Originally published on May 5 2010
Although much is made of bar position for the overhead squat, the precise position needed is not as exact as often claimed, and the right position for each individual will vary somewhat. The basic bar position for the overhead squat is barbell held overhead and lined up in the imaginary “pocket” between the scapula and the back of the ears. Some people teach this as being between the shoulders and ears. It doesn’t make a lot of difference. The bar will be somewhere in that area and with practice, you will develop the proper position. However, the two variables that affect this position are grip width and related shoulder mobility. I want to begin by talking about some of the well-meaning but mistaken advice on these issues.
Grip Width for the Overhead Squat
The grip width for an overhead squat will always be wider than shoulder-width and probably a good bit wider. The widest grip option is what is known as the snatch grip. The snatch grip got its name for the common wide grip used in the performance of the Olympic Snatch Lift.
The Snatch Lift did not derive its name form the grip. A wide grip is simply used by many lifters because it lessens the distance the bar must travel, helps with mobility under the bar, and imparts more lateral control to the bar (bar is more controlled “side to side”). This grip is usually found by approximating the distance between the elbows when both arms are abducted to 90 degrees.
Not many overhead squatters will choose a wide grip because of distance or control issues. They will choose it because thoracic and shoulder mobility will not allow them to use a more narrow grip during the descent of the squat.
Although you may be able to place the bar in position with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip during the standing/starting position of the squat the shoulders will be pulled forward as you descend and many will not be able to compensate. A wider grip lessens this forward pull. Even so, most lifters have to actively “reach back” as they descend.
Many trainees use a grip that is much too wide due to a lack of mobility. The more narrow your grip the more weight you will be able to support overhead in the long run. Some trainees may choose a grip that is “too narrow” but this means it is too narrow for them to perform the lift rather than too narrow to be “correct”. There is no physical reason that a narrow grip cannot be used if mobility allows it although a too narrow grip cuts down on the lateral control of the bar somewhat and with increasing weight, this can become more of an issue. Therefore, caution dictates a slightly wider grip than shoulder grip, or wider if necessary.
Reaching Back to Compensate
It is not only shoulder flexibility that affects the overhead squat. Thoracic mobility also plays a major role. The idea of shoulder flexibility for the overhead squat does not take into account what happens during the actual dynamics of the squat. As you descend in the overhead squat you must keep the bar lined up in the imaginary pocket between your ears and scapula. A frequent misteaching places the bar over your scapula. Keeping the bar over your scapula means that it doesn’t matter what your torso does and you can simply continually push the bar back while the torso declines forward. The bar will be over the scapula while your eyes are starting to face the floor! Although there will be some torso decline, initiated at the hips, the amount of torso decline some trainees display is ridiculous.
You would not compensate for a back or front squat by moving the bar to a different position yet people routinely move the bar to a different relative position as they descend into the overhead squat. The bar should never migrate from the pocket. The body should compensate in order to keep the bar over the center of the feet.
Trainees who overhead squat by reaching too far back with the bar will never be able to support very heavy loads. They also have less control over the bar and may be in an unsafe position if ever it comes time to dump the bar. The proper way to dump the bar during an overhead squat is to push the bar behind you or in front of you, let go, and move out of the way quickly. Having the torso over-inclined with the shoulders flexed to their end range of motion is not a position that allows one to safely dump the bar.
One way to illustrate to yourself that it is not just a shoulder mobility problem is to try an overhead lunge. Many trainees will have no problem keeping the bar back during a deep overhead lunge even with a relatively narrow shoulder-width grip but would never be able to do the same for a squat.
Overhead Squat Facing Wall Test and Drill
Test yourself by performing overhead squats while facing a wall. If you are as yet unable to use a barbell, you can use a long wooden dowel or another such implement, as it is suitable. Start with your toes about six or so inches from the wall. You should be able to squat not only without the bar or dowel contacting the wall but without planting your face against it too. If the initial distance is okay for you then move your toes a little closer to the wall. The goal is to be able to squat with your toes touching the wall. Once you can do this with a deep squat you have not only achieved the mobility but you have learned to distribute your weight properly.
If you cannot do this then you do not have a good overhead squat yet. There are mobility exercises below that may help you and meanwhile, you can keep using the wall as a gauge. If you need to elevate your heels then do so but make it a goal also to get rid of the heel elevation. A couple of small plates will work to elevate your heels but a piece of lumber will work better and be more stable.
Try thoracic extensions on the foam roller to get started loosening up the thoracic spine area.
Don’t Do shoulder Dislocates
Personally I hate so-called ‘dislocates’. This is the practice of bringing the bar up over your head and then back behind your head in a circle. I can’t think of any positive to having your arms behind your head with a bar or anything else in your hands. However, dislocates are routinely recommended to increase shoulder mobility for the overhead squat. They are done with barbells, wooden dowels, bands, ropes, or towels.
A typical drill might start in the standing position. The trainee does dislocates for a certain number of reps. Then with the arms in the OH squat position he descends a bit into the squat and does more dislocates. Then he descends a bit more, etc. and so on.
The problem is that this teaches you to overcompensate for true functional mobility with hyper-flexibility in the shoulders. Essentially you are using the “over-reaching reach back” as a training method.
A few dislocates may be good as a loosening up exercise for stubborn shoulders but the overhead squat is not a shoulder mobility exercise! It’s a squat. Yes, shoulder mobility plays a large role but the shoulder mobility should be trained simultaneously with spine mobility as well as overall deep squat mobility.
Why The Shoulders Are Pulled Forward in the Overhead Squat
The reason your shoulders are pulled forward during the overhead squat is that there are fascial lines from foot to head and as these lines are made taut slack must be created somewhere. In this case, it’s your shoulders. The cure is not to focus on the shoulders but to work on the entire body as a unit.
To improve your mobility for the overhead squat and all other squatting it’s best to use actual squat mobility drills. Although “hip mobility” exercises are a useful part of your overall mobility plan the fastest way to develop your deep squat is to use drills that involve an actual squat-like position.
To work on this you need to work on the deep squat as a whole because your body is essentially “stiff”.
You may want to try the deep squat progression which was outlined by Gray Cook. I will summarize the basics below but for the complete picture see Athletic Body in Balance. See also the Swiss Ball Overhead Squat Drill, below, designed by myself.
The Overhead Squat aka “Deep Squat Test” is an integral part of the so-called functional movement screen (FMS) developed by Gray Cook and an overhead squat assessment is often an integral part of checking full-body mobility. Although I do not believe in the merits of such screens, the drill itself is certainly useful. My idea of a “pass” on the overhead squat is a bit different than Cook’s however since as a strength trainer I think of what will happen when lots of weight is on the bar and nut just what happens during the initial phases of learning a lift. The early phases of skill learning, even taking into consideration restrictions in mobility, is often a very poor indicator of later stages, whether the initial performance seems “good” in a superficial way or “bad” in a superficial way.
Create Length in the Spine
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to correct and master your squat is to “create length.” This simple instruction can have a great general benefit to your overall health (in terms of pain and injury) and performance.
The first thing you want to do as you set up for the overhead squat (and any squat) is to imagine that you are elongating your body. Your arms should reach for the ceiling and you should try to do the same with your entire body.
The scapula should be elevated throughout the performance of the overhead squat. With the arms and bar in the overhead position shrug the shoulder up and lock them there. During the descent continue to maintain this shrug (and thus scapular elevation) and do not let up. Actively “lengthen” your spine as if you are not only trying to reach your arms to the ceiling but also your head.
Watch other trainees closely while they perform the overhead squat and you may notice that the bar tends to dip forward as soon as they reach the bottom and stop descending. At the same time, they start to go into flexion. This is because they have stopped extending, to put it simply. Although you are moving down into the squat as you flex your hips, knees, and ankles you should still be thinking “up” with the rest of your body. This keeps you tight and locked into position so that you will not have to re-establish body position and stability before beginning the ascent.
This lesson could be summed up as never think about the floor but about the bar. You go down but you don’t think “I’m going down”! When we think about going down, and even go so far as to look down, we tend to go into flexion. Always actively push up against the bar. As Kat Ricker points out in her excellent article “Six Tips for the Overhead Squat” there is a certain amount of instinct involved with having a heavy weight overhead. As you move down the body wants to move the weight away from you to keep it from falling on your head!
One tip that Ricker gives that I don’t agree with (it’s a very common cue) is to focus on your feet and “push against the floor”. Again, focusing your attention on the floor tends to create the very situation we are trying to avoid. And if you want to be able to spring out of the hole then the emphasis should be on a powerful extension of the body not a simple push with the feet. You can’t move the floor. Your aim is to move the bar.
Always remember that when you perform an exercise you have very little time and opportunity to think and correct. The heavier the weight is or the faster the movement is the less time you will have, up to almost nil. So use the cue that gives you the best bang for your buck, so to speak. By telling a trainee to think both about extension and about pushing the floor we have simply divided precious resources AND given too many cues.
The trick is to learn to keep the weight centered where it needs to be and then think of your body as a big spring ready to extend. And this is exactly what is happening during the performance of the squat. The joints responsible for the body segments are extending. The result is indeed a push against the floor but the PURPOSE of the muscle action is the EXTEND THE JOINTS and thus the body. Don’t divide your purpose!
The scapula going into depression as you descend will often force one or both elbows into flexion also causing you to dump the bar. If you are having trouble locking your elbows during the overhead squat, then first make sure that you are shrugging the shoulders up. And if you have trouble doing this, test both shoulders separately. If you have scapular mobility or stability issues and are unable to maintain elevation and retraction in one or both sides then you will need to work on this separately.
Overhead shrugs can help you train this scapular elevation. Also, kerks (just the last portion of the clean and jerk) can be a great way to learn to support more weight overhead while also training dynamic stability and force transfer. The advantage is you can get more weight overhead than you can press. Those who develop a heavy overhead squat may need to use the jerk movement to get the weight overhead anyway so learning the jerk is a good idea and is not as difficult to learn as the clean portion. A push press can also be used but the jerk will still allow more weight to be hoisted for most trainees (after a proper period of practice of course).
Neck position is important and can be tricky. Slightly tuck your chin but look up with your eyes while extending the spine.
Deep Squat Progression
1. Stand with your heels on a one or two-inch board or platform and your feet shoulder-width apart or wider. Have a 4 to 6-inch block centered in front of your feet. Some phonebooks or other large books will do for this. You can gradually reduce the height as you go until you get rid of them altogether.
2. Bend forward until the entire palm can be laid on books or other block or platform. The lower you can use the better. keep your heels down and the knees extended but do NOT lock them out completely (slightly bent).
3. While keeping your hands flat on the books slowly descend into a squat position by bending your hips, knees, and ankles simultaneously. The knees should go to the outside of the elbows so that the elbows are able to push outward on the knees.
4. Try to keep your feet still and in the same position. Push your knees out instead of letting your feet drift out (when you actually squat you will not likely be doing it with your feet straight ahead but for this mobility drill try to point them forward).
5. Sit as deeply into a squat as you can. Relax into it. You may feel a stretch. Hold it for about 15 to 20 seconds. If you can’t get a deep squat then use a higher heel lift and/or a higher hand platform.
6. Once you can sit in the squat without moving the heels or hands progress by raising one arm up high as if reaching for the sky. Do not change your foot or knee position and do not shift your weight. Turn your head toward the working side and look up toward your hand.
7. Repeat on the other side. If one side is tighter work it more. The goal is to keep the lower body relaxed with the upper body moving freely. Once you have equal mobility on both sides and can do it relaxed move on to dong both hands at once so that they are both overhead in a Y position, taking your hands as far back as possible, again, without changing lower body position.
8. Once step 7 is achieved try standing up out of the deep squat position and perform repetitions by repeating the steps starting with the bent forward position and the hands on the platform or books. Do 10 or 12 reps for practice. Once that is easy work on getting rid of the heal elevation and the hand platform.
This is the cliff note version. For the full explanation and other drills see the book. Since this will involve somewhat prolonged holds in a “stretched” position do not attempt to use this drill as part of a pre-workout mobility routine. Your coordination will be compromised greatly and you will be weaker. Use it after the workout or at other times.
The Swiss Ball Overhead Squat Drill
I get tired of all the abuse the Swiss ball gets because some trainers misuse it. Just because you can hit someone in the head with a hammer doesn’t mean a hammer is a bad tool.
This exercise uses a Swiss ball (fitness ball) against a wall to provide outside support while you practice getting into a deep overhead squat position.
You can do this with or without a dowel and it’s best to do it both ways. Most of the guidelines of this exercise are similar to the one above so keep those in mind while performing the drill.
1. Place a Swiss ball between your lower back or glutes and a clear space of wall so that you are holding the ball against the wall. Stand up straight and do NOT lean into the ball. Just allow a light touch between your body, the ball, and the wall. Feet should be shoulder-width or a little wider. Hands should be down in front of your body, shoulders squared, and chest out.
2. If you are using a dowel it should be placed right in front of your toes so that you can easily access it.
3. While allowing the Swiss ball to provide a little support sink into a deep squat position while your arms make contact with the outside of your knees. (If the ball rolls all the way to your upper back then you will need to place it lower at the starting position).
4. Relax into as deep a squat as possible and if needed let your arms push your knees out. Try to “open” your hips and let your torso sink down BETWEEN your legs, not behind them.
5. Hold the deep squat position for around 20 seconds and as you do let yourself “wiggle” deeper into it. This portion of the drill is more a stretch. Do not allow your feet to move or your body to change position. Just sink deeper.
It may be that just getting into the deep squat is enough for you. The ball will provide outside stability allowing your “mobility” to be free so you may find you go deeper than you normally would. Remember that this is NOT a Swiss Ball squat that people do by leaning in to the ball and focusing the movement on the quadriceps (much like the ‘wall sitting exercise’).
Once you feel comfortable with a nice and full squat position move on to the “overhead” portion of the drill, steps 6-8.
6. From the deep squat position with your arms between your knees reach and pick up the dowel that you placed in front of your feet at the beginning of the drill. Widen your grip on the dowel a bit but only as much as you need to.
7. Bring the dowel overhead and as far back as possible using your entire upper body, not just the shoulder joints. Stretch back as if you are doing a thoracic extension. Pull the dowel apart to allow the shoulders to pull back a bit more but keep the dowel lined up between the back of your ears and scapula. The bar should not move back further than this, your body should.
8. If you are not using a dowel you can bring up both hands or one hand at a time, depending on what you are capable of and then follow the same directions as in step seven, minus the dowel.
Several versions of this can be done. You can start in the with the dowel already in the overhead squat position and pause at various levels during the descent of the squat to stretch back.
Just as in the first drill this drill should not be used as part of a pre-workout mobility routine. Consider it more a stretch. The sustained periods of time in the deep position will take a lot out of you. And if you do the pauses during the descent you will be spent.
This article, although long and in-depth, is by no means meant to cover every problem a trainee might encounter. Nor does it take into account previous injury history. Never do anything that causes you pain. Discomfort is to be expected but pain is not.