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Posture Made Perfect with Overhead Squats
10/15/2013 3:18:59 PM
One aspect of Olympic-style weightlifters that sets them apart from other athletes in the Iron Game is their remarkable flexibility. The average untrained person would have difficulty assuming a snatch position with a broomstick, much less catching and balancing large weights overhead from a full squat position. Although few individuals who lift weights are interested in becoming competitive weightlifters, everyone can benefit from Olympic lifting exercises such as the overhead squat.
When balance comes into play during exercise, the body is forced to use a larger number of stabilizing muscles, which is why most strength coaches choose free weights over machines. The overhead squat simulates the position achieved in a snatch, and thus is a way to develop not just flexibility but also stability. In fact, the overhead squat is often used in physical therapy as a method to assess structural balance.
One of the benefits of the overhead squat is its ability to help prevent shoulder injuries. In a review published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that the shoulders were the most commonly injured area. Having round shoulders is one postural issue that predisposes an individual to shoulder injuries.
Round shoulders are characterized by an exaggerated curvature of the upper portion of the spine and excessive forward position of the shoulders – the head is often also shifted forward. Round shoulders cause the infraspinatus and teres minor, muscles that externally rotate the shoulders, to be stretched and placed in a state of constant tension because their altered alignment increases the effects of gravity. Round shoulders also reduce flexibility and disrupt the normal functioning of the muscles, thus increasing shoulder instability and the risk of dislocation.  The overhead squat is an exercise that helps to correct the structural imbalances associated with round shoulders.
In determining a course of corrective exercise, a postural assessment will look at how the body positions itself during movement. Any unnatural movement will be associated with a tightness or weakness in a muscle or group of muscles. During the performance of the overhead squat, if the knees buckle inward, this suggests tightness in the adductors (inner thigh muscles) and weakness in the gluteus medius. Here are a few other examples:
Observation              Tightness            Weakness
Lower back flattens    hamstrings            erector spinae
Knees flair outward     piriformis              adductors
Arms move forward    latissimus dorsi     rhomboids
Although these observations could indicate tightness or weakness in other muscles as well, information such as this gives the trainer a good starting point from which to design corrective exercise programs – in other words, a program that stretches the muscles that are tight and strengthens the muscles that are weak.
The overhead squat is performed by holding a stick or light barbell overhead with a wide grip. Regarding grip width, one guideline is to raise your arms directly out to your sides and then lift them half the distance to your head – those who have long arms will be more comfortable with a slightly wider grip. Before adding additional weight to the barbell, you should achieve the following key indicators of a normal result of the overhead squat:
•    Heels remain on the floor as you squat down
•    Kneecaps remain in line with your long toe during the descent
•    Bar stays behind your knees during entire movement
•    Arms do not bend during the descent
•    Hips do not shift laterally during the descent
•    Head remains level throughout exercise
•    You are able to squat below parallel
•    You do not experience pain while performing the exercise
After you master the basic overhead squat exercise, there are many other variations you can perform. For example, using a snatch grip, place the bar on your shoulders as if you are going to do a back squat. Squat all the way down and try to maintain your balance. Try to press the weight all the way up, and then immediately stand up. The challenge is to see if you can press the bar up from your shoulders while maintaining perfect balance. When you master this variation, see if you can press the weight up, hold it for three seconds, and then stand erect.
Another variation, much more difficult, is to perform all three of these exercises with a closer grip. This version is valuable for those who are especially tight in the upper back region. Those who have extreme problems in flexibility or balance can begin by squatting to a high box, as this increases body awareness. As flexibility and balance improve, a lower box is used. Often, it only takes a few training sessions before the lifter can perform the exercise without a box.
Your may never step onto a lifting platform and compete in a weightlifting competition, but the overhead squat is a unique weightlifting exercise that can benefit anyone. Give it a shot – the results are worth it!
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