August 14, 2011

The Overhead Squat - Horrible Exercise, Excellent Diagnostic Tool

A lot of people try to get ‘cute’ with their training by altering the way in which they perform basic, simple movements with the hope that by increasing the difficulty, the benefits will be greater. Unfortunately, increased difficulty rarely equals increased benefits, as any modification to an exercise that negatively affects the amount of weight that can be used, or the amount of reps that can be performed, is often counterproductive.

One such movement is the squat, in which the difficulty is increased by holding the bar overhead, as opposed to allowing it to rest on the back. This dramatically reduces the amount of weight that can be used, as you are limited by the strength of your upper body, as well as your current level of mobility at the major joints involved in the lift.

However, another way of looking at performing overhead squats is, since you can be limited by your structure, the movement itself may provide insight in terms of where imbalances lie, and thus is a fantastic diagnostic tool that can be used to highlight them, and allow for corrective exercise to be implemented.

The set up: Feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with the toes pointed out slightly. Grasp a light bar with elbow-width grip (elbows should be bent 90° with both upper arms in-line to one another) and extending your arms by raising it overhead. Position head forward or slightly down.

The execution: Slowly squat as low as possible while keeping the arms extended, and bar overhead. The knees should travel in the same direction as toes, and should extend forward approximately at the same rate as the hips extend back. Body weight should be situated through entire foot through movement.

In addition to the instructions above, the test administrator should assess the individual's completion of the movement using following criteria:

1. The upper torso should remain parallel with the shin or slightly more vertical

2. The hip should be lower than the knee in the bottom position

3. The knees should be aligned over the feet

4. The bar should be in line with the feet

The test administrator should also note any issues with balance, speed of decent and ascent, and pain or discomfort.

The overhead squat effectively assesses the following:

1. Hip Mobility – if the subject leans forward to maintain balance/stability and the thighs come into contact with the abdomen, this may be indicative of tight/short hip flexors and/or hamstrings, combined with a lack of activation in the glutes, and weak abdominals

2. Ankle Mobility – if the subject’s heels raise off the floor as they near the bottom of the movement, this may be indicative of tight/inflexible calves (soleus)

3. Knee Flexibility – if the hamstrings do not come into contact with the calves, this may indicate that there is a lack of flexibility in the knee

4. Shoulder Flexibility – if the bar travels forward and fails to remain in line with the feet, this may indicate a lack of shoulder flexibility due to tight/short pecs and lats

5. Scapular Stability – if the bar travels forward and fails to remain in line with the feet, this may also indicate a lack of strength in the scapula retractors/external rotators

6. VMO Weakness/Imbalance – if the knees travel medially (towards each other), this is indicative of poor tracking of the knee during flexion/extension due to a relatively weak VMO

If the subject being tested cannot complete one repetition after 3 attempts, try again with the heels elevated, by either a placing a piece of wood, like a 2x4, or use ten lb. weight plates, under the heels. If the person CAN complete a repetition with the heels elevated, but failed to do so without the piece of wood, or ten lb. plates, then you should realize that all of the above issues are likely the cause of failure, but primarily the first 2 (lack of hip and ankle flexibility) are the cause.

TIP: More often than not, activating the glutes can instantaneously improve performance, as they are prime movers in the full range of motion squat.

To separate mobility from stability, perform the same movement in an unloaded position by lying on the floor and assessing range of motion. If the subject can reach greater ranges of motion in an unloaded position, this indicates that the mobility is there, but the nervous system is not effectively sharing the load.

If you have any questions about the overhead squat and how to use it to asses people for imbalances with it, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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