4 Common Errors in the Overhead Squat

This morning our “strength” element at the gym was 5×3 Overhead Squat. I coached the morning classes and in coaching the classes was reminded of some common misconceptions about the OHS and some common errors we see that are relatively easy to fix.

Here’s my disclaimer for the OHS that needs to be put on a banner and plastered all over EVERY Crossfit gmy in the country. The OHS is not primarily a strength-building exercise. Certainly your legs are working and your shoulders and thoracic spine are working but more work is being done to stabilize the weight than move it. Only for the tiny percentage of people out there who are so proficient at the OHS that they are able to load a significant amount of weight on the bar does the exercise become majorly beneficial for strength. For the rest of us out there, the OHS is primarily a developer of agility, balance, mobility, and stability (yes that’s another way to develop strength). It doesn’t take a perceptive coach long to see that, inside a Crossfit gym, athletes/clients don’t fail at the OHS because of weakness but instead because of some horrid technical or mobility failure. I preached this morning that the OHS has a higher risk for injury than of most every exercise in the fitness world. Think about it. A lunge when done incorrectly doesn’t have near the injury potential. A snatch when performed incorrectly generally ends in a miss rather than a poorly performed rep. An OHS however creates a situation where athletes will grind through reps in terrible positions putting their shoulders, hips, knees, and back at risk with every rep. The OHS is a movement, above most, that coaches have to put their foot down on and force quality. An OHS done perfectly with a PVC pipe is not only more beneficial than a bad rep at 95# but also prevents injury.

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

Here are 4 specific faults we see in the OHS on a regular basis:

1- Overhead Position: Every OHS should start and finish with the bar directly over the center of pressure in the foot. What that means is likely the bar should start and stay over the back of the ear with the armpits turned out and shoulders externally rotated. This is easy to spot as a coach as you just need to ensure that the athlete has their armpits facing forward. If their armpits are facing down, then their shoulders are internally rotated and in a dangerous position. Also, if the athlete hyper-extends their back and allows the bar to shift to well behind their center of pressure then not only is their back position compromised but their shoulder girdle is now at risk. Put the bar over the back of the ear and keep it there for the entirety of the movement.

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

2- Foot Position: The feet MUST stay just outside the hips. The reason for this is to allow the hips to squat right in between the heels. This does two things for the lifter. First, it keeps the lifter upright and maintains a vertical torso. Second, it allows the lifter to keep their hips under the bar which allows the bar to be more stable over the center of gravity. Often you will find athletes try to go too wide with their feet compromising their depth and preventing their knees from tracking over their toes. Furthermore, you may find athletes struggle to complete an OHS when their feet are too narrow. A narrow stance requires extreme ankle and hip flexibility and will create more problems for those without such capability.

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Caleb Kerr

3- Hip, Ankle, Thoracic Spine, and Shoulder Mobility: The #1 culprit in the OHS for most athletes is mobility. Our culture promotes a sedentary, sitting lifestyle that often causes all kinds of immobility. In order to properly execute an OHS, the athlete must be able to flex the ankle to some degree. This allows the knees to push toward the toes in order to allow the hips to stay near the heels and torso to stay vertical. Furthermore, an athlete must have the hip flexibility to allow the hips to squat near the heels and keep the torso vertical. Added to the hips and ankles, a proper OHS requires the ability to extend properly the thoracic spine (aka upper back). This capability allows for the shoulders to properly externally rotate and for the chest to stay upright during the squat. If your rhomboids, traps, and posterior deltoids (when inactive) are not mushy and soft, they need to be. Lastly, and likely the last culprit you should check is shoulder mobility. Obviously an athlete completing an OHS must have the ability to externally rotate the shoulders, retract the scapula, and remain stable in that position overhead. Word of warning though: don’t let thoracic spine immobility trick you into thinking the problem is shoulders. Check the T-spine first.

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Brian Sullivan

Photo Courtesy of Fittest Games and Brian Sullivan

4- Posterior Chain and Glut Activation: Last but not least is the dreaded inactive gluts. I have commented on this before but it shows up massively in the OHS. If your low back and gluts are not active as you squat three things happen. First, your hips push back as you squat leaving your hips well behind your heels and your torso more angled forward. Active gluts forces them forward. Second, your knees fall into a valgus position. Active gluts force the knees to stay over the toes where they should be. Lastly, the low back rounds and the dreaded “butt wink” appears. Most of the times this is because of laziness as the athlete doesn’t think to activate and stay active in their posterior chain and gluts but often this can be a motor function training issue. Some athletes simply have a hard time telling their gluts or the entirety of their posterior chain to turn on and stay on. There are a ton of simple drills to help that. Basically google glut bridge and get friendly with your GHD.

I know this is a long-winded article but I think it has some simple facts that every Crossfit coach should pay attention to. The OHS is not a necessity for fitness. It can be a great addition to help aid in your fitness BUT if improperly taught, improperly demoed, and improperly performed it will lead to injury long before it leads to fitness.

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10 responses to “4 Common Errors in the Overhead Squat

  1. How does one keep their glutes active as they squat? You can’t really squeeze your glutes if you are squatting, right?

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  5. Hey Spencer. Great post. Question though: How can we say an internally rotated position (armpits down) is not safe/effective for the overhead position when lifters like Krastev used it quite successfully?

    • I can name three or four lifters that do very unconventional things and do it very well. The key word there is unconventional. Look at the make up of the shoulder. your humerus when externally rotated sits much more securely in the glenoid socket then when it is internally rotated

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