There's no doubt that mastering an overhead squat unleashes your inner superhero. Few things look and feel quite as impressive as a glutes-to-ground squat with a loaded barbell overhead.
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But as with most advanced exercises (ahem, pull-ups), the overhead squat demands a lot of prep and patience. Unlike a traditional back or front squat, this variation requires a stable, overhead arm position, which means a combination of shoulder mobility and core strength.
So, if you're struggling with your overhead squat and want to finally nail this exercise, read on to learn what your body is trying to tell you.
1. Your Shoulders Need Some Work
The overhead squat is taxing on your shoulders — after all, you're squatting while holding a barbell directly above your head. That's why the motion is often used by personal trainers and physical therapists to analyze shoulder mobility, as well as core strength, balance and overall muscle control, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Essentially, the overhead squat assessment involves performing this exercise with just your body weight. If your arms fall forward during the movement, it's a pretty big clue that your shoulders lack some mobility.
If that's you, don't be too discouraged. A lack of shoulder mobility and stability is a big sticking point for many people, according to Jereme Schumacher, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in San Diego.
"Typically, the hardest part of the overhead squat for people is keeping their arms directly overhead while they squat down," he says. "Without maintaining proper overhead arm positioning, an overhead squat becomes almost impossible." Because if you can't keep the barbell over your head, you risk dropping the weight and injuring yourself.
If you struggle to keep your arms comfortably over your head as you squat, you probably need to incorporate some shoulder mobility exercises into your usual routine, Schumacher says. Even a few minutes of doorway shoulder stretches, dowel stretches and arm circles can help you build better mobility.
Doorway Shoulder Stretch
- Stand in a doorway and turn sideways so you're looking at the door frame. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and press your palm against the frame.
- Slowly rotate your body away from your palm until you feel a gentle stretch in the front of your shoulder. Keep your elbow against your side and don't let your shoulder shrug.
- Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds and then rotate back to the starting position.
2. You Have Poor Spinal Mobility
Your body's ability to keep your spine extended and stable is the key to a proper overhead squat, as your shoulders depend on your back to keep the weight up. So if you struggle to keep a flat, upright back as you squat, your thoracic (aka mid-back) mobility may be to blame, Schumacher explains.
"If you are unable to maintain an upright posture, your shoulder will have a much more difficult time to stay straight overhead," he says.
Insufficient spinal mobility can also put your safety at risk. With a challenging and load-bearing exercise like the overhead squat, a lack of mobility in the mid-back makes you more prone to neck and shoulder injury, according to the NASM. Plus, it can also cause lower-back pain.
"Thoracic extension is one of the most essential positions when lifting, especially with an overhead squat," Schumacher says. "Most people are lacking in thoracic extension, so I always advise to work on your thoracic extension on a daily basis to ensure proper posture."
Incorporate some thoracic mobility exercises, like lumbar rotations and Cat-Cow pose, into your usual training schedule.
- Begin on all fours, knees in line with your hips, shoulders stacked over palms.
- Slowly arch your back, raising your chin up toward the ceiling, pausing for a moment.
- Then, round your upper back, drawing the navel into the spine, raising the back toward the ceiling.
- Alternate between these two motions.
3. Your Ankles Can't Flex Properly
Believe it or not, your ankles are another big piece of the overhead squat puzzle (and any kind of squat for that matter). Keeping your heels on the ground is crucial when you perform a squat, so if you see or feel your heels coming up as you lower toward the ground, your ankle mobility is likely a problem, Schumacher says.
The overhead squat demands more dorsiflexion (when your ankle flexes your toes to ceiling) than a typical squat, as you're unable to bend forward, he explains. You need enough flexibility in your ankles to help keep your knees over your toes to provide enough counterbalance between your upper and lower body.
Having enough mobility in your ankles not only helps you maintain balance and proper form but will also keep you safe. The safety of your overhead squat depends on your ability to keep your body in proper posture (otherwise the weight can fall back or forward). Without a solid foundation, this exercise can quickly become risky.
If your heels come up during your squat, you'll definitely want to improve the range of motion in your ankles. Dorsiflexion drills and heel-elevated squats are just a few ankle mobility exercises that can help you solve this issue.
- Lie down on your back and loop a mini resistance band around the arches of your shoes.
- Flex your toes toward your chin and drive one knee toward your chest.
- Alternate legs for 1 minute.
Staying Safe With Overhead Squats
As with all weight-bearing exercises, you'll want to start slowly and perfect your form with no weight at all, especially if you're a beginner, Schumacher says. Practice with a broomstick or PVC pipe at first.
"A lot of people like to load a bar and do an overhead squat before they can actually do the movement properly," he says. "This can quickly lead to injuries that will set you back with all your workouts. Take your time and make sure you achieve each component of the exercise before you try it with weight."
Once you get the form down, perform the exercise sparingly in your workouts, Schumacher advises. Overhead squats are a great exercise but can be taxing on the entire body, which is why he doesn't recommend practicing the exercise with weights every day.
"That being said, you can still work on your overhead squat without actually doing the movement," he says. "Doing specific drills [like the ones outlined above] to improve your overall mobility needed for the exercise will help you improve the move much faster than just trying to overhead squat every day."
So, in short: Do you overhead squats infrequently and mostly with body weight.