The Overhead Squat
Written by Fritz Nugent

What is an overhead squat?

The barbell overhead squat is simply a squat performed with a barbell held overhead. 

Overhead Squat Form

A well-executed overhead squat is performed with a wide grip on the barbell, extended arms with the barbell in alignment over the back of the head, a neutral spine, and sound lower body squatting mechanics (active feet and femurs tracking parallel with the feet). The barbell should remain fixed over the middle of the foot throughout the entire squat descent and ascent. The ideal depth of an overhead squat is achieved when the crease of the hip (where the top of the thigh meets the torso) passes below the knee (to be specific, the height of a line that is parallel with the ground and tangent to the top of the knee).

PVC Overhead Squat

The simplest way to set up for an overhead squat is to begin with a PVC pipe. First, find your grip width. Stand with the pipe in your hands with arms relaxed. Bend your knees and hips a little bit, and move the pipe into your hip crease, the place where your thighs meet your hips. Place the pipe in this crease, and then move your hands out equidistant from the center, and take a full hand grip on the pipe. This is a good general starting point. You can customize a narrower or wider grip if warranted. 

From here, lift the pipe over the back of the head and press up until your arms are extended and straight. Don’t shrug up like crazy here. Keep tension between and below your shoulder blades. This will help to stabilize the load. Yes, it’s only a PVC pipe, for now, and to perform this movement well with the pipe, you must intentionally stabilize that light load. Eventually, if desired, you can add resistance. 

Depending on your own unique anthropometry, the pipe will be somewhere between 2-10 inches above the back of your head. Keeping your arms straight and feet suction-cupped to the floor, sink your hips back and down and squat to your bottom position, and then stand back up. Congratulations. You performed a PVC overhead squat. 

From here, you can accumulate repetitions (volume) over time, work towards improving technique and economy, and eventually build up to greater resistances starting with an empty barbell.

Empty Barbell Overhead Squat

The only difference between squatting with an empty barbell versus a PVC pipe is the initial set-up, and the stability challenges that added resistance provides. The barbell’s overhead positioning, grip width, squatting mechanics, and movement speed should not change. To set up for a loaded overhead squat, initially, you can take the barbell out of a squat rack in the back rack position and press it overhead with YOUR overhead squat grip. Then begin your squat.

What muscles does an overhead squat work?

This movement is a great test of an athlete’s mobility, balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. The overhead squat movement involves every joint and most of the soft tissue structures (fascia, muscles, ligaments, and tendons) in the human body. The prime movers of the overhead squat are the muscles of the hips and legs. The musculature of the torso, shoulders, and arms primarily stabilize the barbell overhead. Even the muscles of the hands and feet are heavily involved. The hands maintain a secure grip on the barbell, positioning the bar directly above the bones of the forearm. The feet maintain a solid base of support from which to balance the combination of body weight and overhead resistance.

Primary Joints Used in the Overhead Squat 

The primary joints providing movement during overhead squats are the same joints that provide movement during the squat: the hips, knees, and ankles. 

Upper Body Use in the Overhead Squat

The primary function of the shoulders during an overhead squat is to stabilize the barbell in the overhead position. The joints of the wrist, elbow, and spine (especially thoracic), remain in a somewhat fixed position and act as one long lever connecting the hips and the barbell, acting to stabilize the load overhead as the ankles, knees, and hip joints perform the squatting action. Lack of mobility in any of these joints can lead to seemingly endless movement faults, highlighting a multitude of mobility opportunities. 

The shoulders must be rotated backwards into external rotation to allow the shoulder glenohumeral joint and scapula the positioning they need to maintain a stable position throughout the duration of the squat. This will be slightly different for each athlete. Often, coaches will cue this important set-up feature of the overhead squat with “armpits forwards”, “show your armpits”, “biceps up”, “shoulders back and down”, etc. These are all useful cues depending on what the athlete needs to hear to perform the action correctly.

Athletes can overdo the external rotation here. The goal is not to wedge the humorous into the back of the shoulder joint. This rigid position will feel stable, but will not allow for much deviation in balance to accommodate for the weight slightly shifting overhead. The goal is to open up enough space with thoracic extension and create enough scapular stability so that the shoulders can externally rotate with extra room to externally rotate further, if needed.

Benefits of Overhead Squats

Technically sound overhead squats express balance, flexibility, mobility, and coordination. When performed at heavy loads relative to the athlete’s strength, whole body strength adaptations occur. An added adaptation from overhead squats is the scapular stability from maintaining the barbell in the overhead squat. There are very few movements that directly challenge both the lower traps and rhomboids more thoroughly than overhead squats.

Coaches and athletes can also utilize the overhead squat as an assessment tool to draw out faults, diagnose problematic areas, and apply interventions. Some of the possible flaws and solutions are discussed below.

Overhead Squat Assessment

Simple tests can assess you for overhead squat readiness. The first assessment is a bodyweight squat because your body weight squat must be solid for you to attempt overhead squats. If you are sound here (not just passable – sound…otherwise you will find immediate restrictions), then you can check thoracic, scapular, and shoulder mobility. 

Can you perform a behind neck press with a PVC pipe with a flat back, neutral head position, neutral wrists, and forearms stacked vertically under the bar? If yes, you’re ready to attempt an overhead squat with a PVC pipe. 

This doesn’t mean that you will be immediately successful. There are still plenty of restrictions that could limit a full-depth, picturesque overhead squat despite passing the above two assessments. However, if you can get to this point of proficiency, you are ready to begin overhead squatting with a PVC pipe. 

The Overhead Squat in CrossFit 

Outside of the Olympic Weightlifting community, before CrossFit, overhead squats were almost nonexistent. Now, you can find workouts a number of days a year at thousands of gyms around the world that include overhead squats. For this reason, taking overhead squat advice from Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, can be worthwhile. He suggests that those who desire to improve their overhead squat should start with perfecting their bodyweight squat first and then start loading the overhead squat lightly. Simple. Definitely not easy. And if you want to make it to the CrossFit games, your overhead squat better be rock solid.

Overhead Squat Tips

Heart-breaking spoiler – IF YOU CANNOT OVERHEAD SQUAT WELL WITH A PVC PIPE BUT CAN PERFORM THEM WITH GREATER RESISTANCE, YOU ARE A TICKING TIME BOMB. 

Here’s what is meant by that. Stabilizing a PVC pipe or light wooden dowel rod overhead takes minimal strength. People sometimes find light overhead squats to be more difficult than moderately loaded overhead squats. These people use a weighted barbell and pull that sucker way back to the end-range of their shoulder joint capsule to make up for poor thoracic extension, ankle dorsiflexion, long femurs, and a number of other mobility and anthropometric reasons. Perhaps they can overhead squat a decent weight for their body weight and sex, but if you ask them to grab a PVC pipe and perform an overhead squat, they reply “Oh, I can squat better with a bar”. Why? Compensation. 

Compensation is troublesome because it can lead to injuries. Uneven wear and tear on your body always come out in the wash. If you cannot demonstrate a passable overhead squat with a PVC, you are almost guaranteed to injure yourself when performing this movement loaded and for many reps over future months and years. 

The simple (and definitely NOT easy) solution here is to perfect your squat by correcting your muscle imbalances. Earn yourself an aesthetically-pleasing and health-enhancing overhead squat.

Before we delve into solutions for addressing overhead squat movement faults, first we must discuss some common mobility restrictions and what problems they cause during overhead squats. 

Overhead Squat Mobility Restrictions and what they look like

Hip

It’s already a given that poor hip mobility restricts a bodyweight squat, so for athletes with poor hip mobility (if there is no pathological root to a movement flaw, mobility restrictions are most likely caused by muscle imbalances), a deep overhead squat is out. Find your specific deficits and correct them.

Ankle

Poor ankle mobility limits deep overhead squats, especially if the athlete has relatively long femurs. Athletes with issues here tend to push their hips too far back because the knees are blocked from tracking forwards. This drops the torso towards the ground and transfers greater demand of overhead barbell stabilization to the thoracic spine and shoulders. Adding foot and lower leg strengthening can help create range at the ankle. Foot and lower leg strengthening can help athletes maintain an active foot position and may help prevent ankle pronation (ankles caving in) and subsequent knee valgus (knees caving in). 

Thoracic

Poor thoracic mobility will show its ugly face when an athlete reaches the “sticking point” (somewhere close to the point during the squat where the horizontal distance between the hip joint and barbell is greatest). An athlete with restrictions here will round their upper back, perhaps aiming their chest at the ground, which places even more stress on the shoulders. Next, the shoulder blades elevate, and the shoulders most likely internally rotate to provide the new range of motion required to stabilize the barbell. There is no longevity performing overhead squats like this and will end badly in time. However, there is hope.

Shoulder

Similar to how many athletes think they can’t front squat with a proper rack position due to “wrist” issues (hint: 95% of the time, the wrist is not problematic), in the overhead squat, athletes say that they can’t perform this movement because it bothers their shoulders. Most likely, the shoulders are NOT the problem but instead have been the solution to stabilizing the barbell overhead after much of the force of the movement is shifted to them from poor ankle, hip, and thoracic function. Here, the shoulder – by lonesome itself – carries the burden that should be shared with the thoracic spine and scapula. 

However, IF you happen to be in that five percent of the population whose shoulders lack the requisite range of motion or stability to perform this movement, assessing all the muscles that cross the shoulder joint for weakness is worthwhile. Strengthen the weaker muscles and you may find your stability and range improve. 

PRO TIP: Stretching short muscles may NOT always be the solution to improve range. Think of it this way: what if your particular short muscles are just weak, and the body wants to keep them short to protect you from hurting them? 

An elongated muscle may be more susceptible to injury. Your body is smart. It has had millions of years to figure out how to stay healthy and reproduce despite all the crazy stuff we do to ourselves. A potential solution here is to locate short or weak areas (sometimes muscles can be weak and long, too) through strength and range of motion testing, strengthen the weak muscles, and then retest.

How to get better at Overhead Squats

Keep the potential movement flaws and problems from above in mind when you sift through this section. With faults of any kind in human movements, I love to look at them with this perspective: if you were to perform that movement, just like that, for 10,000 reps, what would happen? Look deeply and honestly at yourself here.

The only passable answer is “all joints and tissues involved will be stronger and mobility will improve over time.” If the answer is “my knees will probably hurt” (caused by any knee action that is NOT a hinge), or “the shoulders will fall off the body and crawl away from me because I treat them so badly” (caused by anteriorly protruding shoulders, usually accompanied by a tragic lack of thoracic ROM from short and weak pecs and long, weak upper back muscles), then the consequent solution is to address those areas before loading them within that potentially problematic range and utilize movement regressions and appropriate loading until compensation is replaced by a sharing of the resistance throughout your entire structure.

Keeping the 10,000-rep rule in mind, there are seemingly endless faults for overhead squatting due to the complexity of this movement. Here are a few faults and some suggested fixes for them. This list of faults and fixes is not exhaustive or complete because there are many solutions to every single fault and are often specific to each individual athlete.

“Buckshot” Range of Motion Improvement

Starting at the neck and working downwards, coach Nick demonstrates a series of controlled articular rotations (CARs) in this video: The CARs Shotgun

This approach to improving range of motion is similar to a shotgun loaded with buckshot. Pull the trigger once and shoot all the birds in the tree. Improving range of motion throughout the entire body is targeted here, one joint at a time. Hopefully somewhere within a few of these CARs you may find potential solutions to your specific mobility deficits. 

Specific Mobility Drills to Improve Overhead Squats 

Here is a non-exhaustive list of mobility drills that may help you move towards your optimal overhead squat position:

Lower Body Drills

  • Bootstrappers are great for preparing the deep squat position and can also be useful in improving ankle range of motion when intentionally shifting from side to side here. The rotation and reach is useful in adding thoracic rotation and extension from the deep squat position. 
  • Squat Rocks are another way to mobilize the deep squat bottom position with a band. You can add overhead reaches with rotations here as well to incorporate thoracic and shoulder mobility. 
  • Banded Perfect Stretch is a single side banded hip opener to help prepare the hip and ankle joints for deep squatting. You can add thoracic rotations to this as well to prepare for overhead loading.
  • Band Distracted Hip Flexor Stretch is a great passive stretch to help correct anterior pelvic tilt. Performing this stretch before squatting may allow you to maintain a neutral spine deeper into your squat. When coupled with an increase in ankle dorsiflexion and thoracic extension, this produces sound overhead squat mechanics. 
  • Ankle Mobility. There are useful tasks from this article to help improve ankle mobility. Pick a few and play around. See what works for you. 

Upper Body Drills

  • Overhead Mobility Prep. This video has an assessment and accompanying movements to improve overhead mobility.
  • Thoracic Mobility. This video demonstrates two mobility drills to help improve overhead range of motion
  • Thoracic Mobility – PAILS & RAILS. This video demonstrates a unique approach to improve thoracic range of motion
  • Spinal Segmentation can be useful in locating YOUR problematic areas for spinal extension. This video also provides solutions to improve range in problematic areas.
  • Thoracic Extension is essential for producing a beautiful overhead squat. Check that video link out to learn three great drills. 

Faults and Corrections During the Overhead Squat

Weight on Toes in Overhead Squat

During this fault, the athlete shifts weight forwards during the OHS onto the balls of the feet. This could be caused by restricted ankle ROM. Sometimes we see this in athletes with a large femur to tibia ratio, which requires that the knees are driven forwards further than athletes with smaller femur/tibia ratios. This can ask extra work of the ankles to help balance everything occurring above. If the forwards shift is caused by poor ankle range, then improving ankle ROM, specifically flexion, will address this issue. For example, try this distracted ankle mobility drill and knee loaded ankle stretch

Weight on Heels in Overhead Squat 

The athlete shifts weight backwards during the squat and the toes or even the balls of the feet lose contact with the ground. Perhaps the athlete has an incomplete grasp of the function of active foot squatting and can benefit from practicing body weight squats in bare feet or socks. Once the athlete understands how the foot should contact the ground during squatting, if mobility along the kinetic chain is adequate, there should be minimal recurring problems. If the problem was caused by the barbell being pulled too far back behind the athlete’s midline, causing a backwards shift of the athlete + barbell’s center of gravity, then fix this fault by adjusting the barbell position to directly over the middle of the feet. 

Knee Valgus in Overhead Squat 

Pro Tip: IF AN ATHLETE CAN PERFORM A LIGHT OVERHEAD SQUAT (or any movement) WELL, BUT ISSUES LIKE KNEE VALGUS (and ALL others) OCCURS WHEN RESISTANCE IS ADDED, THIS IS AN EASY FIX. LIGHTEN THE LOAD AND MOVE BETTER.

Knee valgus occurs when the knees (femurs) track inside the line of the feet. This can be caused by weakness in the feet and lower legs, weakness in the adductors, and weakness in the hip abductors and external rotators. 

Sometimes, the arch of the foot collapses because the muscles of the foot and lower leg are weak or uneducated about what they should be doing to provide a solid base for enabling force production up the chain. Once again, barefoot squatting can be a worthwhile lesson. 

For athletes that can perform a PVC overhead squat well but knees collapse when resistance is added, this is a sign the resistance is too great. Dial back the barbell weight until the athlete can maintain proper foot contact with the ground, a solid foot arch, and parallel femur and foot alignment. To address squat issues in general, lifting barefoot is often helpful because this allows the athlete to “feel” what their feet are doing throughout the squat. 

Some fixes for knee valgus involve the combination of regressing back to a resistance that the athlete can squat correctly while simultaneously adding external resistance directly to the knees. For example, some coaches place a band around the knees to provide a tangible cue to push “out” against. Other coaches will place a hand on the outside of an athlete’s knee and ask them to drive the knee(s) out against this pressure.

If the athlete’s feet are flat or pronate (collapse) when squatting, barefoot walks can be helpful. For example, 1) walking up on the toes, 2) on heels only, and 3) on the outer edge of the feet while doming (arching) the foot can strengthen the muscles of the feet and lower legs to help resist pronation during squats. 

Varus Knee in Overhead Squat 

Varus knee occurs when an athlete’s knees track wider than the angle of the feet. Sometimes the athlete has their weight on the outer edges of their feet. Other times, the athlete has surprising range in their ankles, allowing for the combination of an active foot and knees tracking wide.

Some athletes overcorrect knee valgus and end up developing a problematic varus pattern. Once again, apply the 10,000-rep rule here. For example, an athlete who constantly squatted with their knees out beyond the safe range. The result was a patellar injury that the doctor could not explain. It took over seven years for that movement pattern to hurt the athlete’s knee. This is just one strong example on the validity of the 10,000 rep rule. 

Many trainers cue their athletes to drive the knees out. This cue is valid to teach athletes to align the femurs parallel with the feet. However, any further out can cause problems. An athlete who constantly squats on the outer edge of their feet may also benefit from a lesson in foot mechanics during the squat (same barefoot squat lesson from above). In addition, this athlete may be over-reliant on hip external rotation and may benefit from some hip internal rotation and adduction strength.

Squat Speed in the Overhead Squat

Your level of strength, stability, and mobility facilitate your squat speed. An athlete with strong legs and a weak upper body or someone lacking mobility will have trouble performing overhead squats at fast speeds. 

Frequently we see athletes initiate their overhead squat with locked out arms and then lose their lock-out at the bottom when they squat fast. This is often accompanied by a loss of midline stabilization, lumbar spine alignment, and hip positioning. If they are able to keep a good position when squatting slowly and lose that position when adding velocity, then they have overshot the limitations of their stability to maintain optimal overhead positioning at that speed and should train slower until strength improves. 

Sometimes, athletes will perform overhead squats too slowly. This is primarily observed in athletes who are still learning the movement and are unsure of their body’s position in relation to the barbell, or the load is too great for their current strength level. Reducing the load to one that they can squat at a proper speed can yield faster learning and adaptation. 

Once strength and squat speed improve, athletes can utilize a bounce out of the bottom of their overhead squats. This technique is more challenging than bouncing out of the bottom of a front or back squat because the barbell is further away from the body, and flaws here are are magnified. Therefore, it is important to maintain a rigid torso position when reaching your squat bottom position. This will allow the barbell to maintain its balanced position overhead. 

Overhead Squat Spinal Positioning

Squatting with a neutral spine is optimal. Therefore, squatting with an overextended lumbar spine or kyphotic (rounded) back are faults that require attention. Often, athletes will over-arch their lower back. Sometimes this accommodates a lack of thoracic extension, shoulder range of motion, proportionally long femurs, short or weak hip flexors, a lack of ankle range of motion…and the list goes on. Many athletes will exhibit at least one of these concerns. 

With some lucky athletes, an over-arched lower back is simply a bad habit and causes no further problems throughout their kinetic chain once corrected. However, most of us aren’t so lucky. When correcting a hyper-extended lumbar spine and moving into a neutral spine, athletes must find extra range from thoracic extension (chest up), scapular retraction (shoulders set, shoulders back and down, etc.), and shoulder external rotation to guide the barbell along the midline throughout the squat.

Solutions here are multifactorial depending on the root of the problem. If the athlete can maintain a neutral spine when squatting with body weight and other loading modalities but arch their lower back during overhead squats, check their scapular function and thoracic and shoulder range of motion. Potential solutions can be created by teaching the athlete how to maintain a neutral spine during all squats, improve thoracic extension, scapular function, and shoulder mobility. If one of these areas is discovered as most problematic, spend the majority of your prehab/prep time there. 

On the other side of that coin, sometimes we see athletes losing core tension at or near the bottom of their squat, and the lumbar spine dips into flexion (pooping dog). Even worse, that flexion can move it’s way up the spine, causing complete spinal rounding. An athlete squatting like this has their chest pointed at the ground. If they are overhead squatting, the shoulders are dumped forward and possibly internally rotated, placing greater stress on the shoulders to maintain the barbell in the overhead position. 

An athlete who squats like this should regress from overhead squatting and focus on perfecting the squat itself. In addition, adding thoracic, scapular, and shoulder mobility can add range and stability to the overhead position once the athlete returns to the overhead squat. 

Arms Bending during the Overhead Squat 

Fully extended elbows are optimal for stabilizing the barbell overhead. If an athlete’s arms are bent when the bar or PVC are overhead with the athlete standing tall, the athlete should not overhead squat until the underlying issues causing the lack of elbow extension are remedied. 

Some athletes initiate their overhead squat with straight arms and then slowly lose elbow extension as they sink lower into their squat. This overhead fault could be caused by a number of things. Are the athlete’s ankles restricted or do they have long femurs, which cause their hips to shoot way back and drops the chest, followed by shoulder elevation and forward rotation, and the elbows bend as a result of all of this? Frequently, the fault originates from lack of thoracic extension.

If you’re hell-bent on overhead squatting despite this movement fault, try using a target to overhead squat down to. Don’t SIT on the target, but rather use it as a guide for when to drive back up. Play with the height of this target. Set it at the point where the arms begin to bend. As you earn your lower squat target, keep progressing until you are squatting as low as you desire while hitting all of the overhead squat points of performance. And continue to self-asses or work with a coach to isolate and address YOUR specific mobility deficits.

Wrist Pain During Overhead Squats

Sometimes, the limiting factor for and athlete achieving an OHS is wrist pain because they are holding the bar overhead with the wrists in an over-extended position to make up for a lack of thoracic extension. Correcting this fault can significantly decreased discomfort, enabling improvements in an athlete’s overhead squat volume and intensity. 

To build wrist strength in the slightly extended position as opposed to relying on wrenching your wrists as far back as they can extend and loading your overhead squat there, dial back the bar weight to one that you can handle with a correct wrist position. 

This concept is true for ALL overhead barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell movements: a SLIGHTLY extended wrist is optimal. Take the time to build strength and endurance here and it will benefit you everywhere. You won’t need to wear those sweet wrist wraps anymore to keep your wrists out of pain.

Overhead Squat Loading

To safely perform overhead squats well into your athletic future, make sure that you are restriction-free, meaning that you are not compensating in one area of your body to make up for another area’s restriction. Restrictions can be found in strength imbalances which presents as mobility deficits. It seems like the main factor keeping a person from becoming strong here is compensation which leads to irritation, pain, and injury. Therefore, working towards improving joint range of motion and stability can lead to large gains in overhead squat performance.

Once you are restriction-free, gaining strength in the overhead squat becomes a matter of putting in the work and taking appropriate rest. For novice and intermediate athletes with limited compensation patterns, linear progressive overload yields steady gains in overhead squat strength. This translates to starting light and building volume first and later on, intensity, over time. Simple as that.

Advanced Training: Overhead Squat Workouts 

Once you have earned yourself a sound overhead squat, this beautiful movement can be utilized during workouts in a number of ways. Your imagination is literally the only limit to how you implement overhead squats into your training. Make sure that you are ready to tackle the combinations that you create. 

This list below is by no means exhaustive. The intention is to provide some loading schemes and workout combinations involving overhead squats. From there, you can build your own creations. And remember: when it comes to writing your own workouts, less is more. 

Overhead Squat Strength Workouts

Below are some suggested overhead squat strength workouts. As with all strength training, start with manageable loads and build steadily over time. Once you become very strong, then you can get more creative about wave pattern loading, long-term periodization, and altering other technical training variables to enhance performance.  

  • Find your RM (1RM-4RM for Olympic Weightlifters, 1RM-12RM for CrossFit Athletes, although I would argue that most people don’t need a 1RM overhead squat and would be better off utilizing a 2-3RM)
  • Loading Schemes: 3×10, 3×8, 6×4, 5×5, 5×3, 4×2, 3×1, Wave Cycling (15-12-9; 10-8-6; 5-3-2; 3-2-1), Cluster Sets (3.2.1; 2.1.1; 1.1.1; 2.1; 1.1)
  • When your overhead squat is solid and you want to progress your mobility further, you may benefit from practicing Close-Grip Overhead Squats

Short Conditioning

For time:
5-4-3-2-1
Overhead Squats (at a challenging resistance)
Muscle-Ups (or) some type of gymnastic or strict pull-up that is challenging for you

Medium-Range Conditioning

7-minute AMRAP, of:
7 Overhead Squats
7 Bar-Facing Burpees

Longer Conditioning

Nancy (an iconic CrossFit workout from back in the day)
5 RFT: 400m Run + 15 OHS
20-minute AMRAP, of:
10 Overhead Squats
20 Calorie Row

Overhead Bilateral Workouts and Variations

  • Overhead Barbell Holds
  • Overhead Barbell Walks
  • Overhead Barbell Walking Lunges

Begin by holding a barbell overhead, in place, for time. You can do intervals of holding and resting. You can hold until you feel fatigue, then rest. Or you can pick a specific work and rest time, and play around with loading, work and rest durations. Once stability and strength increase, to add difficulty, you can increase resistance or add a walk. The resistance will challenge strength and endurance in the overhead position. The walk adds an element of decreased stability that you must solve to maintain proper positioning as you move. After some time training the overhead barbell walk, then you can begin with overhead barbell walking lunges. Adding lunges with a barbell overhead is one of my favorite flavorful overhead strength progressions. 

Workout ideas:

  • Basic. Complete rounds of 30 seconds overhead barbell hold. Start with 30-60 seconds rest and decrease the rest over time, add resistance, and/or increase the hold time. If the short rest limits loading, then increase rest duration to allow for increases in loading
  • Light and Challenging. 200-400m Overhead Barbell Walk, complete 1 OHS every 10 meters (40 total). If you set the bar down on the ground, complete 6 burpees over barbell
  • Fun strength workout. Build up to one heavy 100-foot overhead barbell walk 
  • Add Flavor. If you have the space, you can add overhead barbell walking lunges to any lunging workout!
  • Add Crazy. Want to bolster your unilateral overhead strength? Perform overhead barbell walking lunges. This is a personal favorite.

Unilateral Stability Workouts and Variations

  • Single-Arm Overhead Holds, Walks, Lunges, and Squats with a Dumbbell, Kettlebell, or Medball
  • Double-Arm Overhead Holds, Walks, Lunges, and Squats with Dumbbells, Kettlebells, or Medballs

Begin with a single object and stand in place, holding with a single arm, for time. Notice if there are differences between right and left. If so, add time or reps on the weak side until it catches up with the strong side. If the weakness is caused by a mobility deficit between right and left, locate the problem and choose appropriate drills to work towards improvement. After a few weeks or months when symmetry, stability, endurance, and positioning improve, add a walk. This will challenge stability further. Adding lunges here increases the complexity. Lastly, Performing a single arm overhead squat is a fun way to add variety.

The next step is quite a leap. Hold two kettlebells, dumbbells, medballs, or other objects overhead while standing, then walking, then lunging, and finally, overhead squatting. This progression is extremely challenging and requires exquisite joint range of motion and strength.

Workout ideas:

  • Add single arm overhead walks between sets of squats, pulls, olympic lifts, etc.
  • Substitute any walking lunges in workouts with single arm overhead walking lunges, OR you could work solely on these, load them up, and rest appropriately between sets. Building strength here will make lighter weights feel much easier when you are under fatigue 
  • If you choose to try the double overhead object work, start with a hold. Work towards full arm extension with the ribs down and tail tucked, ie optimal posture. Once you can demonstrate this, add resistance and hold duration. Next, add a walk. Once you can walk, add distance to your walk, add resistance, and lastly, consider adding speed (a fast walk, or smooth jogging). Once your overhead position is bulletproof with two objects, then you can lunge.

Work Capacity, also known as Escalating Density Training (abbreviated as “EDT”)

An increase in performance (improvements in work capacity) can be gained by completing the same amount of reps in less time than a previous session, or completing the same number of reps with slightly heavier weight over the same time (or faster). For example, 3 minutes max reps of overhead squats at 100 lbs. First score = 45 reps (4500 lbs). The next week, 45 reps completed in 2:50 (same work completed in less time), completing 47 reps in 3 minutes (more work completed in the same time), or completing 43 reps at 105 lbs (4515 lbs) are all improvements in performance. While these improvements may seem trivial, consider that this is over the course of one week. Over 51 more weeks, a consistent string of small improvements can yield impressive gains. The thousand mile journey begins and ends with a single step. 

Summary

The overhead squat is a challenging and fruitful exercise. Ensure you are ready to perform this movement with sound technical execution before loading up the resistance. Once you are able to overhead squat well, the options for creating fun and interesting workouts are limited only by your imagination. There are unlimited workout combinations and derivatives that you can play around with to improve your overhead position, strength, and endurance. 

 

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