Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Ultimate Movement

This is a Knol I wrote a while ago, and was quite proud of it.  I suggest learning the overhead squat if you are able, as it will do you a World of good.

The Ultimate Movement

Exploring the Benefits of the Overhead Squat

In truth, there is no one "greatest" exercise to perform. Not for strength, endurance, flexibility, nor any other subset of the fitness world. However, there are a few that can produce great results in most of these fields. This article will discuss one of my personal favorites: The Overhead Squat, and why exactly it can transform someone into a very strong, flexible, powerful individual.

The overhead squat, by nature, is a scary sounding exercise.  It can be even more daunting to watch, as someone who's never seen/tried one before will find it very hard to understand how one can hold such huge amounts of weight over their head, then descend beneath it into the deepest, most straining of squats, and rise back from the depths to full standing height, miraculously unharmed, shoulders and legs fully intact.

Ben Smith demonstrating the overhead squat



Without doubt, this exercise is difficult.  It is strenuous, and requires vast amounts of strength, stability, and flexibility.  And with higher weights, the term "vast" becomes more and more of an understatement.  But even at very low weights, this movement remains one of the greatest full body exercises one could ever do in their routine.  It engages muscles everywhere, and therefore will build complete, full body strength.  To figure out one movement can do so much, let's examine the overhead squat piece by piece.

It should be mentioned first that any type of weighted squat will do wonders for building remarkable strength.  Why is this?  Well, squats require the activation of a huge amount of muscle fiber in order to complete even one with good form.  You may think of squats being synonymous with leg workouts, and while this is initially a correct instinct (a good squat will activate the hamstrings, glutes, and quadricep muscles), they activate many more muscles as well.  In fact, to be stable in a deep ATG (ass to grass...pardon my french...) squat requires an extremely strong core.  Core in general means muscles in, you guessed it, the MIDDLE of the body.  This includes abdominal muscles, upper legs, lower back, and obliques.  More formally, it is defined as the entire spine, pelvic girdle, and hip joints.  This is a remarkable 29 muscles at least!  That's a LOT of muscle fiber.  And the best part of all this?  All that huge amount of muscle fiber is actually USEFUL.  The muscles you're activating while squatting are some of the most used in the majority of other strength related exercises.  So when you squat, you build real, usable strength, everywhere.  

A second, equally important reason as to why squats are so important may be of interest to those guys looking to get bigger and more muscular quickly.  Because squats activate the largest muscles your body possesses, as you squat you release a large amount of testosterone, which will cause your body to go into, put simply, "muscle building mode." You'll pack on lean mass relatively quickly (obviously not that quickly, building lean muscle take a LOT of time), and the strength gains will be as close to immediate as you can get.  Ladies, don't be scared by the word testosterone, squats will only help you, as will all weightlifting.  In fact, adding any muscle mass will increase your metabolism and help you shed unwanted pounds.  And you will NOT bulk up.  I don't care who says you will, they are wrong.  Go look at any female Olympic weightlifter in the lighter classes.  They're throwing 300lbs above their head, and they're still lean, mean, sexy machines.  

On an aside, SQUAT DEEP.  Parallel squats are what hurt your knees, as they take the brunt of the force as you go from descending to ascending.  As you go below parallel, that same force is transferred to your hips and hamstrings, which are bigger muscles that can definitely take the strain.



Well there's the squatting portion of the exercise.  And talk to anyone who know's squatting, it's not easy.  People spend years developing good squat form (not to deter anyone from trying, I suggest it to anyone and everyone looking to put on a little muscle).  But with the overhead squat, squatting is really only half the battle.  The other portion is obviously making sure that the huge weight above your head, doesn't come crashing down from it's precarious perch above your head.  This requires even MORE strength.  A lot more.  

To hold the weight overhead, there's generally a specific grip used.  It's called the "snatch" grip, and is named after the Olympic lift (the snatch) where athletes bring the weight from the ground to overhead in one fluid motion, catching it in...you guessed it...a full overhead squat.  There's a reason those athletes are considered the strongest in the world.  The snatch grip itself means to hold the bar with one's hands very spread apart, nearly at the collars of the bar.  

  This requires less shoulder flexibility to remain upright and "tight" in the bottom of the squat.  The narrower the grip, the more shoulder flexibility is required to go ATG.  This is because as you descend, your shoulders must rotate backwards in order to keep the bar aligned over your heels, and in turn keep your entire body balanced.  Drift too far forward or backwards, and you'll be forced to dump the bar.  What this basically describes is an extremely tight isometric exercise for your entire upper back, core, shoulders, and chest.  One must keep their traps squeezed together and their arms locked out throughout the entire motion.  This, without doubt, becomes very fatiguing VERY quickly.  Little tiny bits of bar movement suddenly require huge efforts to fight and contradict.  And after a few sets, it's almost a guarantee you'll be sore the next day where you haven't ever felt sore before, because most likely you've never worked stabilizing muscles to such a high degree.

    To even do one overhead squat, with any sort of weight, is an accomplishment.  No one should claim it's not, because it'd be safe to say the large majority of gym-goers have ever ventured from their routines enough to try one.  The flexibility requirements of overhead squatting is large.  One must have very flexible hips, knees, hamstrings, calves, quads, shoulders, chest, and spine.  Luckily the overhead squat itself is not inherently possible without such flexibities, so the risk of strain or dislocation decreases.  One who isn't flexible enough, will be forced to drop the bar before any sort of bodily damage can occur. 
     In order to increase flexibility for such an exercise, many stretches should be done on a daily basis (perhaps this is a good time to say that this article is merely meant to describe the benefits of overhead squatting, and should not be considered a guide to either the exercise itself or the supporting exercises or stretches.)  And not only will stretches help your overhead squat, the overhead squat itself is an amazing full body stretch, and therefore will only help you to become stronger and more flexible in the long run.

So is it the Ultimate Exercise?  Is overhead squatting the greatest, most beneficial movement one could do in the gym?  Again, certainly not exclusively.  But the benefits associated with the exercise are immeasurably large, and definitely place this exercise near the top of the list.


Talk to Marcin Dolega, champion 105kg class Polish weightlifter, about the benefits of overhead squatting.  That's a full Olympic snatch^^^....and is about 400lbs.

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