From NSCA’s Performance Training Journal. Vol 5 No. 5. October 2006. www.nsca-lift.org/perform
Training the Core
When training the core, one of the most overlooked exercises is the overhead squat. This exercise is an excellent way to develop core stabilization, strength, and flexibility. Th e overhead squat forces the muscles of the core to work harder in order to stabilize and support the spine in an upright position. It also forces the trunk to lengthen, in which it responds by activating the muscles of the core. By shifting weight overhead, whether it be your arms, a dowel rod, or barbell, the deep abdominal muscles and spinal erectors are forced to contract. This must happen in order for both stabilization and core extension to be maintained.
Starting Position of the Overhead Squat
Start by placing the feet at shoulder width. The weight of the body should be over the heels versus the ball of the foot or toes. A good coaching tool is to wiggle your toes to reiterate that most of the body weight is centred over the heels. The hands should be placed wider than shoulder width. To estimate grip width, measure the elbow to elbow distance with your shoulders abducted. This distance is the width your hands should
be spaced when grasping the barbell. You should not have to worry about the width of your hands if you are using a normal sized stability ball (65 – 85 cm. in diameter). The towel, dowel rod, or bar should be directly over the ears and shoulders. Try to imagine the bar in a slot between your ears and shoulders. Shoulder and spine flexibility will play a role in bar position. (Figures 1 & 2)
1st Phase of the Overhead Squat
You should start the exercise by bending your knees and hips simultaneously, as if you were about to sit down in a chair. The eyes should be focused towards the ceiling or on an object well above the head. The chest and shoulders should be square and remain in an upright position. A great coaching tool is to inhale deeply while descending, which will help reiterate that posture. (Figure 3) As you descend, you should push your hips back and keep your centre of gravity over shoulders, hips, and heels. If done correctly, you could draw a straight line, perpendicular to the floor, between those three joints. At the end of the 1st phase, or the bottom of the squat, your thighs should be parallel to the floor. (Figure 4) The towel, stability ball, or bar should remain over the ears and shoulders as you descend. There should be minimal to no movement of this position. The entire upper portion of the body should remain in a fixed plane as you descend.
As you ascend, you should push your hips forward, while keeping your knees behind or over your toes. You should exhale as you come “out of the hole” or bottom of the lift. The stability ball, towel, or bar should remain over the ears and shoulders as you rise. The lift is complete when you stand tall and lock your knees. The second phase of the lift is much like the first, only in reverse order.
Common Technique Flaws
There are numerous flaws that could happen within each phase of the lift. If you are a beginner or novice athlete, then you may see several of these. But practice makes perfect and you can minimize these mistakes by practicing the lift repeatedly, using these helpful cues. As your technique improves, you may progress to a towel, dowel rod, or stability rod. An advanced athlete would attempt the lift with a standard Olympic bar with or without weight.
Technique Flaws in Starting Phase
During the starting phase of the lift, many athletes do not place their feet in a correct position. This is the base or foundation of the lift. Also, the hands are not wide enough or too wide on the bar. Mistakes like these are usually due to lack off concentration or fatigue. These are simple, yet common, mistakes that can be corrected easily.
Technique Flaws in the 1st and 2nd Phase
Some more difficult mistakes to correct include not keeping your weight over your heels, or having your heels rise as you descend into the lift. As previously mentioned, a great tool to help reiterate where the weight should be distributed, is to wiggle your toes right before you begin the lift. This helps you focus on where your weight should be properly distributed. If you are still having trouble keeping your heels down, as you perform the lift, you are most likely suffering a stability or mobility problem. If your heels are rising as you descend, you are having a mobility issue. A great way to fix this is to place a weight slightly under a heel. Start with a ten pound weight, then progress down to a five pound weight and then a two-and-a-half pound weight (each disk is thinner). (Figure 5)
A great exercise to help correct bar position is to place your toes about two to four inches from the wall and perform the lift. As you are able to perform the lift more properly over time, you can move your toes closer to the wall. When you can do the lift with your toes barely touching the wall, you have properly corrected this technique fl aw. (Figure 6)
The overhead squat can be applied as a warm up for Olympic lifting or be used as a core training exercise. It is a complex exercise that can be learned with repetition and by using these techniques. By implementing this exercise into your routine, you will gain more core strength, stability, and flexibility which in turn will make you a better athlete.
About the Author
Travis Brown is currently the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Pinnacle Athletics in Alpharetta, GA, working with young to elite, professional athletes. He earned his BS in Exercise Physiology and MS in Recreation Administration at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN, where he played football for the 1998 National Championship team, and continued working in the weight room with various men’s athletic teams.