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Teaching the Overhead Squat

One of our very favorite movements here at PLT4M, the overhead squat is a must-have in any athletic training program. We love this squat variation not for raw strength development, but primarily as a mobility, stability, balance, and body control tool.

Athletically, developing the overhead squat does wonders for core stability and positioning – much like the wall squat (squat therapy). It challenges hip and ankle mobility, while demanding a more vertical torso, and increased shoulder range of motion throughout the movement. Disassociating the shoulders/thoracic spine from the hips during a squat (keeping a vertical torso) is useful for any athlete.

The need to “Get Low” is ubiquitous in sport. If, to drop hip level, you sacrifice your entire torso by losing the lumbar curve or collapsing the chest with extreme T-spine flexion, you are surrendering your athleticism. Maintaining a proud chest and active shoulders allows the athlete to act beyond the hip descent. Eyes are up, lungs are open, shoulders are engaged and the hips can move in any direction.

It’s no surprise that the OHS is now often being used by college recruiters as a mobility test for a range of athletes, including football Offensive Linemen.

While widely beneficial, the OHS can be a difficult movement for new athletes to master – or at first, even complete (part of the reason we love it!).

When introducing the OHS, we focus on the overhead position and bar path (beyond our standard points of squat performance).

Athletes should grip the bar in a snatch-width grip and bring overhead to full lockout. We are looking for active shoulders in a “press that never ends”. Armpits should be facing forward in that externally rotated position, with elbow pits to the ceiling.

As the athlete descends into the bottom of the squat, the bar should remain over center mass. This may require some opening of the shoulder (reaching the weight back) to compensate for any forward lean of the torso. This is OK, so long as it isn’t extreme, and they bring the weight back on the way up so that the bar is always directly over the mid-foot.

Once we’ve dialed in supreme positioning, the OHS may also double as a next-level test of midline stability, balance, and full-body strength by adding load to the bar overhead. (This should only be done with experienced athletes that demonstrate perfect technique.) A weighted overhead squat is one of the most athletic blends of mobility, midline stability, full body strength, balance and body control.

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Teaching the Back Squat

Once our athletes have mastered the foundational air squat (and only then), the first loaded variation we introduce is the “High Bar Back Squat”. The back squat, along with the bench press and barbell deadlift, is one of the 3 “Power Lifts” and is widely considered one of the best tools for developing raw strength.

You may see other programs and trainers utilize a “Low Bar” back squat. While this is also great tool for pure strength development, we feel the low bar variation is difficult to perform well by new athletes. It often turns into some sort of good morning/squat hybrid that goes against all of our movement tenets. Thus, we aim to first master the High Bar squat when training our high school athletes.

The loaded back squat is relatively simple in it’s execution, so long as you master the set up and always keep all 4 points of squat performance in mind during every rep.

To set up appropriately, the athlete should set the bar to roughly chest height (to allow for a little dip when getting under the bar), and grasp the bar with a double overhead grip just outside of the shoulders (or wider depending on shoulder mobility). The athlete steps into the rack and under the bar, positioning it on top of the actively engage traps which create a sort of shelf on which to rest the load.

The athlete stands to full extension in order to lift the bar out of the hooks. Once standing tall, he or she steps back away from the rack. Taking the time to get comfortable (don’t rush!), the athlete sets up in proper squat width stance and begins the prescribed reps.

As with any squat, all 4 Points of Performance apply for the duration of the set:
1. Entire foot in contact with the ground
2. Lumbar curve maintained
3. Knees tracking toes
4. Hips descending below parallel (hip joint below the knee joint).

If, at any point, these points begin to falter, we stop our athletes, drop the weight and correct the movement before adding heavier weight back into the equation.

Upon completion of the set, the athlete walks back into the rack until the bar hits the j-hooks (not by leaning forward). Then, he or she softens the knee and allows the bar to settle back into the hooks before stepping through.

Keep an eye out for our video discussion on how best to teach athletes about spotting, bailing a bad rep, and staying safe in the gym!