Let’s Overhead Squat! Or not.

By: Mike Collette B.S CES C-PT

Nicole Rocking the OHS

Nicole Rocking the OHS

Here is a pretty cool video of a member of CrossFit Prototype​ who exhibits some crazy mobility in his OHS.

Bill Arneth OHS with PVC Pipe

“Stability is how well we can maintain a position in the presence of change. This is the one people really get mixed up. Stability doesn’t mean I can hold a position. For our purposes, if you use the word “stable” to cue somebody to get what you want, by all means use it. But for the purposes of understanding the joint-by-joint concept, it means the ability for a joint or joint system to control movement in the presence of potential change.” ~Charlie Weingroff 
A few notes to take a look at as we look at mobility vs. stability. In a perfect world, everyone would have the necessary mobility and stability to execute movements with precision, but, we are not in a perfect world!
More than not, we tend to get people/clients/members with HYPO-mobility (lack there of mobility), so they are a little stiff or potentially immobile. The Overhead squat (OHS) is a perfect testament of the synergy between mobility and stability.When someone has a mobility limitation, they automatically have a motor control challenge. As I like to explain this movement to people, the OHS requires a few pre-requisites before we load it.
1.) Motor control (think patterns)
2.) Mobility (ability to move through a desired range of motion)
3.) Stability (control movement in the presence of change)
4.) Balance (in this case, static balance)
5.) Strength (amount of force production against a resistance)
You literally could be the strongest person in the world, but without 1-4, you won’t be moving very well!
So, lets talk a little about the video you watched of Bill doing an OHS. Now, movement limitations might not be seen with a PVC pipe due to lack of resistance or enough stimulus to elicit a change in the pattern. With that said, you can see Bill has a significant amount of mobility and isn’t hiding many movement issues. The OHS can start low and work its way up the kinetic chain or start high and work its way down .
Bill’s ankle mobility is quite significant giving him an edge to maintain an upright torso position. In addition, hip mobility/flexibility and proper squat pattern enables him to reach an appropriate depth. From there the mid-line is involved in creating stability with the pattern and people with upper body movement limitations such as upper crossed syndrome/ tight lats/ Kyphotic posture/Tight T-spine/Shoulder mobility issues etc, (the list goes on) might exhibit lack of mobility and stability in that overhead position. As you can see, I actually have Bill move his hands in on the OHS, challenging his mobility but creating more stability through the movement. All in all, Bill has awesome mobility but needs to be managed with proper stability training.

What happens when we narrow out the hands?

Well first off, I compare narrowing the hands on the OHS to pointing the toes forward on your squat. With a more neutral foot stance on your squat, you can exhibit more STABILITY but decrease the MOBILITY of the movement. Test this yourself. Squat with your toes forward. You might be able to the rock the position with proper form and upper body mechanics, but more than likely, a TOE OUT position around 15-45 degrees might feel better, allow you for more depth in your squat and all around feel more natural. To see what this looks like, check out this video of me doing an Air Squat with toes forward vs. toes out. You can see some faults and some movement limitations with the toe forward position vs. the toe out position (stability vs. mobility). I move “ok”, so there isn’t a huge difference, but from a “feeling” standpoint, the toe out position feels better with less restriction.

See the Air Squat demo video here!

So to compare to the OHS, when we narrow the grip, we challenge your MOBILITY while GAINING stability (if you have the mobility to get there and squat) throughout the pattern. Now, with a wider hand position, you will have more mobility but will be less stable to maintain the load overhead. Same with the “toeing out” too far in the squat. You might be more mobile, but apply a heavy load such as a front squat, back squat or OHS, you might be fighting for stability therefore causing your knees to cave in and lose a strong position. Below we have a video putting this into perspective with an RNT technique to recruit the hips abductors but for the purpose of this video, we are using it to show the relationship between mobility and stability in the squat. Now, I am trying to not let Brian push my knee’s in, really trying. The position is broken with toe out, not with more neutral foot.

See the Toe forward vs. Toe out Squat video here!

Why is this hard for many people? Well, those that lack shoulder mobility due to some stiffness/structural restraints/Core stability/ inflexibility/ poor motor control/ injury etc, find it difficult to squat with their hands overhead for specific reasons. Your muscles work together and in patterns not independently. So when we bring your arms overhead and try to move at your ankle, knee and hip, some muscles that might be stiff/tight or “not in control” will, (in the easiest way to put it) “fight” against the movement you are trying to create. Without going into much detail, because I could literally go on all day about why you aren’t moving the way you want to be, lets just use your Lat’s as an example. Your lats attach to your upper arm and down to your spine/hip. Bring your arms overhead then try to move at your hip, your lats might say something like “yeah, we are’t doing both of those things at the same time” hence limiting your ability to OHS and maybe throwing you into anterior pelvic tilt as well (that’s the skinny). Many other factors go into movement inefficiency so in order to figure out what the problem is, I highly recommend getting an assessment done to direct you on the correct path to moving better!
To conclude, the OHS is a movement that requires a lot more than just “being strong” to get the job done. It’s a movement based upon synergy and patterns. If you don’t have the pattern, we can work to get the pattern better through appropriate assessment. It doesn’t make sense to drill on a poor pattern, there are always alternatives. So, if you can’t OHS, don’t worry, lets work on getting it better!!