Overhead Squat: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
December 15, 2022

The use of barbells in resistance exercises has long been a part of the workout regimen of many gym goers, but it has become even more popular in recent years. It is used in exercises such as the bench press, overhead press, deadlift, and squat. An advanced version of a squat that incorporates a barbell is the overhead squat.

The overhead squat is an advanced resistance exercise that requires work from almost all muscles of the body. It also needs good ankle and hip mobility in order to achieve proper form. When done correctly, the overhead squat is able to improve balance, flexibility, strength, and functionality among others.

In order to maximize the benefits of the overhead squat and avoid any injuries from occurring, mistakes must be avoided during execution. These include inward caving of the knees, excessive forward lean, and excessive arching of the lower back.

What is an Overhead Squat?

The overhead squat is a compound exercise that works on the entire body. It is an excellent workout to improve overall strength. When done correctly, it can increase flexibility and mobility that can be conveyed to daily life activities. Furthermore, it is a great exercise because the movement does more than just screen athletes or assist with mobility.

overhead squat

Several muscle groups are used in the execution of the overhead squat including the upper body muscles, such as the triceps and deltoids, as well as lower body muscles, like the hamstrings, adductors, quadriceps, and the muscles of the lower back.

This squat variation may be too challenging for beginners because it frequently reveals flaws usually seen in squats. It requires multiple things, such as good mobility of the ankle and hip joints. The lack of such characteristics can make the exercise feel too awkward due to bad form. 

How to Perform an Overhead Squat

To perform, get into position by standing with the feet shoulder-width apart. Grab the barbell with a wide grip outside shoulder-width using a neutral grip. Lift the barbell up and position it on the back such that the barbell rests on the shoulders.

Engage the core first, then lift the barbell up by explosively pushing the weight overhead with a simultaneous push through the legs and shoulders. Rest the barbell on the palms while positioning the wrists in a slight extension.

Keep the hands above the head to maintain a firm upper back position. Support the weight of the barbell by engaging the shoulders and upper back while keeping the chin tucked all throughout the movement. This will be the starting position. 

To move into a squat, bring the hips back and down until they are lower than the knees. Make sure that at a squatted position, the knees do not track over the toes. Finish the movement by doing a full hip and knee extension to get back to the starting position. Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set.

Muscles Worked by the Overhead Squat

Overhead squats use nearly every muscle in the body. More so than nearly any other action, it puts multiple demands on overall strength and stability in the overhead position.

Overhead squats primarily target the lower body muscles. Due to the amount of knee flexion required to perform the maneuver, the quadriceps work to control the knee flexion motion and to extend the knees in the upward phase.

overhead squat muscles

The descent into hip flexion is controlled by the gluteal and hamstring muscles, which also act to extend the hip. The movement also simultaneously challenges the hips to regulate knee position, which is mediated by the hip abductors, specifically the gluteus medius. Hip flexors and hamstrings should be actively engaged at all times to maintain proper posture and prevent unintentional or negligent movement.

Because of the overhead component, the overhead squat is an effective tool to engage muscles that are often neglected while performing other squat variations. This variation of the squat recruits the trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and triceps not only to raise the bar overhead, but most importantly, to keep it there, and stabilize the weight overhead throughout the exercise.

Benefits of the Overhead Squat

Squats are a popular exercise known to increase strength and athletic performance. This exercise is primarily used to improve function and power in the hip and knee extensors. Although these benefits may be attained through body weight alone, the use of a barbell makes the exercise a more effective workout.

Enhances Strength

Similar to other resistance exercises, the overhead squat is able to produce an increase in both muscle size and strength. However, the increase in strength generated by the overhead squat is not localized to a specific part of the body; rather, it is seen as an overall strength enhancement.

Improves Balance and Stability

The overhead squat is a great exercise for training and strengthening the core muscles, hence it improves balance and stability. This is because the core muscles support the spine and pelvis, as well as help in the mobility of the limbs. Additionally, apart from improving balance and stability through core strengthening, targeting the core also leads to the development of the “six-pack abs.”

Increases Flexibility

When performing the overhead squat, the hamstrings, chest, shoulders, and upper back will stretch as the body is lowered. Because of this stretch, flexibility is improved in these areas.

Stretching the muscles reduces the muscle tension that may be present. By reducing muscle tension, muscle length is increased and flexibility is improved.

Improves Functionality and Athletic Performance

Since the overhead squat enhances overall strength, it is expected that this exercise is beneficial for a variety of sporting activities, such as those that involve running, jumping, and even kicking. However, even non-athletes may benefit from the overhead squat because it has the ability to improve movements in activities of daily living.

Common Mistakes of the Overhead Squat

Excessive Forward Lean

Leaning too far forward may be suggestive of a lack of ankle dorsiflexion or hip range of motion. Upon lowering into the squat, the bar may move forward in front of the torso. This shifts the center of gravity forward and out of the base of support, disrupting one’s balance.

It is possible to perform overhead squats even with a limited available range of motion. Keeping the torso upright, and performing the squat within one’s limits reap the same benefits albeit to a lesser extent. However, practicing the maneuver using the proper form and technique over time may improve hip and ankle flexibility and mobility.

Excessive Arching of the Lower Back

When doing overhead squats, restriction or tightness in the shoulders and thoracic spine would elicit a compensatory arching of the lumbar spine. This places excessive, unnecessary stress on the lower back. Stretching the shoulders and thoracic spine to improve mobility and flexibility may help to prevent excessive lumbar lordosis at the bottom of the squat. 

Inward Caving of Knees

The caving in of the knees, also known as knee valgus, is a technical error that is also seen in other squat variations. This is mostly due to the hip abductors’ inability to counteract the force produced by the adductors, which also assist in hip extension. This can be remedied by conscious engagement of the gluteal muscles, specifically the gluteus medius. Strengthening the hip abductors may also help to address the muscle imbalance.

Final Thoughts

The overhead squat is an excellent full-body workout that primarily targets the lower body muscles and enhances overall strength. It provides a multitude of benefits that require proper execution and techniques to attain them, such as improving strength, flexibility, balance, and functionality.

Overall the overhead squat is a challenging yet high-yielding workout. Ensure mastering the movement of the exercise first before loading up the weights with sound and technical techniques to avoid injury and muscle imbalance among others.

References

1. Aspe RR, Swinton PA. Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2014 Oct 1;28(10):2827-36.

2. Rabin A, Kozol Z. Utility of the overhead squat and forward arm squat in screening for limited ankle dorsiflexion. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2017 May 1;31(5):1251-8.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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