The barbell overhead press is one of the most polarizing lifts in the world of strength training. When executed properly, the press can have a massive benefit in the development of strength, muscle mass and shoulder health.
But for many lifters, the barbell overhead press proves to be a huge challenge to train hard and heavy while keeping the shoulders and lower back healthy in the process. Since no one specific exercise is mandatory to produce results in training, you must objectively answer this question…
Should your really be overhead pressing with the barbell?
Before you continue to aimlessly force feed the barbell overhead press through ugly pain-provoking movement patterns, take these two quick tests that you must be able pass to overhead press without beating up your joints and predisposing yourself to injuries.
Pass these tests and load this staple barbell movement up with confidence. If you fail these tests, don’t worry, we have you covered. Use the corrective strategies and modified overhead lifts below to work towards once again earn your right to press the barbell overhead safely.
Functionally Assessing The Shoulder Complex For Overhead Pressing
When screening and assessing the overhead position, we must objectively look at two different aspects of human movement and function:
In the following two tests, we will look at both the assessment of functional mobility of the upper quadrant (shoulder, scapular and thoracic spine moving together as a functional unit), and the levels of activation and stability through the posterior shoulder girdle that are required to yield quality ranges of motion into the overhead position.
The scapulo-humeral rhythm screen is a powerful tool to identify functional deficits when moving into an overhead position bilaterally. In this screen, we are not only assessing the type of overhead range of motion our athletes can move through, but more so the quality and movement sequencing that these athletes use to achieve this overhead position.
Here’s how to test the Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm Screen:
Position feet shoulder width apart with the glutes and core engaged.
Position the hands in a neutral (thumbs up) position with arms extended fully down at the sides.
Slowly elevate the arms up in front of the shoulders into an overhead position.
Control the arms back down slowly to the sides.
During the Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm Screen we are assessing:
Terminal end range of motion overhead (170 degrees being normal-ish)
Symmetry between right and left humeral elevation (slight variance normal)
Scapular movement (starts rotating upward around 120 degrees of humeral elevation)
Spinal positioning (compensation into lumbar extension, pelvic tilting etc)
A normal finding would have the athlete able to elevate both their arms up into an overhead position that is nearly perpendicular to the floor with smooth rotation of the shoulder blade initiating at around parallel to the ground. Also, make note that this movement at the humerus and scapula must be authentic, and not enhanced by compensation at the lower back or pelvis.
After screening the overhead position in the saggital plane, we can also assess from the scapular plane (refer to video) and the frontal plane as well. But if the athlete passes this screen with no major red flags identified with the overhead movement pattern, move directly into the banded dowel lat activation test to further derive data in the stability component of the overhead press.
The Banded Dowel Lat Activation Test
Though the overhead press’s concentric component is dominated by the chest and shoulder acting as dynamic movers, the posterior chain muscles need to be able to stabilize the shoulder in order to create a strong foundation to press from. And since it’s the single broadest muscle in the body that attaches throughout the thoracic cage and up into the humerus, the lats are a key marker of stability to test for the functionality of this lift.
The Banded Dowel Lat Activation Test allows us to not only assess the ability of our athlete to create a strong, stable and centrated position at the shoulder, but also provides an opportunity to coach up what proper positioning should look and feel like.
Here’s how to setup for the Banded Dowel Lat Activation Test:
Place a dowel through the band and position your feet to achieve a stretch through the band.
Position your arms in front of the shoulders (parallel to floor) using your overhead press grip.
Co-contract the pecs and lats simultaneously and engage the glutes and core.
Complete a straight arm pulldown against the banded resistance engaging the lats maximally.
Maintain tension in the lats and slowly complete a reverse curl with the dowel.
Note the position of the dowel relative to your shoulders (front rack position) without compensation.
In this test we need to ensure that:
Core/pelvis remains engaged throughout the test to ensure no compensation.
Lats are maximally engaged throughout test to yield reliable positional results.
Tension is maintained throughout the band at all times.
Proper execution of this test that would clear an athlete to safely overhead press would show that the end range of motion after the reverse curl against the band would place the dowel in a stable front racked position with the forearms below the shoulders at a perpendicular angle to the ground.
Since the most vulnerable range of motion in the overhead press is the starting position out of the front rack, this test is focused on tension, stability and activation of the upper back and lats in this position. Feel free to press the dowel overhead to assess this position as well, but after passing the test, it would give you reliability in moving to the barbell and starting to coach and train this specific exercise with confidence.
Pain-Free Modifications For The Overhead Pressing Pattern
If the Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm Screen or the Banded Dowel Lat Activation test identified pain, dysfunction or asymmetries with movement, that finding would infer the need to NOT barbell overhead press under load, but rather regress this compound movement pattern down to a more pain-free variation.
Here are a few very effective pain-free overhead pressing variations:
Though problems with the overhead press can be highly individualized to the athlete in front of you, these three techniques have the ability to fix many common problems for athletes and clients. For more of a deep dive into the thoracic spine mobility and stability deficits that just may be the single most common linchpin of dysfunction in athletes who struggle with the overhead press, check out the two articles below:
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Along with his impressive coaching accolades, Dr. John and his innovative methods have been regularly featured in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Shape Magazine, Testosterone Nation, and Bodybuilding.com to name a few.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Programthat combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.