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Movement Spotlight: Overhead Squat

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By Coach Jenna

One of the movements we’ll be addressing a lot this cycle is the overhead squat. In my experience, it’s one of the most-loved and most-loathed movements in all of CrossFit. Nothing exposes weaknesses in flexibility, balance, and stability like the overhead squat, which is why it’s such a valuable tool for CrossFitters.

Tight ankles? You’ll definitely see that in the overhead squat. Lacking core strength? You’ll likely struggle with this movement. “But I have a 400# back squat, why do I need to overhead squat?” Well, you don’t, but you do CrossFit because you want to be a well-rounded, versatile athlete, right? Also, proficiency with the overhead squat will translate to bigger numbers in the snatch, and who doesn’t want that? Here are a few tips to help you improve.

  • Figure out your mobility issues, and then — this is the key! — work on them. During the squat, we have to keep the bar perfectly balanced in the frontal plane (aka in line with the heels). This requires excellent mobility in the shoulders, upper back, hips, and ankles. If you find the bar going forward as you descend into your squat, chances are your shoulders and back are tight. If depth as well as bar position is the issue, you probably have some tightness in your hips. Work on mobilizing these areas frequently and you’ll notice a difference in your overhead squat. Remember, improvement in mobility is more about frequency than volume — 10 minutes a day is better than an hour once or twice a week.  
  • Work on your core strength. The overhead squat demands an abundance of core strength and stability, so if you’re lacking in that area, you open yourself up to possible lower back injury with heavy overhead squats. Always think about keeping your glutes tight and your ribcage down throughout the movement. In addition, spend some extra time working on your core strength; think hollow rocks, strict toes to bar, planks, and bridges.
  • Don’t start with a PVC pipe. Try a 15-pound training bar. It’s almost impossible to get hurt with a training bar, and a PVC pipe is so light that you could be developing bad positioning without even realizing it. The training bar will expose weaknesses much faster, and also forces you to engage your core, which a PVC pipe does not.
  • Press up as you squat. You need to constantly think about pushing up on the bar and remaining active, even as you descend. The shoulders should be elevated and the armpits pushed outward. Many of you have heard me say “show me your armpits.” It’s not because I have an armpit fetish — it’s a helpful cue to keep in mind that will help you stay active during the movement.
  • Don’t rush. Make sure you’re using a slow, controlled descent, and don’t rush out of the bottom. Don’t hesitate to pause and get comfortable down there. Once you feel solid and stable, stand up while pushing up on the bar. Moving too fast, even with light load, can cause the lift to come crashing down like a house of cards.
  • With practice, you’ll be able to keep your hands closer together and still keep the bar in the frontal plane. However, when you first start out, you will likely have to sacrifice some stability for a lack of mobility. The wider you have your hands, the easier it is to achieve full range of motion, but it’s a bit less stable. Over time, you’ll find the sweet spot where you feel most comfortable, and you can bring your hands closer together over time.

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