There are functional positions of the shoulder you need to own for overhead lifting. If you work with a lot of overhead athletes, such as CrossFit athletes, you likely encounter a lot of shoulder issues. Even in more conventional training environments, shoulder movement, particularly for overhead lifting, requires more attention to detail.
Pardon the pun, but the shoulder complex is, well, complex. Precision of movement is important for optimal shoulder function, and this requires both mobility and stability. I often describe stability as voluntarily limiting mobility to create a bracing effect. Depending on the type of overhead work being done, each is required to a greater extent.
For example, the requirement for pressing a dumbbell overhead is quite different than what is required to hold the dumbbell overhead for a carry. During the 2019 Open, I saw many people unable to handle the overhead walking lunge which, in my opinion, was because of the position in which they chose to hold the dumbbell. Most people held their dumbbell in a neutral grip, which was equivalent to trying to hold an overhead shrug for time. What would probably have served them better in this situation is a position of stability that requires a subtle scapular retraction and depression and is easier to achieve if you turn the palm up. Of course, I haven’t run any scientific research on this specifically and we can open up the debate on which position is more optimal, but this is what I have seen in practice.
SCAPULA UPWARD ROTATION
It is the movement of the scapula that mediates glenohumeral movement. The most important movement of the scapulae required for overhead positions is upward rotation. Upward rotation is required to support shoulder flexion for all overhead positions.
Upward rotation of the scapula is supported by action of the upper trapezius, lower trapezius and serratus anterior. Its antagonist movement, downward rotation, is supported by action of the levator scapula, rhomboids and pectoralis minor. It should be noted that upward rotation is coupled with posterior tilt and downward rotation with anterior tilt. As such, for overhead position, particular attention should be paid to the quality not only of upward rotation, but also of posterior tilt.
Of course, overhead lifting is much more complex than just upward rotation of the scapula. It also requires active thoracic extension and reactive anterior core stabilization, as well as capsular and mysofascial extensibility. You can find several other articles on my blog that address the many factors involved in overhead lifting: Prerequisites for Overhead Lifting Part 1, Prerequisites for Overhead Lifting Part 2.
While the importance of the upper trapezius, lower trapezius and serratus anterior are well-recognized, interventions to target these muscles are not always appropriate or could be made more efficient.
A common mistake with the upper trapezius is that the emphasis has been mainly on its antagonist relationship with the lower trapezius, and therefore many people jump to the conclusion that we need to “turn it off”. Early activation of the trapezius and/or excessive shrugging is not optimal, but upper trapezius activity is necessary for upward rotation of the scapula. In fact, excessive elevation of the shoulder at the initiation of movement usually comes from the levator scapula, not the upper trapezius.
The full wall-facing wall slide is a great exercise to work on end range activity of the upper trapezius. Keeping the forearms against the wall for as long as possible helps to “coax” the scapula up and around the rib cage for a smooth upward rotation. The emphasis at the end range should be to reach with the fingers. I always cue this rather than something like “lift the arms as high as possible”. I feel that the idea of lifting the arms as high as possible often results in a shrugging motion, whereas reaching with the fingers brings the focus back to upward rotation.
The serratus anterior also functions to protract the scapula, and many exercises such as push-ups with a plus or planks are often used to focus on this. Again, some thought needs to be put into bringing awareness to how it works to maintain that upward rotation and posterior tilt of the scapula, and how that feels.
I like to use another variation of the wall slide for this purpose. Facing the wall, have the client slide the forearms up the wall but only so high as they can keep them in contact with the wall. That end range, where it becomes difficult to keep the forearms against the wall is where clients will feel the position of upward rotation and posterior tilt. It is also how I want them to feel the subtle retraction and depression of the scapula for a stable position. This is quite different from the “down and back” cue that is often used to cue a stable position of the scapula.
Watch the main video to see how both variations of the wall slide are done.
The main issue I see with lower trapezius activation exercises is that many people are not doing them right. In fact, this is the issue I see with most activation exercises, which is why I teach a focus on activation as a means of creating awareness. Specifically, the idea is to bring awareness to the positioning of the scapula. As mentioned previously, upward rotation is coupled with posterior tilt. Once we bring the upper extremity in a position aligned with the fibers of the lower trapezius, the focus should be on maintaining the position of the scap while intending to raise the arm such as in the classic “Y raise”. This subtle adjustment can make a huge difference.
I like the Reach-Roll-Lift exercise to teach this. First, REACH all the way up to get a nice scapular upward rotation, second, ROLL focusing on getting the scap into posterior tilt and then intend to LIFT the arm while maintaining this position.
How much the arm actually lifts is not important, as a matter of fact, it is sometimes preferable to only intend to raise the arm. Notice in the video below on the left because he is focused on lifting the arm, he loses is positioning. On the right, he has the intention to lift his arm, but his focus is on maintaining scapular positioning.
INTEGRATING THE FUNCTIONAL POSITIONS
For overhead lifting, we can break down the requirements of the shoulder into 2 functional positions: one that requires full mobility in upward rotation, and one that requires a subtle retraction and depression. Remember how I said that I often describe stability as voluntarily limiting mobility to create a brace? This is what that subtle retraction and depression is.
When the arms are overhead and in line with the shoulders (or biceps close to the ears) such as in a strict press or push press, that full mobility in upward rotation is essential. In an overhead squat or snatch, or when we need to carry and object overhead, the subtle retraction and depression is required. This subtle retraction and depression is essentially a function of taking that full mobility position and voluntarily limiting it just slightly to create a stable “shelf”. At least, that is how I put it. This is very different from squeezing the shoulder blades or together or trying to bring them straight down. In fact, I describe it more like squeezing the shoulder blade into posterior tilt, much like the forearm wall slide exercise for the serratus.
The exercises described above, the two variations of the forearm wall slide and the reach, roll and lift, are exercises that can be used for activation purposes. The objective in an activation exercise in this context is to create awareness. Once we have brought awareness to these positions, it is important to integrate them into movements that are specific to our overhead lifts.
When looking to improve full upward rotation, I like to use overhead scap presses. These are commonly referred to as overhead shrugs. As previously mentioned, I feel the concept of shrugging leads to elevation of the shoulder girdle. I prefer the idea of reaching or pressing to maintain the focus on scapular movement. The idea is to press the weight as high overhead as possible.
If the goal is to improve the position of subtle retraction and depression, one very efficient exercise is the bottoms-up kettlebell press (or even just a hold). The position of the kettlebell essentially forces the client to initiate that posterior tilt “squeeze” to create that stable position of the scapula.
I’M OPENING UP THE DEBATE
So, can we carry in the full overhead position?
Well, Mat Fraser won 19.3 (of course) and he held his dumbbell in neutral grip with the wrist in neutral. If you watch the video below, you can clearly see him holding the dumbbell with a neutral grip in more of an overhead shrug position. Then again, it’s Mat Fraser…and it’s 50 lbs.
Kari Pearce also won 19.3, and if you watch her video (you can start at 2:30) you can see the difference in their positioning. Pearce holds the dumbbell with the palm up slightly and slight external rotation.
There is always more than one way to get from point A to point B. In practice, I have found that most people can handle quite a lot more load, or a load over time, a lot better with a position of subtle retraction and depression, granted of course that they have an awareness and capacity to get into that position. And let’s face it, most people are not Mat Fraser 😉