Guard Rails for Overhead Training


Have you ever watched someone reach overhead?


I’m sure you have, but have you REALLY watched how the movement is taking place?


A good majority of the people I work with are going to have some compensation if I just ask them to raise their arms directly over their head.  What I typically see is someone that starts to lift their arm overhead, they start out doing alright.  They will initiate the movement from the shoulder while maintaining a neutral posture simultaneously.  However, once they start to get towards the upper ranges of their flexibility/mobility, it typically turns into the low back arching to finish getting the arm overhead.


The best way to watch is to simply ask someone to raise their arm overhead.  It only takes 2-3 seconds, so just show them and ask them to do the same.  Does the movement come from the shoulder, the low back, or a combination of the two?  I’m looking to see how cleanly they do that.  


Side note…this has to be done without them knowing what you’re looking for, so if you want to look at this regularly, you’re going to have to get creative and think of other ways since they’ll eventually catch on.  If it’s a true mobility issue, it won’t really matter.  However, if it’s simply a muscle coordination (motor control) issue, they’re going to be able to clean up the movement drastically, giving you a false sense of how they really move subconsciously…and how they’re really moving away from your care.


I know you’re going to see a lot of this in the gym, so what can we do about it?  And why in the hell do we care about it?


Let’s start off with why we should care:


  1. Most people LOVE to lift weights over their head.  I can’t blame them, cause I’m the same way.  For some reason, I just like to press things over my head, so I get it.  So if you just want to lift things over your head, clean shoulder function is ideal.
  2. The hinging pattern you’ll see from the lumbar spine is a BIG deal!  This usually leads to an extended
    posture where the rib cage sits behind the pelvis…and with that comes.
    • Increased joint pain.  I don’t know if it will show up as shoulder pain, elbow pain, low back, hip, or knee, but I do know that this overly extended posture can lead to some achy joints.  I’ll explain why in just a second.


  • Complications with breathing.  If you’re in that extended posture, your rib cage is going to be elevated putting your diaphragm in a less than optimal position.  If you’re living your life in that extended posture, optimal breathing becomes difficult to maintain.  This can affect health and performance measures drastically, but that’ll be for another article.
  • Loss of Strength and Power.  If we want to be as strong and explosive as possible, having good core function is essential…and in order to be functioning at the highest levels possible, the core not only needs to be strong and conditioned, it also needs to be in a desirable position.  Energy travels best if it flows through a straight pathway (rib cage stacked over top of your pelvis).  If energy has to make a turn (rib cage behind your pelvis), you’re going to see dip in strength and power output.  You can still be crazy strong and explosive, but you’ll doing it through compensation…usually leading to those achy joints I talked about in the first bullet point.



If those reasons are important enough for you to pay attention to, then keep reading and I’ll dive in to what to actually do about it.


First, we need to set a baseline.  A great way to do this is by using the lat length test I learned from the Titleist Performance Institute.  Check out the video here:




I also like to perform this assessment unilaterally, as well as supine on the floor with the knees bent in the hook-lying position.  Everything else stays the same, but we make it a little easier by changing stability demands by doing it on the ground…and we also see if there’s a difference in right side versus left by doing it unilaterally.



Personally, I like to look at both.  It doesn’t take much longer, but by doing so, it gives me more information.  This helps me clarify if the dysfunction is hard vs. soft, and also gives me a definitive answer on if I’m going to be training someone overhead at all.  If you’re unfamiliar with the hard vs. soft terminology, refer back to a recent article I posted on Understanding Hip Flexion.


If the limitation shows up consistent across the board leading me to believe it’s more of a hard limitation, I’m going to restrict ALL overhead work until I can clear that up.  I’ll still start to work on “overhead” or vertical pressing, but I’m not going to go beyond the hard limitation or where they start to hyperextend from the back.  The only overhead work I’ll do with a hard limitation will be the landmine press which I’ll show in just a bit.  


The people with hard limitations simply CAN’T get into the position, so don’t try to force it.  Train with what they have and work on improving the limitation.  You’ll get there, but don’t try to pound a square peg into a round hole.  Work on soft tissue, T-spine extension mobility, and possibly refer to a good medical pro to help get there a little quicker while limiting any overhead work until progress is made.


Now that we’ve taken the time to set our baseline by performing those quick assessments, the first thing I do is limit my pressing motions to somewhere before the compensation occurred, for both hard and soft limitations.  If I’m not maintaining neutral spine throughout and exposing my low back to the wear and tear of hinging each rep in order to get the weight over my head, is it really worth it?  


Again, refer to the above bullet points.  If you don’t care, rip it…get after it and keep lifting those weights over your head.  I’m not here to tell you no, unless you’re one of my clients, and then I’ll definitely tell you no.  However, if you do care about long term joint health, maintaining a great posture, and being as strong and explosive as you possibly can, simply make a swap.  Instead of pressing the weight over your head, do something like the landmine press and keep the angle right below the compensation point.  Now you’ll be working on overhead pressing, but you’ll be doing it with integrity.


Kneeling Landmine Press


This is really the only form of vertical pressing I’m going to be doing with those individuals with a hard limitation.  If it’s a soft limitation and the supine variation of the shoulder flexion assessment was clear, I will start to teach and train overhead.  I’ll typically start with isometric overhead holds and waiter walks and as long as they can maintain integrity, we’ll get into actually pressing the weight overhead.


Overhead Holds


Waiter Walks


Half kneeling and Tall kneeling presses are both great to teach you how to get your arms overhead WITHOUT arching from the low back.  Start here and then finally progress to pressing while on your feet.  That’s exactly why I showed the landmine variation in the kneeling position.


Half Kneeling Overhead Press


Hopefully this helps shed some light and makes you a little more aware of how many people will cheat with their spine to get their arms overhead into the position we want.   


Understanding Hip Flexion

When we’re looking at movement, one of the most important patterns is having the ability to flex your hips, both bilateral and unilateral.  When I’m working with a client, this is one of the first things I want to achieve if it’s subpar and lacking the minimum criteria.  If we want to achieve stellar results, we need to respect mobility and understand that it sits above everything else…besides breathing, but that’s for another day.


Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at clearing mobility issues.  The typical hip flexion issue can and should be fixed, to an acceptable standard, not perfect, fairly quickly.  After we hit the acceptable ranges, our strength and conditioning exercises will become more effective, and they’ll help reinforce the new mobility you’re seeing with your clients, or yourself for that matter.


As little as five years ago, I was simply throwing one or two corrective strategies with everyone, assuming we’re working on the same movement pattern.  It worked about half the time, and the other half, I’d see little to no progress.  Ever have that happen?  I still do to this day, but I’m continuously looking to get better results for myself, and for my clients.  


When I’m looking at hip flexion, there are two main patterns I’m going to look at:

Active Straight Leg Raise (unilateral)

Toe Touch (bilateral)

After seeing what these two patterns look like, I’m going to have a much better idea of how I’m going to attack their strength and conditioning program.  If both patterns are clear, I’ll have no need to take out hip hinging exercises or limit hip flexion/extension exercises…I’d be free to train them and work them through a good series of progressions from there.  However, if I find a limitation in one of those patterns, I know I need to dig a little deeper if I want to improve on that 50/50 success rate I talked about.  Getting amazing results 50% of the time was great earlier on in my career, but at this stage in the game, it’s unacceptable for my personal standards.


So how did I get better at improving that statistic?


Understanding that mobility issues can be due to a stability dysfunction has been an absolute game changer for me.  I’ve learned this from Greg Rose, Gray Cook, Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, and a huge list of other personal mentors, but the one industry leader that really made it stick was Charlie Weingroff.  Not sure if he personally coined the term “hard” and “soft” when looking at mobility, but that my friends…that’s genius and that’s what really made it stick with me.


So what does the term “hard” and “soft” mean?


Since we’re talking about hip flexion, let’s look at the two patterns I listed above: the straight leg raise and the toe touch.


Active Straight Leg Raise:

When I’m training someone, I want to ensure they’re leg raise is clear before I move into deadlifting, swings, cleans, and a bunch of other posterior chain exercises that require a good amount of both hip flexion and extension.  What I consider to be clear is a “2” on the FMS screen.  If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, here’s a link to show you what the straight leg raise is and how the FMS scores this pattern:



Toe Touch:

Along with the straight leg raise, I’d also like to see the ability to touch your toes before I move on to a bunch of strength training via deadlifts, cleans, swings, snatches, etc… If you can’t touch the ground, I’d venture to say deadlifting weight from the floor isn’t the best idea…we can find something better.


Along with having the ability to touch your toes, I’d also like to see a posterior weight shift while doing so.  When I’m looking at the toe touch, I’m not only looking at having the ability to actually touch the toes; I’m also looking to see if the hips move backward in space when bending forward.  This SHOULD happen.  So, if both criteria are met, this is good enough for me, assuming your not in pain.


Now that we know what is functional and what’s not, let’s look at how we find out if a dysfunction is “hard” vs. “soft.”  First, let’s define these terms and then we’ll go from there:


Hard – This is a dysfunction that is truly a mobility issue.  It may be stemming from degenerative joints, potential hereditary issues regarding the femur and how it sits in the acetabulum, tight/stiff muscles, fascial restrictions, or some other issue that is more structural in nature.


(Bone, Joint, Muscle, Tissue)


Soft – In order to have a limitation be coined as soft, it means it’s going to stem from stability and motor control.  Soft limitations aren’t there due to a structural limitation, they’re there because you don’t have the strength, neuromuscular control, or stability demands it takes to do what we’re looking for: a good straight leg raise and relatively clean toe touch.


(Stability, Motor Control, Weakness)


Now that we have an idea of what those terms mean, let’s dig into how we find out if a person has a hard or soft limitation.  Let’s start w/ the leg raise.


When I’m looking at the leg raise, if I don’t see a score of a 2 on the FMS, I want more info.  The things I’m going to look at are: the toe touch and the same leg raise, only done with added stability.


I’m not going to show a video of the toe touch since that’s pretty self explanatory, but the leg raise done with added stability is shown below:



After I look at this pattern, I want to see one thing.


Did the pattern improve, or did it stay the same?


If it stayed the same AND they can’t touch their toes, everything is leading to say that there’s a bone, joint, or muscle/tissue issue going on.  If it improves and clears the pattern, now I’m more confident in saying it’s more of a strength, stability, motor control issue.


These two issues, hard or soft, have drastically different corrective strategies.  Hence my less than stellar results years ago.  It worked sometimes didn’t others simply due to understanding this.  Since I’ve started to look at the limitations from a hard limitation or a soft limitation, my results have drastically improved.  Now I can be more of a sharp shooter in my approach versus winging stuff out there in the hopes it will work.


So to wrap things up, don’t always judge a book by it’s cover.  Start to look a little deeper and you’ll start to improve your results.  The cool thing about it…It only takes a couple minutes longer to look at this stuff.  Very good time return on my investment for the time it spent to look deeper.


Start to look at mobility in a different way and start to see if the limitation is hard or soft.  Change stability, assist the movement, or do something else to make it easier.  If the limitation is there everywhere…think hard limitation.  If you make the move a little easier and all the sudden it clears up or improves dramatically, think soft limitation.


Corrective strategies will come another day, but for the time being, start to pay attention to the mobility issues you’re seeing and start to see if they’re hard or soft.  If it’s hard, do soft tissue work, stretching, or possibly refer out to a PT or chiro for faster results.  If it’s soft, give them a little assistance with stability, start to improve strength, and help them groove the pattern ensuring good clean reps done each time.  Start to become a sharp shooter in your approach and you’ll stop wasting time on things that just don’t work.

Performing and Scoring the Top Tier SFMA

When it comes to learning everything you can about how a person moves, the SFMA Top Tier is a great place to start.  Performing the entire Top Tier only takes a few minutes and it really gives you a lot of information.  Over the past few years, I’ve been using this in conjunction with the FMS, and it’s really opened my eyes and I’ve started to look at movement a little deeper.


I can knock out the top tier and the entire FMS screen within about 10 minutes.  By doing both of these, I’m gathering a ton of information about how they move globally.  After you get a little experience by doing a bunch of screens and assessments, you’ll start to see exactly where you want to look and dig deeper.  Adding some simple breakout assessments on top of the top tier and FMS, you’ll have the exact roadmap of where to go with someone.


This will be the first segment in a series to show you how we, as fitness professionals, can use a tool like the SFMA (pieces of it…not the whole thing) and get better overall results.


We’ll get started with the assessment.


Cervical Flexion, Extension, & Rotation:

Shoulders, Patterns 1 & 2:




SL Balance:


As always, I highly recommend taking the certification courses provided by the Functional Movement Systems.  They’re fantastic and really help you understand movement.  You can learn more by visiting their website at


You can also find a free SFMA Download over at


Start looking at these patterns and we’ll show you how to break them down a little deeper in the near future.