The overhead squat: This movement pattern is one of the most comprehensive movements you should be asked to complete when determining your overall functional ability baseline.
Squat down so your knees go below parallel, arms & knees do not move forward past the toes, and the back is in the same angle as your tibias (lower leg bones)
We are talking entire trunk extension and shoulder mobility, hip/knee/ankle range of motion PLUS each of those joints ability to stabilize by holding you upright PLUS doing so while they are asked to move through a full nearly full, loaded range. Beyond that, your core has to stabilize your trunk and limit excessive movements throughout this task also. Whew! Our bodies are truly amazing to be able to sequence all of this.
I am sure you get it by now, but once again, let’s break the movement down. We can do this by lessening the extreme shoulder flexion and thoracic extension part of the equation. Many think it is not “functional” to perform this move with your arms overhead anyway, but that is a different arguement for another time. Start by clasping your hands behind your head (Side note, I think it’s funny this is called the prisoner’s squat). To limit thoracic extension, you need to have your elbows facing forward, unlike this picture.
The next thing to try is to assist moving down into a squatted pattern. The image depicts someone holding onto 2 straps. You could use a doorframe, a counter top, elastic bands, or even another person. If you are now able to lower yourself to knees below parallel, heels down, and knees not past toes, see if you can attempt to raise your arms overhead and stand back up. Does holding onto something give you the assistance you need to move fully and without compensations?
To break the movement down further, look at your overall hip and knee mobility. Start by lying on your back and hug your knees. If you can bring your knees to your chest and calves on thighs, your hip/knee motion is not what is limiting you from completing this movement pattern. So, let’s look at the ankle now. Obtain a half kneeling position with your front foot 4-5 inches from a wall. Lean your body forward and try to get your front knee to the wall. Make sure to keep your heel down and do not let your knee cave in to accomplish this. Try without shoes to get a true measurement of ankle range while it is loaded. If you can get the knee to the wall AND hug your knees to chest like described earlier, your lower body (hips, knees, ankles) have the motion available to squat. If not, addressing your range is where your efforts begin.
If you look like this, DO NOT load the squat with weight trying to get strong…I see that all of the time and it is foolish. Look at her lower leg angle versus her back angle. This will put undo stress on whatever is the weakest link for her – it could be her knees, back, hips or ankles. Make sure you can simply move your body weight the correct way first. Anything else is for ego. There are better ways to see how strong you are – loading the squat when you move poorly places you at risk to get hurt and is one reason the squat gets a bad reputation.
Trying to give thoughts and ideas about the squat succinctly is a challenge for me. It is so complex and can break down at a number of places. I hope this post at least got you thinking about how you move, as well as gives you some ideas of how to break down components of squatting. The take away message is look at the big picture. Don’t just “keep your back straight”, “get your knees behind your toes”, “keep your knees open”, or “get low”. I have heard all of these catch phrases to coach the squat. Stay away from compensated ranges. Move well through whatever range you have available. Always work on moving better.