How to Trade the Head and Shoulders Pattern

The head and shoulders chart pattern is a popular and easy-to-spot pattern in technical analysis that shows a baseline with three peaks, the middle peak being the highest. The head and shoulders chart depicts a bullish-to-bearish trend reversal and signals that an upward trend is nearing its end.

The pattern appears on all time frames and can, therefore, be used by all types of traders and investors. Entry levels, stop levels, and price targets make the formation easy to implement, as the chart pattern provides important and easily visible levels.

Key Takeaways

  • A head and shoulders pattern is a chart formation used by technical analysts.
  • The pattern appears as a baseline with three peaks: The outside two are close in height and the middle is highest.
  • The peaks on each end are the left and right shoulders and the one in the middle is called the head.
  • A head and shoulders pattern describes a specific chart formation that predicts a bullish-to-bearish trend reversal, while an inverse head and shoulders indicates the reverse.
  • The head and shoulders pattern is believed to be one of the most reliable trend reversal patterns, but does have its limitations.

How To Trade The Head-And-Shoulders Pattern

What the Head and Shoulders Pattern Looks Like

First, we'll look at the formation of the head and shoulders pattern and then the inverse head and shoulders pattern.

Formation of the pattern (seen at market tops):

  • Left shoulder: Price rise followed by a price peak, followed by a decline.
  • Head: Price rise again forming a higher peak.
  • Right shoulder: A decline occurs once again, followed by a rise to form the right peak, which is lower than the head.

Formations are rarely perfect, which means there may be some noise between the respective shoulders and head.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

Inverse Head and Shoulders

Formation of the pattern (seen at market bottoms):

  • Left shoulder: Price declines followed by a price bottom, followed by an increase.
  • Head: Price declines again forming a lower bottom.
  • Right shoulder: Price increases once again, then declines to form the right bottom.

Again, formations are rarely perfect. There may be some market noise between the respective shoulders and head.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020 

Placing the Neckline

The neckline is the level of support or resistance that traders use to determine strategic areas to place orders. To place the neckline, the first step is to locate the left shoulder, head, and right shoulder on the chart.

In the standard head and shoulders pattern (market top), we connect the low after the left shoulder with the low created after the head. This creates our neckline—the dark blue line on the charts.

We'll discuss the importance of the neckline in the following section. In an inverse head and shoulders pattern, we connect the high after the left shoulder with the high formed after the head, thus creating our neckline for this pattern.

How to Trade the Pattern

It's important that traders wait for the pattern to complete. This is so because a pattern may not develop at all or a partially developed pattern may not complete in the future. Partial or nearly completed patterns should be watched, but no trades should be made until the pattern breaks the neckline.

In the head and shoulders pattern, we are waiting for price action to move lower than the neckline after the peak of the right shoulder. For the inverse head and shoulders, we wait for price movement above the neckline after the right shoulder is formed.

A trade can be initiated when the pattern completes. Plan the trade beforehand, writing down the entry, stops, and profit targets as well as noting any variables that will change your stop or profit target.

The most common entry point is when a breakout occurs—the neckline is broken and a trade is taken. Another entry point requires more patience and comes with the possibility that the move may be missed altogether. This method involves waiting for a pullback to the neckline after a breakout has already occurred. This is more conservative in that we can see if the pullback stops and the original breakout direction resumes, the trade may be missed if the price keeps moving in the breakout direction. Both methods are shown below.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

Placing Your Stops

In the traditional market top pattern, the stops are placed just above the right shoulder (topping pattern) after the neckline is penetrated. Alternatively, the head of the pattern can be used as a stop, but this is likely a much larger risk and thus reduces the reward to risk ratio of the pattern. In the inverse pattern, the stop is placed just below the right shoulder. Again, the stop can be placed at the head of the pattern, although this does expose the trader to greater risk. In the above chart, the stop would be placed at $104 (just below right shoulder) once the trade was taken.

Setting Your Profit Targets

The profit target for the pattern is the price difference between the head and the low point of either shoulder. This difference is then subtracted from the neckline breakout level (at a market top) to provide a price target for the downside. For a market bottom, the difference is added to the neckline breakout price to provide a price target to the upside.

SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) is a heavily traded exchange-traded fund (ETF) and represents the broader market. The profit target for the inverse head and shoulders pattern would be:

$113.20 (this is the high after the left shoulder) – $101.13 (this is the low of the head) = $12.07

This difference is then added to the breakout price (subtracted in the case of a regular head and shoulders pattern). The breakout price is right around $113.25, giving us a profit target of $125.32 ($113.25 + $12.07).

Sometimes investors have to wait a long time—up to several months—between spotting the breakout and reaching the ideal profit target. Monitoring your trades in real time can help you anticipate their outcomes.

Why the Head and Shoulders Pattern Works

No pattern is perfect, nor does it work every time. Yet there are several reasons why the chart pattern theoretically works (the market top will be used for this reasoning, but it applies to both):

  • As price falls from the market high (head), sellers have begun to enter the market and there is less aggressive buying.
  • As the neckline is approached, many people who bought in the final wave higher or bought on the rally in the right shoulder are now proven wrong and facing large losses—it is this large group that will now exit positions, driving the price toward the profit target.
  • The stop above the right shoulder is logical because the trend has shifted downwards—the right shoulder is a lower high than the head—and therefore the right shoulder is unlikely to be broken until an uptrend resumes.
  • The profit target assumes that those who are wrong or purchased the security at a poor time will be forced to exit their positions, thus creating a reversal of similar magnitude to the topping pattern that just occurred.
  • The neckline is the point at which many traders are experiencing pain and will be forced to exit positions, thus pushing the price toward the price target.
  • Volume can be watched as well. During inverse head and shoulders patterns (market bottoms), we would ideally like the volume to expand as a breakout occurs. This shows increased buying interest that will move the price towards the target. Decreasing volume shows a lack of interest in the upside move and warrants some skepticism.

The Pitfalls of Trading Head and Shoulders

As stated, the pattern is not perfect. Here are some potential problems with trading a head and shoulders pattern:

  • You need to find patterns and watch them develop, but you should not trade this strategy until the pattern is completed. So it could mean a long period of waiting.
  • It will not work all the time. The stop levels will be hit sometimes.
  • The profit target will not always be reached, so traders may wish to fine-tune how market variables will affect their exit from the security.
  • The pattern is not always tradable. For example, if there is a massive drop on one of the shoulders due to an unpredictable event, then the calculated price targets will likely not be hit.
  • Patterns can be subjective. One trader may see a shoulder, where another does not. When trading patterns, define what constitutes a pattern for you beforehand—given the general guidelines above.

What Does a Head and Shoulders Pattern Mean?

Head and shoulders is a chart pattern that is used by technical analysts. This chart has a baseline with three different peaks. There are two on the outside that are similar in height. The third, which appears in the middle, is the highest one. So how do you read it? It signals that there is a trend reversal from a bullish to a bearish cycle, where an upward trend is about to end. Keep in mind that there are never any perfect patterns, which means there will always be some noise in between.

How Do You Trade a Head and Shoulders Pattern?

Make sure you wait for the pattern to run its course before you begin to trade it. This means you have to wait until the neckline breaks before you jump in. If you enter too early, the pattern may not develop or fully run through its course at all. You're basically waiting for the price to move lower than the neckline after the right shoulder's peak. Make sure you mark down the entry, stops, and profit targets. You should also take note of any factors that will change your price target.

What Makes a Head and Shoulders Pattern Work?

There are a few reasons why the head and shoulders pattern works. One of the main advantages is that you won't be competing with many aggressive buyers since sellers already enter the market when prices drop from the head. If you enter at the wrong point, such as the final wave or during the rally, you could end up with huge losses. Another pitfall is that the price could be forced toward the price target because of the fact that traders who lose out are forced to exit their positions at the neckline.

What Are Some of the Downsides to Head and Shoulders Patterns?

If you're not a patient trader, then you may find some frustrations using head and shoulders patterns. That's because you have to wait for them to complete. If you enter too early, the pattern may not run its course. This means you could be waiting for some time. Another downfall is that you won't always reach the profit target and you may find that the pattern isn't even tradable.

The Bottom Line

Head and shoulders patterns occur in all time frames and can be seen visually. While subjective at times, the complete pattern provides entries, stops, and profit targets, making it easy to implement a trading strategy.

The pattern is composed of a left shoulder, a head, then a right shoulder. The most common entry point is a breakout of the neckline, with a stop above (market top) or below (market bottom) the right shoulder. The profit target is the difference between the high and low with the pattern added (market bottom) or subtracted (market top) from the breakout price.

The system is not perfect, but it does provide a method of trading the markets based on logical price movements.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. State Street Global Advisors. "SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust."