If I had to single out one exercise that most athletes struggle with, it would be the overhead squat. There are so many variables that could hurt your overhead squat technique.
Recently we discussed how to improve this lift by addressing problems with scapular stability. This week we are going to address another limiting factor, mobility. Mobility/flexibility issues at the thoracic spine, shoulder joint or chest/back can severely limit an athlete’s ability to achieve an overhead squat.
The goal today is to explain two simple screens you can perform at home to illuminate possible overhead mobility issues.
The Supine Lat Stretch Screen
The latissimus dorsi or “lats” is one of the largest muscles in the body. It runs from the lower back all the way to your arms. Athletes (especially bodybuilders) with well-defined lats will often have the classic “V” shape.
When an athlete has stiffness in this muscle it can limit how far they can raise their arm overhead. In his book Movement, physical therapist Gray Cook demonstrated the “Supine Lat Stretch” as a simple way to assess flexibility in this muscle (1).
To start, lie on your back with your arms held above your head. The palms of your hands should be facing the ceiling. Bring your knees towards your chest as far as possible. Your lower back should be completely flat on the ground. From this position, see if you can move your arms (elbows straight) all the way to the floor above your head.
If you were able to lay your arms completely flat on the floor, you more than likely do not have a lat restriction. If your arms dangled above the floor, the next step is straightening your legs out. Make sure to keep your low back flat on the floor when you do this. Look to see if you can now move your arms closer to the floor above your head.
What did you find? If you were able to rest your arms on the floor above your head with your legs now extended, it means you have a possible lat flexibility restriction. By straightening out your legs, the lat muscle is more slackened which should allow your arms to travel down closer to the floor.
If you had only a slight improvement in arm movement and were still unable to rest your arms on the ground with your legs extended, a lat and/or posterior chain restriction is a part of the problem (1). This means other factors (stiff muscles/tissues and/or joint restrictions) elsewhere in the body are contributing to poor overhead mobility.
The Wall Angel Screen
If you were able to take a group of kids, most of these kids would be able to reach their arms overhead fully with ease. Whether it’s playing on the handlebars at the jungle gym or climbing a tree, overhead mobility was rarely an issue! However, after years of sedentary lifestyle (sitting at a desk, reading, playing video games, staring at our phones) people develop poor posture.
As a result of years of poor posture, the thoracic spine will stiffen and the pectorals muscles (major and minor) will adaptively shorten. With the Wall Angel screen, it will show if you have any restrictions in gross overhead mobility.
To understand how the mobility of the thoracic spine and pecs affect overhead arm movement, try this simple test. Sit in a slouched position, with your upper back and shoulders rounded forward. Try to raise your arms as far as you can over your head. Now sit up as straight as possible with good posture and raise your arms again. Did you notice a difference?
When you sit with good posture, you should be able to reach overhead much higher than sitting with crappy posture. You can also lift more weight with good posture.
To start the screen, find a wall, and stand with your back to it. Your head and entire back should be in contact with the wall. Your feet should be a 4-5 inches from the base.
Next, raise both of your arms to the side in an “L” position (as if you’re making a football goal post with your arms). Without moving your head or lower back from the wall, try to flatten the back of your arms and hands against the wall. Don’t let your lower back pop off the wall!
To pass, you must have your entire back flat against the wall. The elbows, forearms and hands should be resting comfortably against the wall. Your head should also be in contact with the wall.
If you were unable to touch the entire wall with your arms, where did you feel the restriction? You may have felt tightness in your pecs, mid-back, or both. If so you would benefit from upper body mobility work, which we will discuss next week. If you had pain at any time, seek the advice of a medical professional, as something more serious may need to be addressed. Don’t be alarmed if you failed, this is a difficulty test to pass.
It’s clear to see that there are many factors that contribute to overhead mobility. If you can’t move your arms into a good position overhead WITHOUT a barbell, what do you think will happen when you try to perform an overhead squat or snatch? If you were unable to pass either of these screens, don’t worry! Our goal for this week was to highlight if you had any weak links in your upper body.
If you were able to pass both of these screens, congrats! This means you have good global upper body mobility. You likely don’t need to spend time stretching and mobilizing your upper body. I would recommend spending your valuable time on fixing any other issues that you have in the body. Stay tuned for next week as we will discuss how to improve your overhead mobility!
Until next time,
1) Cook G, Burton L, Kiesel K, Rose G, Bryant M. Movement: Functional Movement Systems. Screening Assessment Corrective Strategies. On Target Publications, 2010.