Overhead Squats: The Core of the Matter

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Mobility for Overhead Squats

The overhead squat is a good barometer for checking out the quality of your basic air squat; the better positioning you maintain in a bodyweight squat, the more likely you are able to perform any kind of weighted squat more comfortably.
K-Starr presents some good drills for improving the flexibility required for an overhead squat, starting with the band distraction stretches for the shoulder girdle. In this brief (sub-3 minute) video, he also demonstrates two other exercises to improve your overhead squat position:

  1. band distraction tricep stretch
  2. opening up the hip capsule from a high kneeling position (2+  minutes per leg/side)

Both of these pieces of “homework,” as he dubs them, can help you maintain a more upright (and therefore more stable) torso in the overhead squat.

Need more fun mobility drills in your repertoire? Check out this mWOD episode filmed at CrossFit Copenhagen with K-Starr and Jami Tikkanen of CrossFit Thames.

Part 1: External rotation work for the hips

Open up: You need strong external rotation in the hips at the bottom position of the overhead squat — which, if you haven’t long ago noted, is the same as the receiving position for the snatch.
Homework #1: Lie on your back, place feet (toes pointed up toward the ceiling, not angled out) onto the wall, then place the elbows inside the knees and push each knee out. The bonus of this position is that it keeps your back in a perfectly flat, neutral position — that is, what your not-yet-perfectly-upright squat should look like — and helps lengthen your adductors.

Homework #2: The K-Starr pseudo-Pigeon Pose variation — he calls it “pigeon sweep” because of the freestyle exploration of the hip

Part 2: Addressing the upper body

Homework #1: (Improve thoracic extension) Lie down with a keg drill placed under the middle of the back and reach overhead for an empty barbell; keep the arms straight while keeping the butt raised. Load from the top by dropping the butt down while pulling down the rib cage. The barbell allows you ” to lock off and fulcrum” and will improve your overhead position (you should be able to see your ears when you re-test).

Hardest ab work ever? The overhead position of the bar makes much of the stability work go to the core, most predominately the lower back.
Homework #2: (Improve internal rotation of the shoulder) Set up the bully stretch (arm twisted behind the back) using the band and make sure you maintain a strong shoulder position — avoid letting your shoulder pull you forward into K-Starr’s dreaded hunched “DB” position. Bonus points if you catch when K-Starr mentions “fascia.”

Overhead Squats Make Your Squat Better

In this T-Nation article, Lee Boyce describes the overhead squat as “a phenomenal tool for correcting the imbalances that lie among the hips, glutes, and lower back”:

[Overhead squats] have a threefold benefit. First, the overhead position of the bar makes much of the stability work go to the core, most predominately the lower back. Since the bar is held overhead, for most lifters, it will severely limit the depth achieved in the reps, and rounding of the lumbar spine will happen earlier in the rep.

Having this weakness exposed can tell you just how much stiffening/strengthening the lower back may need, and on the other side of the body, it’ll tell you how much blockage your tight hip flexors have over your hamstrings and glutes, limiting their flexibility.

In other words, the overhead squat is a good barometer for checking out the quality of your basic air squat; the better positioning you maintain in a bodyweight squat, the more likely you are able to perform any kind of weighted squat more comfortably.

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