Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Coaching the Overhead Squat Assessment

A program is not a program without an initial assessment. An assessment can be an extravagant session with multiple tests to check everything that is going on with the body; or it can be a simple gait observation while someone is walking on a treadmill. A program without an assessment is simply a workout. And there are trainers that do specialize in simply designing "workouts" that make people sweat, grunt, and vomit. But honestly, if amusement park rides can make you sweat, grunt, and vomit,  is there really any skill needed to administer?

The overhead squat assessment was first introduced to me in the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) curriculum and was a breakthrough in conventional personal training courses. While other certification courses were made up of 80% material that most trainers would never use during a session, NASM was teaching trainers to look past the exterior of the body and look under the hood to examine movement patterns. Today, if you are still performing bogus assessments like the Sit and Reach and lecturing your clients because they can't touch their toes; you've got a long way to go before you can start thinking in terms of performance; rather than static positioning.

My intern has been studying the curriculum for NASM and wanted to practice administering the overhead squat assessment. What better way to learn how to administer the test than be the actual test subject and ask to be video-taped? To my intern's astonishment, video taping the assessment was the best learning tool she had discovered and it helped her understand exactly what to look for during the test performance.

Over the years, I have developed my own pattern of administering the assessment and I always seem to find some common threads among subjects (clients). I volunteered to be the test subject because I wanted to see if my intern can pinpoint my minor deviations. She did; but I have to admit--I have a pretty darn good squat:

In the first minute of video, I was purposely giving her a "hard time". Not to torture her, but I wanted her to understand--as any new trainer--that any person off the street who is deconditioned or unaware or simply a pain in the ass, will be somewhat of a challenge to instruct during an assessment session. Some people can be  skeptical or simply have a hard time following coaching cues. That was my "lesson within a lesson": introducing her to the human dynamic that is not fitness related. Any how, here is what she found:

My feet externally rotate badly, especially my right side (you can see at 1:55 in video)
I have a slight anterior lean (3:23 in video) This is possibly splitting hairs.
I have a slight weight shift to towards my right side at the bottom position (4:21 in video)

The use of the video camera helps the trainer tremendously. Think of an assessment performance as a football game. Many things going on at once and sometimes it is hard to pick up on everything. That is why we need a replay from the booth. Officials miss things and sometimes, the game or a play has to be viewed in slow-motion to find quirks.

Many new trainers try to "over assess" in the beginning.  They try to find everything under the sun wrong with one's movements. And if the squat doesn't look like the one pictured in the course textbook; they tend to mark something wrong in their assessment template.  However, if the client is in good shape or athletic, it will be more difficult [for the trainer] to observe movement deviations because they won't be so obvious. My intern thought she was going to find a laundry list of muscle imbalances on me. But she was pleasantly surprised that she had a hard time finding many or that they weren't as exaggerated as say, someone that is deconditioned.

Here are some basic notes I gave her regarding coaching the overhead squat assessment:

If you can, always have the client remove their shoes and fold up their pants. Some clients may find this uncomfortable; but let them know its pretty important for you to be able to view the areas without obstructions from shoes or clothing. Shoes hide arch collapses and camouflage ankle restriction. The more information that can be collected,  the better the process.

Don't instruct the client too much! Many trainers make the mistake of instructing the overhead squat assessment and go a little over board. You want to be able to instruct and demonstrate once in the beginning using the dowel. If you do not have a dowel,  they can hold a towel or simply keep their arms up. Too many cues account for too many mental corrections. We are looking for true active movement without artificial or forced corrections.

Set up a video camera if possible. As mentioned previously,  there is nothing better as a learning aid,  than a video camera. It allows you, the trainer, to go back and view the squat many times with the client. Ask the client for permission, and set up a camera that will capture the entire body. In my video above, I was abit disappointed that my hands and dowel were cut out. So make sure you place the camera at a distance that captures the body entirely.

Start your observation from the bottom and work your way up. Don't turn your attention to the obvious muscular deviations--no matter how much they grab your attention and you want to point it out to your client. Start with a pattern. Begin with the feet and scan the body upwards. Once you reach the top, scan the body and go back down.

Have the subject perform the squat multiple times. Don't be afraid to have the subject perform the squat many times during your observation. You want to be able to capture as many views as you can during all three views.

Observe each joint sequence according to body placement.
Follow this observation pattern for the front view: feet, ankle, knees, elbows

Follow this pattern for the side view: heels, low back/pelvis, elbow/arms, head

Follow this pattern for the rear view: feet, ankles, hips/pelvis, scapulae, elbows/arms

Helpful tips:

An anterior pelvic tilt is hard to see if the subject is wearing loose clothing. So,  I have found that initially that when the subject raises the dowel overhead during the side view,  a pelvic tilt will most likely appear if the lattissimus are shortened. If the lats are short, look for the arms falling forward. This is most evident when by watching the waistline. If a subject is wearing a loose shirt, have them tuck it in and watch the 'belt-line'.

If the feet externally rotate upon squatting, you can assume the lateral hamstrings are shortened/tight and there may may be some ankle restriction. If the subject to tries to keep the feet straight, they will not be able to squat very low. They will fold up like a lawn chair.

If they are unable to keep their arms straight (elbows locked) during the squat, it may indicate scapular weakness--not necessarily, tight triceps or lats.

Just because the heels rise, doesn't mean it is a ankle mobility issue. A normal squat is difficult for people. When you make it into an overhead squat, some subjects have a hard time keeping their weight on their heels. So you may see some forward lean. This is a technique flaw....not a muscular issue.

Hope this posts helps you when coaching the overhead squat assessment. If you'd like to film your assessment and post it; I'd be happy to check it out and offer you my thoughts!!


  1. Really trustworthy blog, please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know they would enjoy reading it. Personal Trainers Sydney

  2. Hi John, as others before me have no doubt said this is an excellent site with useful information for everyone. It is great to see your comments on the OH squat assessment, and I particularly like the realistic reference to some observations being technical in nature and not necesarily representative of muscular imbalance. I would like to say keep up the good work, but i sense it is not "work" but "a way of life" for you, a feeling which im sure resonates across many fitness professionals (myself included). I will try and get my OH squat filmed and posted soon, would be great to get your feedback on this!

  3. Steve,
    I humbly appreciate your kind words. It is a journey for me. I have been doing it (exercise) for so long, I don't know what else I am good at--besides eating :)

  4. Excellent dissection of the OH squat.

    A video camera is a great tool - using a cheap Flip camera or similar, you can plug it directly into a laptop immediately after the assessment and you can show your client where they have issues.
    You can run it in slow motion and stop at frames to highlight these.
    I find clients like to see what you're seeing and gives them a better understanding of the programme you design.

    Great article John


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