The frustration must be absolutely maddening. I’m shocked you haven’t pulled your hair out or punched a hole in the wall yet.
I can’t think of a more humbling exercise than the overhead squat.
On the flip side, there are few exercises as impressive as a nice heavy overhead squat.
It always pains me (and I feel a little sad inside) when I watch an otherwise big and strong guy, who can comfortably back squat 315 for reps, struggle to get anywhere near parallel on an overhead squat with an empty bar.
So what gives? So why is this exercise such a pain in the ass (more like pain in the back and shoulders)?
Well, the answer to that question, my friend is mobility.
Your ability to overhead squat with any kind of load heavier than a broomstick is directly related to your ability to get into the correct position and move through the appropriate range of motion.
There are a few specific areas that limit one’s ability to overhead squat efficiently.
Today, we’re going to look at one of the most common limitations – shoulder and thoracic spine (upper back) mobility.
Sufficient shoulder and thoracic spine mobility are necessary for a proper overhead squat. This allows for proper shoulder flexion and thoracic spine extension. An easy way to test this is to simply stand with your feet shoulder width apart and raise your arms above your head. If you find this movement difficult, you are probably suffering from a combination of poor shoulder and thoracic mobility.
poor shoulder flexion and poor thoracic extension
good shoulder and thoracic mobility
Here are a few ways you can improve your mobility in these areas.
1. Shoulder Dislocates – Take a dowel or stick and hold it with a wide grip and slowly bring it over your head and down to your lower back. This 180 degree rotation will help to open up the shoulder capsule. If you’re extremely tight, you’ll have to start with a very wide grip and as your mobility improves you can start to narrow it.
try 2-3 sets of 15-20 dislocates before any overhead work
2. Thoracic extensions – Grab a foam roller and lie down with it under your upper/mid back. Without raising your hips off the floor, slowly raise your arms over your reaching for the floor. You can play around with the position of the foam roller depending on where you feel the most restriction. You can also hold on to a weight and anchor yourself down for a deeper stretch as pictured below.
try 3-5 mins of thoracic extensions before any overhead work
3. Lying Shoulder Flexions – Lye on your back holding a dowel with your feet up and knees bent at 90 degrees. Start with a wide grip. Start by holding the dowel over your chest and slowly bring it back over your head towards the floor without bending your elbows or arching your lower back. Try to maintain the natural curve in your lower back without increasing it.
Come back to start position. Repeat for 3 sets of 15. You can narrow your grip to make this more challenging.
This exercise will help to increase shoulder flexion and thoracic extension while maintaining neutral spine in the lower back.
The video below goes more in depth with these exercises as well as some other key limitations you may have with the overhead squat.
Keep in mind, these exercises don’t only apply to the overhead squat, but to pretty much all movements that require you to lift your arms overhead like push presses, kettlebell swings, and pullups. So even if your shoulder mobility is decent, these exercises will serve as a great warm up.
As well, the overhead squat is not only a great exercise for overall strength development but also is one of the best accessory exercise for the snatch. The better you can get at this movement, the more comfortable you will be when performing the full squat snatch.
Unless you enjoy being that guy that can’t overhead squat more than a 3 year old, I strongly suggest you get to work on your mobility.
Like all other aspects of training, developing good mobility takes time. Be patient and consistent and you’ll slowly start to see improvements.