The Overhead Squat: poor screening tool, Olympic lifting technical movement, or the best strength development tool you aren’t doing?
For years I’ve seen the overhead squat wasted as a basic screening tool used to test an athletes ‘movement control’, ‘stability’, ‘flexibility’, and a whole host of other nothing-terms that are suitably loosely defined as to allow practitioners to determine them lacking should someone ‘fail’ an overhead squat assessment.
This all comes from a very out-dated process known as the FMS: the functional movement screen, a set list of tests pulled together in 1997 that aimed to predict injury risk and allow practitioners to design training programmes around the perceived movement, strength, and mobility shortcomings of the athlete being assessed. The problem with it is this: as a screening protocol designed to reduce injury and inform training, in the almost 23 years since its inception, there is yet to be a single high quality journal article published validating its effectiveness as a tool for predicting injury.
Within the screening process individuals go through some basic core control drills, shoulder mobility drills, balance tests, and a version of the overhead squat. Asked to perform the movement with a narrow stance, feet facing forwards, and holding a broomstick over the head in a narrow grip, the athlete squats and faults are picked out such as forward lean, arms coming forward, loss of balance, and the heels lifting up, amongst others. Each fault that is noted points to shortcomings in shoulder mobility, or ankle mobility, hip mobility etc, and a training plan is devised off the back of the assessment.
The primary issue with this is that for almost every athlete I have ever coached, there is a different ‘ideal’ foot position for them to use when squatting, based on their height, their pelvic anatomy, their relative limb and torso segment lengths etc, so to standardise to a narrow stance with a narrow grip seems absurd to me. The test sets up pretty much everyone other than those with seriously hypermobile qualities to fail, and fail badly. Furthermore, if a beginner steps into your gym having never lifted weights and is asked to goblet squat in this fashion, never mind overhead squat in this fashion, chances are it will look ugly, and that person would be stuck with a plan based on stretching the shoulders and ankles if the FMS was followed, when they simply need coaching into how to use their hips and brace their core correctly. Within 10 minutes they could probably overhead squat with some level of stability more often than not without the need to spend 6 weeks mobilising ankles that may or may not be the limiting factor to them performing a pointless and needlessly prescribed lift.
So, if we look beyond the failings of the overhead squat FMS assessment and see it as purely another strength training tool, we really open up the possibility of developing whole body strength rarely seen with other movements. To perform an overhead squat even with an empty barbell requires strength and control at end of range through the feet, knees, hips, trunk, and shoulder girdle, it requires a level of coordination between the segments of the body that we just do not get with a back squat or front squat, and depending on volume and intensity can be used for both beginners and experienced lifters alike.
For beginners new to the process of strength training it’s a fantastic tool to teach the squat pattern correctly and develop strength from top to toe in the early stages of training. The overhead squat feeds well into Olympic lifting if sports performance is the goal, or alternatively teaches a front squat incredibly well if general strength and/or body composition is a significant consideration.
For the more advanced lifter it offers a great tool throughout general prep cycles, offering a chance to move away from just high bar and low bar squatting for periods of time and give the knees a slight rest from the greater absolute loads utilised in heavy back squatting. As athletes we all have a finite amount of energy we can expend in each training session or in each week, so only have room to progress a certain number of lifts at any one time, so be careful where you invest your energy.
I have worked with countless athletes who can back squat phenomenal loads yet can barely move a 60kg barbell when placed in a front rack position, and furthermore, can barely move an empty bar in an overhead position. Conversely, if you can build a technically sound and a heavy overhead squat, you can bet your front squat and back squat will both be significant. As the old saying goes, chase your rabbits wisely…. Why just improve your back squat by back squatting when you can improve your back, front, and overhead squats just from overhead squatting?
This being said, the elite powerlifters amongst you need to practice some level of specificity with regards to improving your competition squat, so if low bar squats at very high absolute loads are your game, there is little direct crossover and as such less benefit to building the overhead squat into your programme too heavily when competitions are coming up in your calendar. However, for some periods throughout the year and deep into the offseason it is a great corrective tool that serves to correct a lot of the imbalances I often see developing in powerlifters.
When you devote large portions of your training time to SBD, you’re driving the shoulders into downward rotation, your ribcage into flexion and compression, and the neck into a forward head posture. In layman’s terms, powerlifting drives you into a rounded back posture and reduces your ability to effectively move your ribcage and shoulders through a full range of motion, specifically overhead. Now, even though the sport doesn’t need you to be able to do this, there is a huge base of literature pointing toward these adaptations and reductions in range of motion as a real issue when it comes to shoulder health. Furthermore, it’s all too common for me to see powerlifters in clinic suffering from shoulder and elbow pain simply because they can barely get into a good low bar position, owing to a lack of mobility in key areas that, you guessed it, are all improved through overhead squat training.
The more you lack this range of motion, the more likely you are to suffer from shoulder pain and injury at some point and ultimately you limit your ability to progress aggressively with building volume and intensity in your pressing training over time.
This all being said, if you spend the time regaining these ranges of motion in your offseason, then utilise the overhead squat to strengthen these positions, you can build a level of robustness that is really lacking in a lot of powerlifters for the above reasons.
In summary, I’m a huge advocate of the overhead squat as a strength-building tool for almost all of my clients regardless of their training goals. This being said, as with everything training related, context is everything and the poison is always in the dose.
If it’s your first time looking to integrate overhead squat training into your programme, your first steps might simply be increasing the amount of thoracic mobility work in your warmup to allow you to safely get into the overhead position. Executing with good form first and foremost is key, and developing the prerequisite mobility in key areas is, for a lot of people, the first step on the ladder. Once this has been achieved, knowing how to build the movement into your programme and performing with quality, consistency, intent, and progressive volume and intensity is where the relative benefit and/or risk really lies.
So, build slowly and with clinical accuracy and watch your overall strength, performance, and robustness flourish in the new year.
Technical breakdown to the snatch.
When an athlete snatches, the bar is moved from the floor to overhead in one motion. If you can do this, it means you can snatch. And then, there comes a bit more of a technical side to it. But the way I teach the snatch is very simple. I believe there is no need to overcomplicate things from the beginning because it slows down the learning process. In this blog I will take you through the phases and how to utilise them in order to master a perfect snatch!
The technical model of the snatch starts with the bar on the floor, which then the athlete lifts over his head, receiving it at a bottom squat position and finishes with the athlete standing up with the load remaining overhead in a recovery phase. In order to complete this movement, you first need to be able to overhead squat. For a decent overhead squat, it requires an athlete to have a good shoulder, hip and ankle mobility. If you trying to overhead press a barbell from behind the neck for the first time and you are all stiff, well yeah, it won’t happen just like that, but ask yourself how much overhead work have you done? Some people are naturally more flexible and that’s just how it is; some of us need to work on certain things a bit more. And then still, even if your mobility seems sufficient to perform many movements without limitation, mobility work is vital for healthy and strong joints, so you should implement some into your training anyhow. If your issue isn’t the overhead position but to actually squat with the barbell remaining behind the neck, then it is very likely to be the capacity or your hips and ankles. In that case, you can use a snatch derivative – the power snatch, and catch the bar in a mid-squat position while working on getting into a full depth with consistent training alongside some mobility drills. The overhead squat in its nature is a unique full body exercise for core strength, stability, flexibility, and can work great for an athletic development. More about overhead squat and its benefits may come soon from the one and only – Max Hartman!
The snatch balance is essentially a quick drop into the overhead squat. It starts in a standing position with the barbell behind the neck, follows with an athlete bending the knees, driving up into a triple extension and getting quickly under the bar into a squat with the arms locking out into a fully straight position. Snatch balance = the catch phase of the snatch. Using it in practice, an athlete can adapt to heavier load over the head in the bottom squat position. Therefore, if your pulling phases are quite strong but you struggle to remain stable in the catch, heavy single snatch balance could help you. It is also a good drill for improving speed with getting under the bar, so conversely, you can implement it as lighter triples or doubles.
The state of triple extension is when your ankles, knees and hips are fully extended. Allowing a barbell to travel in the vertical direction will further allow for smooth transition.
During this phase the bar should feel ‘weightless’ and travels as far as the amount of force that is being generated by a lifter from the ground. A full triple extension occurs after the second pull and if we are talking about pulling you don’t actually lift the bar with your arms, they only direct the bar path. All the power is generated against the ground. Thus, your starting position is crucial as much as every phase of the lift.
Your set up is more important than you would think! Have you ever thought why weightlifters use hook grip? Gripping your thumb around the bar helps to keep your arms fairly relaxed but mainly, it locks the bar safely. If you are doing reps on snatches, always make sure you set your starting position on point. Sometimes if you miss a lift can be related to the starting set up. Bear in mind one thing, this position is not comfortable so if a coach or somebody who is watching you, is giving you a few cues, and you move from being comfortable to feeling very uncomfortable, that is probably better set up. Shoulder slightly over the bar, chest up, back tight, bar close to your shins, hips higher than knees, elbows locked outwards, head forward and weight distributed towards forefoot, and you ready to move into the first pull!
First pull is a phase where your knees start to extend (posterior knee drive) while maintaining straight arms and back. A very important thing is to remain the angle of your torso constant. This phase finished just above the knee where the transition/ double knee bend/ scoop through occurs.
During this phase the bar travels from above the knee (hang position) to the hips (power position). The biggest acceleration of the lift must occur at this phase, and therefore, there is a need to drive your extended knees back to the front (bend them again). The bar must meet the hips with the knees bent and your torso in an upright position with your arms still remaining straight. This will allow the bar travel vertically from the hip and allow an athlete to achieve a full triple extension. If the bar wouldn’t meet the hips, the second pull can still happen but it will limit the extension and so the athlete would have to chase the bar in order to catch it, which then leads into jumping forward (in most cases). Therefore, it is crucial to master all the phases.
As mentioned above when the bar meets the hips at the power position, the athlete can now start extending the ankles, which starts with getting onto the tip toes, following that, the elbows starting to bend, extending the knees and hips with the elbows at the highest point. During this phase the bar becomes ‘weightless’ and it travels as high as the amount of force that has been produced from the bottom and the transition.
When the elbows reach the highest point with the ankles still fully extended, the athlete starts to transfer body weight downwards until the arms extend. Adjusting a wider stance will allow a greater depth of a catch. At this point the weight should be distributed towards rear of foot. It is vital to remain tightness in your upper body because now there is a need to stand up – known as the recovery phase. The lift doesn’t finish with the catch, an athlete needs to be able to stand up in a controlled manner.
The recovery phase would be essentially your overhead squat. Again, you need a decent amount of strength but also a few technical points. Lead up with your chest and torso upright.
It is very common that when athletes is being taught the lift through the segmented phases, they are very likely to find it difficult to then perform the movement in its full motion. I believe the athlete needs to have an understanding of what the movement looks and feels like. People can learn a lot by just observing and imagination the processes. Show your athletes the lift, emphasise some cues and let them do it. Don’t let them think too much about it because they will get confused – get the bar and lift it up. Simple. If they understand this and can do it then observe them a bit more and think why they are choosing to move that way. Find solutions and keep practising. It is good to work on the phases you really struggle with but remember that you actually need to apply it in a full lift. For instance, if you bend your elbows too early, and you are trying to fix it with doing lots of pull, and high pulls, you may start controlling it better when doing these derivatives alone but when you then trying to snatch, the early bend still occurs. Hence, try to put this in a complex of pull + snatch. And this applies for any derivatives you are going to utilise; lift off, pulls, snatch balance, pause snatches etc.
Hope you enjoyed reading this blog. Even though you may not be a weightlifter or be interested in weightlifting, you may have learnt something new!