Part 1 of Improving the Overhead Squat – Cueing and Maintaining an Upright Torso – can (must?) be read here.

As we discussed last week, the overhead squat is nearly unmatched in its demands on stability, motor control, and power. One of the main faults in performance of the movement, dumping the torso forward, was effectively crushed last week. However, as with all squat variations (back, front, and overhead), another common fault is the knees tracking forward and inward with the athlete unable to achieve full depth without falling forward or backward. Is this you? Right the ship.

Here’s the problem: Improper cueing and loading of the glutes and hamstrings (posterior chain) causes quad dominance in which the knees track forward during the squat. This causes tons of compressive forces thru the patella but also prevents adequate depth and control during the squat. This is what the coach or physio will see with athletes attempting the overhead squat (or any squat for that matter):
1) They will avoid loading their hamstrings and glutes (won’t sit back in the squat) and the knees are erroneously loaded first
2) The torso or shoulders may start to come forward
3) The knees cave in and the arch of the foot collapses
3) Near the bottom of the squat, they will stop short and are unable to go further down because something (self-preservation?) tells them if they go any further down, they’ll fall over (not good)
4) They are unable to efficiently complete the up phase of the squat, will say “gee, I must not be very strong” and you will cringe.

So, here’s the real question: is the athlete (or you) weak?
Anytime the athlete feels as though they will fall backwards during squats, motor control is always at the forefront of diagnosing the movement. *Mobility and tissue extensibility are also possible differential causes – though not the focus of this post*

Here’s the solution: Oftentimes, the athlete is not necessarily weak (though it is certainly a possibility) it’s just that they do not know how to fire muscles appropriately in the context of that particular movement. For instance, if I manually resist an athlete’s glutes or hamstrings they may be quite strong yet they are unwilling or unable to activate that same posterior chain musculature during a squat, deadlift, jump landing, etc. Comparing isolated strength to dynamic, functional movements is like revving the engine on a parked Ferrari versus taking it out on the Pacific Coast Highway – what tells you more about how that car runs? Same muscles, very different motor program – it’s a system of systems.

Nerd Alert – In order to improve motor control of complex movements, research on patients (including those with neurologic injury as well as running injuries) indicates that task-oriented training (or practicing and training the movement of interest in its entirety) is the best method to improve movement skill. This makes sense, right? If the movement is the problem, training the movement at its point of restriction is the most viable option. Gray Cook and his Functional Movement crew refer to this as pattern assist because you are performing the faulty pattern with assistance to appropriately fire the correct muscles and strengthen within that movement.

So, short answer: put the athlete in the squat position but reduce the demands so they learn to fire the appropriate muscles without fear of falling over. Check it out:

1) Again, load ordering the squat appropriately is key. Read this.

2) Place the Jump Stretch (or elastic tubing, bike tire inner-tube, whatever works) just below the buttocks and have the athlete perform the picture-perfect squat with assistance from the band. Important, do not hang on the band! It should be only enough tension to assist the motion, not allowing the athlete to rely on it. You can and should reduce the amount of assistance as the movement skill improves.

3) Dosage: enough to make change – this may take a few minutes or a few sessions depending on the individual. How do you know if it’s working? Test and re-test the squat – if it’s a cueing problem they may improve in a few minutes. Which is so much better than doing quad sets or straight-leg raises for 3 weeks hoping it improves the squat, right? This is why I also like to use this as a warm-up prior to activities requiring lots of posterior chain work – squats, deadlifts, jump landing. You SHOULD see improved depth and stability at the bottom of the squat following this exercise – if not, your dosage may be too low or mobility impairments may be contributing.

4) Variations – try putting a board under the heels or the exercises from last week to also help cue the athlete to fire the appropriate motor program.

Bottomline: As discussed last week, 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 and assistance to the movement teaches the athlete to load their hamstrings and glutes thru performing the movement we aim to improve! Want to improve a movement? Practice that exact movement, while reducing external demands! Sometimes, it is as simple as that.

– Seth

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