When programming for a certain sport or certain athlete, a strength coach must first analyze the primary mobilization techniques and directional techniques that the athlete uses in the sport.
- What type of running does the sport/position favour? (linear vs choppy with a lot of changes in direction. Sprint Duration & Type etc..)
- Does the sport and/or position rely heavily on power, strength, aerobic endurance, absolute speed etc...
- Contact vs. No Contact
- Repetitive motions leading to injury prone athletes (ie. excessive and constant swings in volleyball and high forces hit into the arms while in an overhead position off blocks)
- The list can go on and on.... The point being that as a strength and conditioning coach you look at the plane and axis of action the athlete deals with most, the types of forces and stresses placed upon their body. Ultimately you implement exercises which help increase and maintain strength, allow the athlete to be functional and mobile in their sport, and most importantly-allow the athlete to be injury free.
With all of this being said, if an athlete is injured, they cannot perform. Shoulder injuries are one of the most prevalent injuries in sport and are often easily re-irritated, career altering or career ending.
The problem arises due to tightness and lack of mobility in the shoulders, lack of mobility along the posterior chain and poor anatomical composition. Firstly, I would like to stress that the problem stems from pronated maximal overhead presses (80+% of 1RM).
Before diving into the reasons that the overhead press becomes a problem for athletes, we should dive into the anatomy of the shoulder joint in order to fully understand the implications.
The glenohumeral (shoulder) joint:
- Classification: triaxial, ball and socket
- Movement: flexion and extension, abduction and adduction, medial and lateral rotation
- Bone involvement: scapula and humerus
- The Glenoid Fossa is very shallow and provides a socket smaller than the head of the humerus. Therefore, the head of the humerus has very little contact with the scapula, making it a very weak but mobile joint (problematic).
- The joint capsule is the loosest of all joint capsules and most of the ligaments (except the coracohumeral ligament) are also very weak.
- The rotator cuff provides the strength to this joint!!
Now to stop boring you with the anatomical terms. The reasons why the overhead press is so poorly executed and doing more harm than good for most athletes.
The pronated max press (regular overhand gripping of the barbell) puts the shoulder in an internally rotated state. From a posture standpoint, the repetitive use of the shoulders while in an internally rotated state will lead you to look like the idiots you see walking around the gym with their shoulders flared forward, chests puffed, arms flexed to the side...not a good look. The shoulders are meant to be retracted!
From a sport specific standpoint, most on field sports have no component of overhead pressing. Yet somehow, the overhead military press or dumbbell press remains a mainstay in football programs. Most hits and blocks are made from the horizontal plane which is why the bench press is such a sought after and tested exercise for upper body strength in football. This is the reason why many football coaches have begun to look at the bench press from a football and shoulder health standpoint. The width of the grip is brought in to mimic hand positioning of a block, while the scapula are retracted, and elbows are tucked therefore keeping the stress on the shoulders very minimal.
The constant overhead pressing drives the humerus up into the acromion with a large amount of force. Concerning for a joint as unstable and weak as the glenohumeral joint?
Overhead presses also cause impingement of the shoulder joint and the trapezius. The upper fibres of the trapezius insert onto the acromion and therefore the constant force provided by the head of the humerus reduces mobility here. The traps are also supposed to work together to retract the shoulders. This is effected when overhead pressing places stress upon their insertion point. This is problematic for the running stride and arm action, especially in football players and creates a boxy type arm exchange while sprinting.
Finally, the overhead press also channels injury risk towards the neck and lower back.
The semispinalus capitus and the splenius muscles are put at risk of injury when one forces the neck to reposition itself very quickly or has a large stress placed upon it. This is why you see so many athletes complain of a "strain" in the neck while overhead pressing and struggling to get that heavy rep or forcing one more rep.
This stress of maximal overhead pressing also leads to many break downs in form. The major and most indicative breakdown in posture occurs in the lower back-mainly the lumbar region of the spine. Max effort overhead presses compress the lumbar spine and usually lead to extreme cases of hyperextension through the hips when trying to muscle up the weight. Sometimes it is so bad that it almost looks like an extreme form of lordosis throughout the lumbar region (excessive curvature of the lower back). Look at the videos below to see what I am talking about.
For myself, my coaching is heavily based on football players. With the bench press being such a highly tested and admired feat in the football community, the overhead press provides quite a problem. Implementing this into programming would negate the possibility of achieving my desired 3-1 pull to press ratio and also place a lot of stress on the shoulders of the guys already added by practice, benching and games.
If you feel you MUST overhead press, take the following into account:
- external rotation of the humerus takes stress off the rotator cuff. Therefore forearm supination allows the rotator cuff room to properly move. For this, a neutral grip essentially forces the forearm into supination.
- Neutral grip dumbbell presses, log presses with a neutral grip, football bar presses can be used for overhead movements (keep shoulder from being internally rotated).
- Mobility work would be needed heavily to ensure shoulder health.
- Overhead press at a sub maximal rate (you will never lift 350 lbs over your head in a game)
- Bring your head through your arms at the top range of the press
- And finally use a split stance to avoid excessive backwards lean (alleviating the pressure in the lumbar spine)
Key Shoulder Building and Shoulder Strengthening Exercises:
- Body Weight Exercises (Incline/Decline Push Ups, Supinated Pull Ups, Hand Stand Push Ups, Ring Rows, TRX Rows/Flys)
- Plate Series (Front Raises, Side Raises)
- Seated DB Power Cleans
- Incline Neutral Grip DB Presses (Single, Alternating, Double)
- Fat Grip Work
- Band Pull Aparts
- Cable Presses
- Eccentric Body Weight Exercises
And finally if you must overhead press with a pronated grip:
- Push Press
- Split Jerk
- Power Jerk