by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS
The overhead squat is an extremely popular movement for evaluating how people move and for training to improve performance. Some have claimed that it is all that we need to properly assess someone’s movement dysfunction. Other’s have said that it is the best training exercises that there is and everyone should be doing it. And, many of us are in between, including myself.
I like the overhead squat for a number of reasons, but we need to keep it in perspective and understand it’s advantages and its limitations. It isn’t the “end all – be all” that a lot of people make it out to be, but I also think that a lot of people in the therapy world can and should use it more with their patients than they currently do.
Here’s my take on the Overhead Squat:
- It is the best overall indication of someone’s movement ability. This makes it an effective evaluation tool. When I see someone who has a really good looking overhead squat, the odds of them moving well in other ways is very high. For example, when someone moves well in the deep squat on the FMS, the odds of them scoring a 16 or higher for a total score is very good. If they are a 1/3 on their squat, I find that their overall score is rarely over 14. This is because it is a very complex exercise. It requires full extension of the upper extremity and full flexion of the lower extremity at the same time. That is very hard for the nervous system to manage, so if they can perform it cleanly, it tells us a lot about their movement abilities.
- An overhead squat requires more trunk and core stability than any other squat. Thus, an overhead squat is a very dense exercise. With someone who is already fairly stable and moves fairly well, the overhead squat can be a great total body exercise. It checks a lot of boxes for program design. It essentially takes a front or back squat and layers a lot of complexity on top of it.
- It can be a great tool for teaching other squatting movements. I like to use it early on as part of my squatting progression because if you can perform an unloaded overhead squat with good technique, then I’m pretty confident that you are ready to start loading up some other squat variations.
- While I don’t recommend using it as a conditioning exercise, it does have a high metabolic cost. Meaning, it burns a lot of calories because of it’s complex nature. I don’t use it in times of high fatigue because of it’s complex nature and injury risk, but depending upon a person’s goals and training levels, it can be used as a part of a quality weight loss or fitness focused program
- The overhead squat is a great accessory exercise to improve overhead Olympic lifting movements such as the snatch. It is virtually the same position as the catch position within the snatch, so improving an overhead squat will have a positive impact on a person’s ability to perform a quality snatch.
- Because the overhead squat is so complex, it should not be used as the only movement to screen movement quality. I have seen some people try to diagnose movement dysfunction simply by looking at the overhead squat and it just isn’t that simple. In an active squat, I can’t tell if someone has an ankle dorsiflexion restriction, lat restriction, trunk stability issue, or just a bad motor program. I have to do a lot of other things to tease all of that out. I am very skeptical of anyone who says that they can see what they need to see from an overhead squat to prescribe corrective exercises.
- Because it is very complex, it can also be very hard to correct. When I perform an evaluation on someone and plan their corrective strategies, the last thing that I attempt to correct is the overhead squat. I fix everything else, and if those things don’t fix the squat, then I start to work on the squat. Trying to fix the squat first, has proven to me to be a very difficult task to say the least.
- With so many people trying to use the overhead squat as a loaded exercise, we need to understand that with the load going overhead, we are exposing people to injury. Of course all exercise carries with it an injury risk, but I think that the overhead squat is greater than many others with the novice athlete because of it’s complexity and load overhead.
- When we load up the overhead squat, we typically cover up other dysfunction. If they have a mobility restriction, the load can and will shove the body through the restriction and into the bottom position. If they have a stability problem, the overhead load will prime the nervous system and force them to stabilize. These are the reasons why a lot of people look better with a load than without. I want to make sure people can perform an overhead squat without load before we add load. Don’t let load disguise dysfunction.
- The overhead squat isn’t appropriate for all populations. No matter how much I like it, it just isn’t the right exercise for every grandma. That’s not to say that they can’t or shouldn’t be using it, but it is to say that we need to consider things on an individual basis as to the appropriateness of all of the movements that we use and prescribe. If they don’t have decent trunk stability, then the overhead squat is a bad choice until they improve.
Overall, I love the overhead squat, but I realize it’s limitations and use it when appropriate. Hopefully this sheds some light on when and how it should be implemented. If you are looking for ways to improve the overhead squat, check out post on hacking the squat here.