Home Baseball Content Why You Struggle to Train Overhead – and What to Do About It

Why You Struggle to Train Overhead – and What to Do About It

Written on November 13, 2013 at 6:33 am, by Eric Cressey

A while back, I posted the following on my Facebook page:

"Fill in the Blank: ________ is the exercise that gives me the most trouble in the gym."

I've received 132 replies.  Of that 132, 21 were people trying to be funny on the internet, so they're thrown out the window - which leaves us with 111 replies.  Not surprisingly, more respondents highlighted trouble with an overhead movement - snatch, military press, overhead squat, etc. - than any other category of strength exercise.  In fact, it was one-third of people (37/111).  In a distant second place was squat variations, which comprised 19% of responses (21/111).

Digging a bit deeper, the most common "subcategory" of this overhead movements trend was the snatch, with 12 people saying that it was the exercise that gave them the most trouble. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the most high velocity movement in this category would be the most commonly cited, but what should surprise you is the sheer volume of people who are woefully unprepared to train overhead who try to fit a round peg in a square hole in this regard. 

If you can't get your arms overhead correctly at rest, do you really think you'll be able to do it when you're in panic mode just trying to catch a barbell you've launched over your head?  Heck no!  You're going to hyperextend your lower back and slip into forward head posture. And, chances are that you'll have already set up with an ultra wide grip to ensure that you can catch the bar with as little shoulder mobility as possible.

Before we proceed, let's cover this classic presentation in more detail. Here's a video I originally filmed for Wil Fleming.

(Side note: if you're trying to learn to Olympic lift, definitely check out Wil's fantastic DVD on the topic: Complete Olympic Lifting.)

The people who struggle learn the snatch - or really perform any overhead lift - are generally adults.  Why?  Because they've lost a fundamental movement pattern - overhead reaching - that everyone should have!  Barring some developmental disorder, everyone has the ability to get the arms overhead when they are kids, whether it's to reach for the cookie jar or to climb on the jungle gym at the playground.

Think about it: the overwhelming majority of teenagers can learn to Olympic lift in a matter of a few weeks or months.  And, it's been discussed time and time again how Eastern European kids would practice Olympic lifting patterns with broomsticks to maintain these crucial movement patterns to prepare for the day when they'd load them up.  They understood this very important lesson:

It's much easier to maintain mobility than it is to lose it and try to get it back. Click To Tweet

This isn't just because tissues can become fundamentally short and degenerative.  And, it's not just because resting posture becomes more aberrant or individuals accumulate more wear and tear.  It has a lot to do with the plasticity of the human brain.  Just like it's a lot easier to train a puppy than it is to teach an old dog new tricks, it's much easier to shape the neuromuscular patterning of a developing child or teenager than it is to change the more concrete patterns of an adult with poor movement quality - especially when that adult insists on trying to learn the pattern with 65 pounds or more on the barbell (rather than just a broomstick) - and after years of sitting at a computer.

Really, we're just reaping what we've sowed over the past 15-20 years.  The new generation of adults spent more time on Instant Messenger than on the basketball court. Fewer kids than ever did manual labor in their teenage years.  It became cooler to get an iPhone than a bike for your birthday. And, society pared back on physical education classes and recess time.  While this was happening, kids got more specialized on the sports front, meaning they were exposed to even less variety in movements when they actually did get exercise. Our health has obviously suffered, but so has our movement quality.

Before I get off on too much of a tangent, though, let's circle back to the back-to-wall shoulder flexion test from the video I posted earlier. If you failed it miserably, don’t worry! The "good" thing about struggling to get overhead correctly is that you know that there are a number of different things that could be limiting your ability to get there:

  • Limited shoulder flexion (short/stiff lats, long head of triceps, teres major, inferior capsule)
  • Limited shoulder external rotation (short/stiff pecs, lats, subscapularis)
  • Lack of scapular upward rotation (weakness of lower traps, upper traps, and/or serratus anterior; and dominance of levator scapula, rhomboids, and pec minor)
  • Poor thoracic spine extension
  • Lack of anterior core stiffness

With all these potential problems, chances are that improving each just a little bit will yield big results, especially since they interact with each other on a number of fronts.  For instance, if you reduce stiffness in your lats, your anterior core won't have to work quite as hard to overpower that stiffness, so its relative stiffness improves.

Below, you’ll find six videos of exercises you’ll want to incorporate in your warm-ups daily to gradually build up your range-of-motion and overhead stability. Be sure to perform them in this order:

1. Supine Alternating Shoulder Flexion on Doubled Tennis Ball: 8 reps/side

(Note: perform the rest of your foam rolling series, too - and make sure to spend some extra time on the lats and pecs.)

2. Bench T-Spine Mobilizations: 8 reps

3. Side-Lying Windmills: 8 reps/side

4. Dead Bugs: 8 reps/side

5. Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion (it's a test and a training exercise): 8 reps

6. Wall Slides with Upward Rotation and Lift-off: 8 reps

Do these drills each day during your warm-ups and - if schedule allows - another time during the day.  You'll find that it'll be much easier to get overhead in a matter of days and weeks. In the meantime, gradually build toward your ultimate goal with some regressions in your strength training program.  You can use a landmine press instead of a true overhead press, and cleans or high pulls in place of snatches. Eventually, once your body is ready to tackle these more complex movements, you'll find that learning them will be much easier.

Looking for more great self-assessment and mobility tips like these – as part of a comprehensive strength and conditioning program? Check out my resource, The High Performance Handbook, which features versatile strength and conditioning programs you can modify to suit your needs.

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  • DT

    Great Post. Really enjoy these kinds of advice.

  • Chris

    Great article as usual. My shoulder flexion is quite limited against the wall and in supine. It feels like my rear shoulder is getting jammed up. Know of any breakouts to get more specific to identify limitations I.e. Inferior capsule, tricep etc? Thanks. Keep up the excellent work

  • Erik

    Hi Eric, great article.

    How about all the people with limited shoulder flexion, and a overactive upper trapezius? Should they also do a shrug to get longer in flexion?

    As a PT, I teach many of my clients to avoid to activate the upper trap as it tends to be very dominant in external rotation of the scapula.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Hi Erik,

    Definitely a slightly different scenario.  Upper traps are an important part of scapular upward rotation, but you’ll want to cue more scapular posterior tilt for these folks as they approach that top position. We’ll work in a lift off, too.  I’d just call them wall slides with upward rotation to get rid of any confusion.

  • Couldn’t subscapularis tightness play a role in limited shoulder flexion as well? A chiropractor I work with has mentioned that to me a bunch before, and usually after a treatment of that area, I have better ROM.

  • Sean

    Excellent video at the top and great progression for getting overhead. Thanks for sharing.

  • RR

    Eric – Just want to say thanks for a timely post! I only recently realized how little flexibility I have with overhead movements. The issue extends to back squats as well – it is difficult to reach back and grip the bar. It’s tough to self-assess, but most of the “stretch” or pain is felt deep inside my armpit, around my shoulders & chest, and my upper traps. I guess I need a lot of work… I’m hopeful some of these movements will help.

    What are your thoughts on shoulder dislocations? Useful for the same purpose? Add to the warmup or avoid?

    Any tips for improving flexibility while sitting at a desk all day?

    Thanks again for the great post!
    RR

  • Rich

    Hey Erik, Another tremendous post. Having owned my own studio and trained kids to octogenarians I have to say I wish I knew more about your work 10 years ago. Having a physio as a wife helped but the depth and breadth of your knowledge as applied to all facets of sport conditioning is unsurpassed in the industry.
    I spent many hours trying to get my young athletes to work with broom handles whilst teaching Olympic lifting. They of course complained that without weight they would never be able to perform the lift correctly. Continual struggle to get them to accept this.
    Regardless, your identification and explanation of the causes of overhead movement limitations was eye opening. I feel much more prepared to address these issues with clients. Outstanding work!

  • simon

    Hi Eric: You talk about these as thoracic mobility drills. But aren’t they also serving to open up the pec/front of shoulder region and combat the “upper cross” problem?

  • What about those of us who have too much mobility and not enough stability in overhead movements?

  • Avi

    Thank you for the post Eric!

    I have been doing high pulls and muscle snatch for the time being. I find muscle snatch to be a good regression for where I’m at right now- I can stand with a barbell overhead with an ultrawide grip, I just can’t do much more than that.

  • Joy

    As always, great summary of your key videos…
    Question: Is there any benefit to do these about 15 minutes before the actual workout? I know usually the warm-up is best immediately prior, but I wondered especially since doing so many, if the warm-up would “hold” at all? And if not, what in your opinion is the longest amount of time between a warm-up and actual training? Or again, is it just “immediately prior”? Wondered this for a long time….and your opinion and expertise matter to me. THANKS!!

  • Christian

    Great post! I have limited shoulder flexion and will be doing these every day.
    When I tried them tonight, the wall slide however felt very uncomfortable in both shoulders. It felt like impingement. I tried focusing on pulling my scapula back as I have a forward shoulder position, but still pain. None of the others felt like that.

    Anyway, thanks for some good exercises!

  • Cassandra,

    If that’s the case, work on creating stability within the ROM you already have – and don’t force end range of motion.

  • Simon,

    You’ll definitely get some of that as well.

  • Ryne,

    Definitely.

  • Christian,

    Try regressing it to a wall slide at 135 degrees:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4h4DuUxaQs

    Be successful with that first, and then build on it. 

  • Thanks, Rich!  I wish I knew more about my work 10 years ago, too! 🙂

  • Joy,

    You won’t “instantly” lose the benefit.  Just get it in when you can.

  • Chris,

    I’d seek out a good physical therapist to get more specific feedback.

  • Eric,

    Great post! I love all of the shoulder movement preps and movement recovery. I also liked the post about proper row form a little bit ago. I have had some stability/movement patterns pillaging my right shoulder since a fall in afghanistan about 3 years ago. Any specific exercise as a kind of reset button to bring my movement pattern back to its original state? It seems to be the insertion of the upper trap onto the scapula. There is a distinct sharp pain from the clavicle and scapula.
    I am a personal trainer and have tried everything from here to there for recovery. Any thoughts?

  • Matt

    Are these video clips on the Optimizing Shoulder DVD (or some other DVD)?

  • Matt,

    These are all actually from The High Performance Handbook.

  • Jake,

    It’s really tough to say without seeing you and evaluating you.  I’d tell you to snap some pictures of your resting posture and think about how it deviates from the norm.  Then, work on resetting that to “neutral” and go from there.  Where are you located? I might know someone near you.

  • Eric,

    Down here in Pensacola Florida, I have a great mentor named Lorenzo. We have the Assess and Correct Manual and use it like a bible. I just need to block out the hours and go through all of the shoulder stability screening. As you know training leaves scarce free time, so my question was trying to find the best “quick fix”. Something I always warn against. But I will plow through that manual again and let you know my results.

  • Brian

    Eric,

    Many thanks for this piece, I’ve been battling a shoulder issue for about 9 months, PT can’t really define the problem. pain radiates over my delt into upper trap. I must say after doing the series of movements I felt immediate relief, the only one that caused pain, on a 1-10 a 7, was the windmill, should I leave it out for the moment?

  • Eric

    Big part of what the “fitness” community is missing is this. Real, practical, erudite information on how the body is designed to function.

    I appreciate this and these types of articles a whole lot.

  • eric

    Eric: I might have a asending aortic aneryesum which at this time is small. Doctor suggested no bench presses. Any advice to work the chest. Thank you.

  • Brian,

    Yes, I’d leave it out.  Try using a quadruped extension-rotation instead.  It’s less aggressive.

  • Eric,

    I’d defer to him 100%.  Not something you want to mess around with.

  • Thanks, Eric!

  • RR,

    I am not a fan of dislocations for the majority of people.  I used to like them, but learned better ways to get the job done with less risk.

    RE: improving mobility while sitting all day, get up and move around more frequently!

  • Micah

    Eric,
    I’ve played baseball for 20 years and still play competitive amateur ball. I struggle to lift overhead and have extension posture, but have never had any shoulder issues or pain when throwing. In fact, my arm has never been stronger or felt better than it has the last two years. How will these exercises affect my throwing arm and motion? I don’t want to try to fix what isn’t broken, but also want to be able to lift overhead correctly!

    Thanks!

  • Tarmo

    That shrugging up really works. Also when i do static stretching i try to shrug my shoulder as up as possible, then i can really feal my latissimus dorsi stretching.
    And i must say WOW! I have been batteling for years with this problem. And with these exercises i saw improvement within the first day.
    One of my favorite exercise is front press, which i shouldnt be doing at all. And im also volleyball player…

  • Micah,

    It’ll help you get more scapular upward rotation and thoracic mobility, which will definitely take stress off your arm. Definitely worth a shot!

  • Damian

    Eric,

    This has been one the most applicable posts for me; thank you. Would you be able to put together something similar for squat/dead prep/hip mobility? Keep up the great work.

  • Hello Eric,

    Mobile exercise #2 is what I have been looking for, something including triceps.
    Good stuff!
    Thank you,
    Gary Martinez

  • Ryan

    Thank you so much for this article. I stumbled on it about a month ago and it has done wonders for my back. I have had back problems for so many years and every PT and doctor focus just on my back. After I did an assessment of my shoulder mobility, I realized, I have none at all. So, what has been happening is that I’ve been over-extending my back to compensate for my poor shoulder mobility, therefore, lower back pain. For about a month I have been working very hard on my shoulder mobility and not doing any overhead lifts. It has does wonders to my lower back, especially while I sleep. I’ve started to throw in some overhead lifts lately, and my back has felt great. Thank you so much for this article, it’s what I have needed for years.

  • Samo27

    Hi Eric

    i understand the importance of these exercise if you struggle to get overhead and fail the hand to wall flexion (as i do) But what about strenght training in the same time. It make sense to avoid exercise that cause downward rotation when you have a downward rotated scapulae, and tight lats. And i also get the importance of avoiding direct lat work.
    What i try to say… is it ok to train besides these exercises, or should you rule out stenght training until i pass the “test”.

    I do the landmine presses, and love them!! but i can not figure out what to consider for chest and back training without making the things worse. I need scapulae upward rotation, and do the wall slides. But every time i hit the gym, doing face pulls or one arm cable rows (with correct technique) i feel it makes the hand to wall flexion worse. And after some face pulls which i feel causes downward rotation and depression, i feel the rhomboids taking over when doing overhead wall slides.

  • Eric Cressey

    John – My guess is that you’re a guy with a more kyphotic thoracic spine, and given your age, it may be locked that way. Really tough to say without seeing a photo or assessing you in person. Do you have a good physical therapist near you who can check you out?


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