Would you like to know why your overhead movements suck?

I have been rehabilitating movements for the better part of ten years. Being in the trenches, while being able to work with hundreds of different clients has given me insight into the finer details of exercise and accompanying movement flaws.

While fixing squat patterns and lower body issues are fun, I’ve always been quite intrigued with the shoulder. There are so many factors that contribute to poor overhead mechanics, either producing pain, or poor motor control, that it would take a novel to cover everything. This article is meant to show you why you may be suffering with your vertical presses, and what changes you can make to take your shoulder strength to the next level.

The biggest myth about overhead presses is that the dysfunction is coming from the shoulder. I constantly see people in the gym trying to increase the mobility in their shoulders to get better pressing movements. Banded shoulder flossing and explosive arm circles have their place, but only once you’ve established where the problem is coming from. 

Enter, “The Scapulae.” I know, they are behind you. It’s tough to see what they are doing. Get someone else to look at them while you move. They should be very stable against the back of your ribcage, and not winged and moving when they shouldn’t be. Think of it this way, if your scapulae aren’t stable, then your shoulders get scared, and they try to produce the stability. Shoulders are a ball and socket joint, and therefore require a lot of mobility to move properly. Stabilize the scap, shoulders become mobile.

Let’s start with upward rotation. You need to have adequate upward rotation of your scapulae if you ever hope to produce strong overhead movements. This means that as you bring your arm overhead, your parascapular muscles should all contract at different times to produce that movement. What you don’t want is for your already dominant upper traps to grab the scapula and pull you into scapular elevation. If you notice yourself shrugging as you drive the weights overhead, closing the space between your shoulder and your neck, you are greatly compromising strength, as well as causing unwanted stress to your rotator cuff muscles. This is a recipe for eventual injury, and you should stop your overhead presses until you get this remedied.

What can be done? Well, start by beginning to gain control of your shoulder blades. Ideally, when you are looking at someone’s back, if you look at the medial, inferior border of their scapula, you should have roughly 2 or 3 finger widths between their spine and that border. Granted, every body is built differently, but generally that’s what I’ve seen with people that have healthy shoulders. If you notice that you have a bit more space, then there are a few things you can do to pull your blades together and increase stability. 

The first plan of attack is soft tissue work. If you have an RMT, that’s great. You want to attack your internal rotators. There are dozens of videos online explaining how to hit these areas effectively, so I won’t get into them here. If we are looking to get the dominant muscles to relax a bit, give you a bit more mobility, and be able to focus our efforts on the weaker, secondary movers, either a well qualified RMT, or a foam roller and lacrosse ball are going to be your best friends moving forward. You should be taking at least two or three minutes per area and working on decreasing tissue density in the following areas; upper traps, pec minor, and lats. Hit the upper traps and pec minor with a lacrosse ball, and smash the lats with the roller. The more it hurts, the more you need some work done in those areas. 

Next, you need to start to strengthen some of the weaker antagonists through very light activation drills. Don’t go heavy with these exercises, and really concentrate on getting the proper muscles to fire.

We are working to strengthen a few different muscles groups here; serratus anterior, lower and middle fiber trapezius, and rhomboids. They will help to create balance and pull your scapula back down into proper position.  

Prone T’s and W’s on an incline bench are a good place to start. Just make sure that you aren’t using your upper traps. Neck is long, and shoulders are down. Focus on a nice strong contraction through the mid back.

You may also want to include some serratus push ups in your programming. Working on long lever scapular retraction/protraction will go a long way in helping to promote proper shoulder mechanics. Same rule as above. Don’t elevate the scapula and give the upper traps extra work. They are doing enough already. 

 Fixing your movements isn’t difficult if you know where the poor movements are coming from. Learn to attack the source and not just the lever affected. Learning about your body is the first step in creating a body that works hard for you for years to come, and doesn’t get plagued with injuries.