Barbell Squat Press: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and Programming

An action shot of a barbell squat press done by the author of Lunch Break Fitness.

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If you’re looking for one of the most efficient exercises ever conceived, look no further than the barbell squat and press.

A barbell squat press is a full body compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, including the quads, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, triceps, and core. It involves holding a barbell in the front rack position, squatting down, then standing back up and pressing the weight overhead. Due to the full body nature of the exercise, it can fit very well into metabolic conditioning workouts as well as strength or hypertrophy focused sessions.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to do the squat press, muscles worked, and explore the pros & cons of the exercise:

How to do the barbell squat press

  • Starting position is a modified front rack position, with hands at about a shoulder width. The difference between this starting position and a normal front rack position is that you’ll keep all your fingers wrapped around the bar in an overhand grip.
  • If you have trouble achieving this position, try bringing your elbows closer together until you’re able to wrap all four fingers of each hand around the bar.
  • Position your feet shoulder width apart (or whatever position you’d normally use for your feet in a regular front squat).
  • You can use a squat stand or rack, but if you’re completing barbell circuits or doing the exercise from the floor, I recommend simply setting up on a platform and cleaning the weight into place.
  • Front squat the weight, with thighs at or below parallel, while being sure to keep the weight balanced over your front delts.
Front squatting a barbell.
  • As you ascend out of the hole, think about accelerating the bar as you go. Around the mid-point of the lift, begin to explode toward the top, as you would in a push press.
Accelerating the weight through the mid point in a squat press.
  • As you reach the top of your squat, begin to press the barbell off the front of your shoulders. The quick ascent should get the bar moving (much like in a push press), and your hands will have to accept the weight and move it overhead.
Reaching the top of the squat press, and beginning to press the barbell off the shoulders.
  • As in a normal overhead shoulder press, extend your shoulders and push your head “through the window” at the top. Once completed, return to the starting position by lowering the bar back onto the delts and prepare for the next rep.
The final extended position of an overhead press, with arms extended.

Notes about technique and safety:

  • If you’re using a heavy weight, it is advisable to use safety spotter arms if you have them available.
  • You’ll likely want to have at least a passing familiarity with normal front squats and shoulder presses before attempting this exercise. Though this step is not strictly necessary, it can shorten the learning curve significantly.

Barbell squat press benefits

The major benefit of the is how much musculature it covers with a single exercise. Regular barbell squats utilize most of the musculature in the human body, but in this exercise we are also adding in the muscles used in the overhead shoulder press.

This makes for a very efficient exercise:

  • When a light weight is used, the barbell squat and press becomes very metabolic because it uses so much muscle mass (similar to a burpee). This means it fits very well into HIIT or fat-loss centric programs.
  • When a heavier load is used, the barbell squat press efficiently builds muscle in both the upper and lower body, allowing for a quicker overall training effect. This means it fits very well into a strength program where time-efficiency is the goal.

Drawbacks of the barbell squat press

A man doing a set of barbell squat thrusts in a minimal gym.

The main drawback of this exercise is disparate loading between the legs and the shoulders. I’m willing to bet you can front squat more than you can shoulder press overhead.

This issue is somewhat offset by the fact that the pressing portion of the squat press resembles a push press more than it does a strict overhead press.

However, if optimal strength or muscle gain in the legs is the goal, it may be better to separate the two exercises. In this case, opt for straight sets of squats followed by straight sets of shoulder press.

Furthermore, some lifters will have trouble getting into the proper modified front-rack position due to mobility restrictions in the shoulder or wrist. I find that most of the time, this is a technique issue rather than a true mobility problem (see the how-to section above where I mention widening the elbows).

However, if you are simply unable to get into the starting position, then this is probably not the exercise for you.

Muscles worked in the barbell squat press

As you can see from the chart below, a squat press with a barbell uses quite a lot of the human musculature. This is what gives the exercise it’s metabolic effect.

Muscles worked by the barbell squat thrust.
The barbell squat press muscles worked: quads, hamstrings, glutes, deltoids, triceps, and upper chest.

Don’t be surprised if you’re huffing and puffing after just a set or two of this exercise!

As you can see, we are not only using the traditional squat muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and core), but we’ve also added in numerous muscle groups in the upper body, such as the anterior and lateral deltoid, triceps, and clavicular pec (upper chest).

Variations of the squat press

Truly, there are numerous ways to vary this versatile exercise to meet your needs, depending on fitness level, program goal, and time available. Try these alternative exercises:

  • Use other implements: dumbbell squat presses and kettlebell squat presses are just as viable, and have the added benefit of being able to be loaded one arm at a time.
  • Added pauses for legs: in order to address the load disparity between the legs and shoulders, try adding a 1-3 second pause at the bottom of the squat.
  • Use strict presses for shoulder hypertrophy: If shoulder hypertrophy is a focus for you, try doing the exercise with strict presses, rather than the typical “barbell squat to push press” variation presented above.

Time to press!

If you’ve never tried this versatile exercise, give it a shot!

You may be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your cardiovascular system gets challenged, in addition to reaping the full-body strength training benefits of this true compound exercise.