The OHS: Decoding Your Physicality By: Diane Fu

The overhead squat plays an interesting role depending on the circle
you speak to. In the functional fitness world of BOSUs and
flexi-tubes, it’s often used as a movement screen to diagnose
deficiencies. In the general strength and conditioning world, we see
it used to add metabolic demand onto an already flavorful workout. In
the sport of Olympic-style weightlifting, it plays a role in
developing strength and overall confidence in the newer weightlifter
for getting underneath the snatch. At bars, it’s used as a party
trick. Okay, I kid; but you get the point. The overhead squat is
everywhere and unavoidable in today’s fitness movement, but why?

The overhead squat runs a very high demand on systemic mobility and
stability. Participants need to have good range of movement across all
of the major moving joints of the body and all the while maintaining
the relationship of the barbell over the middle of the foot. With this
level of technicality, there ends up being an immense opportunity for
improvement. No wonder everyone’s welcomed the movement with arms wide

Now begs the question, “Well, what if I my overhead squat sucks? Every
time I try, I tip (insert: forward, back, onto my toes, fall down on
my butt, etc).”

Diagnosing the overhead squat requires an understanding of what’s
happening at each level of the body during the movement. This will
allow the athlete or coach to decide where the deficiency is stemming
from. Since the foundation of all barbell movement begins at the level
of the feet, that seems like a good place to start to me.

The Feet
Or more specifically, the ankles. Do the ankles have good ability to
flex and compress? If they do not, you can often buy some space by
simply having the athlete rotate their foot out a few degrees. We find
that up to a 20 degree turn out is still very effective at creating
stability upstream from this point and should absolutely be utilized
by athletes who lack range of movement in this joint. If the ankles
lack the ability to function optimally, you can pretty much expect
deviations in the rest of the structure above.

The Knees
The knees are often an expression of what is happening at the level of
the ankles and hips. Chances are if your ankles are stiff, you will
also find some stiffness in the hips as well which ends up affecting
the knee’s ability to externally rotate out. I encourage athletes to
mobilize both ankles and hips to improve knee function also adding
that the end that loosens up first is often a symptom of the other

The Hips
The hips, as you descend, need to be able to compress (flex) and
externally rotate. If you’re missing either component, you run the
risk of both blocking range and losing stability of the hip to trunk
relationship. Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, I’ll add
that this will also express in the shoulder’s inability to create a
good structure to support the bar overhead.

So assuming we need to improve the hip’s mobility and position, these
two can be greatly affected by stance width. By moving the feet out,
you create a larger base and room for the hips to sit through. This
also requires that the knee be further positioned out as well which
will generate stability for the trunk.

How far is too far? When you start losing end range in the hole and
you are no longer sitting down into your deepest squat with your trunk
upright. Be, however, weary of your tradeoffs. A wider stance also has
the potential to generate less power through the floor.

The Shoulders
The shoulders, like the hips, need to be both stable and mobile. For
many who think they have a shoulder mobility issue as they descend
into the hole, don’t. You can simply challenge this by using a PVC
pipe and placing it into lockout overhead. Using a snatch grip (about
6″-12″ overhead), the shoulders should be packed down with the elbow
pits pointing towards the sky. In a clean grip (about half a fist to a
fist width outside the shoulder), the shoulders should be packed down
with the elbow pits pointing towards each other. The idea of “packing
down” the shoulders can also be explained as wrapping the lats around
the trunk to try and draw the humeral head into the socket to create a
joint on joint support; or simply put, external rotation.

If you can achieve this position, you probably don’t have a shoulder
mobility issue. Now don’t get me wrong, there is definitely mobility
required to maintain this position; but my point is that it often
isn’t the only thing that needs to be addressed in isolation and that
the requisite amount of mobility in the shoulder is often

Like the hips, the shoulder’s mobility and position is affected by
grip width. By moving the hands out, we open degrees of freedom and
provide more slack for the shoulder to move. By moving the hands in,
we remove degrees of freedom and improve stability.

Again, caveat is given to immediately trying to move the hands further
out for the newer athlete, this can put a good amount of strain on the
wrist joint and cause unnecessary discomfort when supporting the load
overhead. Try to stick with a narrower grip until the wrist builds in
strength and then slowly adjust out to a more appropriate width.

The Wrists
The wrists need to have the ability to extend back to allow the bar to
rest across the middle of the palm and over the platform of the
forearm. Degrees of lateral flexion are needed as well to support the
bar in the overhead rack position. Athletes that find it difficult to
support the bar overhead due to wrist inflexibility and/or strength
can move their hands in closer to alleviate the pressure until the
joint is more mobile and stronger. An alternate option is to secure a
wrapping of athletic tape around the joint to increase stability, but
this method should be used only after time has been given to both
mobilizing and strengthening the joint itself.

The Trunk
The trunk’s job is to maintain stability under load. Part of looking
at the trunk starts with the spine. Does the spine have full capacity?
Can you maintain a neutral lumbar curve that doesn’t overextend as you
initiate the descent and doesn’t flex as you enter into the hole? Does
your thoracic spine have the ability to extend to it’s fullest
potential or do you look a little hunched over and turtle-y in the
upper back prohibiting good function of the arms overhead? Any
deviation from ideal in the spine will have an effect the surrounding
limbs that attach. Lumbar (lower spine) challenges are often corrected
through motor control (driving the knees out) and mobilizing the hip
and mid/upper back. Thoracic (mid/upper spine) challenges are often
corrected through mobilization techniques that encourage extension
through the individual joints of the vertebrae. We less commonly see
any overhead problems come through cervical faults, but attention
should also be given to making sure the head stays stacked in line
with the spine during movement.

This is all but a snap shot into what could be going on with your
overhead squat. If you would like more in depth information on
mobility and it’s relationship to movement, check out my mentor on
mobility Dr. Kelly Starrett on www.MobilityWOD.com or pick up his book
Becoming A Supple Leopard.

Until then, understand that for the overhead squat, we prioritize
having a vertically stacked torso and that adjusting the width of the
hands and feet can have positive impact on the quality of the
movement. And lastly, for those of you looking to have good skill
transfer into your snatch, your ultimate goal is to have the overhead
squat mimic the receiving position of the snatch.

More about Diane Fu can be found at FuBarbell.com