Is Overhead Pressing Destroying Your Shoulders?

Hey guys, here is an excerpt from my upcoming e-book I’m in the process of finishing up.  The e-book is a guide to preventing shoulder pain and dealing with achy shoulders in cross fit athletes.

I wanted to present to you all a simple shoulder screen that is a great test to see whether or not its safe for you to perform overhead exercises.  What I mean by overhead movements is:

  • Overhead Press: Push Jerk, Push Press, Military Press
  • Snatch variations and overhead squats
  • Pullup variations, especially kipping pullups

I’m a firm believer in screening yourself to see whether or not doing certain exercises are safe for you.  Here is an easy screen to see what exercises are likely to aggravate your shoulders and which are safer.

Standing Overhead Wall Test – This is an exercise to see whether or not its safe to do overhead work.  It’s an awesome screen that I took from the excellent physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann.  Keep in mind that there a ton of overhead exercises in cross fit, so passing this test will pay dividends towards your shoulder health.

A few examples of the overhead exercises in cross fit are:

Overhead Press, Push Press/Jerk, Snatches, Overhead Squats, Thrusters, Wall Ball, Handstand Pushups, Pullups, Toes to Bar, Kettle Bell Swings.

Well unfortunately that’s 50% of all of the exercises in cross fit, so let’s work to pass this test!

Having good range of motion overhead will also help to improve the catch position of a clean by allowing you to get your elbows up nice and high.  So there’s an added bonus!

How to perform the test:

  1. Stand with your feet about 6 inches from a wall
  2. Make sure you keep your butt, upper back and head against the wall during the test
  3. Anchor your ribcage against the wall and keep a normal curve in your lower spine throughout the test.  If you ribcage starts coming up or if the curve in your lower back increases during the test, that’s a fail!
  4. Try to reach your arms overhead as far as possible reaching directly up over your shoulders.
  5. Keep your shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers in contact with the wall the entire time.
  6. If you can reach fully overhead while keeping everything in contact with the wall and also without your lower back curve increasing or your ribcage coming off the wall you’ve passed!  Congrats!

If you can pass this test you’ve greatly decreased your risk of shoulder injury.  Feel free to work overhead.

Exercises such as kipping pullups and toes to bar require more flexibility then needed to pass this test.  If you passed this test its still a good idea to increase your overhead flexibility for this reason.

If you failed this then it would do you very well to work on your flexibility until you can pass.

There are a lot of tissues that can hold you back from being able to reach fully overhead.  Here are my three favorite stretches to increase your overhead flexibility.

1. Pectoralis doorway stretch – The Pecs are major overhead limiters

  • Step 1: Find a Doorway
  • Step 2: Place your forearms on the outside of the doors
  • Step 3: Step through the doors
  • Step 4: Hold the stretch for upwards of 2 minutes or more.

Try to keep perfect posture while doing this.  Keep your shoulders down and back and chin tucked.  Practice placing your elbows at different heights to find where you are tightest and work there.

Try doing this stretch with your shoulders shrugged as well.  Be careful with this position because you aren’t in a very stable position.  However, keeping your shoulders shrugged helps target the pectoralis minor muscle, a nasty little muscle that tends to cause all kinds of trouble when it gets too tight.

2. Lat Stretch – The Latissimus Dorsi is an enormous muscle that happens to be an internal rotator of the shoulder.  That means we need to stretch it!

  • Step 1: Find a pole, doorway, really anything to grab on to.
  • Step 2: Grab hold and lean back so that your arm is all of the way over your head.
  • Step 3: Lean your shoulder away from your body
  • Step 4: Hold the stretch for upwards of 2 minutes or more.

3. Thoracic Spine Mobility with the foam roller.

  • Step 1: Get a foam roller, or tape 2 tennis balls together.
  • Step 2: Lay so that the bottom portion of your thoracic spine is right on the roller or tennis balls.
  • Step 3: Extend your spine over the roller or balls and then crunch back up.  Repeat 5 times
  • Step 4: Take the roller or balls about an inch further up your spine and repeat.
  • Step 5: Repeat until you get up to the base of your neck

After stretching go ahead and test again, if you’ve passed then go ahead and go overhead.  If not try and modify your training until you have achieved enough flexibility to pass the test.

Now that you’ve done a screen you have an idea of whether or not overhead exercises are right for you.  You also have a framework of what to do in order to start these exercises down the road.

Performing exercises that you do not have the range of motion for is a huge recipe for injury but can easily be remedied by doing some mobility work.

18 Responses to Is Overhead Pressing Destroying Your Shoulders?

  1. love this site – it’s a great blog – may i suggest you get an rss feed.

  2. Very well written post. It will be valuable to anybody who utilizes it, as well as myself. Keep doing what you are doing – for sure i will check out more posts.
    My website is on Neck Pain Relief.

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  9. Hey guys. Great site. I have been doing mobility excersies but still
    Have shoulder pain. (Left shoulder) I can do the wall test and get
    Pain when my left shoulder is extended above my head. I train
    I train through and don’t suffer much discomfort while I’m training
    But feel it more in everyday life. Has been like this for about.
    6 months. Can you help?

    • Tough to tell online really. What exercises hurt? Overhead exercises? Did you read my article series about shoulder impingement?

  10. Hello. Great article, helped me a lot. I’ve been working out for the past 8 months but now my left shoulder hurts when I do too many push ups or when I do overhead exercises. I’m not training at the gym. It’s been like this for a while, and right now I’m taking a break ( 3 weeks already ), but it doesn’t seem to go away. It’s not swelled, the shoulder isn’t red or bruised, it looks alright, and it doesn’t hurt from daily activities. Any ideas about what it could be or what should I do? I was thinking about beginning to workout my chest again (different types of push ups, no overhead exercises, nor weights), and stop it whenever shoulder hurts. Is this a good idea? Also, I’ve been doing shoulder rehab exercises for 2 weeks.

    • Definitely a good idea to stay away from painful exercises and then slowly return when they’re pain free again. If you haven’t already, try and see a professional to get a better idea.

  11. Hello.Thanks a lot for replying. I’ve got one more question, if you don’t mind. My shoulders don’t hurt now, just that my left shoulder gets tired really fast. And my left hand feels slightly heavier than my right one when I bring it over my head (hands straight, and I lift them sideways until they’re parallel to the ground, and that’s when it starts to feel heavier). Also, I don’t know why but my lats (both of them, mainly the right one) hurt a little when I try doing pull ups, or dragon flag, anything that involves my lats. I also have cracking and popping noises coming from my shoulders, but the doctor told me it’s because I’m still growing (my knees pop from time to time too, ankles pop a lot, so does my left wrist ). All the pops are painless. What do you think I should do from now on? I just want to know if I should stop any kind of training that involves my shoulders for a period, and if there’s any exercises I could do for these issues. Also, I’d be really grateful if you could tell me for about how long should I stop shoulder exercises, if that’s necessary. I just wanna be safe, even if I have to wait for a while.

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  14. Just wanted to congratulate you on your excellent newsletter! I was in desperate need of reliable and knowledgeable info, so grateful to have found it!! Keep up the good work!! I have also been having some issues recently with my knees, but want to check the x rays so that I can provide you with the correct diagnosis before I ask you for advice. I’m almost 44 and have been active all my life, and just started crossfit 1.5 months ago. I don’t want to stop doing it because I finally found a motivating and fun activity that will get me back in shape after 4 yrs of mild depression and being a couch potato. Once again, CONGRATULATIONS and I will post back the medical info on my knees to what corrective measures I can take to continue crossfit, adapted to my limitations, no ego problem here!

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