The Overhead Squat: The Exercise I Used to Hate

The Overhead Squat: The Exercise I Used to Hate

By Dr. Matt Fontaine  

“If your overhead squat is full and looks really athletic, odds are that you have several things going for you, meaning good mobility of the ankles, hips and upper back and an exceptionally strong and stable core.” – Dr. Matt Fontaine

Why the Overhead Squat?

As a sports physician in my second decade in clinical practice, I have evaluated and treated my fair share of injuries.  One of the tools we use to screen athletes and patients as part of a thorough examination is the Functional Movement Screen™ .  This is a valuable screening tool that gives us a baseline for how a person moves.  The very first movement in this screen is the overhead deep squat.


So why is it that I used to cringe when I would see my CrossFit athletes doing loaded overhead squats? Simply put, most of us do not squat well due to mobility issues beginning with stiffness in the ankles.  From there, the tightness and restriction moves upstream.  Limited mobility of the ankle and hip, as well as the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle make overhead squatting difficult for most of us. So why would we load up a bar with weights and attempt a technical lift in the presence of poor movement and poor form?  The simple answer is we never should.  What we should do is pattern this movement naked, or unloaded.  Once we can perform this movement with just body weight, then we can begin to load the movement.  Otherwise we are adding strength on top of dysfunction.

Squatting well can take time for many of us

After nearly two years working on patterning my squat it is finally starting to look somewhat athletic.  To paraphrase renowned strength coach Mike Boyle  “if a movement looks athletic than it probably is.  If it doesn’t, than it isn’t.”

But doing endless mobility exercises only got me so far.  It was frustrating because my squat improvement was minimal at best and I had trouble holding a deep air squat in the bottom position.   It was not until I started to do weighted overhead squats that my body started to really adapt.

So what’s the deal with the overhead squat?  And why am I now a fan of the exercise? The added weight should be minimal and manageable at first.  What this does is force you to get deep, really engage your core and the nervous system starts to adapt.  The weight actually assists in getting you into the squat.  It is a tremendous stability exercise as well as it requires coordinated stability of the shoulder girdle and neck, lumbar spine and pelvis.  The overhead squat is one of those big bang for your buck exercises, developing a combination of mobility & stability motor control. Doorway squats are a great way to get yourself into a better squatting position.  Combining doorway squats with other mobility exercises for the ankle, hip, thoracic spine and shoulder girdle really makes the difference.   I am not saying the overhead squat is for everybody, because it probably isn’t.  Beware if you are prone to shoulder injuries of have had prior shoulder injury in the past.  With that said, I rarely contraindicate exercises.  A much wiser approach is to take each individual case by case to determine if this lift is right for him or her.  The overhead squat is a highly technical lift, so get proper coaching.  More importantly, having a Functional Movement Screen™ beforehand can uncover movement deficits that need to be addressed first.  First things first, you need the right amount of mobility to move properly.