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The Overhead Squat

The Overhead Squat

A potent core exercise, the overhead squat, is an extremely effective exercise to have in your fitness toolbox.  This highly functional movement 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 overhead squat is to mid-line control, stability, and balance what the clean and snatch are to power— unsurpassed. Ironically, the overhead squat is exceedingly simple yet universally nettlesome for beginners.

There are three common obstacles to learning the overhead squat:

The first is the scarcity of skilled instruction—outside of the Olympic lifting community most instruction on the overhead squat is laughably horribly, wrong—dead wrong.

The second is a weak squat—you need to have a rock-solid squat to learn the overhead squat.

The third obstacle is starting with too much weight—you haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of learning the overhead squat with a bar. You’ll need to use a length of dowel or plastic PVC pipe; use anything over five pounds to learn this move and your overhead squat will not develop properly.

The overhead squat increase the challenge of the front squat by elevating the load to arm's length overhead.  

Those who are unable to keep an upright torso while squatting, or who may have a good squat, but lack adequate shoulder flexion, should make sure that they first qualify themselves for overhead squatting by passing the hands up overhead squat test.

If you are unable to pass the overhead squat test, then during strength training time, performing front squats and mobilizing between sets may be a great option.

During conditioning or workout time, performing a different movement is a must.  No amount of mangles overhead squats with a light load will add up to proficiency with the overhead squat.

Here is an example seven step process for learning the overhead squat:

1. Start only when you have a strong squat and use a dowel or PVC pipe, not a weight. You should be able to maintain a rock-bottom squat with your back arched, head and eyes forward, and body weight predominantly on your heels for several minutes as a prerequisite to the overhead squat. Even a 15-pound training bar is way too heavy to learn the overhead squat.

2. Learn locked-arm “dislocates” or “pass-throughs” with the dowel. You want to be able to move the dowel nearly three-hundred and sixty degrees starting with the dowel down and at arms length in front of your body and then move it in a wide arc until it comes to rest down and behind you without so much as slightly bending your arms at any point in its travel. Start with a grip wide enough to easily pass through, and then repeatedly bring the hands in closer until passing through presents a moderate stretch of the shoulders. This is your training grip.

3. Be able to perform the pass-through at the top,the bottom, and everywhere in between while descending into the squat. Practice by stopping at several points on the path to the bottom, hold, and gently, slowly, swing the dowel from front to back, again, with locked arms. At the bottom of each squat slowly bring the dowel back and forth moving from front to back.

4. Learn to find the frontal plane with the dowel from every position in the squat. Practice this with your eyes closed. You want to develop a keen sense of where the frontal plane is located. This is the same drill as step 3 but this time you are bringing the dowel to a stop in the frontal plane and holding briefly with each pass-through. Have a training partner check to see if at each stop the dowel is in the frontal plane.

5. Start the overhead squat by standing straight and tall with the dowel held as high as possible in the frontal plane.
You want to start with the dowel directly overhead, not behind you, or, worse yet, even a little bit in front.

6. Very slowly lower to the bottom of the squat, keeping the dowel in the frontal plane the entire time.  Have a training partner watch from your side to make sure that the dowel does not move forward or backward as you squat to bottom. Moving slightly behind the frontal plane is O.K., but forward is dead wrong. If you cannot keep the dowel from coming forward your grip may be too narrow. The dowel will not stay in the frontal plane automatically; you’ll have to pull it back very deliberately as you descend.

7. Practice the overhead squat regularly and increase load in tiny increments. We can put a 2.5-pound plate on the dowel, then a 5, then a 5 and a 2.5, and then a 10. Next use a 15-pound training bar, but only while maintaining perfect form. There’s no benefit to adding weight if the dowel, and later the bar, cannot be kept in the frontal plane.

With practice, you will be able to bring your hands closer together and still keep the bar in the frontal plane. Ultimately you can develop enough control and flexibility to descend to a rock bottom squat with your feet together and hands together without the dowel coming forward. Practicing for this is a superb warm-up and cool-down drill and stretch.

The overhead squat develops core control by punishing any forward wobble of the load with an enormous and instant increase in the moment about the hip and back. When the bar is held perfectly overhead and still, which is nearly impossible, the overhead squat does not present greater load on the hip or back, but moving too fast, along the wrong line of action, or wiggling can bring even the lightest loads down like a house of cards.

You’ve two, and only two, safe options for bailing out – dumping the load forward and stepping or falling backward or dumping backward and stepping or falling forward. Both are safe and easy. Lateral escapes are not an option.

The difference between your overhead squat and your back or ront squat is a solid measure of your mid-line stability and control and the precision of your squatting posture and line of action. Improving and developing your overhead squat will fix faults not visible in the back and front squat.
As your max overhead, back, and front squat each rise, their relative measure reveals much about your developing potential for athletic movement.

An average of your max back and front squat is an excellent measure of your core, hip, and leg strength. Your max overhead squat is an excellent measure of your core stability and control and ultimately your ability to generate effective and efficient athletic power.

Your max overhead squat will always be a fraction of the average of your max back and front squat but, ideally, with time, they should converge rather than diverge.

Should they diverge, you are developing hip and core strength, but your capacity to efficiently apply power distally is reduced. In athletic pursuits you may be prone to injury. Should they converge, you are developing useful strength and power that can be successfully applied to athletic movements.

The functional application or utility of the overhead squat may not be readily apparent, but there are many real-world occurrences where objects high enough to get under are too heavy or not free enough to be jerked or pressed overhead yet can be elevated by first lowering your hips until your arms can be locked and then squatting upwards.

Once developed, the overhead squat is a thing of beauty—a masterpiece of expression in control, stability, balance, efficient power, and utility. Get on it.

Mobility Screen: Hands Overhead Squat Test

Practice Ability Screen: Front Squat x 5 reps
Mobility Preferences: Pass Throughs 15 reps w PVC, Seated Shoulder Flexion 30 seconds with 15# barbell, 
Strength Preferences: Front Squat 25% bodyweight x 5 reps

Expectations and Goals:
Life: Overhead Squat PVC x 5 reps
Fitness: Overhead Squat 50% bodyweight x 5 reps
Performance: Overhead Squat 75% bodyweight x 15 reps

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