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Overhead Squat Assessment: Why It’s Important & How to Do It

Reading Time: 5 minutes 30 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-08-11


The way a client performs a specific exercise or movement can tell you a lot. If they round their shoulders during a bench press, for instance, it can be a sign that they have limited range of motion in the shoulder joint. If they have trouble standing up straight when walking, tight hip flexors may be to blame.

Another exercise that can provide better insight into their body’s structure and function is the overhead squat. First, we’ll talk about what this type of squat is and what you can learn from watching your client do one. Then we’ll dive into how to perform an overhead squat assessment and interpret its results.

A Brief Overview of the Overhead Squat

An overhead squat involves doing a basic squat with the arms overhead. When lowering into a squat position, the arms are extended upward, as if putting your hands up in a robbery. 

Less experienced exercisers may simply raise their arms toward the ceiling when doing this squat variation. Those with a higher fitness level might increase the intensity by performing this movement with barbells or a weighted barbell in their hands. 

The overhead squat is great for building muscle in both the lower and upper body. In the lower body, it works the quads, hamstrings, and lower back. In the upper body, this squat targets the deltoids and triceps.

What a Personal Trainer Can Learn from a Client’s Overhead Squat

How a client performs an overhead squat can tell you a lot about their joint mobility. This squat requires movement in several different joints. If the mobility in a particular joint is limited, it will show up in the movement. Their range of motion will be reduced. They’ll have less dynamic flexibility.

Watching how a personal training client does an overhead squat can also help you recognize if there is instability in a muscle group or muscle imbalance. Both can affect movement quality. If not addressed, they can both also lead to injury.

If the client has trouble with the movement, in general, this might be a sign of muscle weakness. It could also be a sign of movement dysfunction. 

These are just a few reasons why this movement screen is so important. By watching how your client performs this one exercise, you can gain a better understanding of issues they may face.

How to Perform an Overhead Squat Assessment

Before doing the assessment, give the client a brief overview of the process. This helps them better understand what to expect. It also gives them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have.

Next, get the client into proper form or the starting position. To do this, ask them to remove their shoes and stand with their arms extended overhead. Check that their back is straight and their arms are aligned with their ears. Their feet should be pointed forward versus pointing out to the side. 

Also ask them to look straight ahead. Find something at eye level that they can look at and ask them to focus on that. If there isn’t an object handy, you can also place a sticker on the wall for the same purpose.

Once in this position, have the client do an overhead squat. Your instructions for this exercise might include:

  • Squat down, as if you’re about to sit in a chair.

  • Go at a pace that feels comfortable – not too slow and not too fast.

  • Once your butt is about chair height, stand back up to return to the starting position.

  • Do a total of five overhead squats.

As they perform the overhead squat, walk around the client. Look at their posture and movement from the front, back, and both sides. As they lower and raise back up, answer questions about each of these body parts:

  • Foot: Does the position of either foot change during the squat? Does it stay pointed forward, for instance, or turn out to the side? Does the heel come off the ground?

  • Knee: Does the position of either knee change? Does one or both turn inward? Is each knee able to stay above the corresponding foot during the movement?

  • Back: Does an arch appear in the lower back when overhead squatting? Does the client have an excessive forward lean?

  • Shoulder: Does each shoulder stay relatively stable? Do the arms stay in place or do they appear to fall forward?

Make notes of what you’re seeing as you move around your client. It can also help to make a video recording. (Get their permission first to ensure that they’re comfortable with being filmed.) The benefit of a video is that, by watching it again, you might pick up on something you missed the first time. You can also play the video for the client to explain what you are seeing and how it may be affecting them.

Interpreting Overhead Squat Assessment Results

The whole point behind doing this functional movement screen is to identify—and ultimately correct—any potential issues. This requires interpreting what the client’s movement is telling you. 

While different movement patterns may have a variety of potential causes, here are some things to look for and ways to correct them:

  • Foot changes position. If the foot turns out or the heel comes up during the squat, this can be a sign of poor ankle mobility. When the ankle lacks flexibility, movement elsewhere in the body forces the foot to move because the joint doesn’t work as it should. Ankle dorsiflexion exercises can help remedy this. Seated ankle raises and standing toe raises are two movements that can improve ankle flexibility.

  • Knee changes position. Knees that bow in during the overhead squat suggest poor range of motion in the ankle, weak hip flexor muscles, or both. Dorsiflexion exercises can help increase movement in the ankle. Mountain climbers and glute bridges are good for strengthening hip flexors

  • Lower back arches. This can be a result of tight lats or a weak core. If lats are the issue, stretching this muscle can help resolve the problem. If a weak core is the cause, strength training exercises that target the lower back, glutes, hip flexors, and abs would be more effective.

  • Arms fall forward. If the client has shoulder mobility issues, they’ll have a harder time raising and keeping their arms overhead. Stretching the shoulder may help provide the flexibility needed. Make sure the reduced mobility isn’t due to injury or surgery first. If it is, this may resolve itself once it heals. (If the damage was bad enough, mobility may always be an issue in this area.)

  • Trouble staying balanced. If the client has stability issues when their arms are in the overhead position, this can be a sign of poor core strength. The core is responsible for stability and balance. Building a stronger core can help improve both.

Keep in mind that this is just an assessment. It is a tool designed to help you understand where your clients may have dysfunction, or if they might have movement limitations. 

How a client performs an overhead squat cannot be used to diagnose any type of muscle or joint issue. Instead, this assessment gives insight into what type of corrective exercises may improve a client’s movement and mobility. It also tells you what restrictions may exist, which is important to keeping their exercise plan safe.

It’s also important to recognize that how a person performs the overhead squat can vary based on other factors, such as their sex. Research indicates that there are biomechanical differences between males and females that can show up when doing this exercise. For example, males tend to have a greater peak hip flexion angle. Females tend to have more active ankle dorsiflexion when the knee is extended. Knowing this in advance can keep you from identifying a problem that may not exist.

To better help clients with structural and functional issues, you can become certified as a Corrective Exercise Specialist. This course teaches you how to assess and correct common movement dysfunctions. You’ll also learn how to help clients restore healthy structural alignment.


References

Mauntel, T., Post, E., Padua, D., & Bell, D. (2015). Sex Differences During an Overhead Squat Assessment. Journal Of Applied Biomechanics, 31(4), 244-249. https://doi.org/10.1123/jab.2014-0272

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