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!
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