If the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift are the "Big 3" of powerlifting, the Barbell Overhead Press rounds out the "Big 4" because of its ability to build upper-body size and strength. It's perhaps the truest test of upper-body strength, because unlike the Bench Press, you don't get to use your legs or wedge your back into a big arch. It's just your raw strength versus the barbell.
Unfortunately, many people avoid the Barbell Overhead Press for fear of injuring their shoulders. It's true that it takes a fair amount of shoulder mobility and stability to overhead press safely, but let's be clear: The Overhead Press is not a one-way ticket to a shoulder injury, especially if you follow the proper progressions to make sure you're ready to do it. Let's take a look at how you can go about that.
Step 1: Assess Your Shoulder Mobility
The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the entire body. The humerus (your upper arm bone) sits in the glenoid fossa (your shoulder socket) and is responsible for six different movements, but shoulder flexion (moving the arms overhead) is the priority when we overhead press. The goal is to get the arms overhead and directly over the shoulders without compensating with unnecessary movements at the neck or lower back. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
The Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion test can tell you in a matter of seconds if you have enough mobility. If you can touch your thumbs to the wall without letting your head, back or butt leave the wall, you've got the mobility to overhead press.
If you can't pass this test yet, don't panic. Shoulder flexion is typically limited by tightness in the lats and upper back, along with a lack of core stiffness. Lengthen your lats and strengthen your abs by regularly performing these drills. Put in the work and you should be able to pass the Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion test in no time:
- Foam Roll the Lats x 30 seconds/side
- 1-arm Lat Stretch w/ Band x 5 breaths/side
- Bench T-Spine Mobilization x 8-10 reps
- Dead Bugs x 8-10 reps/side
Step 2: Assess Your Shoulder Stability
It's not enough to simply have enough shoulder mobility. Once you're overhead, your shoulders need enough stability to stand up to heavy pressing. It takes a combination of quality shoulder blade movement and rotator cuff strength to keep the shoulders healthy and happy.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, where the humerus is the ball and the scapula (shoulder blade) is the socket. Think of the ball and socket as partners on Dancing with the Stars. If they don't dance together and follow each other step by step, they won't get voted off the show, but they may get cranky over time and limit how much weight you can lift.
If the ball moves too far out of the socket (i.e., the humerus moves but the scapula doesn't), you lose stability and strength. But if the scapula moves along with the humerus, the ball stays close to the socket, reducing the chance of pain or injury. Your serratus anterior muscle helps glide the shoulder blades as you reach, while your four rotator cuff muscles work together to keep the ball snuggly in the socket. You can strength the serratus anterior with movements like Forearm Wall Slides:
And get the rotator cuff ready for action with Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carries:
Both these exercises get the shoulder into positions that are specific to overhead pressing, making them superior to traditional shoulder care exercises (e.g., external rotations and I's, Y's and T's) when it comes to getting ready to overhead press. There's no one handy test for assessing shoulder stability like there is mobility, but it can be evaluated via strength (how much weight can one use and how well can they execute a move like the Bottoms-Up KB Carry) and via positioning under load (can a person keep the "ball" in the "socket" while doing Push-Ups, Rows, etc.).
Step 3: Pick the Right Progressions
As Yoda said, "Patience you must have, my young Padawan." While that little green dude didn't know much about overhead pressing, the point stands: you don't have to jump into the Barbell Overhead Press right away. In fact, taking the time to run through these progressions will build the strength and technique necessary to tackle the traditional overhead press down the line.
Landmine Presses are the gateway to overhead pressing because they sit somewhere between a horizontal press (i.e., Push-Up or Bench Press) and a true Overhead Press. They allow you to gradually get overhead and the added stability of the landmine anchor lets you focus on perfect technique.
Half-Kneeling 1-arm DB/KB Presses
Two common mistakes while overhead pressing are overarching the lower back and wrenching the neck forward. The half-kneeling position teaches you to use your core to keep your ribcage and lower back in the proper position and avoid these mistakes.
Our final progression is the Scrape-the-Rack Press. It's virtually identical to the traditional Barbell Overhead Press except that you'll push the barbell forward into the uprights of a power rack, giving your added stability by controlling the bar path and firing the serratus anterior (remember that muscle?).
Before you jump right into overhead pressing, make sure you have adequate shoulder mobility and stability using the aforementioned tests. Then, follow the step-by-step exercise progressions to build up strength and get acquainted with loaded overhead movement. With patience and consistency, you'll set yourself up for a lifetime of overhead pressing without issue.
Photo Credit: Wavebreakmedia/iStock
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