The Best Kept Secret in Injury Prevention: Joint By Joint Approach for Crossfit - Part 3 - The Overhead Press

Why Your Overhead Press Sucks: Joint By Joint Approach for Crossfit – Part 3

One time at a christmas party I tried pressing a fire hydrant over my head and failed miserably several times.  Had I known then what I know now I might have succeeded (Or not, I doubt the christmas drinks were helping)

Anyway, now that we have a little background about the joint by joint approach (Part 1 HERE) and we have an idea of how we can apply it to the squat (Part 2 HERE), let’s see how it applies to overhead pressing.

This really goes for any type of overhead exercise, overhead presses, push press, jerk variations, handstand pushups and pull-up exercises.

Here’s the main concept for performance and injury prevention for overhead pressing:

When your body is aligned in a nice vertical posture it will be able to transmit force from the ground up to your shoulders efficiently.

If you have a break in any area up the chain at any point during the movement you’re decreasing your efficiency (ie: weak sauce) and making yourself more susceptible to injury.

**Disclaimer** The Overhead “Press” used to be a lift in olympic lifting but was later removed.  In the above picture you can see that the old time lifters would lean back excessively to turn the lift more into a standing bench press.  This was to utilize some larger, stronger muscle groups (I assume) and move bigger weights.  No offense to these athletes but go ahead and try to press like this and let me know how your back feels the next morning.

Here are some basic coaching cues for Press, Push Press and Jerk variations:

  1. Bar High Up against the throat
  2. Elbows Under the bar (Or elbows higher for jerk variations)
  3. Rib Cage Down
  4. Neutral Spine (Midline Stability)
  5. Vertical Dip (Push Press and Jerk Variations)
  6. Press straight overhead
  7. Lockout with armpits forward

Most of these cues are to maintain an upright posture without deviation.  So where does the mobility/stability stuff fit in?

These areas will need Mobility:

  • Shoulder (Gleno-humeral) Joint
  • Thoracic Spine

These areas will need Stability:

  • Scapula (Shoulder Blades)
  • Lumbar Spine

Does this sound familiar?

Shoulder Joint Mobility – Having mobility in the shoulder joint will allow us to do few things well.

1. Get the elbows under or in front of the bar while maintaining the bar up against the throat.  

This is a huge problem for people who have trouble creating power for a press.  Winding your shoulders into end range external rotation for a push jerk is going to be very weak and uncomfortable without adequate flexibility.

2. Put your arms fully overhead without lumbar extension.  If you lack shoulder mobility then your lumbar spine is going to compensate for the lack of flexibility by creating a huge arch as demonstrated in the picture to the left.  This is a recipe for what physical therapists call extension based back pain as well as possible spondylolisthesis.

Thoracic Spine Mobility – Having inadequate thoracic spine extension is also a culprit to causing this problem.  Since the thoracic spine attaches to the lumbar spine, poor thoracic spine extension will cause the lumbar spine to hyperextend when putting your arms overhead (especially with weight).  On top of that it’s going to limit your ability to put your arms fully overhead.  You can check your shoulder mobility very easily with this screen.

Thoracic spine mobility (and also stability) is also important to create a vertical dip in the push jerk.  If you’ve got a weak and rounded upper back in the rack position of a jerk, then dipping down is going to pull the bar forward (along with your trunk) and mess up your lift in the process.

Scapular Stability – We’re still going to need stability to perform overhead pressing correctly.  This stability is going to come primarily from the shoulder blade musculature.

1. The rotator cuff forms a sort of sling around the humeral head that helps to center and stabilize the head into its socket, the glenoid fossa.

2. Attaching to the shoulder blade are 18 different muscles which all play a role in normal shoulder movement.  These muscles need to be firing properly and provide adequate stability to allow us to press some heavy sh*t overhead.

**When I say stability I mean the ability of musculature to resist movement.  Stability in the shoulder is keeping the humeral head firmly centered into its socket (the glenoid) during overhead pressing.  The movement in a press is going to come from our prime movers like the deltoids and triceps.

Lumbar Spine Stability – Your spine is going to support the load of the weight as it rests on your shoulders and as it is pressed overhead.  When your vertebrae are aligned naturally they absorb and transmit forces efficiently.

Your core helps to control this.  Pressing heavy stuff overhead places a large challenge on the “core” to keep a neutral spine position.   This is part of the midline stability that crossfit likes to speak about.  If you’re lacking stability here you’ll end up with hyperextension of the lumbar spine when the weights start going overhead.  This excessive lumbar curve or thoracic curve will decrease your ability to lift more weight (make you weaker) and increase your risk of injury.

Next time we’ll talk deadlift and olympic pull variations.  Until then press some stuff overhead for me.

Find me a fire hydrant and I’ll press it,

Dan

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