Sunday, November 04, 2007

Yes, Virginia, There Are People Who Cannot OHS Without Practice and Improved Flexibility

This post is for Anonymous who thinks I might have staged the pic of the kid trying to do an overhead squat. Nope. I wasn't criticizing the lack of ability or poor form of the kid in the picture. My goal was to illustrate the importance of ankle flexibility in the full snatch/OHS position. If anyone out there is hell-bent on doing or teaching full snatches or OHSs, then you'd be wise to fully understand the musculoskeletal variables that might interfere with your ability to do the exercise.

Back in 2001, I was shopping for some high school athletes to appear in a potential book and video for a friend of mine. A local football coach suggested these guys--and I needed a tall athlete--as possible subjects. They were both pretty athletic football players. So, I put them through some paces, to see how they squatted, cleaned, snatched, pressed, etc. Snatches weren't really a part of their weight room work and they were unfamiliar with most snatch-related movements. I was dumbfounded in their inability to do an OHS with a mere 55#, but now I have a better appreciation for the demands of the movement.

Here is their squat technique, with an empty bar:

Lots of torso inclination, little ankle dorsiflexion--knees not past the toes, lack of full depth; but it looks like a squat to most people. Now, give these guys even a 55# bar and change the system center of mass by making them put it overhead in a snatch receiving position and this is what you get:

They are about to fall over--despite trying as hard as they can to keep the bar overhead and get lower. There is also some lack of shoulder stability/flexibility, thoracic spine mobility and hip flexibility coming to play here, along with a motor system that has never been challenged in this way.

There are plenty of athletes--young and old--who look like this, when you first ask them to OHS; especially when all they've really done is mostly low bar, hip-dominant back squats and bench presses. Just wander into any local high school weight room or globo-gym in this country and you'll find plenty of people who cannot OHS. The OHS requires a level of total body flexibility and stability 95% adult Americans (MHO) do not have. And it requires some purposeful, deliberate practice and education regarding the stability and flexibility requirements, so people understand what they need to do to eventually perform it.


Jen said...

Your right on! I see this all the time at our Crossfit Workouts. I myself have issues with the OHS and I spend time weekly working on them. My ankles lack flexibility and I'm really tight in my lower back. Over the last year It's gotten better. I also have forward inclination in all my squats. So my warm-ups are wall squats with my arms over head and my toes to the wall. This is an everyday event for me. But enough about me.
I see young men and women like the ones shown in the photos weekly. Athletes are being trained in ways that don't always promote Full ranges of motion and flexibility.
Even with some of the most talented Crossfitters once they're asked to OHS or SOTS Press they look all out of wack!
Question for you: Do you use the Sots press to help train the OHS?
I feel like it has helped me with my OHS. Not to mention the SOTS is a killer movement.

Jen said...

Opps I forgot I had another question for you.
My hang cleans have gotten a lot better over the last 4 months or so.
I still have some issues with the bar coming away from my body just as it gets above my navel. It has to do with the fact that I'm not willing to scrap my nipples off as the bar travels up, so it tends to come away from my body to clear my boobs! LOL
Is this a common issue? How does one get over the boobs without letting the bar float away to much?

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess I'm flattered you singled me out. My point, of course, wasn't that people should OHS without practice. Like I said I was kidding.

I think a lot of people learn OHS with a PVC pipe or a broom handle. The group that showed me o-lifts handed me a piece of PVC pipe the first time I walked into their gym.

The thing I see most isn't ankle inflexibility, necessarily, but shoulder inflexibility. And, indeed, the o-lifters had me doing shoulder dislocators from the get-go. Even in the pictures you show, the athletes have similar shin-to-floor angles in their back squats, but in BS their heels are firmly on the ground. That suggess to me that even in your examples, ankle flexibility isn't the only issue.

If I had an athlete with form like the ones in the pictures, I wouldn't ask him to try OHS under an empty bar or a 55 lb barbell until he could show reasonable form with a piece of pipe. Last thing I'd want is a high school kid who wasn't used to having a weighted bar above and behind him lose control. Just doesn't seem safe.

The Iron Maven said...


You should be very flattered! I don't normally respond to anonymous posts, but the topic of ankle flexibility is one close to my heart. Most people don't fully appreciate it. Anyone who does full weightlifting movements safely and effectively, must develop ankle flexibility--along with shoulder flexibility.

Yes, there are other things besides ankle flexibility that come into play, but closed-chain ankle dorsiflexion is the most important variable with keeping an upright torso in a full squat/overhead squat position.

Normally, I too would use lighter bars to teach these guys. But there wasn't anything lighter than a 20 kg bar in that room. And I didn't have the luxury of teaching them. I was simply assessing their appropriateness for a video that was being produced to help people learn weightlifting movements. Obviously, they were not capable of doing the movements I needed; they probably could with a few months of work, but we didn't have that luxury.

With PVC pipe, the combined CoM of the lifter/pipe doesn't really change, so the lifter can still have a good deal of torso angle and keep the pipe above their head with good shoulder flexibility. That becomes impossible as the weight increases.

PVC pipe OHS's are the way to start to train OHS's. Just be aware that adding even a little weight can bring changes that the body cannot handle. And so you work on it.

The Iron Maven said...


We'll talk boobage and SOTS presses soon!


Anonymous said...

I think ideas stand or fall on their own merit, not their author's, which is why I post anonymously, when I post at all. Trotting out degrees and credentials always seems to detract from arguments.

But, my original comment was essential my way of saying, I agree with you: that OHS form is terrible. So, no response was necessary, actually.

Dan Hubbard said...

I agree that OHS demand tremendous flexibility, balance and stabilization. As a former parallel back squatter turned novice olympic lifter I have gradually increased hip and shoulder flexibility to the point where I can perform a decent snatch/OHS. I train many male and female clients and the females can always OHS more weight (even though they are otherwise weaker) because of better flexibility than males. It takes a while to develop the flexibility, so I include variations of the OHS in my warm-up sessions for all. I think shoulder mobility is as much an issue as ankle doriflexion. Great topic! Keep up the great disscusions.


Catherine Imes said...

I find it fascinating how quickly we lose the abilities required for the OH Squat. Point..You posted a while back a picture of 4 or 5 year olds (maybe younger) doing perfect squats - holding something overhead. These are young guys-teenagers. They've already lost that mobility-stability.

Do you think it is because they are introduced to the Powerlifting style squat and that in turn inhibits the movement(Flexibility-stability) needed for the OH Squat?

I attended a mini-seminar with Steve Cotter this weekend after the competition and he discussed the squat and how in our western society most people lose that ability because of our day to day lives..Sitting in front of a computer/TV, ect. The disturbing thing is that the trend of losing these abilities is probably going to start effecting people at a younger age just like younger people are getting adult onset diabetes.


Chip said...

Some body types will simply NOT master enough flexibility to have to world's most beautiful deep squats, but that doesn't mean that body proportions are an excuse to not try.

Here's a challenge:

OHS with feet and hands together. Ya might only drop 2 or 3 inches, or you might be able to sink into a full squat. But you'll learn where you're tight spots are real fast.

Gubernatrix said...

I've just started doing OHS in the last couple of weeks and I reckon I look pretty much like the guy in the white t-shirt!

It's a great exercise though! It's pretty humbling the first time you try it - or it is if you are as inflexible as me.