The overhead squat is one of the most challenging positions we face in CrossFit and weightlifting, demanding a high degree of mobility to achieve the position as well as stability to maintain it under load. If we lack adequate mobility in one or more areas, our body will be forced to compensate in other areas, putting us at risk of injury. This article will highlight the four main areas of restriction that impact the overhead squat position: the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. Test each one to see if you would benefit from some targeted mobility work. Then choose from the exercises shown, or find another that works best for you. Don’t forget that your coaches are always there to help — ask them for direction if you are unsure. Happy mobilizing!
This is often the first place we look when someone is struggling to keep an upright torso in the overhead squat. You may feel like your shoulders are the issue, but if your trunk is pitched forward because you lack ankle dorsiflexion (toes toward shins), then you are putting your shoulders into a very disadvantaged and unstable position — no wonder they hurt! In order to sit upright in the squat, your knees must be able to travel over your toes. To test: This test is very simple. With a dowel or empty bar, first test your overhead squat. Then elevate your heels by standing with your heels on a 10# plate. Re-test your overhead squat. Improved? You need to work on your ankle mobility.
We need to feed some slack to the tissues at the back of the heel. We like adding some load (like a kettle bell) to help us get into a deep stretch and hold it. Try to spend 2 mins per side, and don’t be afraid to move the knee around to see where the ankle is restricted.
If your ankle feels very stiff within the joint itself, we have some options using the bands that may work better for you. Ask your coach!
For many of us, a lack of hip mobility will prevent us from being able to maintain an upright posture in the squat. To test: There are many ways to test hip mobility. Try this: standing on one leg (with support if needed), establish a braced neutral spine (contract abdominals and glutes), then bring the other knee towards your chest. How far can you bring it up without losing your neutral spine? If your tailbone tucks under you are cheating (and probably butt-winking in your squat). Can you reach your knee above the level of your hip? If not, you could likely benefit from some hip mobility exercises.
Think of your hip stretches as attacking the front, back, medial and lateral aspects of the joint. On the front we have the hip flexors. At the back we have the hamstrings. On the medial aspect are the muscles of the groin (adductors) and on the lateral aspect are the gluteal muscles. We want to tackle all sides for full hip function. Take a look at these stretches, and incorporate them before or after your workout, or anytime you feel like getting more mobile. If stretching before your workout, keep them shorter in duration and make sure you are moving around in each position, finding the areas of restriction. Any other time, hang out in each stretch for at least 2 mins (per side) for best results.
Lack of thoracic spine extension (the ability to “arch” your upper back) is very commonly a limiting factor in the overhead squat. To test: Grab a foam roller, and lay down so that the roller is under the shoulder blades. With the soles of your feet on the floor, press your hips up high, and allow your head to reach back to the floor, keeping your neck in neutral. Reach your arms overhead as a counter balance. Now, without allowing your head and arms to come off the floor, reach your hips down towards the floor. Not happening? You need to work on thoracic mobility!
Luckily, you are already in a great position to treat your mobility restriction. Place a bar or kettle bell on the floor above your head, grab on to anchor, and work on gently bring in the hips down towards the floor. Make sure to play around with the foam roller a little higher and lower (anywhere between the bottom of the neck and the bottom of the ribcage). If the foam roller is too intense, swap it for a double lacrosse ball. While you are here, rock left and right to make sure your spine is also ready to twist.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, shoulder mobility is much less frequently the limiter in the overhead squat. To test: Lay down on your back, with knees bent and soles of the feet on the floor. Raise one arm out in front of you, turn the hand so that the thumb is pointing over your head: this puts your shoulder into external rotation. Without allowing your lower back to come off the floor, reach your arm overhead. Can you touch your thumb to the floor? Try this again on the other side. If you can achieve this position with each arm, then shoulder mobility is not your limiter in the overhead squat. Now try with both arms: more difficult? This is more likely a thoracic spine issue.
If shoulder mobility is one of your issues (high school bench press champions, I’m looking at you), then spend some time stretching out the common culprits of limited shoulder flexion: pecs, lats, and triceps.
There are many other ways to get creative here (think bands, lacrosse balls, rollers, and barbells) but the most important thing is that you give each position the time it needs to make change: 2 minutes minimum. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Use your breath to your advantage — relax deeper into the stretch with each exhale. Finally, remember that we want to stretch the shoulder, not extend the lower back. So if you are getting into funky back positions trying to reach deeper into a stretch, take a moment to reset and brace the spine (think 20% contraction of abs and glutes). Enjoy!
There is one very important factor in seeing your gains that is commonly overlooked; sleep. Without the aide of proper recovery and sleep, your countless hours under that bar will leave you falling quite short of any long-term gains. Why sleep? Why can’t we just spend some time stretching and rolling out? Well, sleep is the single most powerful recovery tool…and the best part is you don’t have to do anything! Most people are aware they need sleep, but unsure of what a good sleep entails.
For most people the recommended number is between 7-9 hours, but for athletes this number can be quite a bit higher. During physical activity we break down our muscles and nervous system, causing stress on our body; the higher your level of training, the more recovery time you will need for repair. Without adequate repair, you are leaving your body open to exhaustion and sickness, loss of fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, which can all eventually lead to injury. And yes, this means a straight 7-9 hours of sleep in a row, napping doesn’t count.
When you first start to doze off, your body is hitting its threshold stage of sleep; this does not adequately repair your body. You need to lay on the pillow long enough for your body to fall into REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep). This is the deepest state of relaxation your body will reach, and where you will benefit from proper repair and recovery. Here are a few tips to ensure you hit that REM cycle:
1) Start a routine. Set a time every night that is dedicated to relaxation to prepare your body for sleep, whether this be reading a book, listening to music or watching a relaxing movie. Any continued cycle will help ensure proper and adequate rest.
2) Hit the weights early. When you work out, especially with heavy weights, your body releases arousal hormones that will keep your body in an excited, awaken state for hours. This may not be possible for everyone, but try and hit the gym at least 3 hours before bed.
3) Keep stimulants out of the bedroom. Computers, phones, TV’s can all be very distracting.
4) Turn off alarm clocks. Yes this one seems impossible, but take advantage of any chance you get turn those clocks off. Let your body naturally wake up when it is ready.
5) If you do take naps, try and avoid them close to bedtime or you will find yourself staring at your ceiling at 4:00 am.
6) Avoid sleep medications and alcohol as sleep aids.
If it is not possible for you to get a full 7-9 hours, you can take naps. It is more important to try and sneak in those hours throughout the day than to try and “catch up” on tem over the weekend. If you opt to nap, try and nap immediately following a training session.
Let’s not take sleep too lightly! Your mental capacity and training will see a large improvement with proper rest. Turn off those clocks, sleep in and give your body what it needs so you can hit those weights harder tomorrow.
Simply put, willpower is defined as, “The strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans; control of one’s impulses and actions; determination; self-control”. But to most of us, there is nothing simple about it.
A great number of people claim that willpower is their biggest hurdle in making a life change, and often this is in regards to health and fitness. I will not tell you that these claims are invalid. I suffer from the same issues despite having some decent healthy behaviors. I will tell you that there are ways to overcome the Great Barrier Willpower to get on a path to a healthy lifestyle.
Now, I’m not usually one to pick up and read a “self-help” type book. It always seems a little cheesy to me, like a scene from a terrible RomCom. However, when the CrossFit Journal featured a review of the book “Willpower” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, I couldn’t keep myself from not only buying the book, but also doing some further research (seems ironic).
First, let’s get into the nitty gritty of willpower and why it makes us crazy.
Every day we make decisions. Every one of these decisions taps into our store of willpower, and eventually it becomes depleted. How many times have you finished a long day at work or school with the desire to sit on the couch in front of a mindless television show with a bowl of microwave popcorn in your lap? You don’t have the patience to stop at the grocery store and you’re too tired and hungry to go to the gym. Once at home you check out the cupboard, and the 2 minutes it takes to pop the corn is about as long as you can wait before you stuff something in your face. Not only that, but while the popcorn is popping you eat a cheese string, maybe a Rice Krispie treat, some trail mix…you get the idea…(and yes, this is based on actual events). All of this poor decision making stems from what psychologists call “willpower depletion,” or “ego depletion.” The American Psychological Assocation states that, “Willpower can be compared to a muscle that becomes fatigued with overuse. Studies show that repeatedly resisting temptation drains your ability to withstand future enticements.”
In 1998, Roy Baumeister completed a study in which participants sat at a table with a plate of fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies as well as a plate of radishes. Some of the participants were told they could eat the cookies, and some were told they could only eat the radishes. After a period of time had elapsed all participants were asked to complete a geometric puzzle. The results were very telling. The radish-eaters only spent an average of 8 minutes attempting the puzzle before giving up, while the cookie-eaters spent an average of 19 minutes before giving up. It seemed that resisting the cookies took its toll on the perseverance of the radish-eaters. Ego depletion doesn’t only occur after resisting cookies, but also after extended periods of exercising self-control in other aspects of life. Holding in emotions while watching a movie and playing nice with less desirable in-laws or colleagues are prime examples of this.
Psychological demands are not the only cause of ego depletion. Several studies have indicated that glucose is also a major contributing factor. In fact many studies have shown that no glucose = no willpower. One such study was conducted by nutritionists in elementary schools. Children were told not to eat breakfast one day before coming to school. Once at school, half the children were given a good breakfast. Of the children who did not eat breakfast, even the normally behaved ones were “out of control.” Once the researchers gave the hungry half a mid-morning snack, “the differences disappeared as if by magic.”
Not only does glucose assist us with self-control, exercising self-control depletes glucose. In another study, glucose levels were tested before and after tasks which used up self-control. Those with the more difficult task saw a more dramatic fall in their glucose levels than those with the easier task. This may explain why we crave sugary foods when we have had a stressful day.
So how can we apply this to CrossFit and living a healthier lifestyle? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule your workouts in advance. Set time aside while you are feeling psychologically fresh. Front Desk is ideal for this, especially if you usually attend our busier classes as you will usually need to book in advance.
2. Go straight to the gym without going home first. This won’t work for you morning people, unless you work the night shift. But for those of you who go in the afternoon or evening and struggle with attendance, try driving straight to the gym from work or school. Without any distractions, such as your couch and that popcorn, you may just make it more regularly.
3. Hold yourself accountable. Make plans to work out with a friend. Keep track of your workouts. Write down the food you eat. There are apps that you can use to assist with tracking workouts such as MyWod and PR Tracker
4. Make a meal plan so you don’t have to think about what too cook or eat after a long day. Grocery shop, with a list, after you have eaten a healthy meal. Try to shop for several days at a time. Cook enough food so you have leftovers in the fridge for those days when you cannot make any more decisions.
5. Eat real food throughout the day. Don’t let your depleted glucose levels lead you down a path to unhealthy eating. Stock up on healthy sources of glucose like sweet potatoes and fruit.
6. Focus on one change at a time. For most people that’s the most their brain can handle. If you want to change your eating habits, focus only on your eating habits. Heck, even just focus on changing one meal at a time. If you try to make too many changes at once, your willpower may not be able to handle it and you may not succeed. Once the first change becomes a habit, it will be easier to make a second, and then a third, etc.
7. Try out the “later” effect. If you are craving an unhealthy food, tell yourself that you will have it if you still want it in 2 hours. This actually works, and you can use it to your advantage in areas other than nutrition. If Clash of Clans is causing you to procrastinate, put your phone down and tell yourself you can play later. You may find that without a reason to procrastinate, you have no desire to go back to your game.
Everyone seems to be familiar with the term rehabilitation or rehab when it comes to sports injuries. If one experiences an injury, he or she will nurse it back to health by seeing specialists, taking time off from the offending activity, applying therapies such as ice or cold, stretching muscles that are too tight or strengthening weak muscles. Most of us have experienced this in some capacity or know someone else who has.
Sometimes these injuries are inevitable. Often, these injuries can be prevented. This process is called “prehabilitation” or prehab. But before we get too far into prehab, let’s touch on CrossFit’s impact on your life.
Unless you come from a high level competitive background, you may not have exercised with the same intensity you are now experiencing in CrossFit. You have never been exposed to Olympic Weightlifting or gymnastics. Your bones, joints, muscles and nervous system have never felt the impact that they do when you step inside your gym for your varied, intense, functional workout. You love it! And we do, too! But with this new stress on your body, you have to set up an appropriate plan to keep your body in tip top shape. You still have a life outside of CrossFit and we want you to live it to your full potential. CrossFit makes living your everyday life just a little bit easier, both mentally and physically. But staying well is the key to success and longevity both in CrossFit and life.
1. Warm Up. The warm up on the board isn’t optional. It’s there for a reason and that is to get you properly ready for your workout. Arriving 15 minutes early to get your warm up in is crucial. The first step to preventing injury is to get your muscles and joints warm and ready for movement. This is also the time to get your nervous system primed so it can respond to what’s coming. No matter what you do in life, best results come from properly preparing. When it comes to exercise, this is your warm up. It shouldn’t tire you out. You should feel loose, your breathing and heart rate will increase and you’re ready for more. Sweating is essential! Dynamic movements such as leg swings, arm circles, butt kicks, high knees, ect get the joints moving in all directions. Keep your stretches shorter (hold less than 20 seconds) and get your body ready to take on weight or reps.
2. Cool Down. You just finished your workout. You are sweating heavily, panting hard and your muscles ache. Time to go home! Not so fast. Moving around slowly allows your heart rate to get closer to normal. Now that your muscles are beat up, rolling out with a foam roller or lacrosse ball will push out any junk that has built up in your muscles and reduce prolonged soreness. It will also help maintain mobility, which you will lose with muscle gain if you don’t keep up on it!
3. Recover. You love your sport and the high you get after your CrossFit workout. It might even be the highlight of your day! As much as you don’t want to take a break from it, you need to. This could be as simple as one to two days off per week to a more elaborate plan of one week off every 6-8 weeks. Not only will you be more than enthusiastic to get back in there, your body can take the time to rebuild. This is a rest for both your body and your brain. You might feel antsy and feel ready to get back to the gym, but if you want to be doing this for the long haul, TAKE TIME OFF. Humans aren’t made to run at 110% all of the time. You need time to recharge the batteries. Take this break before you feel like you need to take a break. CrossFit is your fun time! Keep it fun.
4. Support. You’ve got the previous three rehab steps on lock. Good for you! Unfortunately, it’s not always enough and there are professionals trained and ready to take care of you. Find your support system. It usually takes a combination of a few different modalities and often you need to shop around to find the best fit for you. The biggest advantage to finding your “team” when you are well, beyond preventing injury, is that if you do need them in an emergency, they already know your body and the best way to treat you. And you know you are with someone you trust. Find your people. Be picky. In all fields, there are practitioners that treat differently. Look to massage, physiotherapy, chiropractic, athletic therapy, osteopathy and acupuncture. Create your own support system so you can train your hardest and stay well throughout the process.
Chances are no one is paying you to CrossFit. You still have to work, you still have your family time, you still have obligations outside of the gym. CrossFit will help you be the best you, but you need to keep yourself well so you can be the best you all of the time. CrossFit is hard work and an awesome community. That’s why we see amazing results and why people keep coming back for more. Prehabilitation may not seem necessary when you are well, but as soon as you are injured and rehabilitation becomes the obligation you never wanted, you’ll wish you had taken better care of yourself. Now stop sitting there, find your lacrosse ball and roll out your glutes. Doctor’s orders.
Six minutes into a spicy 15 minute AMRAP (as many reps as possible) is when it starts. That little voice in the back of your head, in the same pitch and tone that you probably had when you were four years old, telling you that you need to take a break, you have to stop, and that you will most surely die. This little voice, the one that tells you that “you can’t”, is the same voice that is holding you back from getting where you need to go.
Whether in training, competing, or even when asking that crush on a first date, this little voice is attempting to thwart you at every turn for no other reason than to give you a way out. Now I am not going to sit here and tell you to ignore that little voice because hey, that little voice is you trying to act as a bodyguard to keep you safe. What I am going to do, is tell you to acknowledge that little voice, as you would acknowledge a grandparent telling you that if you play with it that much, it will fall off, and get on with the workout.
Training at the intensity we train in CrossFit, we often end up in places in our heads that most people don’t ever visit. These places are dark, scary, and mysterious. It is in these dark places that we feel most vulnerable, yet they are the places we can become the most powerful. In order to achieve that next level, we need to take ourselves out of our comfort zone. Most of you did that when you drew up the courage to step into the box. Now that you have become somewhat accustomed to that discomfort, you may need to take the next step.
I often have athletes ask me how they can get better, or if they need more training to get more fit. In most cases, I believe that they can get everything they need from a group fitness class if they just get out of their own way. When you’re doing your warm-up, warm up, get sweaty. When you’re going through a skill or strength segment, don’t think about how this will affect the “WOD” coming up. And when the WOD finally does come up, don’t think about how hard it will be, how much it will hurt, or if you will get the best score.
A workout doesn’t have to be complicated; we have enough of that in our daily lives. When the clock starts, pick up the bar, yank on the rowing handle, take that first stride and get after it! Think only about the reps that need to be done and how efficient you can be in each movement, not about whether or not you “can”. At that 6 minute mark, when that little voice starts to chime in, give it the wink and the gun as to not be rude, and carry the fuck on with your workout.
As many of my athletes have heard screamed at them during the worst parts of a workout;
“Get out of your head and do the work!”
It’s time you admit it. You’re a CrossFitter. You’ve bought in to the hype, purchased your first pair of Nanos and understand people when they say things like, “WOD”, “AMRAP”, and “EMOTM.” So it’s time you start thinking like a CrossFitter. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or fresh to the Box, these tips and tricks are sure to make your wod experience more successful for you and those around you.