The kettlebell overhead squat is an extreme position. Whether with a single bell or two, most athletes do not have the requisite mobility to access full depth. As with the barbell overhead squat, the most common limiting factors are overhead position (tight shoulders and poor thoracic extension) and squat position (limited hip mobility, knee flexion, or ankle dorsiflexion).
You do not need to train the kettlebell overhead squat in excess. Like the pistol and many other movements that require an extreme range of motion, the kettlebell overhead squat risk:reward ratio remains too high to train it with intensity for most athletes. You can achieve a similar training effect through many other safer movements.
All of that said, it is important to have (or be working toward) access to the full range of motion in at least the single-arm version. The overhead position, upright squat, balance, and stability that the kettlebell overhead squat requires designate a capable and mobile athlete. I use it mostly as a diagnostic tool to periodically revisit to measure progress. Once you achieve a proficient position, you can add intensity with longer sets, extended holds, and heavier weights.
Work your mobility you need for this movement on three fronts:
- Shoulders and overhead position: Improve these with the arm bar and crooked arm bar.
- Thoracic spine: Work both extension and twisting with the kettlebell windmill.
- Squat Position: Work hip external rotation, but do not forget the often overlooked piece of dorsiflexion (ie. how far your knees can go over your toes).
Kettlebell Overhead Squat Cues and Pointers
As with all new or technical movements, hold a few key points in your mind as you perform them. Remember these aspects as your train the kettlebell overhead squat.
Wear the Weight Through Your Whole Working Side
While standing in overhead lockout, actively push the weight up with every piece of the chain from your foot to your hand. Press your foot into the ground. Feel your leg, hip, and butt engage. Extend your spine and shoulder.
Rather than simply stacking underneath the weight in support, actively push the kettlebell away from the ground to remain engaged through your entire working side. Maintain this tension and intention throughout the entire range of motion.
Turn on Tension in Your Opposite Side
You will inherently bear more loading on the working side in a single-arm movement. As with other two-leg/single-arm movements like the one-arm swing and press, use tools to turn on full engagement through your entire body.
Your opposite side will not naturally engage as much, but you can manufacture tension to remain engaged through your full body. Make a tight fist in your empty hand to turn on your opposite side arm, shoulder, and core.
Squeeze Your Abs
Press your opposite foot into the ground and drive your opposite knee out. As you descend into full squat depth, your working side leg will inevitably bear more load. This can lead to leaning excessively to this side, and allowing your opposite knee and hip to collapse. Actively pressing into your opposite foot will keep your hips square, and the load distributed more evenly.
Resist the Twist
While the single-arm kettlebell overhead squat allows for some thoracic twisting (like a windmill or bent press), keep it minimal. Be sure to remain active and engaged through both sides as you allow a small twist.
Let the twist come from actively reaching your working shoulder up, rather than dropping your unloaded shoulder. Maintain a proud posture and twist your entire shoulder line with a neutral spine. Do not allow your twist to lead to collapse.
Excessive twisting can lead to a complete collapse in your opposite side. This looks like the shoulder and arm dropping toward the middle, core deflating as your unloaded-side ribs accordion together, and the knee, foot, and hips collapse in.
You can train some intentional twist to supplement your windmill and bent press training. Remember that a more square and upright position will improve your overhead and squat mobility. Resisting the twist will help you develop the double kettlebell version.
How to Get There From Here
- Overhead Carries – Train both double and single-arm overhead carries. Adding motion and time to your overhead lockout increases stability in that position.
- Overhead Lunges – Overhead lunges offer a perfect introduction to kettlebell overhead squatting. Develop your stability and overhead mobility here before progressing to the overhead squat. Lunges also offer the best alternative for training volume and weight for those who cannot yet access the full overhead squat position.
- Overhead Box Squats – Overhead squat to a target (box, bench, ball, etc.) to shorten the range of motion. Select a depth that brings you to the limits of where you can maintain an upright position and strong lockout. Incrementally lower your target as your mobility improves.
- Elevate Your Heels – Elevate your heels to remove some of your squat mobility limitations. Great options include Olympic lifting shoes, small metal plates, a folded towel, or a door threshold. Progressively reduce your lift height as the bottom position opens up.
A Benchmark of Capability
Kettlebell overhead squats are an elusively sexy movement for most athletes, and might not yet have a place your regular routine. Whether you can access the full range yet of not, use the kettlebell overhead squat to as a tool to measure progress. If you can get to full depth, measure your progress by how square and upright you can stay while progressing toward the double kettlebell version. If you cannot yet achieve full depth, use progressive scaling to work toward the bottom position.
I know many very capable (and mobile) athletes who cannot yet perform an overhead squat. As in all things, the benefit comes from the journey. Keep moving forward and celebrate every step in the right direction.
Once you’re there, when do you move up?