How to Determine if You Can Safely Do Overhead Exercises

Find out whether you can safely perform overhead exercises and learn what to do if you cannot.

Overhead exercises are a staple in most weight rooms. Military Presses, Push Presses and Dumbbell Shoulder Presses are all done in an effort to build strong and muscular shoulders.

But, this type of exercise is too often executed with poor form. Next time you work out, watch people performing overhead exercises—there's a good chance they will arch their back back while moving their arms overhead.

If you think arching your back while supporting heavy weight overhead seems like an issue, you are right. It's a recipe for a shoulder injury or back pain. The problem may not even be poor technique. Pressing a bar or dumbbells overhead is a basic move. In fact, lack mobility is usually to blame.

"If someone lacks the mobility to safely bring their arms overhead and they continue to perform overhead pressing movements, they're playing with fire," says Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Performance and an authority on shoulder health. "Not only will they end up causing wear and tear in the shoulder joint, but they're bound to see issues up and down the kinetic chain as well. It's not uncommon for people to start having lower back pain because they begin to overarch to make up for the lack of range of motion in the lats and t-spine."

Before you perform an overhead exercise, check to ensure you have sufficient mobility to do it correctly. Gentilcore recommends taking the following two self-assessments:

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Standing Shoulder Flexion Test

How to: Stand upright with your hands by your sides and palms facing each other. Bring your arms above your head. You pass if you can bring your elbows in line with your ears without compensating by shifting your head forward, arching your lower back and/or flaring your ribcage outward.

Lying Shoulder Flexion Test

How to: Lie back on a table, knees bent at 90 degrees, feet flat and arms straight over your shoulders. Lower your arms overhead with your thumbs pointing toward the ground. You pass if your upper arms touch the table.

If you fail one of these tests, stop performing overhead exercises. But don't eliminate them from your program forever.

"When done correctly, overhead pressing helps develop upper-body strength, especially in the shoulders," adds Gentilcore. "It also helps keep the shoulders healthy in the long term."

To correct the mobility and range-of-motion issues that caused you to fail the tests, add the following exercises to your dynamic warm-up or mobility routine.

Overhead Broomstick Squat

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a broomstick or PVC pipe overhead with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Keeping your chest up, squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Extend your hips and knees to stand up out of the Squat.

Sets/Reps: 2-3x10

High and Low Lat Stretch

  • Move your right arm across your chest and grip a squat rack or doorway at eye level.
  • Lean away from the rack or doorway to stretch the right side of your back. Hold this position.
  • Repeat with your hand at navel level.

Sets/Duration: 1-2x60-90 seconds, each arm

Floor Slide

  • Lie on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor,
  • With your shoulders down and back, slowly drive your arms overhead as if performing an Overhead Press during a five-second exhale. Drag your forearms and the backs of your hands along the ground.

Sets/Reps: 1x10

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