How To Improve Your Overhead Squat
The overhead squat is a difficult movement. It requires stable shoulder girdles, an open chest, thoracic spine extension, mobile hips and strong glutes, and the ability to squat well below parallel without the lumbar spine buckling into flexion.
As it happens, these specific capacities and joint functions are limited in most people. This is why the overhead squat is such a good assessment tool. With one movement you see hip dysfunction, limited thoracic extension, and shoulder girdle restrictions.
We use a reverse squat with a bar suspended from bands as a way to overcome a lot of these inefficiencies and groove the squat pattern.
We use orange Elite Fts bands looped over pins in our squat rack. If you don't have a rack that will work for this you can just as easily loop the bands over a pullup bar. Then, just pass the bar through the bands.
You'll have to experiment with band tension depending on bar height and the bodyweight of the person using it. You can also have a spotter lean a little weight on the bar if your lifter is having a hard time getting all the way to the bottom of the squat.
This movement serves several purposes:
Psoas Activation and Strengthening
This is one of the most important actions. The psoas originates at the last vertebrae of the thoracic spine and each of the lumbar vertebrae. It serves to flex the hip and stabilize the lumbar spine. In deep hip flexion, such as a squat, it serves to anteriorly tilt the pelvis and prevent the lumbar spine from buckling into flexion.
The vast majority of Americans have excessively tight, chronically shortened hip flexors due to the lengthy amounts of time spent in the sitting position. This has a number of significant negative postural implications and it's important to address these by actively stretching and mobilizing the hip flexors in most cases.
The psoas, however, is often an exception. While the other hip flexors generally need very little relative strengthening, the psoas is frequently inhibited and weak. This means that during high hip flexion such as sprinting, jumping or kicking the pelvis must tilt posteriorly and excessive spinal flexion is substituted for clean hip flexion. This creates an "energy leak" at the spine and sets the athlete up for injury.
By allowing the spine to flex and the pelvis to fall into posterior tilt, weak psoai (yes, that's plural for psoas) shorten the glutes and hamstrings, effectively limiting the amount of force they can generate from the bottom of the squat.
An inactive, weak psoas is often implicated in compensatory problems with other muscles of the hip. Often, the rectus femoris or TFL will become tight and overactive as they attempt to pick up the slack left by a poorly functioning psoas. This can lead to poor hip function and several different flavors of knee pain.
This reverse squat movement requires you to pull yourself down into the squat position with the psoas muscles. As you drop down, forcefully contract them as you push your hips further back and maintain a slight arch in your spine. You'll feel your psoai lighting up as they contract. This is an important component of a deep, stable squat.
Lower Trap Activation and Strengthening
The lower traps are a commonly weakened and neurologically inhibited muscle. They are also crucial for stabilization and function of the scapulae. In the overhead squat, they are an important component of depressing the scapulae and working along with the upper traps and serratus anterior to produce the upward rotation of the scapulae necessary for safe overhead lifting.
As you drop into the activation squat, keep your chest high and actively squeeze your shoulder blades down as hard as you can. This will activate the lower traps and promote clean, stable upward rotation of your scaps.
Not many people have the hip mobility to drop into a deep squat. One of the problems with trying to progress into a full squat is that limited hip mobility will cause you to fall over backward before you can get there. This can be remedied by simple grabbing onto something in front of you for balance. This will give you the freedom to push your hips back and down, deeper into the squat, without tipping over backwards.
Having a bar held overhead to hold onto allows you to drive your hips back, mobilizing your hips in the same pattern you'll be using in the overhead squat.
Another very common postural flaw is limited mobility at the thoracic spine. Thoracic mobility is one of those things that we really can't have enough of.
In many people, extension at the thoracic spine is replaced by extension from their lumbar spine. This in itself is dangerous to the discs of the spine. Further, what often happens in the overhead squat is that these people also lack hip mobility and psoas function and as they descend into the squat they lose their lumbar extension as the pelvis tilts posteriorly. With no more lumbar extension and an immobile t-spine, the bar will be way too far ahead of the lifters center of gravity and come crashing down in front of them.
By forcefully contracting the lower traps, psoai and abs in the bottom of the squat with a high, open chest you can actively mobilize your thoracic spine and improve it's ability to extend.