The Overhead Squat Is a Punk: Advice From Experts on How to Make It Better
The overhead squat is a punk. It is one lift that vexes many new CrossFitters and weightlifters alike. Arms collapse, knees come forward, you go up on your toes, and sometimes it feels like your back muscles are about to snap.
You need a strong overhead squat for one reason - to complete the snatch. Although we use it in CrossFit workouts all the time, in reality, the overhead squat is simply one of the elements of a properly executed snatch. In order to snatch heavier weight, you need to be comfortable coming out of the hole with a lot of weight over your head. So we train the overhead squat in both CrossFit and weightlifting.
But as I said, this movement can be difficult and frustrating for many athletes early in their careers. And it’s not an easy one to coach because while as an athlete I may know the nuanced mechanics that have helped me master the movement, those cues are sometimes difficult to transfer to a beginner. It takes lots of practice with light to progressively heavier weights in order to get comfortable with this lift.
So in order to help both you and myself with the coaching of this lift, I assembled some highly regarded coaches from around the country and posed this question: “My overhead squat sucks. How can I fix it?” Here’s what they each had to say:
Tamara Reynolds - Competitive weightlifter and the co-founder of Weightlifting Academy, a worldwide strength training education institute as well as a nationwide weightlifting team. Tamara is also coach and co-owner at Asheville Strength in Asheville, North Carolina.
Use a barbell! Do not try to learn how to overhead squat with a PVC pipe. If you truly cannot overhead squat a 20kg bar, use a 15kg bar or a lighter training bar. Part of the difficulty of an overhead squat is keeping the bar over your base. It's possible to lock out a PVC pipe in all sorts of places that aren't correct without even realizing it. You need to be able to feel where the bar should be so that you can ingrain the correct positioning, and using a barbell instead of PVC helps make this possible.
One of the main issues I see is lockout stability. That bar should be locked out over your base so tightly that if I stand behind you and press down on the bar, it will not move. Get tight! The main cues I use for this are:
- Wrists back! For some reason, I see a lot of people who have learned to overhead squat or snatch with their knuckles pointing forward. This is putting the weight of the bar on your poor little thumb joint. Get your wrists back and put your palms toward the sky like you are doing a pushup on the ceiling. If your knuckles are forward, the bar is going to want to come forward. Don't let it!
- Stretch the bar! Pull that bar apart like it's a rubber band and you're going to shoot your pesky little brother with it. When you pull the bar apart, it forces your elbows to lock and makes your upper back tighten up.
Samantha Tollman - Competitive weightlifter and assistant coach for USAW Level 1 certifications as well as being a technique coach for Mike Burgener in the CrossFit Olympic Lifting Certifications. CrossFit Level 1 certified, CrossFit Olympic Lifting certified, USAW Level 1 certified coach.
The infamous overhead squat! This movement can be cake for some and an arch-nemesis for others. As far as getting better in overhead squats work on flexibility. Not for everyone, but with the majority of people the problem is a lack of flexibility in the shoulders, chest, hamstrings and/or hip flexors. Work on mobility! Take a look at a couple of Kelley Starrett’s excellent mobility tests and suggestions specifically for the overhead squat below.
Also, my favorite cue in the overhead squat is “ponytail.” The bar should always remain where a ponytail would be located, right over the back of your head. The bar shouldn’t move past or behind as you squat nor should it be towards the front of your face. This works for men and women. Ponytail!”
Lori Rico - Coach at SISU Elite Fitness in Norwalk, Connecticut. CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Gymnastics, Catalyst Athletics Weightlifting Level 1 trainer, OPT Mixed Modal and CrossFit Mobility trainer.
Would you rather try to hold up a bar with a stack of muscle or a stack of bone? Clearly, bone is stronger and more stable. So in order to get your bones stacked, externally rotate your armpits forward and lock out your elbows. I will often tell clients to “show me your armpits” in order to get the elbows externally rotated.
In addition, while old-school CrossFit was big on “active traps” and “shrug like crazy,” it’s actually better to not shrug your shoulders to your ears, as it will just cause some internal rotation of your elbows, which is the opposite of what you want.
Knees out, not forward during the squat. Get tight by squeezing your butt, get your belly tight, and screw your feet into ground with external rotation. Kelley Starrett provides a wonderful analysis of the idea of external rotating of the hips in the video below, beginning at 1:30.
Stephen Flamm - Owner and Head Trainer at Cincinnati Strength and Conditioning. CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Barbell, CrossFit Olympic Lifting, CrossFit Kettlebell, OPT CCP Exercise Physiology: Assessment, OPT CCP: Program Design, OPT CCP Nutrition, OPT CCP Lifestyle Coaching, USAW Level 1.
Most overhead squat problems arise from one of two general issues. First, mobility restrictions may not allow a mechanically sound bottom position. The usual culprits are the ankles, pecs/lats/triceps, and thoracic spine. Second, even those with adequate mobility may not be comfortable in the bottom position. The solutions are obvious, though usually not overnight fixes.
The first step is to find a good coach or training partner who is capable of assessing and addressing any existing mobility limitations. Once adequate mobility is achieved, get comfortable in the bottom of the squat by hanging out down there for a second or two on most of your training reps. Not pleasant, but it's tough to mask improper position when you have to hold it.
One final note to consider - while developing strength and comfort in the overhead squat is a must for all weightlifting and CrossFit competitors, it is likely an unnecessary training component for most others. As always, exercise selection must line up with long-term goals.
Each of these coaches has mentioned at least one thing that I find helpful when I am working the overhead squat:
- Tamara mentioned pulling the bar apart. You may be shocked to find how much this helps you. Try it. Spread the bar like it’s a big rubber band and see what that does to your shoulder stability.
- Samantha and Stephen discussed mobility. It is crucial to get mobile both in your shoulders and your hips. Your adductors (groin muscle), hamstrings, glutes, must all be unglued so that you can externally rotate the hips and drop into your squat without collapsing.
- Lori talked about screwing your feet into the ground -try it! Once you are mobile and you think about this cue, this opens up your hips, allows you to keep your chest up, and keeps hips and glutes tight and stable.
- Stephen talked about hanging out in the bottom of the squat. This is a great way to get comfortable with what ultimate is the most uncomfortable part of the overhead squat. In fact, you can take a bar and work up to a moderate weight, drop down into the squat and then stay down there and check a few things. Are you pulling the bar apart? Rotating your elbows and showing your armpits? Knees out? See what you can do so invoke a few of these cues and right get solid down there.
Ultimately, you will have to find a cue that works best for you but with persistence, you will. Get mobile, get tight, externally rotate, and good luck!
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.