by Todd Bumgardner, MS T-Nation
I love the overhead press. It’s the consummate badass exercise. There’s a lot of testicular fortitude involved in loading weight on a bar, stepping back from the rack and pressing it overhead without so much as a dip in the hips or using the legs.
In a perfect world, everyone would overhead press. Grandma would hoist barbells while she baked pies, and setting a pressing PR would be an excused absence from school.
Oh, what a wonderful world it would be.
However, there are two factions at opposite ends of the overhead-pressing continuum. One says that overhead pressing is an unhealthy exercise for everyone. Those on the opposite side say that everyone should overhead press.
The reality is not everyone is ready to overhead press. Here are some telltale signs that indicate whether the overhead press is a good movement for you.
Does your thoracic spine extend properly?
Are you setup for impingement and/or scapular instability?
Are you able to brace your core tightly and lock your rib cage?
Note: By overhead press, I refer to the standing overhead press with a barbell, not the seated military press.
Thoracic spine mobility is important for health in the majority of human movements, but in the overhead press its importance is compounded. If the t-spine isn’t extending properly during the overhead press, it will be difficult to fully flex the shoulders, resulting in the weight increasing the amount of lumbar extension during the lift, not to mention putting unwanted stress on the cervical spine.
The transfer of force will be altered, with the weight ending up in front of the head rather than overhead, and the lumbar spine taking the brunt of the extension needed to move the weight vertically. That range of motion has to come from somewhere and if the upper-back isn’t doing a whole lot of moving, the parts at each end of the chain will suffer.
There are two simple screens that you can do to determine if there’s sufficient extension in the thoracic spine for overhead pressing to be a fit in your program.
Option number one is to do a scapular wall slide. If you can keep your forearms, upper-back, and head against the wall throughout the movement without the arch in your lower-back increasing or your butt moving off the wall, you have enough extension in your thoracic spine to press overhead. If not, you probably have some anterior shoulder issues and lat tightness, and you also need more extension out of your t-spine.
Note: Don’t confuse this wall slide screen with the scapular wall slide used for activation. If you’re just using the wall slide to activate your peri-scapular muscles, having your butt come off the wall isn’t as big of a deal.
Here’s a video of someone with sufficient t-spine extension through the wall slide.
And here’s yours truly butchering the wall slide.
Next is a simple shoulder flexion test, made popular by Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, and Bill Hartman. Stand erect with your hands at your side and in the neutral position. From there, keep your elbows extended and raise your arms by flexing your shoulders. Have a partner watch from the side while you flex your shoulders until your arms are parallel with your ears.
Your partner should be watching for whether you can align your arms with your ears, if your rib cage sticks out more as your arms go up, and if the arch in the lower-back increases as your arms are raised. If you can’t get your arms parallel with your ears, or if your lower-back arches as your arms go up, your t-spine isn’t extending well enough. (Cressey, Hartman, & Robertson, 2009)
Here’s a solid example of the shoulder flexion test.
And a not-so-solid example.
Both these tests giving you trouble? You need to get your thoracic spine extending properly and make sure the lats have good extensibility.
The typical thoracic mobility drills and lat stretches apply. When it comes to t-spine mobility you have the quadruped extension rotations, extensions on a foam roller, and side-lying windmills. Lat stretches with a jump stretch band and the old squat rack post and lean-away also work, but there’s a great drill that hits thoracic extension and lat extensibility at the same time.
Tony Gentilcore took the time to teach me the bench thoracic extension mobilization while visiting Cressey Performance. If you’ve never tried them, you’ll feel the lat stretch and extension in your t-spine immediately.
Here’s a video of Tony Gentilcore doing the bench thoracic extension mobilization.
Continually monitor your progress by repeating the two thoracic extension tests discussed earlier (scapular wall slide and shoulder flexion test) while you include more thoracic mobility drills into your program. As you start gaining sufficient t-spine mobility you can start working overhead pressing back into your program.
Are You Setup for Impingement and Scapular Instability?
Movement at the shoulder joints is a complex operation. You could liken it to a government bureaucracy – if one guy (joint) is pissed off it can screw up the entire works. The act of pushing a barbell overhead requires effort from all the shoulder joints.
Before you start shoulder pressing we need to assess a few things:
Excessive internal rotation at rest
Scapular anterior tilt
If you’ve done a considerable amount of benching throughout your training career, there’s a strong chance that at least one of these three issues is present to a certain degree. The key is to make sure that your shoulders don’t get beat down further because of them.
Internal Rotation at Rest
You need room in your glenohumeral (GH) joint to be able to vertically press and pull. Along with excessive internal rotation comes altered roll and slide mechanics within the GH joint. Impingement results from the bursa and rotator cuff tendon getting pinned beneath the acromion because the head of your humerus didn’t roll and slide properly.
If you’re excessively internally rotated at rest there isn’t going to be room for your humeral head to move within the GH joint when you try to press above your head.
An easy way to check your resting internal rotation is by using the time-proven pencil test. Hold a pencil in each hand so that most of the pencil is visible in front of your hand. Make sure that you’re relaxed and you aren’t trying to alter your normal posture in any way. Now, look down at the pencils and extend an invisible line out from each one.
In most cases, the invisible lines are going to cross at some point. But if they’d cross less than a foot to a foot and a half from your body, then you’re at a high risk for shoulder damage if you go overhead.
Scapular Anterior Tilt and Scapular Winging
Along with internal rotation, anterior tilt of the scapulae is common in lifters. It comes from tightness in the pec minor and weakness in the mid- and low-trap. It’s visible when the inferior angle of the scapula sticks out.
Anterior tilt doesn’t allow your scaps to rotate upward properly as you press overhead. Good upward rotation of the scaps while overhead pressing is necessary for healthy movement at the GH joint.
Winging of the scapulae is caused by weakness or inhibition in the serratus anterior (the muscle that holds your scaps tight to your rib cage). If the medial (closest to the spine) borders of the scapulae stick out or are prominent, you have scapular winging. This is bad when it comes to pressing overhead.
Normally, the traps, delts and serratus anterior work in a force couple to upwardly rotate the scapula as the humerus abducts and flexes at the GH joint. But if the serratus anterior, mid and low-traps are weak, upward rotation will suffer, messing with your range of motion and altering the way your shoulders move. (Neumann, 2002)
A Well-Rounded Strategy
Corrective exercise isn’t fun, but if you want to keep pushing and pulling heavy things (especially over your head), a certain amount is necessary. If you have the problems discussed above and want to keep overhead pressing, you need to take a break from it and do something preventive to keep the scalpel away.
The first step was addressing thoracic mobility. Now we have to get the serratus anterior firing, activate the mid and low-trap, and get the pec minor to relax. We also need to take care of the external rotators, as they dynamically stabilize the humeral head while the bigger muscles generate movement.
This is basic shoulder maintenance that everyone should be doing; it just so happens that problems become exacerbated with weight overhead.
Now I’ll hit you with some great drills to address the issue, followed by a sample routine that can help keep your shoulders in pressing balance. If you have specific questions shoot them on the LiveSpill.
GH Internal/External Rotation:
Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball
Active pec mobilization with stick
Lat stretch with jump stretch band
No money drill (with or without bands)
Serratus Anterior Activation
Forearm wall slide
5 count scap push-up
Feet elevated push-ups
Mid and Lower Trap Activation
Band pull aparts (front, behind the neck and diagonal)
No money drill with band
Scapular wall slides
Here’s a sample routine.
Exercise Sets Reps
A Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball 3 5*
B Active pec mobilization with stick 2 5**
C Forearm wall slide 2 10
D Floor blackburns 2 10***
E No money drill with band 2 10
* deep breaths each side
** each side
*** second hold each position
Is Your Brace Strong Enough?
One of the first things that any serious lifter should learn how to do is brace their core. I thought that I was doing a good enough job of it until Smitty (James Smith) of the Diesel Crew and Diesel Strength and Conditioning coached me up.
If your core isn’t as tight as it needs to be there’s going to be instability throughout your entire body. This can leave you with an undesirable over-extension in the lumbar spine, along with the extension issues in the t-spine. Keeping your core braced tight will not only keep you safer while lifting but will also help you push more weight.
I use four coaching cues when bracing for the overhead press: air, abs, ass, and lats.
Air: Take a breath of air into your belly and lock it there.
Abs: “Lock” your rib cage by contracting your abs.
Ass: Tighten your glutes!
Lats: Raise your elbows to create a lat shelf and then squeeze.
The abs and lats steps are super important. Locking the rib cage with the abs ensures that there won’t be excessive extension in the lumbar spine. Tightening the lats helps to create a corset affect by pulling tight the thoracolumbar fascia, which will further tighten the rest of the core musculature. Of course, once you press the lats will relax a bit, but tightening them at the start helps sustain tightness through the press.
Follow those four steps and you’ll have a tightly braced core for the overhead press.
Coaching Cues for Solid Press Performance
Cue #1: Create as much tension as possible.
The goal is to create as much tension throughout your body before you lift, as more tension equals more strength. Tension starts with the hands. While I agree with other coaches that it’s advantageous to take a false grip while overhead pressing, that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze the hell out of the bar with a full grip. You can create tension throughout the rest of your body simply by keeping everything tight and contracted.
Cue #2: Shoulder width grip.
Setting your grip wide on an overhead press isn’t necessary in most instances unless you’re training for the axel press at a strongman competition. It’s much better to keep your grip narrow (shoulder width) as it will help keep good shoulder alignment as you press.
Cue #3: Elbows up.
It’s also important to get the elbows up. As discussed earlier, this helps create a lat shelf for bracing. This places the shoulders and arms in a safer, stronger pressing position.
Cue #4: Push your head through.
Every press should finish with the weight directly over the head with the arms parallel to the ears. To finish in this position, the chin should be tucked and the shoulders fully flexed. “Pushing your head through” at the top of the movement can help accomplish tucking the chin and aligning the arms with the ears. It’s important to keep things simple, so one cue for two tasks makes things simpler.
Here’s a little pressing poetry in motion:
My business partner, Chris, shows us less than stellar form:
Progressing Back to the Barbell
I hope you take my advice and back off the overhead pressing with a barbell until your issues are resolved. After your hiatus, aim to get back under the bar and moving weight again with this sample progression.
Exercise Sets Reps Weight
Week 1 Split Stance DB Press 4 12 Light Resistance
Week 2 Standing 1 Arm DB Press 3 8-10 Medium Resistance
Week 3 Standing 2 Arm DB Press 3 8-10 Medium Resistance
Week 4 Standing Barbell Press 3 8 Light Resistance
Place this progression in your program where you’d normally barbell overhead press or as upper-body assistance work. Including other shoulder stability work such as different push-up variations during the overhead press progression is also a smart idea. Hopefully by the end your shoulders feel good and are moving well. If that’s the case, cut loose and start pressing some weight your grandma would be proud of!
Cressey, E, Hartman, B, & Robertson, M. (2009). Assess and correct (PDF E-Manual).
Neumann, D.A. (2002). Kinesiology of the musculoskeletal system: foundations for physical rehabilitation. St. Louis: Mosby.