While it may seem like it should be limited to the olympic lifting realm, the overhead squat can be a great tool to assess multiple aspects of the musculoskeletal system. Why is that you ask?
First off, it is a compound movement– it uses multiple joints, but also the abundance of muscles activated during an overhead squat is amazing.
The overhead squat is also functional– we need it to reach things and lift them from the ground daily. Think about how often in your daily life you squat (or partially squat), reach above your head, or do a combination of both.
There’s a lot to unpack with this movement. Taking a closer look really can give us a solid window of insight into different parts of the body and how they’re functioning.
Foot and Ankle
Let’s start from the ground up, looking at the foot and ankle.
Foot and ankle position can give us a plethora of information, and there’s many things to consider; where is the heel- turned in? or out? Is the heel on the ground? Is the foot flat? Just one joint can yield quite a bit of information! There are so many items to look at in each joint that anyone can easily be confused by the amount of information coming at them.
On the flip side of that, with so much information, what is relevant, and how does it fit together to create a pattern? For example, if the heels lift off the ground, is it tightness in the calf musculature? Or is the movement consistent with a position that has used up the normal range of motion for the ankle, and therefore pulls lifts the heels strictly via normal tension? Technology that allows us to assess movement at multiple joints at one time can provide crucial data that gives insight into why people move the way they do.
Moving up the chain, the knee is the next in line.
What sort of information can squat depth give us? A lack of depth can indicate weakness or possibly just a fear of loss of control of the movement. When looking at the squat from the front, it is important to note the knee position. Are they knock-kneed (genu valgus) or bowed out (genu varus)?
The depth of the squat can genu valgus or genu varus, but so can trunk position. If the depth is greater, any strength deficits will be shown by the knee traveling medial or lateral. If the trunk is positioned forward, it is more likely that the hip musculature will be recruited and result in a better alignment, whereas if the trunk is more upright, the movement will be more driven by the quadriceps and can result in less stability through the knee. So again, it’s not just about a single joint, but about how all these parts play together.
The hip is a unique area to look at in that the joint itself is a ball and socket (as opposed to a hinge like a knee). It allows for movement that includes rotation as well as flexion, extension, abduction, and adduction.
A couple of key points to note in a squat is the direction that the femur is pointing. In general, the femur should travel in line with the knee and lower leg. If this is not maintained in a straight line, the risk of injury starts to climb as cartilage and ligaments are being stressed as opposed to muscles. The overall alignment of the lower extremity during a squat is key to generating the maximal force. Repeated stress can result in injuries that can limit workouts and participation in sports
Coming back to the trunk: are the shoulders parallel to the hips? If not, a cause could be a weakness in one lower extremity.
Is the trunk upright or flexed?
Depending on your goal for strengthening desired trunk position changes- if you are looking to strengthen the quadriceps, an upright squat will target this- however, with consequences. When the quadriceps are more loaded in a squat, it then places more stress on the back side of the patella (knee cap). Unfortunately, this style of squat is known for creating knee pain because of this.
A better approach is to have the trunk slightly flexed, which then pulls the gluteal musculature in to share the demand of the exercise. Now instead of the work being performed primarily by the quad, it is shared between the gluteal muscles and the quadriceps, allowing increased force generation. Two is better than one!
The Head + Shoulders
We finish with head position.
There are many factors that can play into the position of the head. Is the head tilted side to side? Is there muscle tightness? And if so which muscle is it? Some clues can be pulled from looking at the squat from the side. However, the complexity of the cervical spine can make it difficult to discern a cause for any irregularities.
One of the greatest influences of head position is our posture day in and day out. An easy way to identify proper neck position is to place your head, shoulders, and hips against a wall while standing. This is a pretty enlightening experience as it is often a light to moderate stretch for people to attain and maintain this position.
The shoulder position in the overhead squat is also a consideration. For example, if the shoulders are not directly overhead, are there strength limitations causing this, or tightness issues limiting the movement itself? Oftentimes the shoulder and neck regions position is influenced by our daily posture as well.
A compound movement means more complex data. While the overhead squat can give you tons of data points about how one’s body is functioning, isolating and focusing on just one joint or area can cause some near sighted assumptions without taking in the big picture and how other parts of the body play their part.
There’s a lot of questions you can ask about functionality and causation. The reality is taking in all of this information instantly is just not possible, and even more difficult doing so in a virtual setting. Luckily with technology such as Yogger, breaking down complex movements like the overhead squat gets a lot easier. We can simply observe and take mental notes while Yogger can capture and record all the data we simply just cannot process in the moment. We can cross check our notes with the data and look for patterns there. In an ideal world, individuals would have access to both the technology (such as Yogger) and someone to interpret that data. As the technology advances, it is hopeful that many of the “if/then” statements will be incorporated to allow individuals to have a more accurate idea of the areas they need to address to perform a squat correctly.