The Barbell Overhead Press is a popular movement to help build muscular strength and size for the upper body. It can be a great movement for developing strength, power, etc., but often times it gets blamed for contributing to many orthopedic issues at the neck, shoulder, and low back.
More times than not, it is usually being performed incorrectly OR people are pushing through pain and discomfort thinking that they are benefitting themselves in the long run.
When performing an overhead press or variations thereof, pin-point discomfort, pain, or “feeling” the movement in a particular spot versus throughout the upper body is ideally not the best scenario.
But, if someone can perform a movement pain-free and with proper technique, then go for it!
For those that can’t perform a movement pain-free, make sure to get assessed by a licensed healthcare practitioner to rule out any particular orthopedic issues.
If you are someone that wants to be able to perform overhead lifting and pressing, some people are just not made to be able to.
Reasons can range from limited overhead shoulder mobility, stability, ligamentous changes, or bony structural adaptations, or a combination of these.
If you are someone who wants to be able to train overhead, here are some variations to be able to pain-free.
1. Lose the Barbell!
If Barbell Overhead Pressing isn’t working so well, try performing it with dumbbells or kettlebells.
The benefit of using a dumbbell or kettlebell is that is allows for more degrees of freedom for the shoulders. With a barbell, you are locked into a pronated, internally rotated position at the upper extremity.
With a dumbbell or kettlebell, the upper extremities are allowed more degrees of freedom and in turn places less stress on certain body, ligamentous, and soft tissue structures.
2. Train in the Scapular Plane!
The scapular plane is an area approximately 30-degrees from side of the body, as shown below.
Photo credit: https://breddydotorg.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/scapular-plane.png
Another way to think of it is to lift your arms so that they are in the shape of the letter V.
The scapular plane is typically the most “shoulder friendly” way to press and is less detrimental to the health and function at the shoulder.
In the first video, overhead pressing is being performed in the scapular plane.
In the subsequent videos, pressing is being performed in the sagittal or frontal planes. Some may not tolerate pressing in the frontal or sagittal planes. Therefore, pressing in the scapular plane may be a better option for some to be able to press overhead pain-free.
3. Change Your Body Position
Instead of performing seated or standing, try performing overhead pressing in a split stance, ½ kneeling, or tall kneeling position.
By changing the position of the lower body, this can have a greater impact if someone is having lower back pain with overhead pressing.
When performing in these positions, it forces the person to have to stabilize their lumbar spine and not compensate through their low back when pressing overhead. In turn, by improving core and trunk position, this can directly improve shoulder function. Overhead pressing can also be performed in tall kneeling or in a split-stance standing position.
Another very under-utilized variation for overhead pressing work is the Landmine Press.
Most fitness facilities won’t have the adapter for the barbell to be placed into, but all of you have to do is place a barbell into the corner of a wall.
Now, go into a ½ kneeling, tall kneeling, split stance, or standing position and perform your overhead pressing work with this variation.
Yes, this is not strict overhead pressing, but for people who have difficulty pressing straight overhead, this is a great variation that can allow you to press “vertically” without causing pain or other issues in the upper body.
A key point to remember with all overhead pressing and overhead movements is to NOT lock your scapulae in a “down and back” position when pressing overhead. Yes, we want our shoulders to be stable, but the scapulae are meant to move.
On the flip side, don’t “shrug” your shoulders aggressively towards your ears. The scapulae should be in a strong, stable position between packed and shrugged.
So, if you’re having pain with overhead pressing, get checked out by a licensed health-care practitioner.
Give the variations of using dumbbells, kettlebells, the scapular plane, various body positions, or with the landmine a try!
"Throw 135 on and let's get to it!"
Ask most people who have performed the bench press and most likely, they have just hopped on the bench and started warming-up with the barbell or 135 as their “warm-up.”
Not only is this disadvantageous from a force production and strengthening perspective, but it can also place the body at an increased risk for injury. If certain areas need mobility in order to perform a lift properly are not moving well, this can cause short and long term orthopedic issues.
Areas needed for mobility prior to bench pressing/horizontal pressing are:
-Gleno-humeral Joint (shoulder)
These are the 2 major areas that should be targeted prior to horizontal pressing in order to maximize mobility for that particular movement.
Here are 3 Quick and Easy Mobility Drills to Prepare You for the Bench Press:
1. Bench Thoracic Spine Mobilizations
-Maintain a neutral spine. Don’t extend/flex.
-Keep your abs on.
-Stretch should be felt throughout the lats, triceps, or in the thoracic spine.
This drill is commonly used for mobility at the thoracic spine. But it is also a great movement to be performed to improve mobility at the posterior musculature of the shoulders and arms.
The specific areas that are being targeted are:
-Long Head of Triceps
Perform for 8-10 reps with a 2-3 sec hold prior to pressing.
2. Sidelying Rib Roll
-Prop knee up at/or above hip height.
-Grasp underside of ribs with top arm hand.
-Use hand to assist in twisting thoracic spine.
Even though the bench thoracic spine mobilization drill covers thoracic spine mobility as well as soft tissue mobility, the thoracic spine is meant to EXTEND AND ROTATE. By incorporating the Sidelying Rib Roll drill, this can maximize the thoracic spine’s mobility to extend and rotate as well as decrease stress and strain at the glenohumeral joint.
3. Seated Wall Slide
-Maintain a neutral spine
-Slide arms up as high as you can without letting forearms/hands come off the wall.
This can be a great movement to maximize mobility throughout the anterior glenohumeral joint musculature. Typically, it can be used as a motor control exercise to help prime the muscular and nervous systems, but it can also be used to improve mobility as well.
Next time you have a horizontal pressing day, try these 3 mobility drills to help improve your performance as well as decrease your risk for injury.
Do you find yourself performing self-myofascial release (SMR) using the foam roller or lacrosse ball to help improve your hip mobility?
Do you find that you do this and that your mobility improves, but it just doesn’t “stick” or isn’t maintained?
The common areas that are seen for limitations in hip mobility are:
-Hip Internal/External Rotation (IR/ER)
To determine if you have normal hip mobility, try these tests:
-Hold one knee over the hip.
-Allow the other leg to completely relax and drop down towards the ground.
-Thigh drops down to the table.
-Knee is flexed to 90 degrees.
-Thigh is in line with hip joint, not flared out to the side.
-Thigh doesn’t drop down to the table.
-Knee is slightly extending.
-Thigh abducts compared to the hip joint.
If hip mobility is limited, try performing SMR work to:
Hip Internal and External Rotation:
Hip ER: 40 degrees
Hip IR: 30 degrees
If mobility is limited, perform some type of SMR to the posterior aspect of the hips.
*Note: some people may have limitations in hip ER or IR based off of soft tissue, capsular, or bony limitations. Lack of mobility may be due to other reasons that just increased soft tissue tone.
-Place your ankle above your opposite knee.
-Let your leg relax and drop down towards the ground.
Tibia within 5-10 degrees of parallel to horizon.
Tibia greater than 10 degrees away from parallel to horizon.
If adductor mobility is limited, try performing SMR with the lacrosse ball or foam roller.
Now, either you didn’t have limited mobility or now your mobility is “normal.”
Great! Now if this is what happens where your mobility “improves” and then reverts back to it feeling “tight,” this needs to be addressed.
Now, we want to check to see if you are able to access this mobility ACTIVELY!
For hip extension, lie on your stomach. You are going to palpate your Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (ASIS). This is the hip bone that you feel on the front of your body.
While lying on your stomach and palpating the ASIS, slow and controlled, lift your leg off the table.
If your ASIS pushes into your hand prior your big toe clearing the level of your opposite heel, then you may have a motor control limitation at your hip.
For Hip ER/IR, mobility needs to be checked actively.
For Hip ER, make sure to not allow the thigh to come off the table.
For Hip IR, make sure to not allow a “hip hike.” Try placing your hands on your hips to minimize this.
Trouble eye-balling it? Try using the App Clinometer on the Iphone and that can accurately measure hip mobility.
If you cannot attain 40 degrees of active hip ER or 30 degrees of active hip IR, then there may be a motor control limitation at your hip into hip ER or IR.
For adductor mobility, perform the same FABER test. If it appears limited, try performing it with core activation.
Now, if you have full mobility passively, but can’t access it actively, this is not a strength issue. It is a motor control issue.
From my previous post about shoulder mobility and motor control, the same example applies here.
Motor control is not strength. Motor control is a muscular timing and sequencing that occurs during movement. It is more about precision and control than it is pure strength.
For example, think of a slingshot.
When using a slingshot, both arms are involved. One arm is holding the slingshot while the other pulls the elastic backwards.
The arm that pulls the elastic backwards, think of that as muscular strength. It takes muscular force, usually quite a bit, to pull that backwards.
The arm that is holding the slingshot stable, think of that as motor control. It takes more control and “stability” to hold it still. It usually doesn’t require as much force as pulling the elastic backwards, but more precision.
With that being said, if you can’t perform something actively, but you have full mobility, the timing of your neuromuscular system may be adjusted.
To work on improving your active mobility or maintaining newly acquired mobility, we need to train the nervous system on how to control it.
In order to maintain new mobility, we need to have some type of movements that help to reinforce and maintain this.
Hip Extension Drills
Cook Hip Lift
-Place ball in the opposite hip crease.
-If ball pops out, you are not keeping your knee close enough to your chest.
-On stance leg, drive through the foot and extend your hip.
Quadruped Assisted Hip Extension
-Keep lumbar spine stable and don’t let it move.
-Extend through your hip.
Tall Kneeling Core Activated Hip Hinge
-Make sure to hinge from the hips, not just bending through the knees.
-Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
-Squeeze glutes at the end of the movement.
-Make sure to not hyperextend through lumbar spine at end of movement.
Hip ER/IR Drills
Supine Assisted Hip ER/IR
-Make sure to perform slow and controlled into either ER or IR.
-Raise the leg up until the knee is at hip height while controlling ER or IR.
Quadruped Assisted Hip ER/IR
-Allow the band to assist you into these positions.
-Perform slow and controlled.
*Try placing an object on your lumbar spine to provide feedback to the person and to minimize any type of lumbar spine movement.
Hip Abduction Drills
Prone Hip ER Lifts
-Keep low back stable.
-Lift knee just far enough off the ground to slide a piece of paper underneath it.
Perform these types of movements for 3 sets x 5 reps. They should be performed slow and controlled. If your active mobility improves after a few sets of these, then that movement/exercise was the right one for you.
Two people could present the exact same, but one movement might work better for one person and not the other.
If you have a difficult time maintaining your mobility, give these drills for hip extension, hip ER/IR, and/or hip abduction a try!
The Pull-Up or Chin-Up is one of those movements that has been around for a long time. All the way back to gym class in school and there would be testing to see how many pull-ups someone could do.
There probably wasn’t anyone making sure they were being done with perfect technique, or at least good technique. If your gym teacher was watching, they were probably just counting the reps until you were done.
But, if you walk into a gym and see someone performing pull-ups, chin-ups, or any other vertical pulling variation, technique is probably being butchered.
If you are having trouble performing a pull-up or chin-up, check out my guest post on TD Athlete’s Edge here on how to improve them.
There are many areas where technique can break down including:
Lumbar Spine Extension
Using the Arms vs Upper Back
Tractioning of the Upper Body
Excessive Shoulder Extension
Now, if you perform this miscues once or twice, not a big deal! The problem arises when they are performed rep after rep, set after set, over time in your training sessions. By decreasing this miscues in your training sessions, it will help you remain in the iron game longer and stay healthier.
How Do I Fix Them?
Well, there are tips on how to strengthen your weaker points in my guest post on TD Athlete’s Edge from above.
If there are no major strength issues, then different cues can help to improve or maintain technique.
Miscue #1: Lumbar Spine Extension
If you find yourself arching your low back and/or your low back hurts after performing pull-ups, etc., then improving your core position can help.
Before you even think of pulling, set-up your core and trunk position and think:
“Bringing Your Ribs Down Towards Your Belt.”
By bringing the ribs down towards your belt, this can help to engage the anterior core musculature and in turn places the spine in a more neutral position. By doing this, it can help to decrease issues at the shoulders and low back as well as transmit force better throughout the kinetic chain.
Miscue #2: Forward Head
Another common area where issues can arise is when the head starts to translate forward as the person performing the pull-up attempts to bring their chin over the bar.
This can sometimes be corrected with instructing the person to keep a “packed neck” or “make a double chin.”
Many times, this miscue will also happen if someone is performing a 3-rep max on pull-ups/chin-ups and they are working their hardest to complete those reps.
Now, it is understood that sometimes technique will falter during max testing. But if the head/chin is continuing to translate forward even with the “packed neck” cue, then try using
“Pull Your Chest to the Bar.”
By pulling the chest to the bar, this can help to eliminate the tendency for the person to want to push their head forward. When attempting to bring their chest to the bar, the chest is the reference point for a completed rep, not the chin and can help to improve neck position.
Miscue #3: Using the Arms Vs. the Upper Back
Another part of the pull-up that can be an issue is initiating the movement with the arms vs the upper back.
Both the arms and the upper back are integral parts to being able to perform a chin-up or a pull-up.
The problem arises when the upper back isn’t utilized to help perform the movement. Issues such as irritation to:
-Long Head of the Biceps
-Short Head of the Biceps
can occur due to this technique flaw as well as increased difficulty due to using a smaller muscle group such as the biceps, etc. as compared to the upper back musculature.
A cue that can also help with this is to think of initiating the movement at the scapulae/shoulder blades. By thinking of “bringing the shoulder blades into the back pockets” at the initiation of the movement, this can help to iron out issues of initiating the movement with the arms vs the back.
Miscue #4: Tractioning of the Upper Body
Not only is this not efficient to do from a mechanics standpoint due to the relaxing of the upper body as well as not maintaining tension, it can place increased stress on the shoulder, specifically the:
Over time, this can create issues at the shoulder that can be minimized through not allowing the upper body to completely relax at the bottom of the chin-up/pull-up.
I am not saying someone should keep their shoulder blades in their back pockets during the entirety of the movement, but controlling the descent back to the starting position as well as maintaining some tension in the upper back musculature can be ideal for shoulder health and performance.
One cue that can help is to “stay tight.” This cue is accompanied with some tactile feedback from the coach to the client by touching between the inferior angles of the scapulae. By instructing the person to “stay tight,” this can help to avoid the traction position.
Also, thinking of straightening the elbows before allowing the shoulders to traction/shrug up can be another way to think of it.
Miscue #4: Excessive Shoulder Extension
This miscue can occur when people don’t incorporate using their upper back into the movement. Of course, shoulder extension needs to occur to some extent when performing the pull-up, but it can become excessive when the humerii translate past the plane of the body.
As mentioned above with the forward head miscue, by using the cue, “bring your chest to the bar",
can help to remedy any excessive shoulder extension issues.
If you or your clients are having issues with lumbar spine extension, forward head posture, or sub-par movement of the upper body during the pull-up or chin-up, try some of these cues to help clean up technique and improve upper body pulling performance.
Here I will be writing and posting about topics ranging from physical therapy, injury prevention/reduction, and strength and conditioning.