The overhead squat is the ultimate test of squat mobility and core stability.
To perform an overhead squat correctly, a lifter must have a high level of coordination, mobility and strength. How do we start the process of getting to this level of ability?
Here are my top 10 exercise progressions for overhead squatting, from beginner to advanced:
- Body Weight Air Squat
- Wall Facing Squat
- Waiters Walk / Hold
- Band Squat & Single Arm Overhead Press
- Snatch Grip Behind the Neck Push Press
- Sotts Press
- Kettlebell Overhead Squat
- Overhead Squat
- Close Grip Overhead Squat
- Hanging Weight OH Squat
In this article I’ll discuss exactly how to perform each exercise and how each will specifically help you to progress to the best possible overhead squat, taking you from beginner to advanced overhead squatting.
Overhead Squat Progressions: 10 Exercises
The following exercises are listed in order from beginner to advanced, selected to help you improve your overhead squat mobility, stability and strength. ability.
1. Body Weight Air Squat
We all perform versions of the body weight squat several times a day, for example, every time we sit on a chair and get up. Before overhead squatting with a weighted object over our heads, we need to make sure our body weight squat is rock solid.
When we hold a weight over our head, any fault in our body weight squat will be further accentuated.
So a great place to start is by perfecting your body weight air squat;
- Place your feet at hip width or slightly wider.
- Toes can be slightly turned out.
- Raise your arms out in front to help maintain your balance.
- Initiate the squat by sending your hips back and allowing your knees to travel forwards.
- Keep your knees tracking over your toes throughout the movement.
- Maintain your heels firmly on the floor.
2. Wall Facing Squat
The wall facing squat is a great exercise for practising holding your arms over your head in the overhead squat position. This exercise will give you useful feedback about your upper body mobility and also help you to improve it prior to adding load.
This exercise is more difficult than the air squat as it requires you to keep your back extended and stay upright throughout the squat movement. The wall can be used either for support as you get started or as a useful point of reference as your mobility improves.
- Assume your squat stance and raise your arms overhead.
- Imagine you are holding a barbell or if you prefer, take an actual PVC pipe and hold it in a wide grip overhead.
- Start away from the wall and move closer with each rep or set until you reach your limit for achieving squat depth, maintaining technique and keeping your heels on the ground.
- Beginners may also wish to use the wall to initially help them stay upright until they develop the necessary back strength to do this unsupported.
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3. Waiter’s Carry
It’s important to prepare your body to be able to safely and effectively hold a weight overhead.
The shoulder joint needs to be stable and this stability is achieved by activating all the big and small muscles that surround what is otherwise an inherently unstable joint. The waiter’s carry is a fantastic exercise to train this;
- Use both hands to lift a plate into an extended overhead position.
- Make sure your elbow is fully locked out.
- Begin walking with your arm extended overhead.
4. Band Squat With Single Arm Overhead Press
Before initiating a squat with a weight already overhead, it is useful to train the bottom of the squat position and pressing to an overhead position.
Not only does this get you used to being in a squat position with a weight overhead, it is also a fantastic way to improve your mobility in your ankles and hips, as well as the mobility and strength of your back muscles required to keep yourself upright under load.
- Place a thick resistance band around your midsection. This will support you to be able to stay in the bottom of your squat for the duration of your set.
- Be sure to fix the resistance band around an immovable object for safety.
- Get into the bottom of your squat.
- Strict press a dumbbell to overhead from your squat position
- Alternate pressing from right and left sides
- Keeping your chest up and torso stable throughout each press
5. Snatch Grip Behind the Neck Push Press
Before overhead squatting the barbell, it’s necessary to get the barbell into the correct overhead position. The snatch grip behind the neck push press is a fantastic exercise to train how to do this safely and effectively. It also trains how to maintain shoulder stability;
- Place the barbell on your upper traps and unrack the barbell from the squat rack.
- Walk three steps back from the rack to stand with your feet under your hips.
- Adjust your hands into a wide snatch grip. The markings on the bar are a rough guide for how wide your grip needs to be. Adjust your grip based on your ability to press directly over head. If you are unable to hold the barbell over the centre of your body, take your grip wider.
- Rotate your elbows to be under the bar to ensure the bar will travel upwards to the correct overhead position.
- Create a dip drive motion by bending your knees and hips while keeping your torso upright. This will generate the necessary momentum to press the barbell overhead especially as it gets heavier.
- As you train this movement and the weight you can press overhead increases, turn the dip drive motion into a ‘dip drive and drop’ under the bar, also known as a push jerk.
6. Snatch Grip Bottom Press
The snatch grip bottom press is a great exercise for training pressing the barbell overhead from a static bottom of the squat position. It is an advanced movement which challenges mobility across the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder joints as well as your ability to keep your torso upright (unsupported);
- Hold a PVC pipe or barbell across your upper traps.
- Get into the bottom of your squat.
- Tighten your upper back muscles and bring your elbows under the barbell.
- Press the barbell overhead, maintaining the rest of your body’s upright position.
- Bring the barbell down and repeat.
Check out our other overhead pressing resources:
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- Overhead Press In Gyms With Low Ceilings (7 Tips)
- 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
7. Kettlebell Overhead Squat
The kettlebell overhead squat is a great exercise for improving shoulder stability and starting to work the overhead squat with load. This exercise is very useful if you don’t yet have the upper body mobility required to maintain a barbell over your feet which are your base of support;
- Strict press or push press the kettlebell overhead with your elbow extended.
- Engage the muscles around your shoulder to maintain a solid overhead position.
- Initiate the squat making sure your elbow remains locked out through the squat.
- Master the single arm kettlebell overhead squat with each arm before progressing to the double arm overhead squat which is a more challenging progression.
Check out our other kettlebell resources:
- 1 Arm vs 2 Arm Kettlbell Swing: Pros, Cons, Which Is Best?
- How To Keep Your Kettlebell From Hitting Your Wrist (7 Tips)
- Is Your Kettlebell Too Heavy? How To Know Using Examples
8. Barbell Overhead Squat
The 7 exercises described in this article up to now will provide you with a very solid foundation of mobility and strength to be able to successfully overhead squat with the barbell.
I would however highly recommend warming-up with a PVC pipe, then progressing to an empty barbell, before adding additional load. This will give not just your muscles but also your brain a chance to warm-up.
In over a decade of coaching this movement I see athletes improve their overhead squat ability with each subsequent set simply from the feedback the brain provides them to really calibrate and adjust their position.
To overhead squat with a barbell:
- Strict press, push press or push jerk the bar into your overhead position from behind the neck with a wide grip on the barbell.
- Create a stable shoulder by engaging your shoulder and lat muscles. A useful cue is to turn your armpits forward, or turn your little fingers inwards as you maintain a tight grip on the bar attempting to ‘break the bar in half’.
- Keep your body upright, activate your core muscles and brace in your midsection as you take yourself down into the bottom of the squat and back up. Lower yourself at a speed where you are able to maintain full control of the bar and your body.
- Actively press the bar upwards, keeping your elbows locked throughout the entire movement.
9. Close Grip Overhead Squat
As your mobility and overhead squat ability improve, you can progres to the more advanced close grip overhead squat.
This variation is very similar to the overhead squat but your grip will be narrower:
- A lifter with very good mobility will be able to perform the overhead squat in a clean grip, where the hand placement is just outside of the shoulders.
- A lifter with exceptional mobility may be able to place their hands next to each other or even crossed over on the barbell and maintain the correct upright overhead squat position as well as achieving squat depth.
10. Hanging Weight Overhead Squat
The hanging weight overhead squat involves attached weight plates or kettlebells to the barbell using resistance bands.
It makes overhead squatting significantly harder through the instability of the moving objects.
This exercise will absolutely challenge your shoulder strength and stability as well as your core muscles as you complete the squat.
Differences Between Beginner And Advanced Overhead Squatters
The difference between a beginner and an advanced overhead squatter can be determined by their capabilities in the following categories:
- Movement Capacities
- Movement Patterns
- Maintenance of Technique With Increased Demands
Someone new to overhead squatting may not yet have the mobility in one or more of their joints to get into a good overhead squat position. They may also lack the required coordination for this challenging multi joint movement.
An advanced overhead squatter will have better mobility across multiple joints such as the ankle, hip, thoracic spine and shoulder, which determine their ability to get into an optional position throughout a squat with a challenging object held overhead.
It’s not enough however to have the required mobility. An advanced overhead squatter also needs to be able to create stability in their shoulder, midsection and legs to be able to perform the squat without losing position. This is done by maximally recruiting and coordinating all the muscles that contribute to this movement.
Improving mobility and muscle coordination can take time which is why following the progressions in this article can be of huge benefit to a lifter to identify where their restrictions are and to improve them prior to risking their joints and an injury under heavy load in sub-optimal positions.
A beginner overhead squatter will struggle to reproduce a consistent movement pattern including keeping the weighted object over their base of support, the straight path of the barbell or their ability to maintain their squat position.
An advanced lifter will be more in-tune with their movement, able to make micro adjustments under load as required and demonstrate consistency in their technique and movement pattern.
Maintenance of Technique With Increased Demands
A beginner lifter will struggle to maintain their position as the demand of the exercise variation or load increases.
For example, they may not be able to keep their elbow extended with a load overhead, or keep the weighted object over their base of support or maintain their balance in their stance thus stepping forwards or backwards.
An advanced lifter can maintain their technique consistently up to much greater loads or repetitions. If they did experience any form breakdown, they are much better able to identify what happened and correct the movement fault.
How To Know When To Progress To A Harder Overhead Squat Variation
A good set of rules to follow for knowing when to progress from one exercise to a harder overhead squat variation includes checking if you are able to;
- Maintain a good squat position with your heels down, knees training over toes and an upright torso. If not, work on your mobility and regress to the previous exercise where you were able to maintain this position.
- Maintain a stable shoulder position known as an “active shoulder” for any movement where a weight is held overhead. If your shoulder does not feel stable, or the weight moves outside of your base of support forwards, backwards or laterally, either reduce the load.
- Train enough repetitions over time, to work the neural pathways of the brain to groove this movement so that each repetition is performed with increasingly more consistent technique.
- Incrementally over time increase the weight lifted for each exercise. This will give your muscles and your connective tissues time to adapt to each load for an exercise you can perform with good technique, before moving on to a more challenging exercise.
Over Movement Progression Articles
- 11 Squat Progressions from Beginner to Advanced
- 10 Bench Press PRogressions From Beginner to Advanced
- 8 Deadlift Progressions From Beginner to Advanced
- 10 Pistol Squat Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
- 9 Bulgarian Split Squat Progression (From Basic to Advanced)
Mastering each of the exercise progressions in this article will take someone new to overhead squatting, all the way to being able to perform advanced overhead squat variations correctly.
The increasing demand of each exercise will train and improve a lifters mobility, stability and strength. This gives the muscles, connective tissues and neural pathways time to adapt, decreasing the risk for injury and maximising a lifter’s potential to successfully overhead squat.
About The Author
Carli Dillen has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach since 2007 after earning her degree in Sport and Exercise Science and Human Physiology. She completed further post graduate studies in Movement Neuroscience in 2010 and opened her first gym in 2011. Her sporting achievements include winning 3 World Championship Gold medals in Taekwon-Do, as well as representing New Zealand at 4 IPF Powerlifting World Championships, winning a bronze medal in deadlift in 2017. You can connect with Carli on Instagram