The overhead squat (OH squat) is, for many CrossFitters—one of the most vexing movements in the CrossFit repertoire. It exposes weaknesses in flexibility, balance, strength, and coordination. For these reasons (and many more) athletes will avoid putting in the countless hours needed to develop the tools required for a strong OH squat. Many an athlete will be content to have a mediocre (or poor) overhead squat, as their back squat, deadlift, etc. is strong—and that’s fine, it’s a personal choice. BUT, before you head down that road, or if you’re getting frustrated with how your OH squat is progressing, have a read of what the founder of CrossFit says about the movement:
“The overhead squat is the ultimate core exercise, the heart of the snatch, and peerless in developing effective athletic movement. This functional gem trains for efficient transfer of energy from large to small body parts – the essence of sport movement. For this reason, it is an indispensable tool for developing speed and power. The overhead squat also demands and develops functional flexibility, and similarly develops the squat by amplifying and cruelly punishing faults in squat posture, movement, and stability.”
The OH squat will expose the deficiencies you have—this is why it is such a valuable tool to work on. Getting better at the OH squat will develop skills that transfer over to several other major movements and lifts (like the snatch) in CrossFit—not to mention being an excellent way to develop effective (athletic) movement in and out of the gym. So, stop neglecting your OH squat training! While your coach will likely show you the fundamentals of the movement, we wanted to give you some extra tips that you may not know about (and if you already do, it’s always good to be reminded!). Read on for 6 tips for developing the OH squat.
1-Identify mobility issues—then work on them
You will have likely heard this countless times before, but if you can’t execute a solid air squat, then there’s no point in trying to progress to an overhead squat. Make sure you have a solid squat foundation first, then try a couple of OH squats with a training bar (not a PVC pipe—I explain why below) as you will likely discover additional mobility issues, namely in your shoulders. The OH squat requires excellent flexibility in the shoulders, hips, hamstrings, glutes, and adductors (groin muscle). It’s unlikely that you are highly mobile in all of these areas—which is why the OH squat is avoided by so many. It may be frustrating, but you MUST invest the time into sufficiently mobilizing the aforementioned muscle groups to externally rotate your hips and become comfortable squatting with a bar overhead.
2-Develop midline stability
The overhead squat demands a high amount of midline stability, and therefore a high amount of core stability. Given that this movement requires you to hold a weighted bar overhead, much of the stability work will go to the core—most predominately the lower back. If you do not have an active midline when performing the OH squat (or any lift where the weight is overhead), you are susceptible to hyper-extending the lower back, resulting in an unfavorable overhead position—not to mention putting yourself at risk of injury. It is therefore imperative that you strengthen your core muscles and mobilize your lower back as often as possible. Every time you do a movement in class, think tight butt, ribcage down—this will help develop a neutral pelvic position instead of an anterior pelvic tilt (i.e. hyper-extension of the lower back).
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Midline Stability Drills:
Hip Mobility then
50 Hollow Rocks
50 Single Leg Bridges
25 Strict toes to bar/Knees to elbows
3-Start with the right weight-but NOT a PVC pipe
Wait a second—don’t start training with the trusty PVC pipe? Why not? Well, Tamara Reynolds, a competitive weightlifter, coach, and co-founder of Weightlifting Academy, explains why you should learn with a barbell (or training bar) instead:
“Part of the difficulty of an overhead squat is keeping the bar over your base. It’s possible to lockout 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.”
A lot of CrossFit coaches may disagree with Reynolds, but I must say, what she says makes sense. A PVC pipe is so light that you could be developing bad habits and positioning without realizing it. Using a bar that is weighted yet light enough to hold overhead will force you to engage your core (midline stability) and reveal any areas of your body that still require mobility work to perform the squat with correct positioning.
4-Press into the bar
When performing the OH squat, you should be thinking about constantly lifting/pushing the weight, and never just ‘holding it’. USA Weightlifting sports performance coach and competitive weightlifter Kat Ricker explains why you want to avoid simply holding the bar:
“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.”
Needless to say, you do not want your muscles to be relaxed and depressed during the movement—they should be flexed to form a solid base of support for the weight overhead. Next time you are practicing your OH squat try pressing into the bar and see if you feel any improvements.
5-Stabilize in the hole
When you descend into the lowest part of the squat—the hole—it’s important not to rush out of it too soon as you risk losing your form. Instead, take a moment to stabilize yourself and the bar. Make sure that you’re flatfooted, weight in your heels, and your elbows and shoulders are turned out (armpits facing forwards). Doing this will reduce the risk of losing control of the bar path when you rise out of the squat and keep you moving efficiently—but don’t take too long to stabilize as your muscles may lose tension and you could get stuck down there, which will likely lead to you bailing on the lift. When everything is set and you feel comfortable, go ahead and drive out of the squat, with good form.
6-Train with pause squats
Getting comfortable at the bottom of the squat is probably the trickiest part of the entire movement. To work on this element of the exercise, it’s important to get used to having the bar (and weight) above your head when you’re at the bottom of the squat—the hole. One way to do this is by training with pause squats (this exercise can be utilized to develop your front and back squats as well). Pause squats are great for developing power out of the hole, building torso rigidity, taking stress off of the knees, and developing confidence and comfort in the lift—to name just a few benefits.
There are several variations that you can play around with when pause squatting, but one that I have personally found effective utilizes a four-second hold. To do this, start with the bar racked and at a much lighter weight than you would normally use for 3-4 reps. Take the bar off the rack and get into your OH squat position and squat down into the lowest possible position you can achieve (while maintaining good form!). Hold this position for a count of four, then drive out of the hole. Repeat for a total of four reps, five sets, ascending in weight each set.
Photo credit: baranq