MOTM: The Overhead Squat

A few years back, the overhead squat was seldom seen in big brand commercial gyms. Bicep curls and leg extensions were the order of the day, but thanks to the rise of garage gyms, functional trainers and CrossFit – the OHS is fast becoming an addition to many athletes plans, beginners and pros alike. Fifteen OHS reps at bodyweight used to be the gold standard for core strength in Crossfit, and they’ve just updated it, you need to do 15 reps at 1.25 times your body weight. Watch the four time champ, Rich Froning, do it here. It’s also a cherished training weapon for the best coaches in the world. One example is Dan John, one of my favourite coaches and legendary training icons. The OHS is a staple in his athletic diet and coaching method. “Nobody, NOBODY, just walks in and does 15 reps of OHS at bodyweight without training hard and steady. The ability to do this standard can only come from hard, steady work. Hard work, although some may deny this, is the number one factor in success in sports and life,” says Dan. As always, Dan is on point. Even though it doesn’t have the classic muscle-building appeal of the basic powerlifting moves or the Olympic staples of Clean and Jerk and the Snatch, I personally think it should part of everyone’s bag of training tricks. Even if you aren’t a serious weightlifter, you can still gain a great deal from the OHS. My coach has been heaping a lot of this work on me lately, and it’s been a gamechanger. Here’s why:


  1. It’s one of the best total body moves. It goes without saying (or at least should be) that unless you are training for aesthetics (like bodybuilders), then total body or compound moves offer you both a versatility and an interconnected strength that isolated moves like curls will never provide. I’m not a hater on focused, single joint moves, but if I had to do one move for the rest of my life – it would be some kind of squat or compound move. In fact, it would probably be the OHS. “Train the whole body. Although lifting fashion tends to come and go, overall the successful athletes used whole body exercises,” explains Dan. He says the OHS builds “Dad strength”, which is possible the best training description ever. It perfectly nails that real-world, connected strength that takes years to build. “It turns your body into ‘one piece,’ but unfortunately, for the past few years, misguided athletes have been taught to do upper body one day, lower body another. Or worse, front of the thighs one day and back of the thighs another. One day soon, people will be asked to train the muscles that pull the left thigh in, then rest that overfatigued muscle for the next 21 days. Wait, you’re right. It is already happening.” Sound advice from the big man.
  2. It quickly reveals weaknesses and imbalances. Man, this is a move with no compromise, no negotiation. If you even have a slight issue with your shoulder flexibility or squat technique – then you’re going to crumple like wet newspaper with even a broomstick overhead. The OHS requires the balancing skills and stability of a gymnast, and it can make even the strongest lifter look silly. “It requires total concentration, total lockout and perfect positions. There’s no cheating; one can’t squirm, roll the knees or hips, or let other body parts help kick in,” says Dan. “The athlete who completes this task will have strong, flexible legs. You can send your athletes to all the yoga classes in the world, but the overhead squat develops athletic flexibility.” For me, this is one of the main reasons why free weights will always trump machines – the stabilisation needed to keep the barbell moving in the right plane is demanding. “The overhead squat is often used in physical therapy as a method to assess structural balance,” says Charles Poliquin, Strength Sensei and legendary coach. It also forms part of some of the famous screening tests, ones like the Gray Functional Movement Screen. Some cues you can look out for: if your knees buckle inwards, then you’ve probably got tight adductors (inside your thighs) and weak gluteus medius (in your butt, hip area). Lower back flattens? Tight hammies and weak lower back. Your arms drop forwards? Tight lats and weak upper back (rhomboids). Get your coach or trainer to watch your movement and then get him or her to prescribe fixes in your training.
  3. It can improve the functioning of your shoulder joint. Men have got it rough when it comes to shoulder joints. When compared to women, most of our shoulders are either smashed from repetitive strain injuries (mostly due to sports), rounded from too much bench and too little back training, or unstable thanks to previous dislocations and injuries. And all three can lead to bad posture and neck and back issues down the line. A review from the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that shoulders were the most commonly injured area. The good news? One of the benefits of the OHS is that it can help improve your shoulder joints range of movement, and help prevent future injuries. “The overhead squat is an exercise that helps to correct the structural imbalances associated with round shoulders,” states the Poliquin Group editorial staff. It’ll make the joint stronger and more secure, and you’ll feel more comfortable holding anything overhead. The only popping you’ll be doing will be the moves you do on the dance floor.
  4. It’s like training wheels for the snatch. Want to feel more comfortable in “the hole” (bottom of the squat) or with handling scary weights overhead? Then the OHS is muscle medicine for you. Spend time at the bottom of an OHS, and you’re teaching your body the blueprint to a better snatch.
Start with your feet in a normal squat position, holding a broomstick or PVC pipe overhead. Grip width is a tricky one, as it differs for individual needs. The Poliquin Staff team recommend this yardstick: raise your arms directly out to your sides and then lift them half the distance to your head, that’s your OHS grip. Those who have long arms will be more comfortable with a slightly wider grip. Once you’ve got your grip sorted, make sure your arms are straight, armpits aiming as forward as possible. Then drop down in a controlled movement, keeping your chest up. Once you’ve broken parallel with the squat, you can push back up to the start. If you get these points right, then you can pile on the plates. If you get one wrong, stick with the broomstick pr PVC until it’s fixed. A damaged ego is one thing, but it’s not as painful or costly as a popped shoulder.
  1. Knees track outwards and heels stay flat the whole time
  2. Arms stay straight, and head is level throughout movement.
  3. You hit proper depth on the squat. Or as the Americans like to drawl: “Ass to grass.”
  4. The bar travels in a straight path that lines up with the middle of your feet.

THE STANDARD: 15 reps at bodyweight. Or if you want to take on the top dogs, do 15 reps at 1.25 x bodyweight.

Once you’ve nailed the normal OHS, there are a few other moves you can try. One is the Snatch Balance, and the other is the an OHS with a pause at the bottom, or with a tempo pace (3 seconds down, 2 seconds hold at the bottom, and then 1 second up). You can also try with a closer grip, as that’ll help build more shoulder stability and flexibility. My coach has added all three to the training plan, and they do make a big difference.

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