The Overhead Squat Article


Your author, Dan John, at 43

Okay, there are two reasons I remember May 21, 1988. The first, in case my wife is reading this, is that we celebrated our one-week wedding anniversary on this day. The second relates to the single greatest athletic learning experience of my career.

Coach Ralph Maughan of Utah State University was retiring as head track coach. For the record, he had made the Olympics as a hammer thrower, played professional football with the Detroit Lions, and won a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. I know, I know, other than that, what has he done? Well, …

After five decades of coaching at Utah State, Coach Maughan was retiring. His family organized a very fitting tribute: a surprise track meet. Utah State had developed champions in the hurdles, 800 meters, pole vault, shot put, and hammer but the program was noted, worldwide, for discus throwing. At this tribute meet, alumni from all over the United States and Canada returned. The discus throw had former world record holders, national collegiate champs, Olympians from two nations, and hosts of league champs. Every alumnus had reached at least 180 feet/55 meters in the discus and the roll call neared two dozen.

Standing around between throws, we had all decided to do shot, disc and hammer no matter what the age on the driver’s license said, I had a chance to talk with half of century of throwing excellence. It was a chance to dispel myths and respond to rumors. Glenn Passey, who set the national record at 190’9″, weighing only 174 pounds, had attained mythological status among the others. The story that had been going around is that he never lifted weights.

“Is that true?” “Well,” Glenn answered, “I didn’t lift weights like you guys do now. I just did the Olympic Lifts all winter, you know, Clean and Press, Snatch, and Jerk. In the summers, I threw hay up into lofts for eight hours a day.” The Olympic Lifts all winter and hay tossing (Dino-style if you wish) sounds like a perfect training program for a thrower.

Other athletes talked about the importance of quarter squats (squats in a rack doing just the top portion of the lift), putting weights over head “any way you want, doesn’t matter, just do ‘em,” and the importance of staying away from more than three sessions in the weight room a week. One of the “young” guys, Chris Hatch, a 200 foot hammer thrower and 60 foot shot putter but still in his twenties, and I discussed lifting.

“I would only do one exercise, if I could do it all over again,” Chris told me. “Really? Which one?” “Overhead Squats.” I thought he was joking. Sure, I had done a few and I thought they never really amounted to anything. “This coach in California won’t let his guys throw until they can do fifteen reps with bodyweight.” What? Fifteen? “It makes you one piece, an animal.”

Monday found me in the weight room. I thought I would just “toss” in a few overheads, just to see what he was talking about. I knew I had to do a few warm ups, so I tossed a 45 on each side of the bar. I thought I would knock off a quick ten or so. I went to the rack, stepped back and let my hands slide out to the inside collars (at just over six feet tall, this is my usual snatch grip), then push jerked the weight up to arms length. Locking my elbows and really trying to pull the bar apart while holding it straight over my head, I sank between my knees, dropped to rock bottom and came back up.

I thought: “Huh? Most not be warmed up enough.” Rep two. “Woah.” Rep three. Aren’t my legs stronger than this? What I was discovering was that the overhead squat requires total concentration, total lockout and perfect positions. There is no cheating; one can’t squirm, roll the knees or hips, or let other body parts help kick in. It builds “Dad Strength.”

When my friends and I used to lift the old six foot bar with cement filled weights, we all thought we were pretty strong. Then, Dad would ask us to help him move a car engine or open a rusted jar of nuts and bolts, or put the ping pong table up on a rack for storage. Yes, I was the strongest kid in the four-house area, but every Dad had that scary kind of strength that allows one to pick an engine out of a Pontiac station wagon and carry it to the lawn.

Overhead squats build that kind of strength. For an athlete, it turns your body into “one piece.” Unfortunately, for the past few years, misguided athletes have been taught to do upper body one day, lower body another. Or worse, front of the thighs one day and back of the thighs another. One day soon, people will be asked to train the muscles that pull the left thigh in, then rest that overfatigued muscle for the next 21 days. Wait, you’re right. It is already happening.

I got five reps and the bar started to move and shake too much for safety. I bent my knees, unlocked my arms, slowed the bar down a little with my upper body and caught the bar on the back of my shoulders using my legs like shock absorbers. I then realized the wisdom of fifteen reps with bodyweight in this exercise. First, you can’t fake it. Nobody, NOBODY, just walks in and does this without training hard and steady. The ability to do this standard can only come from hard, steady work. Hard work, although some may deny this, is the number one factor in success in sports and life. Second, the athlete must be balanced in both senses of the word. Certainly, the ability to steady the bar overhead is a balance exercise. Throwers need excellent balance, but so do Highland Games participants, Olympic Lifters, and every other athlete. One needs balance, too, in the sense of the upper body and the lower body need to be able to work in symphony do those fifteen reps. Lots of guys, unfortunately, squat what they bench. You just can’t do that with this drill.

Third, the athlete who completes this task will have strong, flexible legs. You can send your athletes to all the yoga classes in the world, but the overhead squat develops athletic flexibility. As for leg strength, that is the only way to get out of the whole in this exercise. You can’t lean forward, twist, bounce or cheat in anyway. The bar will come off the top and you will have to start again. Maybe next week.

So, overhead squats became a staple in my athletic diet and coaching method. Pretty soon, other coaches began asking questions. “How can that skinny sophomore (Paul Northway weighed 155) throw the discus 182 feet?” I wanted to answer: “Brilliant coaching,” but Paul chimed in “overhead squats.” He explained that it “held him together throughout the throw.” Later, he would throw 214 as a senior.

Paul Northway as a Senior, during this workout he dropped ten throws over 190 feet. Another young man wanted to be a football player. He had no racks at home and his football coach wouldn’t let him lift free weights at school, I kid you not. So, he would Power Snatch the weight and do an Overhead Squat. Soon, he started rushing for over a hundred yards a game. In the off-season, away from his enlightened coaches who were having them lift five days a week on a bodybuilding program, he did what he called “The Exercise,” a power snatch followed by an overhead squat, usually in sets of five. He just finished his junior college career as the league’s leading rusher. He has been highly recruited and I hope he finds a University that allows him to lift in the school’s facilities rather than having to hide behind closed doors.

So, what did I learn on May 21, 1988? Five decades of champions seemed to agree on a few points regarding the weight room. First, train the whole body. Although lifting fashion tends to come and go, overall the successful throwers used whole body exercises. Cleans, snatches, squats, and many variations of overhead lifts were the fundamental movements of this group of athletes. Second, train, at most, three days a week in the weight room, IF you are a thrower. There may be times and reasons one can spend more time in the gym, but be sure you have a good reason. Universally, this group found that too many days in the weight led to injuries and staleness. Coach Maughan noted that any more than three days a week and the athlete is just fooling around every day in the weight room. If you train hard three days a week, you won’t be sneaking in the other four days. You’ll be recovering. Third, take Chris Hatch’s advice and try the Overhead Squat. You will wonder if you ever lifted before. For a beginner, try the bar for a few sets and make sure there is nothing breakable near the platform.

Your author, Dan John, at 19. If only I knew then…

I had been lifting for eighteen years when I “discovered” the Overhead Squat. It took a few more years to get it right in my training and coaching. The results have been phenomenal. Just when I thought I knew it all in lifting, the Overhead Squat came into my life. That was twelve years ago. Now, I am convinced I know it all.

Except, the other day, I was talking to this guy about one-handed lifts. ” I never do ‘em,” I said. He said: “If I could do it all over again, …”

Until next time.

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