5 Exercises to Instantly Improve Overhead Squat Mobility | Precision Movement

5 Exercises to Instantly Improve Overhead Squat Mobility

Hit a Deeper and More Stable Overhead Squat With these Techniques

By Coach E

Powering through CrossFit until it’s time for overhead squats? Training overhead squat mobility will make this move more effective and even achievable for you. - PrecisionMovement.coach

Powering through CrossFit until it’s time for overhead squats? Training overhead squat mobility will make this move more effective and even achievable for you.

What’s an Overhead Squat and Why Should I Train it?

The overhead squat is a total body movement that, maybe surprisingly, is more for training mobility than for building strength. Although they may look similar, it’s quite a bit more complex than the traditional squat.

To execute this movement, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, maintaining a wide grip with your hands on the bar overhead.  Let your shoulders actively push the bar up as you squat deeply – aiming to get your hips lower than your knees.

Keep your feet planted and maintain a natural curve in your lumbar spine as you squat – no need to flatten out your back.

This multi-joint movement requires a ton of mobility at different joints. This makes it both super beneficial and pretty challenging.

  • Ankles: Dorsiflexion, which will reduce the angle between your foot and shin
  • Knees: Full flexion
  • Hips: Full Flexion
  • Spine: Extension of the thoracic spine – which gets your midback working in the opposite direction of being hunched over your desk all day
  • Shoulders: Overhead mobility – retracted scaps and shoulders that are rotated forward

Beyond training mobility all along the kinetic chain, from ankles to shoulders, this move also is a great way to train core strength and balance.

Where Have I Seen the Overhead Squat?

The overhead squat has become super popular in large part due to its heavy rotation in CrossFit workouts.

eric wong overhead squats

If you haven’t encountered the move in a CrossFit gym, you might have seen it as a part of a movement screen.

The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a serious of 7 movement patterns used by folks like trainers, coaches, and physiotherapists to identify asymmetries and weaknesses in your movement patterns, developed by Gray Cook [1].

The Titleist Performance Institute also has a related movement screen focused on golf that uses 16 movement patterns to identify areas of weakness in golf performance and swing.

overhead squat assessment golfing

Both the FMS and TPI screens include an overhead squat assessment because it is a complex move that can really identify deficiencies across many joints of the body in one fell swoop.

In fact, one study found that golfers who could not overhead squat were 2 to 3 times more likely to have 3 common golf swing faults: early hip extension, loss of posture and “slide” – meaning their lower body had too much lateral movement during the swing [2][3].

What does this tell us?

The multi-joint mobility, strength, and muscular balance we can gain from proper execution of overhead squats can translate into efficiency, effectiveness, and good form in a variety of movements including perfecting your golf swing if that’s your thing.

4 Common Overhead Squat Mobility Problems & Exercises to Fix Them

Here are 4 common overhead squat mobility issues that folks run into. I’ve identified them for you below, plus given you exercises targeted to each issue.

Common Overhead Squat Problem #1:
You Can’t Keep Your Heels Down

If your heels are constantly popping up off the ground during overhead squats, you’re dealing with restricted ankle dorsiflexion.

The Triple Flexion Technique

This Triple Flexion Technique is especially powerful at tackling ankle dorsiflexion, but it also works 2 other requirements for good overhead squat mobility – full knee flexion and full hip flexion.

This is a contract-relax PNF and End Range Activation (ERA) technique that requires firing of both the muscles that take you into these end ranges AND the muscles that take you out.

This increases strength and mobility while letting the neuromuscular system know we are moving safely and within our range of control.

  • Squat onto a bench with one foot, using your other foot to balance on the ground
  • Go into as much ankle dorsiflexion as possible, pushing your knee forward and stopping right before your heel comes off the bench
  • Make sure your butt is as close to your heel is possible and your knee is as fully flexed as possible
  • Lower into as much hip flexion as you can, closing the angle between torso and thigh
  • Grab the bench and press down through the lower body as if you were going to stand up and push off the bench, but resist with your arms – here you are activating your extensors.
  • Hold for 5 seconds, remembering to breathe
  • Relax for 5 seconds
  • Fire up the flexors as you pull downwards and resist – holding for 5 seconds
  • Relax and repeat the whole cycle 2-3 times
  • Switch sides

For an in-depth course to address ankle/knee function and mobility, check out Lower Limb Control.

Common Overhead Squat Problem #2:
Butt-Wink and/or Lumbar Flexion

Ah, the dreaded butt-wink.

overhead squat mobility and butt wink

Butt-wink occurs when your pelvis tilts posteriorly at the bottom of the squat.

In the image on right, you can see a nice natural curve in the lumbar spine. In the image on the left, the pelvis has tilted posteriorly and the low back has flattened out.

There might be 2 factors messing with your ability to maintain a neutral spine – restricted hip joint mobility and poor psoas range of control.

4 Point Hip Capsule Mobilization

If your hip mobility is restricted, in can lead to you compensating with a butt-wink in order to drop down into a lower squat range of motion. This mobilization drill will help address mobility in the joint capsule to increase range of control as well as firing up the hip stabilizers to train hip stability.

  • Set up a band low to the ground and step into it with your left foot
  • Bring the band high up on your thigh as you come down into quadruped position facing away from the band
  • Crawl forward until you feel slight tension on the band

Part 1: External Rotation

  • Start with the left hip in external rotation and the left knee just in front of the right
  • As you externally rotate, let the left foot point over toward the right leg
  • From here, start to take 10 slow circles with your hips
  • Swap directions and do 10 circles in the other direction
  • Release and step back to rest

Part 2: Neutral Hip

  • Bring your left knee forward again, this time keeping hip neutral
  • From here complete 10 circles in each direction
  • Release and step back to rest

Part 3: Internal Rotation

  • Bring your left knee forward again, this time internally rotating the hip and letting the left foot point away from the midline
  • Complete 10 circles in each direction

Psoas Activation Exercise

Your psoas muscle runs from your mid and lower back to your hip and works to flex both your thigh and your trunk.

overhead squat mobility lazy psoas muscle

If your psoas is a little bit lazy (a common issue), it can also contribute to butt-wink.

This hip flexor should be active and engaged to help you maintain the lumbar spine extension required for a neutral pelvis in an overhead squat.

But if it starts slacking, maintaining neutral spine becomes really, really difficult. This move will help you activate the psoas so that you can better engage the muscle during lumbar extension.

  • Sit on a bench with feet pointing straight ahead
  • Hyperextend the lumbar spine, creating a big curve in your lower back – almost like you were sticking your butt out
  • Lift one foot off the ground to hover – keeping feet and hips both pointing straight forward
  • Hold this hover for 30 seconds to a minute – your psoas muscle right on top of your thigh should be activated and start to burn
  • If your tensor fasciae latae on the SIDE of your thigh is starting to burn instead, you can press your thumb into this muscle to try to get it to relax and stop compensating for an underactive psoas
  • Switch sides and repeat

For an in-depth and comprehensive approach to hip flexibility, mobility and function  for those with more troublesome hips I recommend you follow the Hip Flexibility Solution.

Common Overhead Squat Problem #3:
Knees That Cave In

If your knees are caving in toward each other during an overhead squat, it is a sign that something is off – either in your alignment or in terms of muscular balance.

If your stance is too wide, it could cause this buckling of the knees, so make sure they’re just about shoulder-distance apart.

And when there’s an issue at the knees, it’s wise to look at joints and muscles both up and down the kinetic chain.

In this case, weakness or dysfunction in the medial arch of your foot might be leaving you with an insufficient base. Consider some foot strengthening exercises to balance this out.

Or, the issue might be coming from above the knee – glute weakness.

Multi Angle Clamshell

A weak or improperly firing gluteus medius OR maximus can also contribute to knees that cave in during squat. This exercise will help you isolate and strengthen your glutes so that they’ll be strong enough to help you maintain proper form during an overhead squat.

And as a bonus, this move will also help with full body balance – another key aspect of overhead squats.

Part 1: Neutral
overhead squat mobility exercise - multi angle clamshell

  • Stand with your right foot and right shoulder next to a wall
  • Lift your right foot off the ground
  • Use your left leg to drive your body into the wall
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and release, completing 2-5 reps

Part 2: Externally Rotated
overhead squat mobility exercise exercises - multi angle clamshell external rotation

  • Now turn your left foot to a 45-degree angle away from the wall
  • Lift your right leg and drive it into the wall, this time externally rotating your left hip to drive the push
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and release, completing 2-5 reps

Part 3: Internally Rotated
overhead squat mobility exercise exercises - multi angle clamshell internal rotation

  • Next turn both feet in towards the wall at a 45-degree angle
  • Lift your right leg while making sure to keep only the right shoulder against the wall
  • Use your left leg to drive your right leg into the wall, externally rotating your left leg
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and release, completing 2-5 reps

Again I recommend the Hip Flexibility Solution here because caving knees is likely the result of weak/dysfunctional hips.

Common Overhead Squat Problem #4:
Barbell Doesn’t Track Over Midfoot

As you lower down into your overhead squat, the barbell should move over the middle of your feet.

If you are having trouble getting into this proper alignment, you are likely having issues with poor thoracic spine extension and/or poor overhead shoulder mobility.

The Arched Hang

This technique will help train extension of the T-spine while also firing your scapular retractors and improving overhead shoulder mobility – all movements required in an overhead squat.

And as a bonus that everyone could use, this move is also great for improving posture.

  • Hang on a bar with a strong grip, starting with a passive hang
  • Next, think about pinching the shoulder blades together, retracting the scaps.
  • Then, extend through the T-spine and start to look up at the ceiling – creating a big arch in your mid-upper back.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and return with control to the passive hang
  • Relax, and repeat

One study of 20 active females found that just 90 seconds self massage on 3 areas – lateral torso, lateral thigh, and plantar fascia – improved overhead squat performance [4].

And if you do have super tight shoulders, the Shoulder Flexibility Solution will help you out*.

*Although the information shared on PrecisionMovement.coach is based on a well-researched, scientific approach towards exercise and movement, every person is unique and individual results may vary.

All 5 of these exercises address a specific and common deficiency when it comes to perfecting this tricky move. To improve overall overhead squat mobility, there’s one other approach that’s worth mentioning – self-massage.

Try these techniques to improve overhead squat mobility and like those golfers who saw an improved golf swing, you might start to see the mobility and strength gains show up in other aspects of your active life.

About the Author

Eric is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.