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Flexibility for the Overhead Squat
Greg Everett

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Bob Asks: Sorry if this is covered elsewhere, but I could not find it in Greg’s book (which I own) or on the website. I am 44 and just starting O-lifting lessons here in Singapore. Working the normal progressions w/ a shower curtain rod.

Am nearly 6’5”, so flexibility is a problem for me…have made reasonable progress with the legs, but seem to be stuck on my overhead squat. Can barely get down to a quarter squat while holding the shower curtain rod overhead when it begins to come forward. The tightness I feel when I get to the sticking point is in my lower back.

Sorry for all the preamble… now to the question: what stretches or other mobility work would you prescribe to fix my overhead squat?

Thanks in advance for your input – it’s highly valued. Really enjoying the book, Greg & will likely come back for the DVD set also.

Greg Says: Being 6’ 5” definitely makes the endeavor a bit trickier, but it certainly won’t preclude you from being able to hit a perfect overhead squat position if you’re diligent and committed enough. The best way to be flexible is to never get inflexible; unfortunately this is a course of action you can’t go back and undertake.

Step one is verifying that you’re trying to squat with a good position. That is, do you have an appropriate stance and grip on the bar? If not, you’re going to be fighting this problem for a long time.

I typically use a scorched-earth approach to flexibility initially. That is, every productive stretch under the sun as often as possible. When someone is genuinely inflexible, even the best stretches can be out of reach, which makes the process that much more difficult. Do some dynamic range of motion exercises (e.g. arm circles and leg swings) when you get up in the morning, then stretch throughout the day as time allows. Spending a few weeks just stretching generally is a good way to break into a more focused flexibility program. Throw in foam rolling whenever you can as well, ideally before you stretch.

After you’ve done this, start focusing on the overhead squat. First, overhead squat all day every day, even if it’s ugly and shallow. Fight to achieve the correct position and sit in as far as you can in that correct position, hold for a few seconds, then reach a bit further even if you feel the position slipping and hold there longer. Continue this process as you address the inflexibility with other means as well.

Also, back squats and good morning squats will help teach you to engage your back extensors forcefully and stretch your hip extensors and adductors. If you’re low-bar back squatting, that’s not helping. Back squat the same way you overhead squat.

Stretches that will help: static spiderman lunge, Russian baby maker, kossack, lying straight and bent knee hamstring stretch, and lying straight knee hamstring stretch while pulling the leg across the body to get more lateral hamstring. Hold these stretches for as long as you can stand it. Don’t stretch to the point of agony, but make it uncomfortable. You can do some PNF stretching as well. I like to hold the stretch for 30-45 sec, then do 6 sets of 6-second contract/relax, then hold another 30-45 seconds.

Ankle flexibility is usually a limiting factor in a full-depth Olympic squat for individuals of any height. Add several inches of leg length to the equation, and it will likely be even more of a limiter. Stretch the calves in a bent knee position by either squatting or lunging and leaning your forearms on the thigh just at the knee to apply pressure to close the ankle. Hold right down the middle primarily but you can also move the knee inward and outward slightly and hold.

Also make sure to mobilize your thoracic spine. Often tightness and hyperkyphosis here will make the overhead position impossible. Get a half foam roller or roll up a towel and lie on it with your spine perpendicular to it. Start it at the bottom of your T-spine and work your way up to the top, lying flat and trying to relax your back around the roll. Also just regular foam rolling up and down the T-spine will help mobilize it.

Shoulder flexibility itself I've found is often the least of people's problems. They're usually unable to sit into a full-depth upright squat, but then focus on the shoulders' flexibility because they're interested in holding a bar overhead. With the present amount of shoulder flexibility they have, if they can sit upright, they will be fine. If you can hold the bar overhead in the correct position when standing and with a forward lean of the torso of a few degrees, you have enough shoulder flexibility to overhead squat. If your shoulder range of motion seems to disappear as you squat, it's coming more out of the squat than the shoulders.

To work on shoulder flexibility, hang from a pull-up bar with a grip just outside shoulder width, pushing your chest through your arms. Even better, set your toes on the floor a little behind the bar and lean forward as you hang. Stretch the pecs by placing a vertical forearm against a door jamb or rack, the elbow a little higher than the shoulder, and keep the chest upright as you step and lean forward to open the shoulder girdle. Dislocates with a pipe or dowel and presses behind the neck will help as well.

Good luck!

Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.

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6 Comments
Franky 2011-12-13
Might have to check that he isn't in hyperlordosis. Most people do it when raising there arms without core control. That limits a lot the upright position one could achieve (anatomical and muscular control reasons). The tension should be felt in the lower abs (preventing hyper-lordosis) and upper back (preventing hunching). Learning the negative portion is hard as hell with this exercise. I suggest trying from a sitting position (juste positive portion) or using a muscle snatch movement (modified negative portion). Good luck!
Lance von Stade 2011-12-21
Often the difficulty with the Overhead (OH) Squat is caused by a combination of not recruiting the lower traps, rhomboids, and middle traps and the presence of shortened lats. I completely agree with Greg that performing the overhead squat with an emphasis on good position as often as possible will progress you quicker than anything else. To assist my clients in their progression I have them perform the OH Squat three feet away from the wall without touching their hands (or curtain rod) to the wall while also maintaining good technique. I have them do 3 x 15 with 30 sec rests in the morning and evening daily. Once they can complete the sets and reps successfully, they move forward to two feet from the wall, then one foot, etc. I recommend not moving forward less than 1 foot away from the wall due to anatomical limitations (most likely not possible without cheating). I have always used the OH Squat as a diagnostic tool and believe it to be perhaps the most important exercise for musculoskeletal health.
Jon 2013-01-22
I happen to be the same age, location as Bob - with the same issue - my current focus is mobilising the middle spine and activaating the right muscles ie. practice. I also find elevating the heels helps (for some reason).
Greg Everett 2014-10-24
Jon - Elevating the heels helps when ankle mobility is insufficient because it effectively increases the ankles' ROM.
James 2014-10-29
Don't forget wall slides. Get your toes as close as possible to the wall. Arms up and squat without falling over. I've found wall slides to be one of the best movements to teach proper squat mechanics and muscle recruitment as well as to expose areas of tightness limited ROM, etc
Chris 2014-10-29
I have walked more than a mile in your shoes. At 6'6" and 40 years old i also couldn't do an ohs when i first started a year ago. I've worked hard at it and was able to get my butt to my ankles after about 4 months. All of greg's advice is great! Here's what worked best for me. First i spent a lot if time in the deep squat position with the assistance of bands. These allowed me to open up my hips and back to a lesser degree. To really increase my thoracic mobility, i would lie on a foam roller located on my mid spine and holding a pipe with a wide grip stretch my arms back to the floor. Breathe deep, relax, and go slow. Move the foam roller up and down your back and observe the different stretch. Do this as often as you can in addition to greg's recommendations and you'll get there. Now if we just had a linger barbell to snatch with these long arms???
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