Why Dumbbell Overhead Squats Could Be the Best Exercise You’re Not Doing

dumbbell overhead squat

Dumbbell overhead squats are one of those exercises that everyone needs to try…

Whether you want to build explosive strength and power, or simply improve functional movement, this humble exercise packs a punch when it comes to benefits.

Squatting whilst holding a dumbbell overhead is tougher than it might look. You simply can’t try and power yourself through the exercise using sheer strength, and instead need to accept the importance of things like hip flexibility to successfully complete the movement.

The requirement for good flexibility and full range of motion in the upper and lower body joints, as well as strength, is often why dumbbell overhead squats are used as a way for Physical Therapists, Coaches and Personal Trainers, to spot potential weaknesses or limited range of motion… as the exercise means there really is nowhere to hide.

Whether you’ve got a tight chest, stiff shoulders, weak core, inflexible hips or something else, the dumbbell overhead squat will quickly help identify such issues (so you can work on improving them and develop better overall movement).

The exercise can also be used as part of any strength training program or HIIT workout.

In this handy exercise guide, we outline everything you need to know about dumbbell overhead squats, including the muscles worked, benefits and how to perform the movement safely.

How to do Dumbbell Overhead Squats

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with your toes pointed outwards slightly.
  • Hold a dumbbell in your right hand extending this straight up above your head. Engage your shoulder and arm to keep the dumbbell stable for the duration of the movement.
  • Slowly lower yourself into a deep squat. Your hips should descend back and down. Use your other hand to help provide balance.
  • Your hips should be slightly lower than your knees.
  • Push downwards to raise yourself out of the squat, maintaining the dumbbell hold over your head.
  • Repeat for repetitions.
  • Repeat with your left hand holding the dumbbell.

Muscles Worked During Dumbbell Overhead Squats

Dumbbell overhead squats are one of those exercises that truly target the whole body.

The squatting part of the movement works the lower body and engages the quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

The core and back will also be engaged to help provide stability during the movement. With a dumbbell raised above your head, your center of gravity is higher, which means you’ll naturally feel less balanced… resulting in your core and back working overtime to help prevent you from falling.

The shoulders and arms are also required to help support the unbalanced dumbbell overhead.

The shoulders, arms, and back are engaged differently to the usual push/pull workout routines you might be used to and are engaged via stabilization (similar to how a plank strengthens your abs). This requires a different type of strength, and is ideal to include in workouts as it relates to well to everyday activities.

Benefits of Dumbbell Overhead Squats

Shoulder Strength

The dumbbell overhead squat is a great way to develop your shoulder strength.

For the whole duration of the movement, your shoulder is tasked with keeping your arm upright (which is holding a weighted dumbbell).

This sort of strength training movement via stablization can be a welcome change from the more popular shoulder press or raises, forcing your shoulder muscles to adapt to the load put on them.

Shoulder Mobility and Stability

As well as improving shoulder strength, the movement tests your shoulder mobility and stability at the same time.

The benefit of using dumbbells over a barbell is that they are naturally less stable to hold, which helps to improve your stability.

Holding your arm upright whilst you squat (regardless of whether you’re holding a dumbbell or not), will also test your range of motion and mobility. This can be really effective at spotting potential limitations in your shoulder movement, helping you identify aspects of how you move that could be causing you issues (whether that’s reduced athletic performance or increasing the risk of injury).

Engages the Lats and Back

As well as your shoulders being engaged to support the dumbbell overhead, your lats and back are required to act as the stabilizers to support the movement.

Again, it’s a different type of strength that is required, compared to the typical push/pull type of workouts. Usually the lats are engaged through various pulling exercises, so by engaging them through a holding exercise will require them to adapt to the load.

Engages the Core

Dumbbell overhead squats require a strong core to help provide the stability of your torso during the movement. You’ll find your core is engaged during the entire movement.

With the weight being over your head, the center of gravity is higher, which means your core has to work much harder to keep you balanced.

If you find yourself struggling to keep balanced, it may be a sign of a weak core.

Adds Resistance for Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes and Calves

As with any type of squatting movement, the overhead squat will help strengthen and tone your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves.

Holding a dumbbell overhead will also require your torso to be more upright. This straightened posture will naturally put more weight onto the quads as opposed to regular squats (similar outcome to doing front squats). As a result, if anyone is looking to really hit their quads hard, this subtle change in upper body positioning during the squat will change how the lower body is engaged.

Ankle and Hip Range of Motion

Overhead squats will really expose weak or stiff hips and ankles. This can be really useful as such issues can have a knock-on impact on so many other movements. Tight hips, for example, can result in lower back pain.

As a result, understanding if some of your injuries are actually caused by limited range of motion in the ankles or hips, is really important as it means you can include more stretches and movements to loosen these up.

If you do find your hips are a limiting factor, try some of these hip adductor stretches to improve hip flexibility.

Combat Modern Life (i.e. Rounded Shoulders)

The reality is that most of us adopt quite a hunched position for a lot of the day. Whether we’re driving or sat at a desk, this position ultimately leads to rounded shoulders and associated stiffness.

The overhead squat helps to combat this, and promotes better posture through training to open up your chest and improve shoulder mobility.

Dumbbell Overhead Squat Variations

Both Arms

If you’re knew to dumbbell overhead squats, it’s worth doing them single handed to begin with. This allows you to use your other hand as an extra balancing tool to guide you through the movement.

To add difficulty, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand as you do the overhead squat.

This is going to be more difficult, so it’s worth selecting slightly lighter dumbbells.

You might find it harder to maintain your balance during this so go slow and steady.

Wide Squat

As with any squatting progression, the actual “squat” is where there is so much opportunity for variation. Adopting a wide squat is a simple way to change up the movement. Wide squats will engage the glutes more and require better hip range of motion.

Barbell

If you’re enjoying the movement but want to focus more on strength and power, as opposed to mobility and functional movement, swapping your dumbbells for a barbell is a popular option.

In fact, the barbell overhead squat is by far the more common way to add resistance to the movement. The drawback to using a barbell is that it doesn’t include as many all-round fitness benefits as dumbbells do, so is often more common with those primarily focused on absolute strength, as less focused on balance and coordination.

Kettlebell

This really boils down to peronal preference but you could swap the dumbbell for a kettlebell. This really wouldn’t effect the outcome or benefits as you could complete the movement in exactly the same fashion regardless of whether you’re holding a dumbbell or kettlebell.

Personally, we find dumbbells tend to be more comfortable to hold until you get to a certain weight, and then kettlebells are more suitable.

Bottom Line

Whether you add dumbbell overhead squats to your regular weekly routine, or simply use it as a tool once in a while to test physical attributes like range of motion, flexibility, stability, balance and strength, the exercise deserves recognition as a one of the best exercises out there.

It is undoubtedly tough and as a result it’s worth selecting light dumbbells to begin with until you feel confident in the movement.

Once you start to complete the exercise in full, it illustrates a very high level of functional movement in both your upper and lower body… which is a very positive sign for your overall health and wellbeing.

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