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.