Improve Overhead Position

Improve Overhead Position

Before reading the following article, please understand that there are countless philosophies out there on weight training, and I am by no means claiming to have the answers that are the end-all, be-all.  This and future articles, are my opinions based on more than 10 years of personal experience, teaching, personal training, and clinical treatment experience as a Doctor of Physical Therapy.  I hope you find this as a useful resource to up your game here at CrossFit Hershey, and I welcome any feedback or questions you may have:  Thank you and enjoy!  – Beau Troutman DPT.

Some healthcare providers advise against overhead weight training due to the risk of shoulder injuries.  I could support this mindset if we were all 7-foot tall and lived in a “normal-sized” world where reaching overhead wasn’t a fundamental need for everyday life.  Clearly, this is not the case and reaching, lifting, pulling and pushing overhead are all very common functions that most of us do countless times a day without even thinking about it.  This is why I, unlike many physical therapists, support CrossFit because most of the workouts are functional in nature and require multiple muscle groups working together in multiple sequences and in various planes of motion.  That’s movement in the real world here people.

Ok, so most of you reading this have already bought into the fact that overhead work is important.  Now, how do we maximize our performance while also minimizing risk for injury or the development of maladaptive compensation patterns?  Throughout a series of articles, I’d like to break down the major components of the overhead position and provide suggestions for exercises or modifications that may help you hit your goals and gain the results you are looking for.

The first area to discuss, and probably most obvious, is the true shoulder joint or Glenohumeral joint.  If you ever had an introductory anatomy course in high school, you may recall this joint being described as a ball and socket, similar to the hip.  You would think then, that this is a pretty stable joint with structural support given by the boney geometry of the adjoining surfaces.  Although, yes, it is considered a ball and socket, the shoulder joint itself is quite unstable and sacrifices stability for mobility.  From now on you should think about the shoulder like a golf ball sitting on a golf tee.  When at rest, that golf ball sits right in the middle of the tee but once motion in any direction is introduced, the golf ball will start to roll toward the edges if not secured or stabilized in some way by a support system.  This support system is primarily made up of your rotator cuff, a tiny 4 muscle grouping that is most often ignored in training until an injury has occurred.  The rotator cuff must be strengthened in order to balance the forces of the much larger and more powerful deltoids and upper traps which can pull the humeral head (ball) superiorly and cause that painful pinching or impingement that some of you may have experienced.  In the next issue I will discuss specific exercises to fire up your rotator cuff in order to keep your golf ball on the center of the tee.

Another area of importance is the shoulder blade or scapular region of the shoulder complex.  This often overlooked piece of the puzzle rests on the back of our thoracic cage and has to move a lot more than most people give it credit for.  When we reach overhead to a complete vertical position (180 degrees), only about 120 degrees comes from the true shoulder joint discussed above.  This means that 1/3 of that motion has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere is the scapula which has the capacity to upwardly rotate about 60 degrees.  In order to fulfill this 60 degree requirement, the scapula depends on many different muscles attached at different positions and angles all around its circumference.  These scapular stabilizers include the upper, middle, and lower trap, rhomboids, lats, teres major/minor, serratus anterior and many others.  When imbalances exist in the contraction frequency and/or force of these muscles, shoulder dysfunction occurs and you find yourself limited in your overhead lifting capacity.  We could talk for days on scapular stabilizer exercises but in a future issue I will describe my go-to activation exercises to help set you up for success.

The last area that I will discuss in detail, is the spine.  Mobility of the thoracic spine, located between the bottom of your neck and the bottom of your rib cage, is extremely important for achieving stable and powerful overhead position.  Stiffness in the thoracic spine is a fixable problem that plagues many lifters and often disguises itself as “stiff shoulders”.  In order for the scapula to rotate as mentioned above, the thoracic spine needs to have ample extension.  I recommend that all CrossFit participants take part in daily thoracic mobility/flexibility exercises to maintain the necessary motion.  As much as mobility is important for the spine, stability is as well.  In the lumbar spine, you must have enough DEEP core strength to support all of the moving pieces higher up the chain which we just discussed.  You can have all the rotator cuff stability, scapular stability/mobility, and thoracic mobility in the world, but if you have poor lumbopelvic stability, the whole foundation will come crashing down.  In my opinion, stability in this area is the most important aspect of strength training and your overall level of physical fitness.  Stay tuned to the CrossFit Hershey web blog to learn some great ways to maximize mobility in the thoracic spine and stability in the lumbopelvic region.


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CrossFit Hershey



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