Work your body head-to-toe for better strength and stability with this challenging yet highly effective move.
By C.J. Logan
Fitness diehards generally consider the traditional back squat the “King of Exercises.” If that’s true, then one squatting variation, in particular, might just be the King of Functional Exercises: The Overhead Squat.
As with a standard squat, overhead squats can be performed with Undersun resistance bands, thus allowing you to do the exercise anywhere (at home, on the road, outdoors) – no power rack, barbell and plates, or lifting platform required.
Aside from convenience, resistance bands are a much safer alternative to a barbell for overhead squats, while still offering ALL the great benefits of the movement.
Dare we say that bands are better than a barbell in this case? For a vast number of people who don’t have the time to perfect all the complexities of a barbell overhead squat, the answer unequivocally… YES!
What is an Overhead Squat?
An overhead squat is much the same as a back squat, only with one defining difference: Instead of resting the bar on your back, across the upper traps, you hold it overhead with a wide grip and arms fully extended.
With resistance bands, same difference. Instead of draping the strength band across your shoulders, you’ll hold it overhead (again, arms extended) while performing squats.
Sound challenging? It is. But it’s also a highly effective exercise that offers numerous benefits – from increasing strength and muscle mass to improving joint mobility, overall flexibility, and core strength.
Whereas a standard squat focuses mainly on the lower body (quads, glutes, hamstrings), the overhead squat does all that IN ADDITION TO incorporating the midsection and upper body to a great extent. In other words, it provides the ultimate “bang for your buck.”
“The overhead squat provides a good test of mobility and stability of the shoulders, core, low back, hips, and ankles – more so than a standard back squat,” says Brian Strump, DC, a licensed chiropractor, strength coach, and owner of Live Active Charlotte in North Carolina. “It also tests balance and focus. Plus, to do an overhead squat properly, you’re forced to improve your squatting technique. That alone can carry over to greater performance in your back squat and front squat.”
Bottom line: Overhead squats will make you stronger and more stable from head to toe, while also helping you build lean muscle in the lower body as well as the shoulders.
“The overhead squat is not an exercise you should be skipping,” says Strump, continuing to sing the exercise’s praises. “In just one exercise, you integrate functional strength, flexibility, and core and shoulder stability. With so much going on, the overhead squat elicits a full-body stimulus and the hormonal response you’re looking for to build muscle and burn fat.”
Why are Resistance Bands Better Than Barbells for Overhead Squats?
If you’ve ever tried a barbell overhead squat, the answer to this question should be fairly obvious: Because barbell overhead squats are highly technical and very difficult. And anytime you’re doing a technical lift with a barbell over your head, it gets dangerous.
Not that we’re saying the barbell overhead squat is a bad exercise. If you’re an experienced lifter, have a good coach or trainer standing by, and have a strong desire to become proficient at barbell overhead squats, by all means, include it in your regimen.
But for most people, the benefits of overhead squatting with a barbell do not outweigh the risk of injury to the lower back, shoulders, and lower body.
Linear Variable Resistance is the Key
Another reason overhead squatting with a resistance band versus a barbell is better for most people is linear variable resistance, the defining characteristic of resistance bands as compared to free weights, most machines, and even cables.
As we’ve discussed before through various Undersun Fitness articles and videos, linear variable resistance is a concept we’re all familiar with, thanks to exercise bands: The more you stretch the resistance band, the greater the resistance.
This comes in very handy with overhead squats. Doing any version of squat, getting out the “hole” – the bottom position of the squat, where your knees are bent and thighs are at least parallel with the ground – is the toughest part of the movement. With overhead squats, it’s even harder, due to the energy and focus you’re putting into holding the bar or band overhead.
If it’s a barbell, getting out of the hole may very well require you to break form by letting your hands and arms come forward and your lower back round. When this happens, it’s bad news, specifically for your spine.
If you’re using an extremely light barbell, it’s not as dangerous, but that same light weight is also not challenging you much when you get out of the hole and into the less difficult portions of the squat (from about halfway up to full hip and knee extension).
With a resistance band, the resistance is at its easiest when you need it to be (coming out of the hole), so you’ll be less likely to break form. But then, when the movement gets easier halfway up or so, the resistance from the band is greater. The very top of the squat – those last few inches – is the easiest part, and that’s where the band is providing the most resistance.
That’s the natural genius of resistance bands: Easiest resistance when the movement is hardest, hardest resistance when the movement is easiest!
How to Do Band Overhead Squats
From an execution standpoint, the differences between a standard squat and overhead squat occur in the arms and upper body.
1.) WEIGHT CENTERED, BACK FLAT, FULL DEPTH
In both standard and overhead squats, you’ll want to keep your weight centered over the middle of your feet (not out over your toes so your heels lift up) and your back flat (not rounded). Go down to at least thighs parallel with the ground at the bottom, progressing to below parallel over time, and come up to full hip and knee extension at the top without locking out the knees.
For overhead squats specifically, here’s what you’ll want to do with your hands and arms:
2.) GRIP WIDTH ON BAND OVERHEAD SQUATS
Take a wide grip on the resistance band, significantly outside shoulder width. Your ideal grip width will depend on your shoulder mobility and the length of your arms, but generally speaking, an overhead squat grip will look basically the same as a snatch grip.
3.) PULL THE RESISTANCE BAND APART
When instructing athletes on a barbell overhead squat, coaches will cue them to apply outward tension on the bar by “pulling the bar apart.” The same should hold true with a resistance band, except in this case you actually are able to pull it apart. The band should be pulled tight over your head, not sagging down.
4.) KEEP THE RESISTANCE BAND OVER THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD
This is an important technique cue. Most people let their hands come forward when doing overhead squats, in fear that they’ll fall backward. But the resistance band should be directly over the backs of your shoulders, which means it will be slightly behind your head. Not only will this help improve shoulder mobility and health, but it will also allow you to maintain a flat back during the exercise.
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