Contributed photo by Bodytribe. Photo of Kat by Christine Ferreira
Published with photo sequence at Weightlifting Exchange
The Overhead Squat (OHS) sits at the royal roundtable of the most efficient and rewarding weightlifting exercises. It works the entire body, increases strength, power, flexibility, coordination, and develops postural lean mass, which should be a priority for any intelligent bipedal.
The OHS appears deceptively simple; yet learning it can be very challenging. Even though it is designed, as all the Olympic-style weightlifting exercises are, to put the entire body through its most ergonomically engineered paces, it is nevertheless an unnatural movement. This article is both for the novice and the lifter already performing the lift who seeks some nitty-gritty details on form and technique, to give the thinking lifter some explanation and keys to executing this successfully.
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 try 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.
Furthermore, there are far greater instances in work history that a person, if descending with an overhead object, needs to buffet it away in order to keep it from crashing onto oneself, than to catch it and return with it overhead with arms extended. So there is a certain amount of instinctive response and primal muscle memory that must be overcome.
To learn to press into the bar continually, focus on it through auxillary overhead work - overhead presses, the Jerk Support and Recovery, etc. - whatever exercises you're doing to assist in developing overhead strength. This means focusing on fully contracting every muscle involved in keeping a load overhead, at every moment. Thought cue: be constantly lifting/pushing the weight, never just holding it. This allows more muscles to support the overhead position. It won't look like a shrug, but it will feel like you're trying to perform one.
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.
Now, don't confuse this with trying to maintain a vertical posture. It's not like a ball squat, where you try to keep your spine ramrod straight, like a chairback. If you do that, you'll fall down. You will fold a bit on the descent, basically bending over, but at the hip joint. So allow the angle of your torso to change, just don't round your back, droop your neck, unlock your shoulders, or look down.
4. Stabilize in the hole. When you descend in the squat, don't rush out of it too soon. Be sure you're ready to go. That means stabilize yourself and bar. Be sure you're flatfooted, shoulders and elbows turned out and locked. Then and only then will you be able to rise with minimal risk of losing the bar. This is not only going to help in the squat; if you're going to perform squat snatches, it's basic groundwork. Watch slow motion videos of the pros snatch and you'll see they take their time at the bottom, allowing their bodies and the bar to settle in before rising. Just don't hang out there until your muscles lose tension completely, or you could get stuck.
Once you start back up, think of your hip flexors as springloaded. By shifting your focus from taking your cue from the glutes to the hip flexors, you'll get a faster cue from your nervous system and be better able to detect the "bounce" point. You'll also consciously engage your anterior muscles. This is important because most people are trained to focus on engaging their posterior muscles in learning the basic (back) squat, but the OHS is more of a front squat exercise than back, so by focusing on the glutes instead of the hip flexors, your body is more likely to follow the neuromuscular pathways you've set up for the back squat than to engage the biomechanics necessary to maintain an overhead press while executing a squat. This means that you're likely to naturally fall into the pattern of leaning forward, which is what you do with a bar lying across your shoulders, and flex your elbows, which will lead to you tipping forward and possibly dumping the bar.
5. Use your wrists and hands. It takes every muscle involved in the OHS to maintain the proper trajectory of the bar for balance. The bar should be situated in line with a point just behind the ears. As the body moves through the vertical plane, each joint must make slight adjustments to maintain this fixed point. Be actively aware of what your wrists and hands are doing, for they are primarily responsible for holding and positioning the bar, so hold onto it! The fine-tuning points on this grip may mean adjusting throughout the movement, so that the fingers extend slightly and the bar rolls out toward the fingertips as the body becomes closer to the ground. This is the opposite of what would happen if you were buffeting or catching an object overhead when you hit the bottom.
6. Push with your feet. Your feet are your foundation. Assume your starting position by positioning your feet first. Your stance should be slightly wider than your shoulders, toes angled out. Note that if you're tall, and your stance is too narrow, you're going to have balance problems, so experiment until you find a secure width that you don't struggle in. Be sure your shoes have firm soles and allow the footbed to fully extend. Throughout the movement, be actively aware of the load on your feet, and when you transfer into the bounce, push your feet "into the floor."
Contributed photo by Bodytribe. Photo of Kat by Christine Ferreira