This is a unique movement. People who can perform this movement with good form under moderate weight are much, much fitter than your average Joe. Here’s why.
The Benefits of Learning How To Overhead Squat
I know that if I see a person with a good overhead squat, that they have:
- Better than average flexibility in their shoulders
- Better than average flexibility in their hips
- A strong core
- Better than average strength in their shoulders
- Better than average strength in their hips
- Better than average balance
Here’s what it looks like:
It’s a Very Natural, yet Unnatural Movement
Now, rarely do we find ourselves in a situation of holding a weight over our heads and needing to squat all the way down.
BUT, the strength, flexibility and balance gained through learning this movement translates well to many, many other parts of our lives.
The natural part is the squat. That’s how we get down and up from the floor.
The unnatural part of it is holding the bar above our heads.
Flexibility and Overhead Squats
Having taught the overhead squat to many, many people, I can say with certainty that most are not ready to just jump into doing this movement with any actual weight.
The limitation isn’t even strength – it’s flexibility.
Shoulder flexibility is the most common culprit, especially for men. Honestly, just holding their arms straight up (like a football referee showing a touchdown) is not possible for about half of the guys I start to train.
So, we work on shoulder flexibility. I have them do arm circles, hang from a pull up bar, do pass-throughs with a dowel. And they train the overhead squat with nothing but a PVC pipe as weight.
The problem with tight shoulders here is that you won’t be able to hold the weight directly above you. As you squat down, the weight moves forward away from the center of your foot and it will fall.
Adding Weight to Your Overhead Squat
As you learn how to do an overhead squat, you need to pay attention to scaling and gradients.
If you start with a PVC pipe that weighs less than one pound, don’t jump up to a bar that weighs 45 pounds. That is too big of a jump.
Only when you’ve got good form with no weight, do you add a little bit of weight – maybe 15 pounds. You then reassess your form with a coach watching you. And assuming you’ve still got plenty of strength, you add some more weight. You reassess.
This is the proper route you should follow.
If you aren’t adding weight slowly and on a gradient, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Being Safe While Overhead Squatting
There are several ways to be safe with a bar over your head. The main one for me is to be able to “bail out” of the move if the bar starts to travel forwards or backwards.
So I drill my clients into getting comfortable with bailing out. Bailing out means: If the bar is going forward and you can’t catch it, then push yourself back and let the bar drop in front of you.
It could also mean : If the bar is going backward and you can’t correct it, then push the bar back and yourself forward. But this way is less optimum.
Some people are just scared of letting the bar drop to the ground and having it make noise. So we drop, drop, drop them until there is no more attention on it. The last thing I want is for someone to do something weird to keep it from hitting the floor. We are somewhat trained into not letting things fall and break. You’ll carry glass, groceries, kids, and other breakable items, and if one starts to fall, we generally make a good effort to recover.
In no way shape or form should make that same “good effort” to recover the bar. It doesn’t take much to break good form and put yourself at risk of injury. So I make a determined effort to train people out of this instinct while they are holding a bar overhead.
This should also be obvious, but there should be a clean area in front of and behind you. Plenty of room to bail forwards or backwards.
Training the Overhead Squat as an Introduction to Olympic Weightlifting
If you’re going to be involved with the Olympic lifts, then the overhead squat is going to be a core component of your training program.
Just drilling it with a PVC pipe is a good warm up. Adding it to workouts – yes, with just a PVC pipe – may end up being the right workout for you. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
If you’re going to be working with the Snatch, you will want to be very comfortable with the overhead squat because you’ll be catching a good amount of weight at the bottom of the movement.
Why Everyone Should Train the Overhead Squat
Over the last 20+ years I have sought out things that work and things that really, really work. The overhead squat really, really works.
It does so well no matter what age you are. I haven’t found anyone that doesn’t need to train the overhead squat.
So much core strength can be built with it, so many tight areas can be loosened up and there is so much gain to be had in doing this movement correctly that I think it is stupid not to train your clients on it. Lots of trainers don’t know how to teach it – they should learn. It is not something that I learned having gone to college to study Exercise Science. I was taught at a CrossFit gym back when CrossFit was new and being attacked in the press.
But I’ve taken this one movement and taught it to old men (60’s and 70’s), young kids, women of all ages and everything in between. All of them made tons of progress and no one got hurt on my watch.
If someone is unstable, I back off the weight. If they feel embarrassed, so what, you just saved them injury plus embarrassment. Safety is why personal trainers like me get paid.
This movement is for everyone if you can keep it safe.
Most of the big gyms are not set to train this lift. That is why it is such a big deal.
You can’t just walk in and throw a bar over your head and expect to be able to drop it. Yet this one move can give SO much more benefit to people than biceps curls or a triceps dip machine.
No one is comfortable hopping into the overhead squat on the first day. Well, the only exception is a really flexible gymnast or your typical athletic teenage girl. I’ve seen a handful of them perform it with seemingly no effort. For contrast, you have a 25 year old guy who has worked out chest way too much and rarely squatted deep, and you’ve got a guy who’s holding a little light PVC pipe over his head, sweating, cursing and falling over.
More people are like that than not. And that is what makes this movement so good. I can take that guy having so much trouble and easily take him up to overhead squatting his body weight. Not everyone needs to go that heavy, but the process of getting that guy from Point A to Point B is nothing short of light years of progress stuffed into a small amount of time.
This move is worth learning.
Find someone who can teach it correctly and get started on it. It is worth your time.