I am well aware that this post may upset a few people – and whilst upsetting people is not its main aim – I do like to encourage people to challenge ideas, ask questions, and formulate their own opinions rather than blindly follow
Over the past decade there has been a shift away from the single joint machine based training popularized by Joe Weider in the 80s, and towards ‘functional’ exercise. I am all for this – preparing people for life outside of the gym – whether its on the sports field or simply being able to climb the stairs at home without any pain – that is what I’m all about. However, there is a case to be made for the pendulum having swung too far…
A functional exercise by definition must have a function. As simplistically stupid as that may sound.
The overhead squat is often billed as the ‘king of functional exercise’ and the be all and end all of programming. In many functional gyms. I would strongly beg to differ on this point. How many times in your every day life, or even in your sports are you required to hold a load directly overhead and squat to the ground repeatedly, whilst keeping said weight directly over your head?
The overhead squat is a derivative of the snatch – one of the most dynamic and explosive movements in competitive sport. As well as requiring speed and power, the snatch also requires technical expertise . The ‘catch’ position of a snatch is, essentially, the bottom of an overhead squat. For the competitive Olympic lifter – training this movement under load makes a lot of sense – they may have all the speed in the world to get under the bar, but without adequate core stiffness and lower extremity strength they wont be able to get ‘out of the hole’. If your goal is to perform a loaded snatch, then yes, the OHS will be an important programming concern for you. Now whether you should be programming the snatch for either yourself or your clients is a while other conversation!
The overhead squat, in my mind, is an excellent assessment tool – it gives an indication of ankle mobility, hip mobility and stability, core stiffness, thoracic mobility and scapular stability – all important parts of successful and pain free movement.
However – how many people that we assess ace it on every one of those? Not many… So how many of those could or indeed should be loaded through this movement pattern? Even fewer….
Heck 90% of the clients I work with (everything from Olympians through weekend warriors, to orthopedic referrals) don’t do any form of overhead lifting. Ever!
Now lets take those small number of the population who can safely be loaded in an OHS position. If we remove those who are competitive O – lifters, then what training effects are we going to give to the rest?
Can the person stably support enough weight in the overhead position to get any kind of training effect in their legs and hips? I doubt it – not unless the you were looking at higher repetition sets, however, in a high rep set what is going to fatigue first – the upper back or the legs? When the upper back and the posterior cuff start to give out, and you’re plugging away trying to get something out of it for your legs, what takes over? Your lumbar extensors and the passive retrains in your shoulders – so essentially you promote hyper lordosis and hang out on the ligamentous structures of your shoulders – nice.
At best you may build in some upper back hypertrophy – given the time under tension required through the thoracic extensors. But if thats really your goal there are far safer ways to achieve it.
If I want to train an average Joe or Jane to get stronger, so they can better function in the outside world – surely deadlift variations, anterior loaded squat patterns, and loaded carries have far more relevance…
I’m fairly sure that when I changed my dishwasher the other day I pulled and lifted the old one over the step with it in front of me – I did not hold it above my head and repeatedly squat up and down with it.
If we think through the activities and movement patterns in most peoples daily lives, or indeed within competitive sports, the deadlift, and its derivations are infinitely more ‘fucntional’ than the overhead squat.
This is not to say the overhead squat is an entirely redundant movement. Far from it. as mentioned above I find it an excellent assessment tool, a very quick and easy way to get a snapshot of an individuals gross movement patterns. I also think it has a place as a mobility drill, and I often use it as part of my clients dynamic warm ups. It has a nice ‘feel’ for the client getting in and out of the position with stability, and is a great prep for doing some loaded front squats. However, just because something is a useful mobility tool does not mean we stick 60% of their bodyweight on a bar and ask them to do it to failure!
As Gray Cook – creator of the FMS system so simply put it “Train the deadlift, maintain the squat”