The Overhead Lifts: Earned Not Given

The right to overhead press is earned and not given, but most people start way ahead of themselves. With the increase in overhead lifts like pressing and snatching, there has been an increase in people walking around with banged up shoulder. Often people continue to try to train through the pain until something finally breaks. Well it’s time to pump the brakes and figure out why so many people are going to their local orthopedic because of shoulder pain.

The majority of people who have shoulder discomfort with overhead lifts were not ready to lift overhead. If you can’t get full shoulder flexion at rest, what do you think is going to happen when you place a barbell in your hand overhead? You are going to have to compensate somewhere to get the bar overhead, whether that means hyperextension at the lumbar spine or shrugged shoulders.

Earning the Right

There are a couple things that an individual must address before using the overhead lifts. Address the following needs and you will quickly be lifting overhead without pain.

Shoulder Flexion

Before someone can use the overhead lifts, I want them to be able to achieve full overhead shoulder flexion. What does that mean? At the end of their range of motion their humerus, or upper arm, should be in line with the ear. This lets me know that the person has enough range of motion at the glenohumeral joint, or the shoulder, to lift overhead.

Proper overhead position
Proper overhead position

So what does it mean if you can’t achieve full shoulder flexion??

Range of motion can be restriction by either soft tissue or capsular limitations. Soft tissue restrictions refers to tightness of the muscles that cross a specific joint. Specifically for the shoulder, latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, and the triceps can create restriction of shoulder range of motion.

Here is a quick and easy way you can help decrease soft tissue restriction to increase shoulder flexion:

This mobilization is a great stretch on the pats and triceps while also working on t-spine extension. Add 8-10 reps into your warmup after your foam rolling.

If soft tissue methods do not help increase your range of motion, it is time to consider seeing a licensed physical therapist, athletic trainer, or physician to help diagnose and treat an underlying issue that may be limiting your motion.

Thoracic Spine Mobility

Shoulder flexion can be effected by more than the tissues that cross the shoulder joint. As we move away from the shoulder the next troublesome area for shoulder flexion is the thoracic spine(think upper back). Poor thoracic mobility can have a huge effect of shoulder flexion.

Poor thoracic mobility, specifically it’s ability to extend and/or rotate, places the ribs in a poor position. If the ribs aren’t in the correct position, the scapula will follow which will them put the glenohumeral joint in a poor position for overhead lifts.

Here is the T-Spine Rotation Test from the TPI Assessment.

  • Seated position with knees and feet together and torso upright
  • Arms extended out and in a W fashion with bar across shoulders
  • Place two clubs in 45 degree angle in relation to your body
  • Rotate thorax while keeping lower body still.
  • See if you can rotate past 45 degrees in each direction.

So can you correct poor thoracic mobility?? I’m glad you asked!  Here are a few drills to help in improving your thoracic mobility.

Core Stability

Core strength is the base that all forms of lifting is built off of and overhead lifting is no exception. A neutral spine must be maintained to properly execute a lift. Optimal position of the core allows everything above and below it to operate in an optimal position.

Improper overhead position
Improper overhead position

Notice in the picture above the excessive lumbar extension. Excessive lumbar extension during overhead lifts can mean a loss or lack of core stability during the lift, specifically the anterior core. Exercises like the Dead Bug(check out this article), plank, and ab rollout can help in training for anterior core stability.


The ability to overhead lift is something that must be earned and maintained or you will be injury ridden. Full shoulder range of motion, thoracic mobility, and core stability are important in performing overhead lifts.

Want to make sure you are ready for the overhead lifts? Contact me now about a consultation!