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The Overhead Squat

January 24, 2005 02:16 PM

It's amazing what you get stuck with in life: about five years ago, I wrote a small article for a lifting magazine about the "Overhead Squat," also know as the Snatch Squat. (You can find it at Since that time, this article hasbeen quoted, reposted, linked, referenced, and outright stolen so many times that it simply amazes me. Moreover, I gained this international reputation for being "the" Overhead Squat expert. So much so that when athletes come to train with me they are disappointed if they don't suffer through a difficult and painful session on mastering the Overhead Squat!

So, one article and I am branded for life. But, you know, if you are going to be stuck to something, the Overhead Squat is not a bad thing to have your name associated with for the next few decades or so. What is funny about the Overhead Squat is, well, it is that amazing. It really does deliver the "goods" for the athlete in any endeavor.

You want flexibility? Step right this way. A stronger lower back? Can't think of a better way to build it. You want this thing we call "overall body strength" but can never agree on how to get it? Overhead squats, my friend. It is the "one size fits all" of the lifting world.

For the record, I am renowned for my hyperbole on things, but in this case, I can say this: if you only did Overhead Squats, you could probably achieve the bulk of your athletic goals. I have trained athletes using nothing but Overhead Squats in the weight room for up to six weeks and have found that they not only improved on the athletic field, but also came back to increase their max lifts in such divergent lifts as deadlifts and bench presses.

So, what are they? Simply, with a wide grip on the barbell, you hold the bar overhead and perform a simple squat down and return to the standing position. Repeat. Simple isn't it? Well, except for this: the bar seems to have a mind of its own, this gravity thing seems to actually be working in a few new directions, and you seem to need to remember what bone is connected to what bone. Overhead Squats make you very strong by making you tense literally every muscle and system in your body!

Well then: how do you get the bar overhead? I get the bar overhead for Overhead Squats by snatching it from the floor. I gave my racks away a couple of years ago, so I take everything from the floor. However, when I go out to Juan Diego Catholic High School, I use their racks and push jerk them up with the snatch grip. I find I can add a lot of weight with the racks, but, for me, the amount on the bar is no longer much of an issue.

As to "how much," it is going to vary. I had a high school boy do close to 300 at a bodyweight of 215. I always used this weird formula I got from Coach Mike Weeks ?the goal is to do 15 reps with bodyweight. It doesn't mean you do this as a workout!!! It is a yearly or seasonal workout to test yourself. My best snatch in a meet is 314 and the most I have ever done for a single is 315. I think most guys would agree that going "top end maxes" on overheads would not have a ton of value. I like to keep the reps in the 3's, 5's, and 8's. Doing two sets of five with the overhead three times a week is not a bad plan of attack. Don't miss, by the way, this is always bad with the Overhead Squat. If you do lose the bar, don't fight it; let it go and you will get pushed out of its path; fight it and things can go badly, badly wrong. Build up slowly and go deep.

I'm a big fan of overheads, but you need to be sure you know why you are going to add them. Seriously, they will help with any goal I can think of, but if you are going to start doing them, there is going to be a learning curve. Six months from now, they will pay off with better flexibility, better "support" structure (I know some people don't believe in 'support muscles', but I do), and great thigh, hip and lower back strength. If you are doing them for sports, I think you will find an immediate carryover.

So, how to add? One idea is based on what Pavel Tsatsouline recommends: do them EVERY day for two sets of five for two weeks. First set heavy, second set is a back off.

Another is to simply make one day a week 'the overhead squat day'. Or, take a couple of weeks out and just do overheads three days a week. The few weeks of specialization will not retard your overall progress. Some guys act like a week or two of specialized work will kill them. That is bodybuilder thinking, "Oh no, I'm a quarter inch off my left bicep."

Another idea is just to toss them in and do them. It would be a great complement to your front squats. I often do overheads and front squats together. They really do seem to be a nice blend.

I usually teach athletes the overhead squat fairly early. Trust me, a kid who overheads with 95 pounds will find the back squat a fairly easy thing to learn. It is an odd thing about my coaching style: I don't teach discus throwers how to hold or release the discus. I use handled medicine balls and they do countless full turns and drills with throwing into walls or onto fields. So, they master advanced drills like "float-float-stings," three turns and a throw. One day, with nice weather, we go out to throw the disc. On the way down the hill, the new kid asks another, "How do you hold this thing?" An experienced kid takes two or three minutes to show how to hold and release the disc. So, now the young kid goes to ring with a mastery of the big picture that will make the implement go far. Doing it the other way, like most coaches, the athlete will spend the whole first year doing standing throws trying to make the discus fly right. There is no carryover at all to big throws.

If you teach a young athlete to overhead squat, the back squat and the front squat are a breeze. You don't even coach it, they pick it up by simply watching the kid before them. Teach an athlete to snatch, they usually pick up the clean. Show them the clean and jerk and they rarely need a great explanation of the bench.

I think we need to raise the bar high for new athletes and really demand a lot. I think the same about teaching, too.

So, dive in, so to speak, and just start doing them. You'll be glad you added the Overhead Squat to your regime.

Dan John is the Diocesan Director of Religious Education for the Diocese of Salt Lake City and a full-time "on-line" religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri. Originally from South San Francisco, Dan came to Utah to throw the discus for Utah State University and never left. Dan has Masters degrees in history and in religious education, as well as intensive work at the American University in Cairo, University of Haifa, and Cornell. Dan has written articles for "Catechetical Update" and "Utah Historical Quarterly," as well as being a columnist for the Intermountain Catholic. Dan has been teaching for over twenty-five years.

At home, he is humbled by his lovely wife, Tiffini, whose middle name is not "long suffering" no matter how often it is repeated and his two daughters, Kelly and Lindsay. At home, Dan wins arguments with the dog, but not the cat.

Currently, Dan is ranked Number One in the world in the Highland Games,ages 45-49, broke the American Record in the Weight Pentathlon last August, holds numerous National Championships in weightlifting and throwing and maintains a full-time free internet coaching site.