Science Compares the Back Squat to the Overhead Squat: Why Are They So Hard?
The overhead squat is one of the most popular exercises in strength training today. You may have heard about it before or you might not but either way it’s definitely something that you want to do! If you’re like me then you’ve probably been doing them since your first gym session and they just keep getting harder and harder each time.
I’m sure you’ve even tried them with varying degrees of success.
I mean after all, how many times have you attempted to squat over a barbell?
Probably not too many. Most likely because you were afraid that if you didn’t get it right away, it would never happen again! (And trust me, it won’t)
But what if there was another way? What if you could do them without fear of failure?
Well, now there is!
In this article, I’ll share with you my experience with the overhead squat and show you exactly how easy they really are. I’ll explain why they’re so effective and how to incorporate them into your workout routine.
Why Do They Work So Well?
There are several reasons why the overhead squat works so well:
1. It’s a great exercise for developing upper body strength.
Not only do you need to carry and maintain control over a heavy weight, you also need to have powerful upper body muscles to squat down without falling over.
2. It’s an excellent full-body exercise that builds endurance and strength in the legs, core, and upper body all at the same time!
Take your pick at which one you want to develop more but I’ll take all of the above, please!
3. It is very important for sports-specific activities.
Whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, your ability to keep yourself stable with one arm will give you a huge advantage over your opponents.
4. The overhead squat is a very effective exercise for training the core and helping to prevent lower back pain.
5. It’s another awesome compound exercise that allows you burn fat and build muscle at the same time.
How Do I Do Them?
Before you begin, make sure that you have the necessary equipment and environment to do them properly. This includes:
1. A squat rack with pins that can be set at mid-thigh level.
2. A Power Rack with pins set at mid-thigh level to catch the bar if you fail.
If you’re using the low pins in the squat rack, make sure there is no one behind you in case you fail.
3. A hook grip (see image below) to keep your hands from tearing during the exercise.
4. Overhead Squat Barbell, Dipping Belt and Weight Plates.
(I prefer to use a dipping belt because it allows me to use an over-under grip instead of a side-side grip which lessens the strain on my wrists. Also, you’ll need weight plates that have holes in the middle to slide the belt through.)
Now that you have all of your equipment, it’s time to start learning the movement pattern. To begin, you’ll need to place a dipping belt on and thread weight plates through the belt so that they hang down at your sides.
Next, you’ll place the barbell on the hooks at the top of the squat rack and step back while keeping your feet shoulder width apart. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing down) and pull it tightly against your shoulders.
Now that you’re set up, it’s time to begin squatting:
1. Sit back with your hips and bend your knees as if you were going to sit down in a chair.
2. Keep your chest up, bend your elbows slightly and slowly lower yourself down to where the hooks on your dipping belt can reach the bottommost set of squat rack pins.
3. Once you reach the bottom position, push back up to the starting position.
The first few times you perform this movement, do not worry about going heavy at all. The objective right now is to learn how to keep your balance.
Focus on keeping the weight distributed evenly between your feet, sitting back with your hips and keeping your chest up at all times.
Practice this movement until you become very comfortable with it and can perform it flawlessly. Once you can consistently go through the entire range of motion with no problems, it’s time to add some weight.
Now that you can balance and control your body in the bottom position of the squat, you need to work on actually rising out of the bottom position. This is a lot harder than it sounds and where most people screw up so take your time and get comfortable with this part of the movement before adding weight.
How Can I Make It Harder?
Once you’ve got the basic movement down, it’s time to make the exercise harder. There are several ways to do this but the one I prefer is by combining the overhead squat with dip variations.
Overhead squats are an amazing full body exercise and they will help to condition your body for more advanced exercises such as the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift.
This section will explain how to perform the exercise correctly as well as give you some ideas for how to make it harder.
How To Do An Overhead Squat: Before we get started, you’re going to need a dipping belt and weight plates that have holes in them so you can wrap the belt around them.
Place the dipping belt around your waist and thread the weight plates through the belt so that you can remove and add plates as you get stronger.
You’ll also need an overhead barbell rack.
Now that you have all of your equipment, it’s time to get started. Begin by placing your dipping belt on and wrapping it around the weight plates.
Next, place the bar in the overhead squat rack and step underneath it.
With the bar resting comfortably over your trapezius muscles in the middle of your shoulders, step out and away from the rack.
Next, lift the barbell off of the rack and hold it directly over your head with your arms locked.
Beginners may find it difficult to lift the entire weight of the bar off of the rack so you may need a training partner to take some of the weight for you.
Now that you have the barbell overhead and stabilized, begin taking very tiny steps to the side. Continue moving around in a circle until you’ve covered all sides of your body equally.
Make sure you keep the bar over your head the entire time and do not let it fall forward or backward. Keep your chest out, shoulders back and stand up nice and tall.
Make sure you have enough room to move around freely. If you’re cramped in a small area, you run the risk of falling or dropping the weight and that’s bad.
When you start to feel comfortable with this movement, you can move onto actually doing the squats.
How To Do An Overhead Squat: Beginners will find that it’s much easier to perform the squat part of this exercise under the bar rather than over it so that’s what I’ll explain first.
Stand up straight with the bar held over your head.
Keeping the bar as steady as possible, bend at the knees and go down as far as you can while maintaining good form.
Go down until your upper legs are at a 90 degree angle.
Then, drive up out of the bottom position and return to the standing position.
Make sure that you do not bend at the waist and keep your back straight during the entire movement.
When you can easily perform 15 to 20 reps, then you can try performing them over the bar.
How To Do An Overhead Squat With The Bar: This is much more difficult than just squatting under the weight so don’t get frustrated if you can only do a couple of these before your muscles fail.
Begin with the bar over your head in the same position that it was in before. Then, step under the bar and place it into the back of your shoulders.
From there, lift your shoulders straight up as you drive your knees forward. As the bar gets closer to your shoulders, slide your hands up and grab the bar as quickly as possible.
As soon as the bar is in your hands, drop down into a squat. You may lose balance at first but don’t worry, keep practicing and you’ll get it.
You may also find it difficult to get the bar into the proper position for your hands. Keep working at it and you’ll figure out the easiest way to do it.
When you’re finished with your set, place the bar back into the rack and step away from it.
How To Add Weights To The Overhead Squat: This is just like any other barbell exercise.
The only thing that’s different is that you have a barbell on your back.
You’ll need to get someone to spot you for this exercise until you get really strong or get a squat cage with pins or spotters.
When you’re squatting with the bar, make sure it never drops below your shoulder blades at any point during the movement.
Sources & references used in this article:
Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads by HU Yavuz, D Erdağ, AM Amca… – Journal of sports sciences, 2015 – Taylor & Francis
A comparison of gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, and vastus lateralis electromyographic activity in the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises by B Contreras, AD Vigotsky… – Journal of applied …, 2015 – journals.humankinetics.com
Contemporary perspectives of core stability training for dynamic athletic performance: a survey of athletes, coaches, sports science and sports medicine … by DR Clark, MI Lambert, AM Hunter – Sports medicine-open, 2018 – Springer
Muscle activation differs between three different knee joint-angle positions during a maximal isometric back squat exercise by PH Marchetti, J Jarbas da Silva… – Journal of Sports …, 2016 – hindawi.com
Electromyographic comparison of The back squat and overhead squat by PA Swinton, R Aspe… – 30th Annual Conference of …, 2012 – research.bond.edu.au
Interpreting signal amplitudes in surface electromyography studies in sport and rehabilitation sciences by AD Vigotsky, I Halperin, GJ Lehman… – Frontiers in …, 2018 – frontiersin.org