Training the Overhead Athlete

To lift overhead or not to lift overhead? The jury is still out on whether it's safe. What's your verdict?


Training isn't always black and white. It requires you to challenge your body, forcing it to adapt and become stronger, to continually make strength gains.

A stigma seems to attach to certain player positions, especially overhead athletes like baseball pitchers, quarterbacks and basketball post players. To protect these athletes' shoulders, many S&C coaches believe they should never train with their arms overhead. (See Lifting Considerations for Athletes in "Overhead Sports.")

But to regularly perform overhead movements in games requires strength in the overhead position. If we let fear of injury dictate our training, we will neglect aspects that could push our game further.

A little fear in training is healthy. It allows us to take appropriate precautions in gray areas. Education is the only way to stay safe and keep a program heading in the right direction. That's why overhead athletes and their coaches need to understand the shoulder joint. (See "Work Out Like A Champion With Three Simple Weight Room Rules.")

The design of the shoulder is the main reason overhead lifts get a bad rap. A "ball-in-socket" joint, the shoulder requires more mobility and stability than any other joint in the body. Often, this subjects the shoulder to acute trauma, particularly in overhead athletes whose training is limited but who place heavy demands on their muscles and joints.(1) Requiring the shoulder to perform at a high level in unfamiliar movement patterns can lead to impingement, tears and strains, and separations and dislocations—all frequent  injuries in overhead athletes.(1)

But neglecting shoulder and upper-body training while working the rest of the body creates muscle imbalances. To stay healthy, you must correct them and restore balance.

For example, a baseball pitcher is worried that weight training will damage his shoulder. So he avoids upper-body work, focusing only on his lower body and core. The ability to release and quickly decelerate force may be strong in his lower body, but it's stagnant in his upper half and probably getting worse due to a lack of training. (Learn the right way to Build Balanced Shoulder Strength.) It's like running a car with a high performance engine on cheap, worn out tires—and never changing them. Sooner or later, the tires are going to blow.

Athletes and their S&C coaches need to consider three major factors—timing, technique and programming.


Time of year plays a huge role in what athletes can do and should expect from their training—especially during the season, when pitchers are throwing 100+ pitches per game, tennis players are making countless serves on the court, and quarterbacks are slinging pass after pass to their receivers. Practice and competition needs must take precedence. Use the off-season to hit the weights and the in-season for maintenance.


Coaches, watch your athletes constantly. Monitor their form whenever they're under your supervision. Too many times, coaches allow their athletes to slop through  exercises or chase numbers.

Athletes, never sacrifice technique for added weight. Don't be lazy!


Coaches, change exercise selection and intensity to accommodate your athletes. Accommodations can consist of modifying the exercise selection by:

To decrease exercise intensity and total volume, use the "dinner plate" analogy. If you want more steak on your plate, you can't have so many French fries. You only have so much room for activities, and sports practice takes priority, as it should.


(1) Kenn, J., Rivera, L., & Golden, J. (2005). Strength prehabilitation for the shoulder complex: a performance coach's handbook.

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