How to Implement Assessment and Corrective Strategies into Your Box: Part 2 – Assessing Overhead Mobility

grandma-overhead-squat (1)Last week we went over the importance of implementing assessment and corrective strategies at your box.  This week we’ll begin going over the specifics of how to do it.  First up, overhead mobility.  I love myself some overhead work.  Most boxes also love themselves overhead work.  Let’s just for a second make a list of common exercises you’re going to see at our gyms:

  1. Press, Push Press, Jerks
  2. Handstands, Handstand Pushups
  3. Pull-ups, Kipping Pull-ups, Muscle-ups
  4. Toes to Bar, Knees to Elbows
  5. Thrusters, Wall Balls
  6. Snatches and their variations
  7. American Swings

The list goes on and on.  If we want to be any good at these exercises it makes absolute sense that we should have full overhead motion.  If it’s hard for me to get my arms overhead without any weight, it also makes sense that putting 300lbs overhead is going to be tricky.  It also makes some sense that people that are lacking motion here might be running into greater potential for injury in the future.

Missing overhead motion will also cause compensation down the chain such as poor scapular position, excessive rib motion and increased lumbar lordosis.  All big words for what may lead to pain and inefficiency over time.

A good place to use this screen would be during your foundations / elements / on ramp classes where you’ll be doing a lot of overhead work.  Like I alluded to earlier, most people come to your box because they want to work-out, not to be lectured in shoulder safety.  However, explaining the importance of overhead motion for both efficiency in the movements shown today (and for most people you’ll be pointing out those deficits all throughout class) and exercise safety goes a long way in getting people to buy-in.  If taught quickly and efficiently it also shouldn’t take away from the client’s experience.  Most members end up appreciating what you’ve done for them.

Here’s the screen I like to use.  I actually prefer screening my athletes against a wall because we’re throwing gravity into the equation (and we generally perform our exercises standing upright), but if you’ve got a large class and no wall space it’s really easy to just do it on the floor.  The video below contains both the assessment as well common corrective exercises I like to use.

After we’ve done the assessment and you’ve found people that are limited, now you can begin a warm-up which will contain several corrective exercises to address these limitations.  Now you’re 10-15 minutes into the hour, your new members are warmed up with an idea of where their limitations lie and they have several tools to help improve that limitation.  You’ve set the expectation that they need to be working on mobility, where they need to spend their time and with which exercises.  This is also set at the start of their journey at your box, which is very important for future success.  Your clients will know that not only do they need to work on snatch technique to get better at snatching, but will also need to mobilize as well for success (If you actually find a deficit).

Athletes should also be given a specific schedule for mobilizing with sets and reps (To be explained during the warm-up and performance of exercises).  I like my athletes to be performing these exercises before and after classes as well as 1-2 times per day on off days.  The faster we can eliminate these deficits, the better.

Note: If a member passes this test with flying colors then they don’t need to be spending time with overhead mobility.  We want efficiency with our corrective exercises and we want to be spending the bulk of our time actually training.

This gives valuable information to the coach as well because if we have an athlete with sub par technique we can know if they have a true flexibility restriction or they need better cues / different exercises or more time and practice.  Like stated in part 1, let’s put a square block through a square hole and practice efficiency.

Keep in mind that this overhead assessment is by no means completely inclusive.  We’re looking for simplicity and efficiency.  If your athletes want more assessment you can schedule some 1 on 1 time or refer out to someone like me.  If you were in my clinic we’d go ahead and try to distinguish between flexibility and motor control issues.  After that we’d have to figure out where the specific limitations lie (thoracic spine, scapula or gleno-humeral joint), which if any muscles are involved and then which exercises and manual techniques are best for improving your motion.

Another elephant in the room that no one seems to want to address is whether or not people who fail this overhead assessment should be working overhead at all.  I think part of this stems from the large amount of overhead work being performed at most boxes and coaches not wanting to alienate their members.   A “screen” is designed to find people who are at risk and subsequently something should be done to minimize this risk.  Keep in mind that if you’re training with an overhead restriction then you are teaching your body a motor pattern with suboptimal technique (Basically getting better at using bad technique).  If you’re a Gray Cook fan then you’ll agree when he says that you’re “putting fitness on top of dysfunction.”

If your primary goal is exercise mastery, efficiency and safety, then I would say overhead work needs to be modified until overhead motion improves.  I also think severity of the restriction should be considered.  A very minor restriction is probably alright and overhead motion performed correctly may help this restriction.  A major restriction is probably more likely to lead to potential injury (And not just in the shoulder) and coaches should be more apt to modify that athlete’s program.  Some good modifications to utilize until overhead motion clears up:

  • For Overhead Pressing: Bench Press (Barbell, Floor, Dumbbell, Incline), Landmine Press, Pushups, Dips
  • For Pull-ups / Hanging Variations: Strict Pull-ups (Without compensations), Ring Rows, Strict Hanging Knee Raises / toes to bar

So to recap:

  1. Begin assessment on the 1st few visits of your athletes at your box, preferably on a day where you’re teaching overhead lifts
  2. Explain why having full range of motion is important for performance and safety
  3. Perform an overhead assessment against a wall if able, on the floor if needed for space.  Identify athletes with issues, explain that if you don’t have a restriction you won’t need to do perform extra overhead mobility
  4. Teach and perform several corrective strategies as part of a warm-up.  Explain that these exercises will be your friend if you have an overhead limitation.
  5. Set the expectation that your athletes need to work on these limitations with specific set/rep/frequency goals for progress
  6. If your members fail these tests give them options for modifications of the lifts shown throughout the session.

I strongly suggest making this a system at your box.  Like anything else, there is a learning curve for putting this into play.  Once it’s in place and being used consistently, it isn’t a big deal at all anymore.

Again, this isn’t a perfect system, only a work in progress.  I’d be very interested in hearing how your box implements overhead screening.  Please respond in the comments if you have any ideas for improvement or want to share how your gym addresses this.

Overhead screening is best done bare-chested,

Dan Pope DPT, CSCS

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