In the last post we established the “unavoidable” characteristics of the overhead position we’d like you to be aware of and prepare for: wrists back, elbows locked, and shoulders down/un-shrugged. Now it’s time for another major portion of that overhead story with shoulder rotation and bar alignment. Once again, there are conflicting viewpoints/variations for each of these that are taught:
-Bar directly in line with the back of a neutral head.
-Bar pushed back behind the body with the lifter exaggerating their head forward.
Shoulder rotation once overhead:
While both of these above variations are seen at the elite level, I believe there is a specific combination that is optimal and indicative of health and longevity: bar in line with the back of a neutral head, and the shoulder externally rotated.
Before we go any further though, let’s establish what the terms “internal shoulder rotation” and “external shoulder rotation” are usually referring to, and use the position of the elbows as a marker to define what they actually look like. “Internal shoulder rotation” is said to be when the arms are twisted forward (or inward) and elbows are pointing back; the pits of the elbows are pointing forward and you cannot see the triceps. “External shoulder rotation” is when the arms are twisted back and elbows are pointing down; the pits of the elbows are facing each other and you can see the triceps on the bottoms of each arm. (Extend your arm out, and give yourself a thumbs up. From there, if you turn your thumb down towards the ground = internal rotation; instead if you point your thumb towards the back of the room = external rotation.) But how accurate are these labels? Let’s see what Dr. Horschig has to say on the topic:
As you raise your arm (or toss a barbell over your head) the shoulder joint moves into slight external rotation to keep the “ball” centered on the “tee.” Because the hands are firmly attached to the barbell, the only way to create more rotation into either excessive internal or external rotation is to move the shoulder blades (and therefore the barbell) out of the ideal stacked position.
There are some coaches who give the cue to internally rotate the shoulder in the overhead position; I think this is a misunderstanding of the shoulder mechanics. I believe the problem lies in the appearance some athletes give as they squeeze their shoulder blades together and push their armpits forward with the barbell overhead (scapular retraction). While this may appear like the shoulder is moving into internal rotation, the humerus itself is remaining externally rotated in order to stay in the middle of the shoulder blade socket. If the athlete does move into excessive internal rotation while in an overhead position, they risk losing vital stability in the shoulder complex and increase susceptibility to injury when lifting heavy. For this reason, an ideal position for safely positioning the barbell overhead is with slight shoulder external rotation.
So, from this point forward, as opposed to talking about shoulder rotation, we’ll refer to how the arm is twisted and where the elbows are pointing (either back or down). Typically, the neutral head/aligned bar is paired with the elbows pointing down – this is our recommended combo. The head forward/bar back is usually paired with the elbows pointing back. The explanation as to why we recommend the prior starts with understanding the purposes and demands of the latter.
First, let’s establish that the head forward, bar back, and elbows pointing back position is usually taught with the extreme in mind: 6 inches or more of space between the back of the head and bar, with the head and eyes down, and arms twisted completely forward pointing the elbows directly back. This carries with it the non end-range characteristics of straight wrists and shrugged shoulders to bundle up an entire method for overhead positioning. When one pushes the head through and bar back (creating that mis-aligned space) there will be more tension through the upper body. This tension is usually the quick explanation for the purpose of these teachings. But, this extra “tension” – especially for an athlete that is already tight and struggling overhead – bleeds up the arm from the upper back (the point of angle creation at the base of the neck and arm) and increases the potential for greater compensations overhead (i.e., the elbows are far more likely to bend).
Additionally, this space tends to go hand-in-hand with the amount of forward twist in the arms: the more space, the more forward twist. When the arms are twisted forward, especially completely, it engages the upper body differently and takes away from the overall coordination that we like so much from the elbows pointing down. With arms twisted forward there is less lat and tricep engagement and therefore less help the shoulders get in supporting the load; the traps are more engaged but they are less beneficial to the task. This specific action creates the look of a shoulder shrug, which I believe is where the assumption and cue of the shoulders needing to be shrugged up partially comes from.
Now, for the concept of positioning the bar in line with the back of the head and twisting the arms back to the point of the elbows pointing straight down (the pit of the elbows facing each other), maintaining this through the squat is easier said than done. Most can find this in the standing position no problem (in my estimation 90% of you will be able to do so), but commonly we’ll see the arms twisting forward as one descends deeper and deeper into a squat or when they land there within the reception of a snatch (now with only about 50% being able to maintain). This can be due to mobility limitations OR muscle memory from using that orientation either from it being what they were taught, or a “slot” they subconsciously found with the bar overhead that their body was more comfortable with.
NOTE: This “slot” is very comparable as to why some athletes naturally perform push ups with the elbows flaring out away from the body and others with the elbows going straight back brushing the rib cage. The prior is not what most gymnastics coaches would want you to do for best carry over to other movements, as well as health and longevity. It just so happens that when the elbows flare out, the arms have to be twisted in, which is the same as them being twisted forward with the bar overhead and vice-versa (twist the arm OUT to set yourself up to keep the elbows in through the push up). Like the overhead position as well, without being taught this more well rounded execution and putting in work to make the change, many athletes will continue on with a push up of limited potential.
A quick test you can perform to see if the forward twist is a mobility restriction, or if you are physically capable but simply need to change your muscle memory, is to try and perform an overhead squat with a reverse grip. Position your hands wide and hold the bar as if you were going to “curl” it (come on guys, I know you know how to curl) and place it overhead; this will force the arms to stay twisted back. Can you keep the elbows locked and the bar over the top of the head as you sink to your lowest squat position? If not, then you’re lacking sufficient mobility to maintain that specific shoulder orientation within overhead squats and snatches. This can be stemming from any lower body mobility limitation(s) we might have previously uncovered, or something in the upper body that we may discover with assessments in that area. If you were able to complete the overhead squat, then this indicates you are capable and can potentially use the reverse grip overhead squat with light loads to help learn and engrain the elbow position and upper body engagement. I regularly come across athletes that surprise themselves in their ability to do this, or at least do far better than they thought they would.
Another action that tends to contribute to the arms twisting forward at the shoulder is positioning the wrists straight. Even in the standing position I’ve observed quite a correlation of how straight the wrists are and how much the arms are twisted forward; straight wrists lead the arms to twists forward, and wrists back lead the arms to twists back. (This is why you’ll hear us reinforce “wrists back” as our first cue in our overhead positioning set up sequence; it bleeds down the arm and lends to our other recommended characteristics.)
In the end, one can certainly achieve success within any of these variations as all are used to break World Records and win Championships. But, let’s now add these characteristics to the observation test and you’ll see that the combo of the bar in alignment with the back of the head and elbows pointing down is far more common on the elite level. Additionally, notice that when the alternative is seen, the position is usually less than extreme with the distance between the bar and the back of the head only a matter of inches (though I’ve found an extreme example for you shown below), and the elbow position short of pointing directly back. Again, the empty bar and lightweight demonstrations of the extreme in regards to where the elbow is pointing changes when the weight gets heavier. Take note in the example below that though the bar is pushed back and head is through and down a significant amount, the twist forward of the arm is VERY minimal.
Next, we need to consider the width of the grip you are using to overhead squat with and how that translates into the snatch. This characteristic will also vary within the snatches of elite lifters. But, understand there is a common purpose that most of them have for their snatch grip and a few common methods we can apply to pinpoint the ideal snatch grip width for most of you. (HINT: it has little to do with how one may initially feel the strongest and most comfortable with the bar overhead.) Though we still need to confirm our goals and how to put together and apply all of these characteristics that we’ve recommended up to this point within the overhead position, overhead squat, and ultimately the snatch, we’ll need to establish your snatch grip first as positioning your hands accordingly for your overhead squats will be critical to molding the best sculpture for your snatch. Stay tuned!
Come back TOMORROW for the 3rd of our 4-part series on overhead positioning.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW