If you are looking at improving your Back Squat, Front Squat, Power Snatch or Snatch it’s worth looking at what the Overhead Squat can do for you.
What Do Overhead Squats Work
The simple answer to the question ‘What do Overhead Squats work?’ is ‘Everything!’
Well, this answer is not entirely true, since there is no exercise that trains everything. That’s why we need to plan and program our training and training changes over time to meet the demands of what we want to achieve with the training.
Where the Overhead Squat does train everything is, if you look at the Overhead Squat as an exercise where you have the weight right over your head and what you find between the load and the ground is your entire body. If you are at a point where you can already overhead squat serious load, it becomes a true ‘head to toe exercise’.
And without wanting to scare people, if you aren’t paying attention, dominate the Overhead Squat technique or haven’t practiced how to safely lose the bar, there is a potential risk in the Overhead Squat if done incorrectly. Have a look at the video below.
I guess in this example we can’t blame the athlete for not dominating the Overhead Squat technique and therefore not being able to recover (stand up) in the Snatch. But what we can see is, that Matthias Steiner should have dropped the bar a bit earlier to get out safely.
I assume (and that is purely what I think), as a defending Olympic Champion in that competition he didn’t want to let go of the bar and trying to safe and make the lift in order to stay in the competition, since his opponents in this particular competition where already ahead of him at this moment.
So, what is the bottom line?
The Overhead Squat is a safe lift if done correctly! My advice is always to be on the safer side, when you are in doubt whether you make it or not let the bar drop and don’t try to safe it!
A good training exercise to lose the bar safely is the following exercise
The athlete descends controlled, holds the bottom position and loses the bar to the front.
Because by now it’s obvious what can happen, if things go wrong.
If the Overhead Squat is done correctly, the Overhead Squat ‘forces’ you into the right squat pattern, which means your entire body has to work to make sure the weight is moving up and down and a slight deviation of the bar to the front or the back will result in losing the bar.
The Overhead Squat can effectively be used as an assistant exercise for the Snatch, as the catch phase of the Snatch requires you to absorb and stabilize the forces of the weight, which is also called ‘eccentric control’. Once the weight is controlled the recovery phase of the Snatch begins, which is essentially just standing up. But this is where it went wrong, if you look back at the video of Matthias Steiner. Consequently being able to Overhead Squat more weight than you can Snatch will help you with the catch phase and recovery phase in the Snatch.
An often overlooked benefit of the Overhead Squat is, that it teaches and trains how to focus. I have written about this aspect in the article 9 Benefits of the Overhead Squat and counting… I have also included a good video that demonstrates this.
What I have seen over and over again, is that once athletes have mastered the Overhead Squat technique and approach heavier loads in the Overhead Squat, you can see it’s really like a switch, where they can switch on this ability to focus once the weight is over their head and they realize now it’s serious business.
Look at this focus!
What Muscles Do The Overhead Squat work
One of my guiding principles is to ‘think movements, not muscles’ which is attributed to Vern Gambetta.
In all sporting activities or everyday life activities, it is important how to effectively and efficiently move. Therefore the interplay and coordination of different muscles and muscle groups are important and become a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Isolating certain muscle groups and training these muscle groups in isolation has its’ limited value in rehabilitation or Bodybuilding.
Back to the question ‘What muscles do the Overhead Squat work?’
As I mentioned before, the simple fact of having the weight over your head and stabilizing it over your head throughout the whole movement makes it a real ‘head to toe exercise’ involving every single muscle in the body. This is also the reason , why the Overhead Squat is used as an assessment tool in rehabilitation.
Once you are able to use heavier loads, the weakest link in the squatting movement chain, will be the upper body strength and the shoulders. Holding the bar in the right position throughout the squatting movement really works on the integrity of the shoulders and the trunk. Therefore, if you are looking at maximizing muscle growth in the legs or lower body, the Overhead Squat isn’t the best choice. Because the strength of the legs will be greater than the strength of the upper body and the lower body will not really be challenged and receive a sufficient growth stimulus.
If you are interested in maximizing size and strength in the lower body, Back Squats, Front Squats or single leg variations of the squats should be your first choice.
How To Improve The Overhead Squat or How To Make The Overhead Squat Work For You
One of the very basic training principles is called the SAID principle, the abbreviation SAID refers to specific adaptations to imposed demands. Which means in very simple words, if you want to get better at ‘activity x’ you have to ‘activity x’, not ‘activity y’.
You can now fill in the blanks for ‘x’ and ‘y’, so if you want to get better at reading you have to read. If you want to get better at running, in the first instance you have to run, not cycle or swim.
The same applies to the Overhead Squat, if you want to improve the Overhead Squat, you need to train the Overhead Squat, not Back Squat, Front Squat or some fancy corrective exercises (that will maybe come later, first squat with a bar over your head).
Once you are training the Overhead Squat and Overhead Squat technique, the second step is to look at the weakest point in the movement and what is that weak point caused by. Once you know the cause for the weakest point in the Overhead Squat movement, you can implement strategies to attack and improve that point.
Let’s have a look at a few common problems in the Overhead Squat movement and Overhead Squat technique.
Having the bar overhead requires your wrist to be flexible and stable at the same time. Once athletes are starting with the Overhead Squat, it is not uncommon that they experience discomfort in the wrist. In most cases, this discomfort disappears by itself over time, once they get used to the exercise. If the discomfort doesn’t appear by itself additional mobility work and / or strengthening of the wrist will solve that.
Maintaining the bar in the right position overhead in the descent, bottom position and ascent requires the shoulders and thoracic spine to have sufficient mobility. Often times athletes do not have the necessary mobility in the shoulder or thoracic spine and you will see the weight moving forward and ending up in front of the body in the bottom position. If the athlete simply works with a broomstick or an empty bar, he or she is strong enough to hold the weight with the strength of the arms or shoulders. Therefore it is necessary if you work on the Overhead Squat technique to have some load on the bar. Eric Cressey has written about this counter-intuitive phenomenon in his article Counterintuitive Coaching: More Loading, Better Learning
Once the athlete is in the bottom position you sometimes see an anterior pelvic tilt, resulting the lower back rounding, some people call it the butt wink. There can be multiple reasons for that and it’s important to find out what the real cause is, otherwise you are trying to fix something, which isn’t the real root cause of the lower back rounding. In most cases, it’s either a lack of flexibility in the hamstring or a lack of mobility in the ankles.
The ankles or ankle mobility are actually a crucial for the Overhead Squat because the bar is overhead and you are required to keep your body more upright as compared to a Front Squat or Back Squat. The only way to achieve this is by bringing the knees further forward, which is only possible if the ankle has sufficient mobility to do that.
Again, if we are looking at all these points, we are starting to understand, why the Overhead Squat is such a valuable training exercise and assessment tool. Especially as an assessment tool it kind of gives a complete picture how different body parts effectively play together or not play together.
Concluding What The Overhead Squat Works
The Overhead Squat can effectively be used as a training exercise to help improve the squatting pattern for the Front Squat or Back Squat. In addition to that, it is a valuable exercise to support the catch phase and recovery phase of the Snatch or Power Snatch.
In order to execute the Overhead Squat effectively, all muscle groups in the body have to work efficiently in sync, which makes the Overhead Squat a real ‘head to toe exercise’ and a valuable assessment tool.
More information on Overhead Squats
More Overhead Squat impressions in the Overhead Squat video library