Dumbbell Overhead Squat 101 – Try It Now

Required Equipment: Dumbbells

Optional Equipment: Kettlebell, Barbell, Free Weights

Less popular than Kamala Harris 1just kidding, nothing is that unpopular, the dumbbell overhead squat is probably an exercise you’ve never seen. Unlike Kamala, though, it’s the total package: great for control, stability, strength, and balance.

A 1-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Squat

While it’s one of the harder movements to master unlike – say, the recently covered Toes To Bar – it’s worth trying especially if you’re looking for a new challenge. The dumbbell overhead squat can be done either single or double arm and each comes with it’s own challenges and benefits. Just be aware it takes a significant amount of mobility to do the movement and, if you don’t possess it, you may have to modify (or skip) the exercise.

So today I want to show you some of the benefits of the single arm or double arm dumbbell overhead squat. I’ll also show you how to perform it along with some variations to try, even if you can’t quite do the full movement. Let’s get to it…

AT A GLANCE:

- The dumbbell overhead squat is great in developing coordination, stability, and balance 
- It's a very efficient, compound exercise that works multiple muscles and joint simultaneously
- Requires significant mobility - ankle, hip, spinal, and shoulder - to get into the correct position. Lacking mobility?  Reduce the range of motion. 

Benefits

Virtually any squat movement – overhead, back, or front – has a whole host of benefits. This includes:

  • It helps you identify areas of weakness. While this may take a coach or experienced athlete to help identify the areas of improvement, it’s a great movement for assessment. Do you lack ankle mobility? hip mobility? Are your traps weak? Well, the dumbbell overhead squat can expose all those and more. If you’re interested in some self-assessment and how to correct your faults, see this handy chart.
  • It helps develop multiple areas of athleticism such as balance, flexibility, and mobility. At a higher level, it works on your proprioception and coordination.
  • Get strong. When performed at heavy loads, you will get stronger over time. In fact, the overhead squat is an excellent way to strengthen all the major muscle groups of your lower body. Unlike a back squat, the overhead squat requires you to keep your torso more upright which makes this exercise more quad dominant. The overhead squat also requires a substantial engagement of the core and upper body to stabilize the dumbbell overhead. Speaking of…
  • Get stable. An added adaptation from overhead squats is the scapular stability from maintaining the dumbbell/s in the overhead squat. There are very few movements that directly challenge both the traps and rhomboids more thoroughly than overhead squats.
A dumbbell hang snatch
A dumbbell hang snatch
  • It translates to other exercises and sports. The overhead squat can make you better at exercises like the hang snatch or overhead press by building shoulder and abdominal stability. Incorporating overhead squats can translate to better performance in your chosen sport – anything from baseball to boxing – if you’re a strength or fitness athlete.

Muscles Worked

The overhead squat is a compound – involving more than one joint – exercise that challenges your upper back, shoulders, core, and legs.

Upper Back

Starting at the top of your body, the trapezius muscles (upper traps) provide stability and strength while the load is overhead. The rhomboids also contribute to the movement.

Shoulders

The shoulders are also highly involved as they must work to keep the dumbbell overhead and stable throughout the entire movement. Simply extending your arms overhead with a weight can be challenging especially if your lack t-spine or shoulder mobility.

Triceps

The overhead squat is also for ugly people

While not a primary triceps movement, keeping the weight near locked out overhead with your arm(s) extended, requires some isometric triceps strength.

Core

The abdominals, obliques, and spinae erector (lower back) are all involved in stabilizing you in an overhead squat.

Legs

The legs are highly involved in the overhead squat but with more emphasis on your quads and surrounding muscles than with some other squat varieties.. Due to the upright torso positioning of the movement – you have to be keep your upper body straight otherwise you can’t stabilize the weight/s – you have to go into deeper knee flexion resulting in my quad activation. You’ll also get some glute, hamstring, and associated muscle involvement like you do with any squat pattern.


Performing

The bottom position of a dumbbell overhead squat is an extremely demanding position to get into. The mobility and stability requirements for this position are huge. First off, you’ve got to have the mobility – ankle, hip, spinal, and shoulder – to get into the position. If you can, then you can work on being stable in the position. If you have mobility deficits, prepare to be humbled by the movement! Here are the basic steps:

A 2-armed dumbbell overhead squat
A 2-armed dumbbell overhead squat albeit with not the best squat form
  1. Stand in comfortable squat stance. For many, that’s feet shoulder width apart, with your toes pointed straight ahead or slightly out.
  2. Hold a dumbbell/s in your hand/s.
  3. Extend the dumbbell overhead with your palms facing forward. Alternatively, for shoulder comfort, you can try it with your palm/s facing in toward each other.
  4. Engage your shoulder/s and arm/s to keep the dumbbell/s stable for the duration of the movement.
  5. Slowly lower yourself into a deep squat while keeping your torso upright and driving your knees out. Your hips should descend back and down like you’re sitting back into a chair.
  6. Descend until you no longer have the ability to do so safely. For a lot of folks, that may be to where your hips and knees are aligned (or 90 degrees). If you have better mobility, squat deeper.
  7. Push into the floor to raise yourself out of the squat (remember, knees out!), maintaining the dumbbell/s over your head.
  8. Congrats! That one rep.

Video Demo

Some quick tips and demo

Tips / Common Errors

There are a couple common faults to try to be aware of and avoid. Here are some tips to do that:

  • Knees out! Don’t let your knees cave in during any part of the squat (this applies to other squats too). If your lower body was inside a box, you want your knees pushing out on those imaginary walls.
  • Keep an upright torso. Don’t lean forward as that will throw off your center of balance and make the movement impossible to do correctly. Keep your chest up – if you had a t-shirt with words on it, someone should be able to read it easily.
  • Don’t overextend your lower back. You don’t want to have an excessive curvature of your lower or upper back. Try and keep a neutral spine throughout.
  • Can’t squat all the way down? No problem, reduce your range of motion so you don’t sacrifice form. Maybe you squat down to a chair before reversing position and standing back up. If you do squat to a chair or bench, just “tap” it with your butt; don’t sit, rest, and then try to stand back up. While a rest-stop box squat is a (somewhat) valid movement, it’s not something most should be doing.

Variations

A Kettlebell Overhead Squat
Actor Ed Norton (just kidding) doing a 1-Arm Kettlebell Overhead Squat

Kettlebell

If you have a kettlebell on hand – say to do kettlebell deadlifts! – and you have the basic movement down, give this version a try.

Very similar to the dumbbell overhead squat, the kettlebell overhead squat is a great variation. If you have poor shoulder or upper spine mobility some – including me – find it a bit easier to get into a good upper-body posture when performing the squat. The offset nature of the bell helps pull your shoulder back into proper positioning, helping to reduce the fault of leaning too far forward.

Household Items

If you’re new to the movement, use a PVC pipe, broomstick, bottle, milk jug, or some other household item and practice the movement without weight. Get creative! Focus on your form before ever attempting to add additional weight.


Summary

The dumbbell overhead squat is fantastic in developing control, coordination, stability, and balance. It’s a very efficient, compound exercise that works multiple muscles and joint simultaneously and, in my opinion, is even better than it’s barbell counterpart for most people.

It’s also very “functional” as the strength and mobility gained has a large transference over to real-life as well as to sports.  If you go with the single dumbbell overhead squat (instead of double), it places even more demand on flexibility, control, and stability due to the off-balanced nature of the movement.


FAQs

Can you do an overhead squat with dumbbells?

Absolutely! A dumbbell overhead squat is a great movement to develop control, stability, balance, and strength. If you don’t have dumbbells, you can get creative or use another training tool like a kettlebell or barbell.

Why are overhead squats so hard?

There are significant mobility and stability requirements for an overhead squat. Specifically, you need to have ample mobility – ankle, hip, spinal, and shoulder – to get into the position. From there, it takes strength to maintain the stability to perform the exercise.

What muscles do overhead dumbbell squats work?

The overhead squat is a compound – involving more than one joint – exercise that challenges your upper back (traps, rhomboids), shoulders (delts), core (abs, obliques, spinal erectors), and legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings).

What is the overhead squat good for?

A lot of things! Identifying weakness, working on mobility, enhancing balance and motor control, coordination, and building strength.

DA
DA is a lifelong athlete who currently trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Judo, and Kickboxing. Since first picking up weights when he was 13, he's been a fitness enthusiast who scours books, studies, and blogs for lifting, health, and nutrition information. As of January 2022 he holds a purple belt in Judo & BJJ. You can contact him at DA@dumbbellsreview.com.