Are You Ready for Overhead Pressing?

By Karen Smith

overheadpressing-karen-brickwall0296x338Most people are mentally ready, and love the feeling of hoisting something heavy over their head. However, some are not yet physically ready.

It's no secret that most people don't move as much as they should. Extended periods of time sitting in front of a computer, hunching over a smartphone screen, or watching TV can lead to negative side effects that limit their physical abilities. Some people have shoulder mobility issues that create limitations when pressing, while others have thoracic spine (T-spine) issues masked as shoulder mobility issues.

Prior to starting any heavy or high-volume overhead pressing, I suggest starting with a shoulder mobility assessment. Your best bet is to work with a qualified trainer in your area and have them assess if you've earned the right to press overhead. If that's not an option, you can do a quick self-assessment.

First, stand in front of a mirror and see if you can raise both hands over your head without your elbows bending, arching your lower back, or your shoulders unpacking (raising out of the socket toward your ears - shrugging). Your arms should be by your ears or slightly behind.

If you cannot raise your arms above your head without your elbows bending, your lower back arching, or your shoulders shrugging, you are not cleared to Overhead Press yet.

If you find that you have pain, you are definitely not cleared to Overhead Press and should seek the help of a Physical Therapist in your area. If you are cleared to press with good shoulder mobility but still struggle to lock out with straight arms, then you should also try the following drills to assess your T-spine mobility.

Wall Sit w/Angel Wings

Glides, T’s, and Around-the-World

Working the above drills as part of your daily warm-up will improve T-spine mobility, which is important as scapular stability depends on thoracic mobility.

This may sound harsh, but… Just because you can press heavy, doesn’t mean that you should.

Pressing without the proper shoulder and T-spine mobility is simply not a good idea. It's like building a strong house on top of a faulty foundation.

Once you have the proper mobility then you can begin to build a solid base of stability and strength. Overhead carries and Turkish Get-Ups are a great place to start. These skills will strengthen all the smaller stabilizers in your shoulder.

Overhead pressing is the next step to building incredible overhead strength. If you train with a StrongFirst instructor you may often hear them say “in order to press a lot you must press a lot”, and this means in load and frequency. I recommend that you start with a light kettlebell or dumbbell. Practicing the military press will groove solid technique, and slowly build up volume.

Kettlebell or Dumbbell Military Press

  • neutral wrist
  • no side lean
  • lats contracted
  • press in 45 degree angle vs 90 degree
  • active negative for strong pressing

After building a base level of strength you can start to vary the load and volume or add other types of overhead pressing exercises. Below are a few other types to consider:

Bottoms Up press adds another level of difficulty as you balance the kettlebell upside down. This type of press is also great for increasing your core and grip strength.

Push Press is a power builder that utilizes your legs to press a heavier load overhead than what you can military press.

See-Saw Press is an alternating press holding two bells. One is in the rack position while the other is overhead. You can perform this press while standing still or while walking.

Long Press starts in a squat position, and then finishes overhead, then returns to a squat. These have also been called Squat Thrusts.

Stack Press will add a level of difficulty to your grip, as you will be holding two bells in one hand.

Double Press is great for adding load to all types of pressing

Barbell Press is also another great way to load overhead, but again, you need proper mobility before beginning.

While certain body types may have physical and biomechanical advantages for pressing, everyone can gain incredible strength from a pressing program, if they’re ready for it.

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About the author:  Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person.

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