Science Compares the Back Squat to the Overhead Squat

It was the ultimate squat face off, but I think the results of this new study need further questioning.

The overhead squat doesn’t get enough attention in some circles and may be overemphasized in others. Some people consider it inferior to bigger lifts like the back squat, whereas others emphasize its advantages as a superior core exercise. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research addressed this controversy.

In the study, researchers took a group of rugby players who were experienced lifters and had them perform back squats and overhead squats at 60%, 75%, and 90% of their three-rep max. Their squats were studied by electromyography (EMG) in order to analyze the amount of activity in their muscles. The researchers focused on trunk and lower body muscles, but also looked at the anterior delts.

Technically speaking, the overhead squat outperformed the back squat for the anterior trunk muscles, as measured by the EMG activity of the rectus abdominis and the external oblique. However, the authors of the study were quick to note that the differences were a small, albeit significant, 2%-7% difference. Due to the small percentage, they concluded that the claims of superiority of the overhead squat for trunk musculature are therefore false.

However, let me play devil’s advocate for a minute here. First, up to a seven-percent improvement is not to be discounted. That’s a big difference when it adds up over time. Second, experience level with the overhead squat is a big factor. Few people are as practiced with it as they are with a back squat, which can affect results like this. Third, overhead squat loads were smaller. This study focused mostly on relative weight, meaning the percentage of one rep max, so the back squat loads were higher. When they compared pound for pound, the overhead squat had higher EMG activity in every muscle except the gluteus maximus, and only during the concentric phase.

Back squats, on the other hand, can be lifted with greater loads. While the overhead squat may be better for the anterior trunk, the study found the back squat was better for every other lower body and trunk muscle when compared at relative loads rather than absolute. The only other muscles they tested were the anterior delts which, not surprisingly, were hit much harder on the overhead squat.

The researchers also compared both squats to traditional core moves like sit ups and planks. The rectus abdominis and the external obliques both showed much greater activity from the core moves. By contrast, both kinds of squats hit the erector spinae much harder.

We can learn a few things for this research. First, a well-rounded routine is, of course, ideal. Every exercise has some limitation. Second, for a muscular focus, the back squat is superior to the overhead squat, with the exception of the anterior trunk muscles, which are worked harder by other core exercises anyway.

So while we may want to ditch (or never start with) the overhead squat, keep in mind that there are other very good reasons to do it. The participants of this test could perform full range of motion overhead squats with a decent weight. That’s a feat many lifters can’t perform, not because of weakness, but rather because of immobility. The overhead squat continues to be a great test of mobility and flexibility, and can help determine where your back squat may need more work.


1. Rodrigo Aspe, et. al., “Electromyographic and Kinetic Comparison of the Back Squat and Overhead Squat Biomechanical Comparison of Squatting Exercises,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000462

Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.