Ask Greg: Improving Overhead Strength & Stability
Candy Asks: I had a question for you regarding a program for myself. It gets a bit overwhelming so I thought I could ask you and you can see where I can start. I want to improve my overhead performance. I am strong on my lower body but not so with on my overhead. Like for example my PR on back squats is 195 but my overhead is 95 pounds. That's just an example I wanted to throw at you. Can you give me any tips?
Greg Says: Where you need to start is diagnosing the source of the problem, because that will determine what’s required to correct it. For example, if the problem is that your mobility is poor in the bottom position, this will require a completely different solution than if you have great mobility but inadequate strength and/or stability in the overhead position itself. It could even be attributable in large part to simply not knowing how to properly create and secure an overhead position, i.e. shoulder blade position, humeral rotation, hand/wrist position, trunk inclination, barbell placement relative to the body, etc. Having said that, I’ll try to give you some general advice on how to improve your overhead strength and stability.
You can think of the overhead issue in three basic parts: static support strength, pressing strength, and position/stability. The very first and overwhelming priority is establishing a solid overhead position with snatch and jerk grips. This means shoulder blades retracted and upwardly rotated (squeeze the upper inside edges together forcefully) to create a strong base. This ties your arms into your trunk—if this foundation isn’t stable, nothing else can be. Next is the rotation of the humerus—the bony point of the elbow should point about halfway between straight down and straight back in the snatch (about neutral in terms of internal/external rotation), and slightly more out to the sides in the jerk. The bar should be in the palm slightly behind the center of the forearm with the heel of the palm facing up and the hand gripping the bar only tightly enough to maintain control and position. Finally, the trunk should be inclined forward very slightly to place the bar over the back of the neck while maintaining balance of the system.
The next priority is overhead support strength—the ability to support weight in this locked out overhead position, whether for the snatch or the jerk. Remember that this is very different from the ability to get the weight there (e.g. by pressing). Exercises like jerk supports and jerk recoveries are ideal for focusing on this ability, as well as reinforcing the proper overhead position.
Finally is actual pressing strength. For weightlifting, we’re generally more concerned with hybrid pressing exercises like the push press and snatch push press than strict pressing, although the latter certainly has value. Generally I think in preparation phases, weightlifters should have two days of significant overhead strength work each week, such as push presses and/or other pressing and support lifts. Just like with everything else, regular exposure is key for improvement. Train these lifts regularly and work on improving your strength in them gradually over time along with everything else like you squats.
In addition to this, start holding all overhead lifts longer. For example, hold all of your snatches, overhead squats, jerks, push presses, etc. in the bottom and/or overhead position for 3-5 seconds. This accumulation of static holds will do a lot for both strength and stability without even requiring additional training time or significant programming changes.