What is in this article
A breakdown of past tests in the sport of CrossFit that have used overhead squats
An example testing body to assess the overhead squat
A process based model for returning to assessments
The CrossFit Games Open 2020 is about a week away. If the past opens are any indication of what is to come in the future, the overhead squat (or snatch which requires overhead squat positions), will be part of the testing body. The overhead squat can be a controversial movement and I’ve heard people say things like, “...if someone just wants to be stronger, leaner, and more healthy, they never need to overhead squat.” While I can understand this perspective, I’m going to write this article under the assumption that the overhead squat is a very important movement to you and you want to improve your abilities with the movement. I hope that this helps you better understand what ‘getting better’ means to me and can give you a way to comprehensively assess the movement in a way that will help you improve yourself or your athletes in the sport of fitness.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s agree there are also some risks with training overhead squats. For example, is someone has poor coordination, mobility restrictions, or slow reaction times they will probably be at more risk with this movement than others. For example, if someone is front squatting and they lose their balance, they can drop the bar forward to the ground. In that same example, if they ‘drop’ the bar’ when overhead squatting, they need to make sure they get out of the way of the bar or it’s going to land on them and could potentially cause damage. So, when prescribing overhead squats, it is important to program progressions that take someone safely from more basic squat variations into the more complex versions.
Now that we’ve gotten the beginner disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to proceed under the assumption that you already know how to overhead squat. I like to imagine that you are reading this because you, or people you coach, participate in the sport of CrossFit, and you know how to do a barbell overhead squat, have an established one rep max, and feel comfortable doing volumes of them while under a fair bit of fatigue.
So, the question now becomes: What does it really mean to ‘get better’ at overhead squatting in the sport of CrossFit?
The biggest mistake I see make when it comes to trying to get better is that they never think critically about this sport. Most people see that their max overhead squat is way lower than CF Games athletes’ so they want to go on a strength cycle and improve their one rep maxes. However, if you analyze the past, the CrossFit testing body has been pretty varied when it comes to testing the overhead squat. There have been four tests in the CrossFit open and 4 tests in the old CrossFit Games regionals format that used the overhead squat. The loads for the met-cons have ranged from 65-155# for females and 95-225# for males. There has only been one max tested and it was a 3 rep max at the open/regional level, and it actually was tested in ladder format. So, this format means the test had a component of strength endurance in its construction. If you look at the higher volume tests, the reps in the lower loaded workouts extended all the way into the 200 range for winners on workouts like 14.2/15.2. Whereas on the heavier loaded workouts, the reps were as low as 15 total reps for the workout.
It should be pretty clear that if you want to get better, you need to focus on more than just your 1 rep max!
In order to help me organize my training programs and properly identify progress, I generally use a testing body to guide my progressions and retests. This ensures I can see whether or not my plans are actually yielding performance gains. Here is an example testing body to help someone improve their overhead squat that is more comprehensive than just testing a 1RM and is modeled off of the past testing history of the sport:
Strength/Strength Endurance/Energy System Tests:
These would be performance based tests that you can establish pr’s for, run training cycles to improve, and refer back to ensure someone is getting better.
1 rep max overhead squat
15 rep max overhead squat
Max reps overhead squats from the floor at 70% 1rm in 3 minutes
100 overhead squats for time @95/65# (10 min cap)
CrossFit Open workout 14.2
-Overhead squat 95/65#
12 min amrap:
-10 single arm DB OHS 50/35# per side
-20 cals row
-40 double unders
Movement Challenges to test/retest:
These would be more visual and feel base tests. Improving someone’s positions on these may not directly improve performance metrics, but I have found that they help maintain more structural balance and indirectly improve performance through longevity/consistency.
Narrow Grip Barbell Overhead Squat
Two arm KB Overhead Squat
PCV Barefoot overhead squat
This testing body would not all be done in a single week, and it can’t be all of your assessments for the sport. However, testing bodies are best used to refer back to over the course of an athletic career. Generally, I will break down the process like this:
• Step 1: Test
• Step 2: Construct a training plan
• Step 3: Execute training plan
• Step 4: Adjust based on feedback
• Step 5: Retest
• Step 6: Repeat
I believe if you apply this type of approach to a broad testing body, you will be able to measure whether someone is comprehensively getting better at a skill in a way that would transfer into the development of the sport. I find this type of approach far more successful than worrying about the sexy 1RM, which I will admit fits much more nicely in an Instagram feed than some of the other more elaborate tests.
If you are someone that struggles with the overhead squat and are worried about it leading into this year’s open, sadly there isn’t much you can do in this final week. As the saying goes, “the hay is in the barn” and you are going to have to compete with the fitness tools you currently have built. However, as we move forward past this years open, hopefully you now understand how to assess the movement in a comprehensive way and this will guide your training more intelligently into the future. Good luck in the open and may you overhead squat with intensity, endurance, freedom, variability, and virtuosity.
Written by Max El-Hag