Overhead Squats: The Core of the Matter

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by LARRY PASTOR

Have you hit a plateau with your back squat or your front squat? It is very possible that there is something about your (air) squat that needs fixing. If you need a lift that will help you troubleshoot what part of your squat needs fixing, then the overhead squat is that lift. Find out the finer points of performing a good overhead squat; how to improve your mobility for an overhead squat; and how the overhead squat makes you a better athlete.
As Greg Glassman describes,

The overhead squat is the ultimate core exercise, the heart of the snatch, and peerless in developing effective athletic movement.

How to Perform an Overhead Squat

Got tight ankles? If you have tight ankles, hips, and shoulders, you may want to stand with your heels on 2.5-, 5-, or even 10-kg plates.  You can also use a piece of 1-inch or 2-inch wood if necessary.  This helps beginners squat with a more erect posture and have better balance until their flexibility improves-Jim Schmitz
CrossFit Rockwall presents a good summary of the mechanics involved in the overhead squat. In their blog, they list some points of performance regarding proper set-up and execution:

Set-up

  • Review the air squat for the basic squat mechanics
  • Grip the bar such that when placed overhead, it is 6-8″ above the top of your head
  • Push your shoulders and the bar up as high as you can (“active shoulders”)
  • The bar should be perfectly aligned with your heels
  • Maintain a tight core through the entire movement

Squat

  • Pull your hips back and down while keeping your weight on your heels
  • Pull the bar back deliberately as you squat to keep it directly over your heels
  • DO NOT let the bar move forward of or behind your heels at any point of the movement
  • Make sure your hips reach a point below the top of your knee (below parallel)
  • Keeping your weight on your heels, stand to full extension

Famed Olympic Lifting coach Jim Schmitz also gives some of his own tips on performing an overhead squat:

  • With the barbell over your head, get set and taut in all parts of your trunk, arms, and legs
  • Squat down slowly and deliberately; at the same time, push up and slightly back on the bar, thinking deltoids to the ears and reaching UP
  • You want your torso to be as erect as possible, but there will be some forward lean (that’s okay), and the hips will go backward a bit
  • It is very important that when you stand up you keep pushing UP and slightly BACK until you are standing erect
What do these OHS performance notes have in common? Strong active shoulders, a vertical torso, and open hips.
In their blog, The Mighty Mix, the author presents six tips for performing an overhead squat:

1. Stick your butt out.

It goes against everything you’ve striven for in general decency, but it’s going to go out – way out. Focus on moving your backside backwards, away from your midline, and then focus on curling your lumbar up into extension, like a scorpion raising its tail. What this does is set your center of gravity, so you don’t end up tipping forward or backward. Do it sideways in a mirror and try to keep your knees in line with/in the same plane with your toes; don’t allow them to move in front of them.

2. Press into the bar.

This is one of the biggest things that can improve your performance. One reason the OHS can be so counter intuitive is that the body wants to move as a unit through the dynamics of physics – in this case gravity – which means that as you descend, the muscle groups involved in keeping the bar raised tend to relax, hold, and depress. So the scapular group tries to switch from elevation to depression. The upper traps try to switch from concentric contraction to bigger balance with eccentric, to brace the body to catch the overhead falling weight. Use the cue to be constantly lifting/pushing the weight, never just holding it.

3. Keep your chest, neck and head up, while bending over.

Building on the reasoning above, it’s easy to let the chest and head fall slightly forward on the way up. Actively focus on keeping these up throughout the movement, especially when hitting bottom and beginning ascent. Fix your eyes on something straight ahead or slightly higher. Be aware of what your neck is doing. In order to keep everything tight, retract and elevate the scapula.

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