will compensate with excessive movement elsewhere in the chain.
The overhead squat requires full range of motion through all three motions of flexion, extension and abduction-adduction. If you don’t have full range of motion in these areas, then your lifts will suffer. Proper mobility can be developed through a regimen of stretching exercises and mobility drills.
Shoulder Stability: As the name would suggest, this movement demands shoulder stability in the scapula (upper shoulder blade) and humerus (arm bone). The scapula must be strong and stable enough to maintain proper position while allowing the arm to move independently of it.
The humerus, on the other hand, must be able to resist adduction (pulling back into the body), abduction (pulling away from the body) and rotation of the upper arm while gripping an object overhead. Not only that, but the humerus needs to have sufficient strength to allow an external rotation torque when extending at the elbow joint.
This complex motion requires a great amount of stability through the shoulder joint, which can be developed through a variety of strength and stability exercises.
Core Stability: Core stability is vital for overhead squats. It allows the lift to be performed without excessive movement in any of the joints that move during the lift. In order to achieve this, the core must stabilize by bracing against movement elsewhere in the body, such as the hips or trunk.
This stability can be developed through various exercises such as push ups and plank variations.
What Are The Benefits Of The Overhead Squat?
The overhead squat can help:
- Improve mobility and stability
- Improve strength and power output during shoulder flexion and extension (pressing)
- Decrease the risk of injuries such as bicep, elbow or rotator cuff injuries from traditional squatting exercises like the front squat or back squat
The overhead squat requires you to bear the weight on your shoulders rather than your arms, which makes it easier and safer to do without sustaining injury. It also helps improve overhead arm mobility, meaning your shoulders can be more mobile when doing various work-related tasks.
It’s particularly beneficial to overhead lifters who have shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff strain. For this reason, you can think of the overhead squat as an alternative to the front or back squat that uses lighter weights but puts more emphasis on mobility and stability rather than strength.
As you get more advanced in your overhead training, you can use heavier weights and work towards increasing your strength in other areas like pressing and snatching.