Lidia Valentin (left) and Lu Xiaojun (right). Notice the position of their wrists, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles.
The question posed this week to the CFDV Coaches was this:
What do you think is the biggest problem area that you’ve seen with the overhead squat and how do you go about correcting it?
Rob: I believe that the best way to mobilize for the OHS is to do the OHS. If an athlete is having problems, lower the weight until the movement can be done correctly and slowly/carefully build from there.
Larry: Rob, so what you’re saying is that if I do the thing, start slow, be patient, and keep at it that I’ll get better at said thing? I’m sorry but that answer makes too much sense. I’m going to need a more ambiguous response full of $5 words and anatomy terms that make people’s eyes glaze over. Please try again.
Rob: HAHA! Yes, that’s correct. Seriously, though: CrossFit is a mirror for life. Shortcuts generally don’t work. If I’m dealing with a client I usually tell it like this: Start with consistency. Train the movement every time you walk in the door. Then, gently add intensity. What do you do if you added too much? Reduce intensity and climb again. Finally, get your nutrition straight, ya filthy animal!
Nick: I have like a million thoughts on this lift (because it’s my favorite). But I will limit myself.
The number 1 biggest problem I see, without a doubt, is athletes not taking the time to establish a stable set up before they initiate the squat. If you aren’t 100% locked in, tight with your midline aligned with the barbell when you set up, it’s extremely unlikely the situation will improve as you squat.
If someone can’t demonstrate a perfect set up for me they aren’t allowed to bend their knees and hips yet.
2. Second biggest problem is rushing. We do so many explosive lifts, powerful movements and high intensity met cons in CrossFit we aren’t always accustomed to SLOWING WAY DOWN. Out insincts are working against us here telling us to rush out of challenging positions, powering or dropping through unsustainable positions. It’s very important to keep in mind that the OH squat isn’t first and foremost a test of strength: It’s a test of coordination, balance, flexibility and control.
I prefer to train this lift with exaggeratedly slow eccentrics and long deliberate pauses in the extreme bottom position. I find this makes a tremendous difference.
Also the bottoms up KB squat is an invaluable precursor to OH squatting. 100x safer, requires same level of total focus, penalizes you immediately if you try to go fast or rush and it is similar in that it teaches you how to create global stability and make your body “one piece.”
Kevin: I agree with Nick’s second point. A lot of lifts are failed or look shaky, especially when heavy, because the athlete rushes on the way down.
Another problem is attaining a solid overhead position and maintaining it throughout the movement. I feel like elbow and armpit position is debatable, but most are a fan of external shoulder rotation to get armpits straight ahead and elbow pits to the ceiling. The one thing I think everyone agrees on is you must be applying upward pressure on the bar the entire time. An exercise that could help is the sotts press.
Larry: Nick, for the bottoms up KB Squat is the KB overhead or racked at the shoulder? Also, I think Mark Rippetoe said it best in describing the Olympic lifts as an “expression of strength.”
Nick: Neither. Check it out. I think Coach Ripp also said that Olympic weightlifting is gymnastics with a barbell!
Larry: Shit gets weird in Texas.
Nick: One more thought. Can you tell I love this topic?
I think one of the most challenging aspects of this movement, both for athletes and coaches, is that when flexibility problems crop up we aren’t always able to immediately address in a matter of minutes. So do you have them practice OH squats with sub-standard movement? Reduce range of motion? What if its a metcon?
A great scale I’ve used before that makes me breathe a little easier as a coach and gives the athlete a great sense of success in the moment is the OH static lunge.
This allows the athlete to work on active shoulders, lowering and raising the midline and creating global stability and doesn’t require NEARLY as much flexibility. Much safer if an athlete clearly has some compensations that aren’t going to be resolved immediately.
It’s really easy for beginners especially to feel disheartened and demoralized when a movement seems to be light years away from where they are. So having a similar movement that’s more accessible but achieves a similar training stimulus is great!
Kara: This is a seriously non-pro tip, but when it comes to OHS in metcons, I’ve found that the first 1 or 2 will always suck, but if you just commit and keep your shoulders locked into your ears, they’ll get better. So I always tell myself this before an OHS metcon starts: It’s going to feel terrible at first, but just suck it up and it will gradually feel better, and then I will be done and I can eat nachos because I finished.
Larry: At the end of the day the overhead squat is difficult because it’s not something you would ever do outside of the gym. It doesn’t appear in nature so it’s a brand new movement pattern for the brain and body to learn. As the saying goes, “Perfect practice makes perfect. Shitty practice makes perfect shit.” Use the lessons mentioned above, create stability from the top down, go slow, and only squat as deep as you can maintain perfect form. Once your chest drops, shoulders round/arm pits face the floor, heels come off the floor…STOP and start again from the top. Patience and consistency will get you there, but you need both.
All right, CFDV, now it’s your turn. If you’ve had any lightbulb moments with the overhead squat, or have a mobility exercise that you really like, share them in the comments below.