Boost your core strength with overhead squats!

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

Why should you do squats?

Squats are undeniably beneficial for both general fitness and athletic development. They are fundamental for improved performance and reduction in injury risk, as well as maintaining good mobility and an active lifestyle. If you aren’t convinced yet, here are some of the benefits shown in studies: 

Reduction of injury risk & improved longevity:

- Increased ligament and tendon strength - Improved bone density - Development of the muscle groups in the lower back, hip and knee  Improved Performance:

- Significant gain in strength, power and speed of the leg and hip muscles - Enhanced ability to carry out any movement with similar biomechanics. 


Something that can be overlooked is the huge benefits of squatting on the core musculature



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What is the core and how does squatting benefit it? A well trained core is essential to not only better performance, but also to eliminating injury in daily life and during training. It is important to understand the purpose of the muscles considered to be part of ‘the core’ and how to train them properly, to benefit from a ‘strong core’.


Core muscles: This zone may be much more extensive than you think and will include a large number of muscles which all work together. These must all be considered to understand how to properly train the core.  The areas considered to be ‘the core’ are the lumbar spine, rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, the back extensors, quadratus lumborum, but also the psoas muscles which pass through the core to link the pelvis and legs, and the latissimus dorsi which link the shoulders and arms. Some also link larger muscle groups relating to the hip joint, for example the glutes and hamstrings due to the hip flexors frequently being recruited in core training movements. 


What is it used for?

The primary function of the core is stabilization. A strong and stable core is what allows the body to balance and remain stable when force and movement is applied by the limbs, providing an efficient base for movement. The muscle groups have to be strong to be able to produce and transfer enough force to create the motor patterns that promote movement efficiency throughout the entire musculoskeletal and neural system, some research states that the core links upper body and lower body strength as stability allows for the strength to radiate out peripherally, presumably limiting a loss of energy caused by instability. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that it is less efficient to train the core with repetitive flexion exercises such as crunches which are performed lying down, and more relevant to train the core in positions which translate to sport specific or everyday life positions – for example standing, which requires maintaining

correct spinal posture. It is also more appropriate to carry out exercises that need for you to strongly brace the core in order to halt movement and also to create movement. An example in this situation would be medicine ball throws and catches.    So how do squats train the core?

As a strong contraction of the core is required throughout the movement to maintain correct spinal posture, this increases the strength and stability of the core structures. A fantastic way of increasing the challenge on the core during squat movements is an overlooked squat progression: the overhead squat


Overhead squats and the core

Squatting already requires a lot of components: good proprioception and neuromuscular control in order to understand the most efficient movement patterns, dynamic flexibility and proper mobility in the ankles, hips and knees as well as the upper back, and of course a stable core. Overhead squats hugely increase the challenges and demands on the body. Maintaining weight overhead greatly shifts the centre of gravity higher, which the core must account for when keeping the body balanced and the spine in line. Having weight overhead also increases stress on the shoulder muscles and upper back, but also recruits much more of the core. Fully extending the arms above the head elongates the torso, meaning that the deep core structures and spinal erectors are forced in to stronger contractions to maintain thoracic extension. This means that your core gets an intense workout throughout the entire movement.


The overhead squat is a movement that comes from the accessory exercises of Olympic Weightlifting training. The overhead squat is the ‘receiving position’ in the Snatch lift, so it is often included in workouts to help improve some common issues with Snatch technique. This means there are numerous other benefits to doing overhead squats if you are also someone who wants to try out Olympic lifting. These include: better stability and balance throughout the entire Snatch lift, improved confidence ‘getting under’ the bar to land in the overhead squat position, creating stronger support in the shoulders and upper back, and improved mobility and flexibility in the position which will make it more comfortable.

-------------- Overhead squat technique If you want to give overhead squats a go, there are some things to bear in mind. Of course holding a weight overhead for any

amount of time is going to be a challenge of upper body strength, so when you are new to this movement it MUST be done without weight. It also must be considered that the range of motion is different to back squats, and it is important to have good mobility in your ankles, knees, hips, upper back, shoulders and wrists. You may notice when trying this exercise out that you may struggle with the movement due to mobility or stability issues, it is common to experience difficulty even when proper form is followed, but practice makes perfect! If you start with no weight and gradually increase resistance over time you are sure to improve! So here is a walk-through of the movement so you can give it a try:


Starting position: Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, typically this is something you will adjust through practice to a comfortable position. Your weight should be in your heels, you can check this by making sure you can wiggle your toes. 


Getting the weight overhead: The best way to try this movement out with no weight overhead is to grab a towel and pull it tight overhead between your hands and work your way through these steps in the same way. If you are using a bar, start with it on the backs of your shoulders as with a back squat. Your grip position needs to be wide, whatever you chose to hold overhead, so bear this in mind when holding your bar (or towel), your hands will probably be slightly further apart than your feet (so if you let the bar hang down it would fall in line with your hip crease, this translates to the Olympic Weightlifting Snatch lift). Push the weight overhead, make sure you never try this with a weight you won’t be able to comfortably hold overhead throughout the movement. The bar should be directly over the tops of your shoulders and locked into position, this is usually cued by ensuring you pull the inside edges of your shoulder blades tightly together.  ​

​Squat: With the weight locked out overhead, simultaneously bend the hips and knees as with a normal back squat, keeping the chest up nice and high to keep the bar directly over the shoulders throughout the descent. Pushing your hips back as you move down will keep your centre of gravity over your shoulders and heels which should maintain a relatively straight line between them, perpendicular to the ground. Your knees must follow the line of your toes when you squat down, and not be falling inward or outward as you drop. The descent is complete when your thighs break a parallel line with the ground. It is important that your back maintains the correct curve, this is helped by ‘squeezing’ your core as much as possible. This can be seen in the picture, that your back maintains the same angle as your lower leg. 

To help core stability throughout the movement you should take almost a full breath at the top and hold it until the bottom, breathe out on your way back up.


Finishing: the movement is complete when you are standing fully with the bar still locked overhead, to get back up to standing the movement is the exact reverse of the descent, bring your hips back forward to rise up A couple of common issues you may encounter, such as your heels lifting from the floor when you squat down, and the bar coming forward from directly above the shoulders. If your heels are prone to lifting you are experiencing common mobility issues. You will benefit from placing a thin weight plate under your heels when you practice overhead squats to account for the lift – or even if you’re thinking about getting serious with Olympic Lifting, you will benefit from buying some weightlifting shoes! A drill to help with the bar coming forward is practicing overhead squats facing a wall, starting with your feet 2-4 inches away from the wall, and making sure your knees or the bar do not move forward enough to touch the wall, eventually moving yourself closer to the wall as you improve.


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Progressions For most people, your initial progressions will be gradually moving from no resistance overhead to carrying out the movement with the Olympic barbell, and then increasing the weight on the bar as you become strong enough. It is usual to start off with a towel, then a PVC pipe (often used for weightlifting technique work), then a low weight practice bar before moving on to a standard barbell. A progression exercise for barbell overhead squats is ‘paused overhead squats’, this is where you pause at the bottom position of the squat for a count of a few seconds, usually 3-5. This is widely considered by many weightlifting coaches to improve the stability and confidence of the lifter under the bar for Snatches. It is also considered to help with the flexibility of the hips and ankles which will help to make your overhead squats more comfortable.  Overhead squats are considered more difficult with a narrower overhead grip, so some choose to attempt them with a narrower grip on the bar, or holding a weight plate or medicine ball above the head. This will increase the challenge on the core as stability becomes more challenging. 

Single Arm Overhead Squat

Those looking for a real core challenge could try ‘single arm overhead squats’. These are carried out holding a dumbbell or kettlebell overhead with one arm. It is important to start light! As maintaining these weights overhead with one arm whilst squatting can be very challenging! The lifter may find it easier to hold the weight as close to the centre line of the body as possible, but always ensuring the elbow is locked out for a secure overhead position. Make sure you start off slow as you may be surprised how hard it is to maintain balance!

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References  https://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Tools_and_Resources/position_stand_the_squat_exercise_for_athletic_conditioning%20-%201991.pdf NSCA Position Paper: The Squat Exercise in Athletic Conditioning: A Position Statement and Review of Literature. T. J. Chandler, M. H. Stone. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal. Volume 13 Number 5


http://myweb.facstaff.wwu.edu/chalmers/PDFs/Using%20the%20overhead%20squat%20for%20core%20development.pdf  Using the Overhead Squat for Core Development. I. Hasegawa. NSCA’s Performance Training Journal. Volume 3 Number 6


https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/the_back_squat_a_proposed_assessment_of_functional_deficits_and_technical_factors/ The Back Squat: A Proposed Assessment of Functional Deficits and Technical Factors that Limit Performance. G. D. Meyer et al. NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. Volume 36 Number 6


https://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Articles/NSCA_Classics_PDFs/Core%20Training%20Evidence%20Translating%20to%20Better.pdf Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. S. McGill. NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. Volume 32 Number 3


http://www.uksca.org.uk/UKSCA/RelatedFiles/PSC_33_Torso.pdf Myths and Reality: Training the Torso. I. Fletcher. UKSCA Professional Strength & Conditioning. Issue 33


https://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Tools_and_Resources/FoundationsofFitnessProgramming_201508.pdf NSCA Foundations of Fitness Programming Core Strength : Learning the Overhead Squat T. Brown – NSCA Performance Training Journal. Volume 5 Number 5


http://www.goeata.org/protected/EATACD13/downloads/PDF/presentation-guyer.pdf Practical Application for Athletic Trainers: Overhead Squat Assessment and Rehabilitation M. S. Guyer 


Weightlifting Movement Assessment & Optimization – Catalyst Athletics (book)  Q. Henoch


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/119/Overhead-Stability-in-the-Snatch/


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/2042/Maximize-The-Stability-Security-of-Your-Snatch-Overhead-Pos/


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/1964/Quit-Letting-Your-Shoulders-Sag-Overhead-in-the-Snatch/


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/1769/Get-Cozy-Down-There-Improving-The-Snatch-Jerk-Receiving-Pos/


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/1849/Mobility-for-People-Who-Hate-Doing-Mobility/


https://www.catalystathletics.com/article/2048/Stability-in-the-Bottom-of-the-Snatch-Jerk/


https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-real-world-benefits-of-strengthening-your-core