Overhead position goals are the same as for your bottom position sculpture, and in the same order of priority. Our goal is to develop as much MOBILITY, COMFORT, and then STRENGTH as possible with a bar overhead – not just in a standing position, but in your lowest squat.
When the barbell is overhead (whether during a snatch or any assistance exercise), you should feel more relaxed rather than tight. This position should allow you to breathe and speak freely with heavy weight overhead. The ability to do so means you have full ownership of the movement.
Many will ask, “how is this possible when you’re trying to support heavy weight overhead? What about when it’s coming down on you during a snatch?” Being “relaxed” does not mean you are not engaged or your arms are like noodles. It means that the position is coordinated in such a way that expresses smoothness, ease, and comfort. Remember, we want the reception to be a reaction, so this should all happen automatically within a snatch. This is opposed to receiving the bar with forced, exaggerated tension that is more energy and focus consuming (i.e., “punch with the shoulders”).
With assistance exercise practice, you’ll be able to “stick the landing” with this relaxed engagement within a snatch. Be aware though that the work that it takes to get there may initially feel the opposite of relaxed. You will have to remind yourself continually to position the wrists back, lock the elbows, and push the shoulders down, along with aligning the body in the standing position as needed (squeeze the quads, glutes, and abs) on each rep. As you practice, you SHOULD BE “forcing” to make necessary changes and engrain the desired characteristics. But, the more you mentally and physically force during any overhead assistance exercise, the more automatic it will all become. This process, combined with any needed mobility work, is what will eventually carry over to that automatic action of the snatch reception.
Below is a recap of the recommended characteristics that will serve as a checklist for your overhead position set up of an overhead squat, and where it should be at the end of an overhead squat, snatch grip push press, or any other overhead assistance exercise. (NOTE: the desired characteristics for set up and squatting defined in “Squatting Like An Olympic Lifter” go without being said here):
- Use the appropriate grip width (snatch grip for specific carryover to the snatch) and place the bar overhead.
- With the bar in the palm and fingers wrapped, extend the wrists back as far as you can.
- Check that the elbows are locked.
- Retract the shoulders down.
- Position the bar in line with the back of the head (if you are by yourself, you need to get video directly from the side to help ensure you know what this placement feels like).
In summary: “Wrists back, elbows locked, shoulders down, bar in line with the back of the head.” This is a critical statement I’ve said an endless number of times in teaching overhead position and having athletes find and hold this for what I’m sure were annoying amounts of time for them in clinics and classes. For most athletes the execution of these cues (specifically in the standing position) will set the arm to that twisted back position with the elbows pointing down that we like.
Now, as you squat, the primary focus is to MAINTAIN the bar in line with the back of the head going down, while in the bottom, and then back up. Aligning athletes in this way has always allowed for better maintenance of our desired characteristics and a more comfortable and relaxed overhead position and squat as a whole. If you have any mobility restrictions, the ideal set up may still be lost as you descend. So, your job therefore is to re-find and confirm the desired characteristics after you return to the standing position before you can say that the rep is complete.
In regards to the characteristic of “bar in line with the back of the head,” most are far more capable than they think. I’ve only come across a few athletes that I could not get to perform their full overhead squat while maintaining this standard. This can be confusing and believed to be impossible because many athletes have been told or feel like they have to push their head through as far as possible (along with pushing back on the bar as hard as possible) to have a chance at keeping the bar over the top of the body. This is usually due to a significant angle being created in the torso with that catalyst being lower body restrictions (e.g., the less ankle range of motion you have, the straighter your shin will be through a squat; the straighter your shin is the greater your torso angle will be).
This angle is what makes the extent of the difference in your standing position and squat position. In the standing position your torso is perfectly upright with the shoulders and arms in line with that (we’re talking about 180 degrees here). As we squat, the torso will lean forward slightly, creating a variable angle between the torso and arms (now something less than 180 degrees). As we squat, we want to stay as close to that 180 degrees as possible as this is the strongest, most comfortable and capable position (this is why our desired characteristics are far more achievable in a standing position). The further away we drift from180 degrees, the more we will have to push back on the bar. (Though 90 degrees is unrealistic, I want you to envision that angle and what that would look like with someone holding a bar overhead in that way). Here is the kicker, in the midst of a changing torso angle and pushing back on the bar to accommodate that, you DO NOT also have to push your head through to an extreme extent.
Your arm and torso angle “is what it is” so to speak and therefore “excusable” in the moment – but you have control of where your head is. The closer you can keep the back of your head in line with the bar, the more you will limit potential compensation (pull your head back AND the bar forward to that point). This usually makes the position feel like the bar is way too far forward initially, so just bear with me and give it some time and some reps (usually doesn’t take very many). The only other loss of position we’ll call “excusable” is the arm twisting forward (internal shoulder rotation) as you descend since once again you may be physically incapable of maintaining the complete twist back that we want. (Remember though, not fixing it as best as you can after you stand back up is “in-excusable.”)
The final aspect you have control over within your overhead assistance work is how tight your grip is on the bar. We talked previously about how a “deathgrip” can straighten the wrists, and excess tension here can bleed down the body and hinder the overall position and coordination (undesirable tension in a specific area of a particular position as a whole can take away from the desirable tension of another area where it is needed). Your fingers need to be wrapped around the bar yes, but lightly. If there is white under the top portion of your fingernails where it is normally pink, you must learn to relent your “deathgrip.” In clinics I’ll regularly have athletes overhead squat with their hands halfway open; this proves the point not only that a deathgrip is unnecessary, but also shows the “shelf” that “wrists back” creates for the bar.
NOTE: We’ll be covering hookgrip use much more later, but for now, are you holding onto it in the reception of your snatches, or any other time you have a bar overhead? This is something we recommend against as it certainly contributes to that unnecessary tension mentioned above. The hookgrip is meant to help you hold onto more weight as you lift the bar off the floor and move through the rest of the pull, and ideally, we want to see you release it as you turn the wrists over and receive the weight overhead (the thumb simply slips out from under the first 1-3 fingers, and rests on the side/top of the index finger). Later, we’ll lay out a method you can use to learn how to release the hookgrip in your snatches. In the meantime, to begin the process of “unlearning” the maintenance of the hook grip, ensure that you are NOT using it with any other overhead exercises. Once again, you have far more control in this regard with exercises such as overhead squats, behind the neck snatch grip push presses, etc.
I’ve spoken against unnecessary tension, but of course we do need to be appropriately engaged with the bar overhead. So, how can you best make that happen and where should you be feeling tension? Well, we know the elbows need to be solid, so If you are one that needs to feel tension with a bar overhead, that effort can be on locking the elbows. This elbow focus, combined with the wrists and shoulders relaxed down and bar aligned, will give us the coordinated tension we need. We must not forget though, at some point, even the elbow action should be automatic in the reception. Point here being a focus of “elbows” is more acceptable and recommended as the beginner tension emphasis (as opposed to “punch the shoulders” for example).
Again I’ll summarize what we are recommending your overhead position should be: “wrists back, elbows locked, shoulders down, bar in line with the back of the head!” As opposed to putting the burden and stress on isolated portions of the body through the discussed muscling actions, with these end ranges and alignment we will use more of our skeletal structure. Ultimately, we want a position, an effort, a coordination that will help distribute the load throughout your entire body.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW