No denying it, the ability to get overhead in a safe and effective manner is important for all athletes.
It gets a ton of attention in the baseball community, but it’s of great value in other sports as well. If you are missing 5 degrees of shoulder flexion on the basketball court, you limit your ability to rebound the ball. Think about the now infamous Odell Beckham Jr one-handed catch. If that guy can’t reach all the way overhead, that catch would be no more than an incomplete pass.
More than just sports, quality overhead range of motion is an important part of keeping your shoulders strong and pain-free.
Yet many athletes suffer from limited overhead mobility. Improving it will make their performance and their life better, so how do we do it?
To answer that question, we first must appreciate what it takes to safely and effectively get overhead. Once we understand this, it broadens our way of thinking about what movement we can do to get overhead. All of the following could lead to the inability to get overhead.
- Limited shoulder flexion. Could mean stiffness or shortness in the lats, long head of the triceps, teres major, pecs and/or inferior capsule
- Limited shoulder external rotation. Could mean stiffness or shortness in the pecs, lats and/or subscapularis
- Lack of scapular upward rotation. Could mean weakness in the lower traps, upper traps and/or Serratus Anterior. This could also be caused by overly active rhomboids, levator scapula and pec minor
- Bad thoracic spine posture/ the inability to extend the thoracic spine
- Lack of anterior core stability
- Bad pelvic positioning
The shoulders are a complex joint, and the body is one giant chain. A lot goes into having good overhead function!
With that in mind, these three exercises offer tremendous bang for your buck. I believe they can help almost anyone with limited overhead function make significant progress.
1. Supine Banded Shoulder Flexion w/ Foam Roller
When I look at people perform this pattern, whether it be free standing or leaning against a wall, I notice that no matter how hard they try, most people still want to slip into bad patterns and compensate through the cervical spine, elbows or lumbar spine. This variation offers fixes for all the above.
It forces good pelvic alignment and gives you an external cue to keep your entire back on the foam roller. If you crank in the wrong place, you can feel your back leave the foam roller. This is also another opportunity to think about good anterior core position.
With less gravity acting on us compared to what would exist in a free standing position, it allows you to lock in and really focus on getting a good stretch in the lats, teres major, long head of the triceps, inferior capsule and pec minor.
The foam roller runs down the spine, freeing the scapulae up for comfortable movement. Make sure you grab the band with a supinated grip. This style grip, along with a subtle resistance from the band will allow the lats to be less active.
Sets/Reps: 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
2. TRX Serratus Reach
Like the name suggests, this exercise gives us a chance to really activate the serratus anterior and get good scapular upward rotation as well as scapular protraction. When I watch these being done, there are usually three very subtle mistakes that take place.
- When performing exercises to activate the serratus, you need the scapula to hug the rib cage. To do this, there needs to be slight flexion in the thoracic spine. This can be confusing because we usually cue the opposite in the weight room and want a flat thoracic spine. However, to get the most out of this exercise, look to start with a subtly flexed upper back.
- People often mistake elbow extension with good scapular movement. When reaching overhead during this exercise, think about reaching with the scapulae and making a subtle hook as you reach. If you attempt to reach straight forward, you won’t be able to fully upwardly rotate, and it will probably be a little uncomfortable.
- As you near the top, stop your hand at or a little wider than shoulder width. Do not bring your hands together, as this will drive home shoulder impingement.
One other point: this exercise provides us with another opportunity to get good anterior core engagement, so make sure your core muscles are “turned on.”
Sets/Reps: 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps
3. Prone Trap Raise
When we talk getting overhead, we often forget to talk Lower Trap (LT). LT is responsible for posteriorly tilting the scapula while getting into an overhead position and providing some much needed muscular balance to the often-overdeveloped upper trap.
This exercise allows for LT activation as well as an easy way to slow down and really feel a muscle that is often forgotten and/or not trained properly.
These are not the only methods to improve overhead function, but they’re a great start. If you take anything away from this article, remember getting overhead requires cooperation from different areas of the body. Find ways to incorporate each of those needed variables. Building one without the other will only patch one hole until another hole becomes visible!
Sets/Reps: 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
Photo Credit: FlamingoImages/iStock