Overhead Press & Shoulder Health
The barbell overhead press lives in the purgatory of physical culture, a revered lift of the past, an archaic display of strength. Vintage, circus posters render strongmen balancing 1st generation dumbbells over their heads. Pumping Iron depicted Golden-era lifters throwing an absurd amount of weight overhead. Think of even a professional wrestler hoisting his rival high above to complete the body-slam.
For multiple reasons, the lift slowly faded out of physical culture and now resides in the same rhetoric as boxing, historically revered but presently plagued by dangling connotations, some true some false.
The downfall of the press began with increased usage of modern technology. Individuals began contorting their body’s into poor positions to text and type, then, repeating this process over and over, adapting sub-par posture. Then, individuals put their dysfunctional posture under load by attempting to overhead or bench press without any coaching points on how to properly execute the movements.
Just as with squatting or pulling deadlifts, you have to create and maintain proper position then activate the correct musculature for the exercise.
Improving posture and abstaining from overuse injuries is a physical equation where the variables of your muscles and joints need to zero out. Having a basic understanding of this plays an immense role in exercise programming.
When coaches say that “you should do 2 sets of back for every set of chest”, this is a rough example of attempting to zero out the body and bring up lagging/underdeveloped muscles, one of the main tenants behind basic programming. However, simply prescribing the exercises is not enough to combat poor posture or relieve pain, the movements must be executed correctly.
***There is no perfect human on earth with pristine posture, full mobility, stability, motor control, etc.. but the closer you get to perfection, you will build a better physique and stave off injury.
One of the prime movers of shoulder flexion is the pectorals (along with the delts) with your posterior shoulder functioning to stabilize the joint.
Imagine an individual with poor posture: head and shoulders rolled forward with the mid-back rounded. Anatomically, the pectorals are tightened (shortened) with the muscles of the posterior shoulder and thoracic spine weakened (elongated). Because of this, the shoulder joint itself does not have a lot of room to move.
Stand up and assume poor posture then try to raise your hand above your head. Then assimilate proper posture and repeat shoulder flexion. Your ROM will drastically increase with correct positioning.
The strict overhead press is a complete display of shoulder flexion, core stability, and thoracic extension. To properly perform the movement:
- I have to properly set my shoulders by generating torque in the joint itself
- Creating a strong, stable shoulder position at setup
- Maintain this throughout the movement
- As your press, be able to extend at the thoracic spine while maintaining core stability
- Do not let your lumbar position break
- Have full ROM in my shoulders to properly lockout the movement
- Maintain the shoulder stability
- The core is still engaged to keep your back safe and maintain COG
Setup & Grip:
- Feet positioned in an athletic stance slightly outside shoulder-width
- Toes pointed straight ahead
- Knees slightly bent
- The core is braced and engaged
- If you don’t know how to do that then read this piece: How To Properly Set & Brace Your Core
- Abs and glutes engaged with shoulders stable (see below)
- Grip the barbell slightly outside of shoulder-width
- Your wrist should be stacked on top of your elbow
- Elbows are roughly 90 degrees
- Don’t let your wrist rollback
- As you grip the barbell, create torque off the bar by externally rotating your shoulder blades back into their sockets
- You are creating a strong, safe shoulder position to press from
- This is the same upper-back position you create when you bench
- When you unrack the weight, you will have to thoracically extend to accommodate the barbell
- Don’t lose your core stability and let your back arch or round
- Keep the bar-path as straight as possible as you press, moving your head around the bar
- This is where thoracic extension comes in play as well
- Think about bringing your armpits forward as you press
- Elbows are locked out with the head in a stable, neutral position
- Head is not pushed forward or behind the bar
- Shoulders do not actively shrug
- Lower the bar on the same path and move your head behind the bar to the starting position
Trey Thornton is a NASM Certified Person Trainer. He spent 4 years interning with the University of TN Chattanooga Athletic Performance Dept. along with spending time at Harvard University Strength & Conditioning. He attained his Bachelor's in Exercise Science From UT Chattanooga and coached at D1 Sports Performance in Bowling Green, KY before joining the TF Staff.