Having a Horrid Time with Overhead Squats

Hi CT.

I’m having a tough time with training at the moment. I lost at least 4kg of muscle in 2015, from about March onwards, and my upper body strength along with it. The only lift that has increased is my deadlift, and I recently hit a PR of 190kg. My profile pic shows a much leaner, more muscular version of me, but in the video below, even I was surprised at how slim (polite word for skinny) I am.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I have decided to put my 2016 strength goals on hold and focus on my movement and positions, something I have put off for far too long. I am starting with the overhead squat, with the hope that it translates to a much improved back squat. I’m trying to bring my grip in closer each time.

The video below shows what a typical overhead squat and behind neck press (from a squat) look like when I do them. It feels horrible (any type of squat always has for some reason), and the only way I can find stability is by severely internally rotating my arms and sticking my head forward. As you can probably see, the whole process is a massive effort, even with an empty bar.

Any guidance you could offer would be a godsend. Keep up the great work and best wishes for 2016. Thanks.

Well I see several things:

  1. You are going down too linearly for your body type. Your femurs are long relative to your tibia which makes upright squatting unnatural and uncomfortable. Your overhead squat would feel better if you pushed your hips back more when squatting down. You will also need to push your knees out more. These two things will prevent the knees from going too far forward which makes the position weak and unstable in your case.

  2. But as the hips go back when you are squatting down another part of your body will need to go forward to keep the system in balance. That’s your torso. You will need to lean forward a bit more with the torso which will also require having the barbell further back.

LOOK AT THE PICTURE OF JASON ATTACHED TO THIS MESSAGE. He also has long femurs relative to his tibia. Look at the torso angle, hip position and knees.

  1. Do not work on using a narrower and narrower grip. Focus on getting the regular overhead squat down. Use a snatch grip. The width of a proper snatch grip is such that if you are standing up with the bar in your hands (as if you had completed a deadlift) and squat down 1-2 inches with the bar touching you, the bar will be in the crease created by your abdomen ad upper thigh.

  2. Don’t try to do snatch press in a squat until you are super comfortable doing overhead squats.

I suggest holding the bottom position of the overheadsquat with an empty barbell (or even just a wooden stick) for a total of 3 minutes (take as many sets as needed), focus on perfect position. Do that at the beginning of every single training session. Focus on exaggerating the first 2 points I mentioned and the problem should be fixe rapidly.

See the difference… the biggest issue is that your torso is too upright and the barbell is not back far enough.

When holding the barbell overhead think about holding it with your mid-back, not shoulders. Squeeze the shoulder blades together hard.

Thanks for the help. This tweak seems to have solved the issue. My position feels much more solid. However, it was causing pain on the bony protrusion on the inside of my left elbow (medial epicondylitis?). I’m just desperate to improve my squat and a little research pointed to a narrow grip overhead squat being a good indicator of whether or not someone is going to be able to achieve a solid bottom position.

I am beginning to think I have a weak core also. When I stand relaxed, my lumbar spine seems to be overly extended, and my gut protrudes (I’m not even overweight!). Also, preventing my low back from caving during a plank is difficult. While I’m on the topic of fixing my weaknesses, do you have any tips for improving this? My own research points to RKC planks, reverse crunches, and swiss ball crunches (in a push up position with feet elevated). I have been doing these regularly, but progress seems non-existent.


I’ve been trying to fix the same things with myself. For me, it showed up especially with overhead pressing.

For awhile, I did some ab-wheel rollouts, from my knees, focusing on tucking my hips underneath me. Those helped some. Not a lot, but some.

Recently (last couple months), I’ve actually made some good progress by using two things.

  1. while sedentary, learning to sit in a chair right, with my butt all the way back; I also switched to a much better office chair
  2. pretty heavy farmers walks, once a week; 75% bodyweight per hand or higher.

I talked with t3hpwnisher about how to set these up, and he suggested a 3 week cycle, cycling between light (65%), medium (80%) and heavy (100%). Percentages are my approximations from his numbers.

Then, with that: 4x100’ with light weight; 2x100’, 2x50’ with medium weight; 4x50’ with heavy weight.

Honestly, it’s probably the farmers walks that actually made the difference. A lot of my joints seem to be working better and hurting less too. Because you’re shifting the weight from one foot to the next, there’s a good amount of balancing, stability, coordination, stuff that goes on unilaterally, and of course there’s a ton of core work that comes from that too.

Maybe that’s something you could use too.

[quote=“James_Brown, post:4, topic:213357”]
Thanks for the help. This tweak seems to have solved the issue. My position feels much more solid. However, it was causing pain on the bony protrusion on the inside of my left elbow (medial epicondylitis?). I’m just desperate to improve my squat and a little research pointed to a narrow grip overhead squat being a good indicator of whether or not someone is going to be able to achieve a solid bottom position. [/quote]

“A little research…” … what research? Because honestly I know a lot of high level powerlifters, some who squat in the 700-900, who couldn’t do a narrow grip overhead squat (or even a snatch-grip overhead squat) if their life depended on it.

Heck, I have a very good squat position, it has always been one of my best lifts. I also train a lot on the Olympic lifts (and even competed when I was younger) and I can’t do a great narrow grip OHS.

The thing is that for most people, especially those with a muscular upper body, the close-grip overhead press will be limited by shoulder mobility. Not hip or even thoracic mobility. And shoulder mobility doesn’t have much to do with your capacity to squat well. You need basic shoulder mobility to get the bar on your shoulders but that’s pretty much it.

The pain you are having has NOTHING to do with improper hip or thoracic mobility and thus your incapacity to do narrow grip OHS is not in any way related to your squatting technique… and improving it will have no impact on the quality of your squats because what is limiting you in your OHS doesn’t impact your back squat performance.

Zombie squats and front squats with a perfect torso/back posture will be much more related to a good looking back squat than narrow grip OHS.

I can see REGULAR/snatch grip OHS helping with proper squatting form but doing it with a narrow grip will not be of further help.

I’m not sure that your issue is a weak core though. PLENTY of elite Olympic lifters have the same hyper-lordotic posture you speak of. I’m not saying that it’s good to have it but that it doesn’t necessarily indicate a weak core. I could be due to overly tight hip flexors and squats… or weaker hamstrings … etc.

Or it could be a postural issue due to bad habits (e.g. being seated a lot, always keeping your “core” loose when seated or standing).

People don’t understand that postural correction is a 24/7 job. You can’t expect to strengthen certain muscles and your posture will magically change.

If your body is used to always being in a certain position, that position/posture becomes the default/normal one. And the body will always try to get back to it since it now feels the most natural.

So if your problem is postural strengthening the weaker muscles improves your POTENTIAL to have a good posture but at first you need to change what your default posture is.

That means that at first you will have to voluntarily take and maintain the “optimal/new” posture. You will have to force yourself to stay in the proper posture. This means constantly thinking about it throughout the day, otherwise the body will simply revert back to its default settings.

That’s why VERY few people are able to change their posture to a significant degree. Listen: the posture you have now has been programmed in your nervous system over many YEARS of CONSTANTLY being in that position. You can’t expect to change that neural programing by doing a few exercises and thinking about your posture a few times during the day.

If you practice keeping the “new posture” and you are in that posture 1 hour a day. Assuming 10 hours of sleep, it still means that you are “practicing” your old/bad postural habits 13 hours per day. How can you change your neural programing if you are practicing the wrong thing 13 times more than the right thing???

When I was a M.Sc. student I worked with a chiropractor who was specialized in postural correction. He had his clients program their watch (or now smart phone) to beep every 30-45 minutes. The beep was a reminder to check if they were taking good postural habits (chest up, shoulders back, abdomen tight as if you are about to receive a punch, etc.).

Changing your posture is a full time job. Training and exercises is just a facilitator. There are no exercises that will fix your issue if it is postural. Only exercises that will make it easier to make the change.