As many of you have found out… and keep finding out… over and over again… being able to get a bar overhead in a snatch doesn’t mean much if you can’t keep it there. Following are my recommendations for improving overhead stability, strength and security for the snatch.
Everyone’s first question is What’s the best exercise for overhead stability?
The first question I have in return is Are you even holding the bar correctly?
I ask because nine times out of ten, you’re not—and no exercise is going to dramatically improve your overhead stability without the proper structure and effort in place.
The most important element of a strong and stable overhead position is the position of the shoulder blades. This is the foundation of the arms, and like any structure, if the foundation is unstable, so is everything else. The shoulder is a wonderfully mobile joint, but the tradeoff for its mobility is instability. We maximize stability by fixing the base of the arm (the shoulder blade) tightly in place against the upper back in a position that both allows us to raise the arm into position unimpeded and use forceful muscular effort to lock the shoulder blade in place.
This means retraction and upward rotation. Retraction allows us to aggressively fix the shoulder blades in place with muscular effort, but straight retraction limits overhead range of motion—we need upward rotation to open up the AC joint. This is the reason for my instruction to squeeze the upper inside edges of the shoulder blades together
. This action achieves the position simply without having to try to think your way through fine scapular manipulation.
This scapular position then dictates the rest—a slight forward inclination of the trunk and the head pushed forward through the arms. The forward head allows the shoulder blades to lock in place—if the head is directly between the arms, it will prevent complete retraction. The forward lean of the trunk then allows us to orient the arms vertically and position the bar over the base of the neck. This creates our optimal structure.
Next is the dreaded question: internal or external rotation
… to which I have to continue giving the obnoxious answer: No.
We don’t want end range in either direction—we want the arm approximately neutral in terms of IR/ER. The easiest way to think of it and see it is to orient the bony point of the elbow about halfway between straight down (external rotation) and straight back (internal rotation). This is the position that allows the optimal scapular position described previously while also aligning the elbow such that it can still resist bending well.
The final piece of the proper overhead structure is the hand and wrist. A poor hand and wrist position on an otherwise solid overhead position is like duct-taping a weight to a steel beam… except worse because in this case, instability in the wrist can create instability in the elbows and shoulders.
Think of the hand like the cradle of a squat rack with the bar rolled to the back. That is, the bar is a bit behind the midline of the forearm but still directly supported by it. This means we have a rigid structure directly supporting the force while also having a constant and predictable direction the bar is trying to move (backward), both of which maximize our ability to stabilize it. The bar should absolutely not be high in the hand closer to the fingers and behind the forearm, nor should we try to keep the wrist aligned straight with the forearm.
Now we can finally proceed to the stuff you actually wanted when you got here.
Your Real Question: Training
The first thing to do when in search of better overhead strength and stability is also the simplest and lowest-cost: Hold all of your lifts in the bottom and overhead for a few seconds. When I say hold, I mean hold forcefully—lock in that overhead position like you’re trying to keep 400kg up there, whether it’s an empty bar or a PR attempt. Don’t waste your own time doing the bare minimum to not drop the bar.
Anything helps, but 3-5 seconds is ideal. This means when you receive a snatch, snatch balance or get to the bottom of an overhead squat, stop. Stay. Lock forcefully. Eliminate all motion. Stay some more. Then stand up. Then keep holding a bit longer before you drop it. This adds literally seconds to your training session and will produce massive results.
Not only are you benefitting from the time and effort to lock out well, you’re giving yourself more time to improve and reinforce the ideal structure and making it second nature.
The next layer would be to add some flare to existing exercises. This is the next most economical approach. This means creating complexes out of snatches primarily, but may also mean other exercises. For example, add an overhead squat and/or snatch balance to the end of every snatch or power snatch set. But this may also mean adding an overhead squat at the end of a snatch balance set or similar.
Finally, we get to the standalone exercises you can add to your programming to really hammer this in. Of course we have the standards: the overhead squat, heaving snatch balance and snatch balance. All of these will allow us to load heavily and spend plenty of quality time with the bottom position.
A commonly overlooked one, though, is the snatch push press. This is a great exercise to practice and reinforce the correct overhead position and strengthen the upper body for it without incurring considerable systemic fatigue and increasing the volume the old legs are having to cope with. Be sure to start these, like all behind the neck pressing/overhead exercises, with the shoulder blades already set tightly in position while the bar is on your shoulders, and to hold each rep forcefully overhead before lowering.
Next we move away from real strength builders and into more stabilization and position practice.
The press in snatch (commonly but incorrectly called the Sots press… or any number of misspellings of poor Viktor’s last name) is a good one for whole body mobility and comfort and familiarity with the position while building some upper body strength (note here I refer to pressing strength, versus isometric/supporting strength like we get with the overhead squat and snatch balance).
If your mobility doesn’t yet allow you to do these, you can still do snatch presses (snatch-grip press behind the neck if you must spell it all out.) You can also use these to progress to presses in snatch by following a series of progressively more demanding positions as shown here
Finally, we can use overhead carries as a way to combine time supporting the weight and some degree of instability (the faster you walk, the more unstable—making turns is also a good idea). With normal loading, we can get pretty heavy with these by snatch-grip push jerking the weight up.
We can increase the instability of any of these exercises by hanging weights from the bar with rubber bands. The limitation for these is being able to get the bar up and back down, i.e. you can’t load overhead squats or carries as heavily this way as the standard variations. That said, you can create a lot of stabilization demand with relatively little weight: the lighter the band and the more weight hanging on it, the more unstable. A combination of both in a training program is the smart way to go.