The overhead squat has definitely gotten popular over the last few years and it could be due to the love crossfitters have for it. There is a common shared belief that the overhead squats helps in chasing a big snatch. I get questions about this all the time so I figured that I would publish an article on it. Whether it really is useful for weightlifters is relatively debated among coaches. Some think that the overhead squat has little place in the training of weightlifters and some push it aggressively. In this article, I will explore the 2 main reasons I program the over head quat and go over why the overhead squat has little carry over to the snatch passed a certain level.
The snatch of a good lifter will always be around 78-82% of their best clean and jerk. Lack of leg strength to stand up in the snatch is rarely the reason people miss snatches. In fact, since the snatch is 80% of the best clean and jerk, one could assume that it is about 55-60% of the athlete best back squat. This is why the most spectacular save happen in the snatch : The athlete has a big surplus of strength to compensate – to a certain limit- for a bad reception. Over the years, we have seen duck walks, standing up in a lunge and standing up while twisting (the famous 360 snatch) and these happened due to the surplus of strength and the know how of the lifters.
If you were to program overhead squats for lifters, then you would need to ask the question as to what exactly it is you are trying to fix or develop with it. As mentioned, we already know that overhead squat strength is somewhat irrelevant, at least in elite lifters, when comparing snatch to squat strength. At that point, a good question to ask is why would you train overhead squats? I program overhead squats mostly for two reasons : mobility and instability in the bottom position (both can be related).
I use the overhead squat a lot when developing the proper flexibility of the shoulders, wrists (forearms) and hips of a lifter. If a lifter cannot squat down and keep the bar overhead without having it move forward or bending the elbows, he will need to spend time doing overhead squats since that’s the best tool to fix those mobility issues. The overhead squat is thus a very good tool to assess the mobility of a starting athlete. Since the movement is relatively slow, the athlete can have power over what he does and correct the movement as he goes along.
Snatching without having the right mobility to receive and stand up should be avoided. I put a beginner lifter I am involved with on an overhead squat program (1 month block) a few months ago. Her mobility improved so much that she added 15lbs to her overhead squat PR from her Crossfit days and did so for a set of 3 (Thus 15% increase and weights, and for 3 reps). It became much easier for her to receive the bars and sure enough the snatch improved because mobility was a limitation of hers. It is important to note that it worked because she is a beginner that was limited by mobility. You would not get the same results with an elite lifter (see further down).
I use the overhead squats to work on the bottom position stability. Many beginner or intermediate lifters lose bars because the bottom position is very wobbly. It could be due to a host of things like shoulder instability, core instability, or unstable hips. All of those issues should be looked into by a professional (Physio/Osteo/AT). As a coach, however, all you can do is adapt the training to work on stability. Overhead squat are a great tool to learn how to stabilize weights over head. It actually is the first progression to use, and after you will need to keep progressing towards better suited tools. People with unstable bottom positions will often get buried in the hole, need a few seconds to stabilize the weights, and then stand up with it. The overhead squat is a great tool to learn how to ”bounce” out of the hole while keeping control over the bar.
The reason high level athletes don’t benefit as much from overhead squats should not come as a surprise. If the training methodology was as good as the coaching they received over the years, they should already be mobile and stable in the bottom position. Going from a 150kg snatch to a 170kg snatch does not require better overhead squatting skills, but it requires a great deal of work on rhythm, technicalities, position work, some strength work, etc. It really is a matter of priority at that point.
Thus, by then, the athlete has reached a point where the benefits in stability and mobility from overhead squatting are little compared to other tools. For instance, the drop snatch is a better tool to develop stability in the receiving position for higher level athletes than the overhead squat is. Another thing to consider is the fact that they can also handle a bigger work load, thus they can do more snatches and clean and jerks. At 10-15 000 repetitions per year, after 5-6 years, the lifter should be set in term of ”general” mobility and should rather focus on aches and pains. That being said, overhead squats can be included in complexes as a way to build the musculature in key area. Doing so can help with recovery and as injury prevention. At that point, the overhead squat, at least to me, becomes more of an injury prevention tool than a performance enhancing tool.