The overhead squat is nearly peerless in developing proximal stabilization and control over a huge range of motion. It drives an athlete's balance and proprioception (sense of the body's position in space) and demands/develops functional flexibility. It is a staple of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and the challenges of an external load with the arms fully-elevated allow physios, coaches, etc. to diagnose/observe athletes' faulty movements otherwise unseen in the back and front squats. Poor overhead squat technique prevents an athlete from transferring power from the large engines (hips and shoulders) to the smaller joints (knees, ankles, elbows) - a MUST for athletic performance. But, man, if it's not done properly it is just plain ugly and dangerous.
Here's the problem: Many beginning athletes are poorly (like REALLY poorly) instructed on appropriate overhead squat technique. Couple that with many athletes being progressed to this movement without having mastered the back squat and front squat (excellent form on the back squat followed by the front squat is a prerequisite for training the overhead squat in my practice) and it's a recipe for some nasty pain and gross form. There are many issues that arise when evaluating one's overhead squat - including mobility, position, and motor control. The focus of this post is to improve motor control of the forward trunk lean - the bane of the overhead squat.
From a motor control standpoint - the ability to maintain an upright torso is absolutely essential to perform this movement otherwise you're dumping the weight and/or subjecting the shoulders and low back to dangerous forces. Additionally, it prevents the athlete from getting to full depth as the pelvis runs into the femur causing a pelvic fault and lots of anterior translation and shear forces to the knees and shoulders. This leaves the athlete unable to generate adequate force in the primary engines (hips and shoulders) and robs athletic performance. Many times the athlete (particularly the beginner) has a difficult time understanding how to organize the movement and pitches the trunk forward to unload the glutes and shoulders. An inability to set the shoulders and create torque early in the movement also unlocks the shoulders allowing the chest to drift forward
Here's the solution: Often, athletes just need some simple neuromuscular cueing to clean up the motor control problems.
1) Clean up any load ordering faults in the movement
2) Using elastic tubing (can be Theraband, thin Jump Stretch band, etc) have the athlete perform an overhead squat while maintaining a posterior pull on the band. This engages the back musculature (including the lats and erector spinae which invest into and tighten the thoracolumbar fascia - shared by the glutes, weird right?) allowing the athlete to generate torque and stabilize the movement. The key here is that the resistance from the band is high enough to provide assistance and cueing to the athlete but NOT high enough that they can passively lean on it. This exercise allows the athlete to perform the full movement with proper activation but without the danger of trying to teach this exercise under load. You can attach the band to a wall, pull-up bar, friend's arm, whatever. Check it out:
3) The next exercise is a progression from #2, in which now the athlete has stabilized the torso but is still struggling with locking and stabilizing the shoulders. Using elastic tubing, have the athlete pull the band apart while external rotating at the shoulder and prioritizing an upright torso. This allows the athlete to optimally stabilize the shoulder and thoracic spine allowing for a legit-looking upright torso, not to mention an improved ability to handle an external load overhead once the skill is learned.
4) Load the hamstrings and posterior chain to set the hips and lumbar spine: stay tuned next week for more on this one!
The above exercises are great for a pre-workout neuromuscular primer in order to teach or prep the athlete for the overhead squat. They are also definitely appropriate for overhead athletes to teach midline and proximal stability, balance, and control.
Bottomline: In order to improve complex movements such as the overhead squat, we have to improve the athlete's understanding of stability and control over the entire range of movement. Providing neuromuscular cueing prior to loading up the movement is a must for those learning or struggling with improving their technique - EVEN for those already adept. There is always more potential to be had!