Trading Blog | 5 min read 

How to Trade the Head & Shoulders Pattern

The Head and Shoulders chart pattern is a powerful charting pattern used in technical analysis. This ultimate guide of chart pattern mastery will show you how to start trading the Head & Shoulders pattern like a pro.

Written by Starttrading.com

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The Head and Shoulders is a extremely popular and easy to spot chart pattern used in technical analysis. After you read this guide you will know exactly what to look out for whilst trading. The pattern appears on all times frames and can, therefore, be used by day and swing traders as well as investors. Entry levels, stop levels and price targets make this trading formation easy to implement, as the chart pattern provides important and easy-to-see levels.

What the Pattern Looks Like

 

First, let’s look at the formation of the head and shoulders pattern:

Head and Shoulders

Commonly seen at market tops.

Formation of the pattern:

  • Left shoulder: Price rise followed by a left 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 forming the right peak which is lower than the head.
 

Chart pattern formations are rarely textbook perfect, meaning there may be some discrepancies between the respective shoulders and head.

 

Placing 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 blue dashed line on the example.

How to Trade The Head and Shoulders Pattern

It is very important that traders wait for the pattern to complete. One should not assume that a pattern will develop or that a partially developed pattern will become 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 as the pattern completes. Plan the trade beforehand, writing down the entry, stops and profit targets and noting any variables that will change your stop or profit target. The most common entry 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, but it also means the trade may be missed if the price keeps moving in the breakout direction.
 

Placing your Stop-Loss

In the traditional market top pattern, the stop-loss is placed just above the right shoulder (topping pattern) after the neckline is penetrated. As a break above this point is usually where the pattern becomes invalidated. Alternatively, the head of the pattern can be used as a stop, but this is likely a much larger risk and reducing the reward to risk to reward ratio of the pattern.

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:

  • 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 shoulder patterns (market bottoms), we would ideally like the volume to expand as a breakout occurs. This shows increased buying interest that will move price toward the target. Decreasing volume shows lack of interest in the upside move and warrants some skepticism.

Disadvantages of Trading Head and Shoulders

As stated, no trading pattern is 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. During times of high volatility, the stop-loss levels will sometimes be hit.
  • The profit target will not always be reached, so traders may wish to fine-tune how the 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.

Conclusion

Head and shoulder patterns occur on all times-frames, and can be easily 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, head, then followed by 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 of 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. (Profit-taking opportunities abound using this lesser-known pattern.

Start trading the right way

At starttrading.com, our goal is to empower you to become a more successful trader and unlock financial freedom. We provide you with the information and educational content needed to learn how to trade.

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