The overhead press is an excellent tool for training stability under load and is one of the most useful exercises in the gym. As with any exercise, performing the overhead press correctly is of utmost importance. Any exercise done incorrectly has the potential to result in injury. Many previously sedentary individuals have been introduced to overhead lifting very abruptly via group classes but jumping into overhead work without first mastering the basics is a recipe for disaster. I have seen it firsthand in my practice!
In my opinion,
the overhead press should be part of every lifters training regimen
That said, precision of movement is important for optimal shoulder function and as such, for optimal overhead lifting. This means that there are many requirements, and I would even say prerequisites, to getting into a stable overhead position with a weight. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike the squatting or hinging, an overhead press is something we actually rarely do in activities of daily living.
Here is a how-to guide reviewing the various functional and technical requirements to master the basics for the overhead press, namely the various requirements for scapular and thoracic mobility, stability and dissociation.
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There are several functional requirements for the overhead press. As well, there are prerequisites that involve the capacity to get into a full range overhead position. All of these need to be addressed if we hope to avoid putting the shoulder in an anatomically or mechanically dangerous position.
Scapula upward rotation and posterior tilt
Upward rotation of the scapula is required to support shoulder flexion for all overhead positions. In order to get into an optimal overhead position, the scapula needs to upward rotate to 60 degrees. This action is supported by the 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.
Scapula upward rotation is coupled with posterior tilt, so for the overhead press position, particular attention should be paid to the quality not only of upward rotation, but also of posterior tilt. Limitations in upward rotation and posterior tilt can be due to soft-tissue limitations of the pec minor, levator scapula, rhomboids or lats or muscle performance issues of the upper and lower trapezius and serratus anterior.
The cascade of functional movement required to achieve a stable overhead position also involves thoracic extension. Full bilateral flexion of the shoulder requires extension of the thoracic spine to T6 and unilateral flexion also require thoracic rotation to the same side. This mobility of the thoracic spine is also important in allowing the scapula to get into its posteriorly tilted position.
Both scapular mobility and thoracic mobility should be assessed as prerequisites for overhead positioning. Head to the blog to read A Must for Shoulder Assessment to learn more about assessing these elements.
I often describe stability as voluntarily limiting mobility. For overhead lifting, we can break down the requirements for scapulothoracic stability into two different functional positions: one that requires full mobility in upward rotation, and one that requires a subtle retraction and depression to voluntarily limit that mobility.
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. When we need to hold or carry an object overhead, a subtle retraction and depression is required to create a stable “shelf” to support the weight overhead.
This requires bringing awareness to the previously discussed upward rotation and posterior tilt of the scapula. Not only do we need to do this by targeting the upper and lower traps and serratus anterior, but by helping to coax the scapula up and around the rib cage and locking in that position. There are several examples of exercises you can use to bring awareness to this in my article Functional Positions of the Shoulder you Need to Own.
I also love to use bottoms-up holds and carries as a means of reinforcing that position and stability:
You will always hear me say that Foot Stability is the Foundation for All of Your Lifts. The overhead press, although we consider it to be an upper body exercise, involves the entire kinetic chain all the way from the feet to arms’ length overhead. An effective overhead press starts with transferring force from the ground up through the hips and core and to then to the shoulders and arms. Optimal foot stability is key for the overhead press, as with all of your other lifts.
Dissociation is a term used to express that capacity of a joint to express independent motion. Because the overhead press requires active thoracic spine extension, it is necessary for that extension moment to be counter-balanced by a reactive stabilization of the anterior core. Barring any mobility issues previously discussed, excessive flaring of the ribs when performing the overhead press can be addressed by improving shoulder-core dissociation.
Anti-extension exercises are a classic category of “core” exercises, but we can manipulate them to fit shoulder-core dissociation needs. Specific to the overhead press, the critical point will be the capacity to maintain reactive anterior core stability when the arms are in line with the head.
The 90-90 banded overhead reach is a great exercise to bring awareness to this. The band forces the individual to actively “pull” the shoulder into flexion while focusing on keeping the rib cage slightly tucked:
The overhead press is actually a very technically demanding lift. Combined with the precision of movement required for optimal shoulder function, it can take quite a bit of time to become proficient at lifting weight overhead. This is why it always makes me cringe to see people without any previous lifting experience pushing barbells over their heads.
The appropriate grip width for the barbell overhead press may be a little different based on individual proportions but should be one that places the forearms in a vertical position. Typically, this is a relatively narrow grip with the thumbs lined up just outside of the shoulders. When you unrack the bar, your elbows should move slightly in front of the bar and the bar should rest on the anterior deltoids at the bottom position. The elbows should not be held too high, like in a front rack position, as this position will bring the scapula up and around the rib cage, and this is not a stable position from which to press. Instead, imagine you are holding something in the armpit. Keep the armpit “tight” by keeping the triceps in contact with the lats. The wrists should not be hyperextended. Typically, 10-15 degrees of wrist extension is ideal, which places the barbell in the heel of your palm.
Breathing and upper back tightness
Once the bar is at the shoulders, it is important to support the load with letting chest cave in. This is why thoracic mobility is such an important requirement for the overhead press. A big breath in helps achieve this, as inhalation generates thoracic extension and elevates the rib cage. Holding that breath will provide support for the spine much like with any other lift, as well as for the rib cage.
MASTERING THE BASICS
The shoulder complex requires precision of movement for optimal function, and the overhead press is a very technical lift. Mastering the basics of the overhead press is important to develop stable and robust shoulders, and this begins with fundamental functional requirements and prerequisites for an optimal overhead position.
Understanding how to overhead press correctly should be a goal for every lifter. Unlike the horizontal press (or bench press), the overhead press works the posterior shoulder musculature, including the all-important rotator cuff. It is also an excellent tool for training stability under load and as such, is invaluable for optimal shoulder function and strength, as well as for long term shoulder health.
The overhead press is yet another exercise that no one can afford to be missing in their repertoire!