Today’s post deals with an exercise I love to hate, the overhead squat. Now this is not one of those posts about how I hate doing it, but the benefits are so great, that I do them anyway. Nope, not at all. I hate this exercise and, chances are, I hate the people who promote it.
If you’re reading this and wondering why Conor is so bitter, the answer lies in my faulty Irish genes. I have spent years trying to perfect the overhead squat. Years. A winning combination of poor ankle mobility, wrists that move like cement mixers and terrible shoulder flexibility have made it a failed endeavor. So I hate the overhead squat. I understand its various uses, think it sounds great in theory but I loathe it in practice.
So don’t worry. I am not trying to convince you that the overhead squat will increase your back squat by 200 pounds, will get you six-pack abs or the job you have always wanted. I don’t use Instagram but I’m assured this is what the regular sales pitch is online these days.
Nope. Not here.
Instead I’m going to do what all good historians can do. Discuss the history of something that we cannot do ourselves.
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach physical education…
As someone who teaching the history of physical education, I’m always unsure of where I fall into this category although I suspect it’s not faltering or something worth putting on my CV.
In any case I do enjoy these rabbits holes and, in case you are wondering, my inspiration usually comes from whatever exercise I am currently loathing (see Face Pulls, Split Squats or Guillotine Presses as examples).
Who Cares About the Overhead Squat?
I’m no longer complaining. Promise. Instead I want to open by discussing the popularity of the overhead squat among the general lifting public before discussing its early history. For obvious reasons, the overhead squat is a beloved movement in Olympic weightlifting gyms around the world.
Part of this is simple mechanics. The overhead squat mimics the pattern of the Olympic snatch. Training the overhead squat thus trains the competition lift. Thus it is a common sight to see the overhead squat being used by weightlifters. Oftentimes it is used in the warm-up routine by a very smug lifter who makes Conor feel inadequate. Okay, sorry. No more complaining.
It is also a firm favorite of Crossfit boxes and the Crossfit Games. I feel/hope that we have now reached a point where Crossfit is no longer the butt of the joke in the lifting community and we can finally appreciate its good sides. Crossfit, which began to take hold in the 2000s, has arguably done more in the past two decades than anything else to promote weightlifting for the general public.
Overhead squats are commonly used in Crossfit gyms and, in fact, most of the instructional videos you find for this lift come from Crossfit coaches. Crossfit has, at multiple, points, also included the overhead squat in the Crossfit Games. This, to me, is awesome as we can see people going all out in the lift. The 2014 Games blew my mind at the time when Crossfit legends Rich Froning and Matt Fraser went toe to toe in the overhead squat.
The final group to consider are strength and conditioning coaches who, quite frankly, have forgotten more about lifting than the majority of us (myself included) will ever learn. As a young lifter, I became aware of the overhead squat when I read my first Dan John article. When I began to read more, I came across works by the likes of Charles Staley, Bret Contreras and Charles Poliquin, all of whom used it in various capacities.
They were wonderful, wonderful times. In any case, the overhead squat continues to be used in athletic settings as a pre-hab/rehab tool or to mix things up. From anecdotal experience I’ve found that athletic settings (be it a High School football team or a Collegiate Women’s Volleyball team) are more likely to mix it up on this movement. Rather than they standard barbell they use kettlebells, dumbbells and barbell plates.
This is arguably a fourth category – which is people who show off in the gym. But again, that’s perhaps my bitterness showing. The overhead squat is not a common exercise, far from it. But it is important to various tribes within the lifting community.
When Did People Start Doing the Overhead Squat?
It did not begin with the functional fitness craze of the 1980s and 1990s. Although there is no denying that the move to functional training (which we never seemed to get around defining) helped increase the popularity of this movement. The first time lifters began to truly experiment with this exercise was the 1930s and 1940s.
Part of this makes intuitive sense. As we have previously discussed, here and elsewhere, lifters did not begin using heavy back squats until the 1920s. Prior to that time a great deal of squatting was done on the tippy toes. The 1920s was also a period when the Olympic lifts (at that time the snatch, clean and military press) were first finalized.
It makes sense then that the overhead squat, which encompassed both Olympic weightlifting and the back squat, would emerge in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, this is the annoying part. I cannot, for the life of me, discover who first popularized the overhead squat.
What I can do is mention some of the early proponents of the overhead squat. We know, for example, that Mark Berry – the one time American weightlifting coach and longtime fitness writer – recommend a squat and press in the 1930s. Variations by some of his readers ranged from a push press to actually pressing the bar overhead while still in the squat position and then rising. This latter version, in case you’re wondering, is a great way of making two different exercises (squatting and pressing), even harder.
Someone who helped to truly advance things was Bob Hoffman of York Barbell. Hoffman, whose career was covered by the wonderful John Fair biography, was a zealot for Olympic lifting and weightlifting for the masses. His York barbell routines from the 1940s and 1950s regularly included the overhead squat.
Likewise Hoffman’s writers, like Harry Paschall (of Bosco fame), wrote about the overhead squat as one of the most effective exercises an individual could add to their training. Admittedly Hoffman was not the only person to do this. Former US Olympic coach Jim Schmitz recalls reading about the overhead squat from a 1940s Joe Bonomo course. But he was one of the more influential voices.
Why Does This Matter?
I mean … cards on the table … it doesn’t. Knowing the early history of the overhead squat does not make the movement any easier for me to execute. But, thinking more broadly, the history does reveal some salient points about this movement.
- A lot of lifting coaches have praised and used it over several decades
- Success leaves clues. In lifting worlds, success leaves movements
- There truly is nothing new under the lifting sun
As always … Happy Lifting!