Overhead Positions for Olympic Weightlifting

Liam Rodgers
5 min read
November 18, 2022

A solid overhead position is a key indicator of performance - you can't lift more than you can hold overhead. Get the simple bits right, put the bar overhead in the right place to make it easy for yourself.

Head Through: Overhead Positions for Olympic Weightlifting

Where do you put your hands and head in the Olympic Lifts?

The snatch and clean and jerk are already complicated. Get the simple bits right, put the bar overhead in the right place to make it easy for yourself.

That's our focus today, so let's get into the practical stuff and leave the 'theory' to R/Weightlifting.

Overhead Position: The Basic Goals of Overhead Position in the Snatch and Jerk

The overhead position s there to channel your upper body strength to hold the bar overhead. It needs to do a few things:

  1. Put your upper body joints - the shoulder, elbow, and wrist - in viable positions for load
  2. Reduce the amount of overall movement of the barbell overhead
  3. Give you a chance to turn over effectively and coordinate the rest of the lift
  4. Be trainable to develop as you lift more weight overhead
  5. Position the bar for an easier overhead squat or jerk recovery

A solid overhead position is a key indicator of performance - you can't lift more than you can hold overhead - for many athletes. Key limitations to the overhead position include mobility restrictions, poor technique, incorrect focus, and simple weakness in the upper back and shoulders.

Let's define what a good overhead position looks like, then we will ask why this is so hard for so many people, and then discuss strategies to improve it. We're going to keep it short and sweet, so let's get into the meat of the issue.

What Does A Good Overhead Position Look Like?

Whether in an overhead squat or a jerk, the overhead position has a few defining factors: a strong and consistent lock in the elbows, upper back stability and control, proper weight distribution, a sustainable torso angle, and proper trunk and hip activity.

These are a bit fluffy, so let's break them down with an example from super stud and technical exemplar Dan Siegel:

  • Strong and consistent locked elbows: the elbows are locked out - like the top of a press - that bar isn't going anywhere. 3 white lights.
  • Strong and stable upper back: the bar overhead is behind the head, and the muscles of the scapula are "tight", actively stabilising the shoulders.
  • Proper weight distribution: the bar is neither too far forward nor back - maintaining this position once the bar is overhead is comfortable and consistent.
  • Excellent torso angle: Dan's head is "through", and there is a mild but deliberate torso inclination. The back doesn't have to extend too much to maintain balance.
  • Trunk and hip stability: Dan's core is tight because of strong core muscles and good coordination. From the beginning to the end of the lift, the core and back are working.

Overhead Position: Elbows, Presses, and A Stronger Catch

The proper overhead position is - to oversimplify - wherever you can produce the most upward force against the barbell without compromising other factors above. The wrists, elbows, and shoulders all need to align under the barbell.

Internet weightlifting coaches love to stress over the specifics - what is the joint angle of the wrists? Should the shoulders be internally or externally rotated in the jerk? What's the optimal shin angle for the front leg?

We're not interested: build big, strong shoulders and focus on upward pressure against the bar in the catch. If you can do that, pain free, and you're not doing some bizarre and extreme nonsense, you're fine for the overhead squat and jerk position.

The fastest way to actually reduce your injury risk overhead is to build a bigger press and more upper back strength. You're at more risk from being weak than having slightly "incorrect" shoulder rotation.

Upper Back Muscles for Fixing The Bar Overhead

You need a big back for weightlifting. I'm going to say this until I am blue in the face because I've had a small back a long time and it was one of the most performance-limiting, injury-causing problems.

This includes your upper back and the muscles of the scapula region. Your upper back is going to absorb the shock of the catch in your jerk and snatch. Train it to be big, strong, and develop coordination.

You already know what it is. Build a big back like Lu.

If your back muscles are weak, this area will "give" under weight. Practice deliberate control of the shoulder blades and surrounding muscles in your warm ups and key variations like the push press and the snatch balance.

Once again, being brutally strong through all ranges of motion is the best way to go. My recommendation? Lots of row and chin up volume, lots of food, and lots of sleep.

Weight Distribution Overhead

Once you've got the barbell overhead, it's important to make sure that everything else is in good balance. The idea is to be under the barbell in a way that you could maintain balance for a long time, if not indefinitely, with the load.

This comes from a combination of how you put the bar over your head - the pull and turnover of the snatch or the dip and drive of the jerk - and your catch.

The catch position is key, whether in the overhead squat of the snatch or the split of the jerk. (If you squat jerk, you're on your own with your silly meme lift.)

The goal in both the snatch and the jerk is to move the feet to put the majority of your body under the bar - not in front or behind it. As the heaviest part of a good Olympic lift, the barbell is the centre of balance, whether you like it or not.

Get yourself under the barbell - the more of your body there is between the bar and floor, the easier balance and stability overhead become.

It's impossible to make a lift consistently if your body is not under the barbell. At the best, you'll be running out to chase it and fix the lift by repositioning your body under it. Cut the nonsense and get it there straight away.

Torso Angle In The Jerk and Overhead Squat

Torso angle is key to a good overhead position for Olympic Weightlifting - and it's not just about being upright. This one is going to be an eye-opener for some people out there who think that upright catches are all it takes.

You're not Artem Antropov - you can't just sit 100% upright. Nor should you - you need to incline your torso to put the barbell behind your head and into the proper overhead position for the shoulders and scaps.

See, when we want to hold anything overhead, the best position is to stick it above the base of the neck where we can turn on the scap muscles, pushing the barbell up and backwards. This combined pressure ensures solid elbow lock, and is the best position. If you try and stay too upright - because you can due to wild mobility - you're limiting yourself.

Look at videos of elite Russian and Eastern European lifters. Look at the Bulgarians, the Belaurssians, the Poles, and those other nations that set world records. The hips are deliberately set a little backwards, with the chest projected forwards and up. This is what you should look for - putting the bar back to hit this position, not leaning forward, beyond your base of support.

This is a little further forward than some of his "best" jerks, but we love to see the sport-defining moments.

Trunk And Hip Stability (Spoilers; Not Optional)

Trunk and hip stability make the overhead position work. If the core and the hips are weak and out of position - or just lazy - you're not going to get consistent makes in the snatch and jerk.

Light reps and heavy reps should both aim to stabilise the core and hips actively. Think of it like this: you catch the barbell "on" the core and hips. These are the main structures that control your balance, as well as providing stiffness in the trunk and controlling the position of the spine.

Athletes that have consistent, excellent technique sit into their hips, but actively: the hips are flexed but hinging open against gravity. Practice this active end range with reps of overhead squat, snatch balance, jerk recoveries, and more. Pause all your jerks and overhead squats to feel the proper bracing and tightness in the core and hips.

It's impossible to build a good jerk on unstable hips. You can't stick 200kg over your head if everything below the shoulders is made of wet sand and hope. Every link from your feet to the bar has to be deliberate, active, and apply upwards pressure.

How Can I Build A Solid Overhead Position

There are 5 major ways to train your overhead position for Olympic Weighlifting:

  1. Just stand in proper positions - practice them without weight!
  2. Practice mindful reps for overhead strength and control
  3. Beat mobility limitations and practice low-intensity overhead training
  4. Strengthen your key muscle groups with presses and other accessory exercises
  5. Strengthen the hold directly with snatch balance, jerk recovery, and others

These are all either ways to drill the movement, or exercises to develop the total force you can produce. You can also implement upper body speed and power exercise to improve your ability to get to lockout quickly.

Regular practice builds control, while regular accessory exercises for pressing helps improve your total load capacity. You need both. It's also important to regard all reps of snatch and jerk as a chance to practice your overhead position.

1. Position practice

You can drill the proper foot, knee, hip, core, and upper body positions without any weight. The barbell is a great way to train but it's not the only example of how you can or should move - especially since it requires you to stress the tissues, and demands recovery.

Practicing with a PVC pipe or similar is a meme by now, but it's not incorrect. If you find yourself losing balance, then building basic coordination is one of the easiest ways to apply low effort solutions. You can put in many practice hours over the course of weeks and months.

Try to squeeze into position - rather than just taking up a flaccid replica of the proper motion

2. Mindful reps

As ever, the best way to build your overhead position for Olympic Weightlifting is to do it right, never do it wrong, and put a ton of training volume into the right balance and technique.

If you consciously hit the right positions with every rep, you'll get stronger there, and it will become your go-to catch. Easy enough.

3. Develop mobility and control

If you're lacking the structural ability to get into a good overhead position, then that's a simple but slow fix. Build the mobility, control, and strength to put the bar in the right place. Poor mobility is common, and can be fixed with proper effort over time. Simple enough.#

4. Strengthen key muscle groups with accessory exercises

Use your head; you still need to build muscle and strength to underwrite your arms, and the rest of your body. Being weak is still a limitation, even in perfect joint angles and technical performance.

Overhead press, bench press, dips, chin ups, rows, and handstand push-ups if you're fancy. Build better vertical pressing and focus on getting the proper torso inclination when you press, to help it transfer over more closely.

You can also use more dynamic exercises like the snatch balance and the push press. Just remember the speed component does make them less muscle-focused, and can take emphasis off the arms, which need to get stronger.

5. Strengthen positions directly with isometric overload

If you're really trying to shortcut the rest of this stuff we've talked about, jerk recoveries and "top half" overhead squats are common. Isometric exercises - where force is applied to keep the bar in one place and maintain muscle lengths - is a great way to build focused intent in the arms and upper back.

Use these exercises sparingly - supramaximal training will batter your joints, even if you don't feel it.

Final Thoughts

Here are my final thoughts in some soundbite-y formatting:

  1. Don't exaggerate upright-ness, it's only good to a point. The body has limits.
  2. Strengthen your shoulders and upper back before you over-worry yourself.
  3. Practice doing it right until it's second nature
  4. Use overload sparingly

It's not super complex, but it requires patient and repetitive, diligent work. But that's Weightlifting.

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