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Okay, now I’m not going to say that this is a controversial topic because it’s not really controversial, but it lowkey is. Many people throughout this industry have differing opinions on whether overhead athletes should be overhead lifting, with the main concern coming from the overhead barbell press. And just to clarify, when I say overhead athletes, I mean baseball players, volleyball players, tennis players, etc. This question was first brought to my attention by a strength and conditioning coach who I was interning for a while ago. He is a big baseball guy and a huge follower of Eric Cressey, the baseball training “god.” At that time, I didn’t have too much experience training baseball players, so this sparked my interest in learning all about it.
From the start, I had always been reserved about performing the overhead barbell press, due to the amount of stress it places on the shoulders. However, I do believe there is great importance in performing overhead lifts, especially with overhead athletes. Remember, not all overhead lifts are created equal. Yes, I would try to steer clear of the overhead barbell press, but it is paramount to include other overhead lifts for a multitude of reasons.
My, and many others, biggest concern regarding overhead lifting for overhead athletes stems from overuse injuries. For these overhead athletes, they tend to use their shoulder joint an enormous amount during games and practice as is, which places an immense amount of stress on their shoulder. That being said, why would I ever want to add even more stress to a joint that is already susceptible to overuse injuries? You’re right, I wouldn’t! But there is a caveat. Flashback to the last paragraph when I said, “I do believe there is great importance in performing overhead lifts, especially with overhead athletes.” Now you might think I’m contradicting myself, so let me explain. Just after that sentence, I continued by saying, “Remember, not all overhead lifts are created equal.” While the OH Barbell Press is one of the worst things we can do for an overhead athlete, there are many other alternatives that are a fabulous choice for working that area to attain the benefits associated with overhead lifting.
The importance of doing overhead lifts is to fix imbalances and build mobility, stability, and strength in the shoulder joint and scaps. When we perform OH lifts, it’s amazing at working our rhomboids, lower and middle traps, and rotator cuffs, especially the external rotators that work to decelerate our arm. As I said earlier, OH athletes are performing hundreds of swings/throws in a game and during practice, and all of those movements are working the internal rotators of the shoulders. It is imperative we fix that muscular imbalance by working the upper back and external rotators, so we can stabilize and strengthen our rotator cuff and scapular supporters. If we don’t have strong muscles in our upper back, then we’re going to lose integrity of our shoulder and actually dip in performance. On this performance standpoint, if we don’t work the upper back area, we’ll lack an ability to decelerate our arm as we come down from a swing/throw. Having proper deceleration is crucial for power and also prevents our arm from flying off our bodies after performing such a powerful and strenuous move… so it’s important.
Another reason we should be performing OH lifts is due to the fact that it is great at working core stabilization. While performing an OH lift, we’re calling on our core to engage fully, stabilizing us in an extended position. As I’ve said before, the 3 main functions of the core are flexion, extension, and rotation, each of which play a vital role in athletics. Being able to remain under control while fully extended aids tremendously out on the field/court. Just think about all the times you need to be extended while remaining stabilized… catching a football, catching a baseball, diving to save a goal in soccer, etc. So at the end of the day, we must be performing OH lifts for shoulder health and core stability.
Now we get to the good stuff. Why the OH Barbell Press sucks. I’m just kidding, it doesn’t suck. You’ll see me doing it with many athletes and people, but one group you’ll never see me doing it with is…. You guessed it… overhead athletes!! Well, there’s actually another group I wouldn’t do it with, and that’s people with shoulder issues. Lemme explain why. The OH BB Press places traumatic stress on our shoulders. The thing with our shoulders is they love to be free, moving at a 45º angle, and allowing our scaps to have the proper upward rotation, sorta flaring out for a lack of a better term. When we use a barbell, we take those two things away – our shoulders do not have the ability to move freely, and our scaps are forced straight up, not how they like it. And to make things even worse, I would say most people do not know how to properly perform this exercise. As they’re pressing, they cannot keep their arms in the exact position needed for safety, so their hands/wrists tend to come inside with their elbows flaring out, causing internal rotation of the shoulder. All that PLUS a super heavy load being placed on this joint is just a recipe for disaster.
Since it’s super important to do OH lifts, what do I do instead? Just don’t do the OH BB Press! There are so many alternatives that give the full benefit of OH lifting without any of the associated risks! Such as the landmine bar. I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE the landmine bar. It’s maybe possibly probably my favorite tool for upper body lifting, especially with athletes. The landmine bar is essentially the same action as the OH BB Press, but it allows our shoulder to be free (moving at a 45º angle), and it lets our scap move with the upwards rotation it desires. That should be enough right there to switch you over to the landmine bar. But wait…. There’s more!! Not only can you load the landmine bar very very heavy and do a double arm lift, but you can also perform the lift unilaterally, becoming way more sports specific, calling in phenomenal core strength, and building extra shoulder strength and stability. Additionally, you can perform pretty much any power exercise on the landmine bar that you would with a barbell, and then some. It’s ability to be sport specific is also a huge bonus, as it has great transferability due to the nature of the move and positioning it puts your body in to produce force. As Eric Cressey states:
The other 2 options I also love are a dumbbell and a kettlebell. Both of these let the shoulders and scaps move freely, similarly to a landmine bar. Another similarity is that you can do unilateral lifts and many core integrated movements or alterations to target the core, such as ½ kneeling exercises. However, the one thing I always make sure of when using a dumbbell and kettlebell is that my athlete has a neutral grip. I see a lot of people use an overhand grip on the DB, abducting their shoulder, and lifting it to the side of their body, not in front at a 45º angle. The reason this bothers me is because your shoulder does not like to travel upwards when your arm is in that position with an overhand grip on the DB. This is the exact same move as a BB Press – you’re forcing your shoulders and scaps up in a plane they do not like, and at the top, you’re causing internal rotation. That is why I always use a neutral grip with OH Pressing. And don’t give me that bullshit that overhand DB pressing works the shoulder better and gets your rear delts more… that’s a load of crap. But if you think that’s true, then try to be less lazy and just perform an additional exercise that targets those areas SAFELY.
There is one exception to all of this where you’ll see me doing an OH BB Press with an overhead athlete. And that is for certain power exercises. Yes, the landmine bar can basically do every exercise the BB can, but some exercises just aren’t replicated as well. So on occasion, you’ll see me doing a push press or split jerk with a BB, but that’s because these movements are light loads and have very minimal volume-load. I will say this though, if the athlete has a history of shoulder problems or is like a baseball pitcher (throwing high force, high velocity 40,000 times a day), I will not have them do any type of OH BB press, not even for power. But for other baseball players or tennis players, depending on the athlete, I’ll sometimes do an OH BB move for power, only if I feel it cannot be replicated with a landmine bar, DB, or KB.
Now for all the non-OH athletes out there. You still have to be cautious of the OH BB Press because of the nature of the exercise, but I am less concerned for this population, as non-OH athletes don’t have to worry about overuse injuries. So I will perform an OH BB Press with the following criteria:
1. The load is not stupid heavy: non OH athletes can still injure their shoulders from heavy loads and too much stress; and also heavy OH Pressing could cause back problems
2. The athlete must have good range of motion in their shoulders: if the athlete cannot lift their arm about 180º upright, why the heck would they perform an OH BB press?! I would strengthen their shoulders and scaps, working on mobility, stability, and flexibility, and then when they get the appropriate ROM, I would introduce the overhead lift
3. The athlete must have a strong core: without a strong core, the athlete will 100% have back pain because they cannot perform the lift properly. Too many times I’ve seen people OH pressing who don’t have proper core stability and strength, so their low back starts to curve. I can’t even stress to you how horrible that is
4. Technique must be flawless: before I actually allow the athlete to do this as part of their training, I must see that their execution is flawless – tight core, stable hips, stable base of support (legs), no internal rotation of the shoulder, no flaring of the elbows, and no caving in of the wrists. If the athlete is able to do all those, without any type of pain or discomfort, then I will introduce it to their training programs
5. The athlete cannot have a history of shoulder problems: this is pretty self explanatory lol
Even for non OH athletes, I still prefer to use a landmine bar a majority of the time, but I will throw in the OH BB press for some strength and power exercises. In my opinion, there are just way too many alternatives that are much better for performance, transferability and safety than the traditional OH BB Press.
Alrighty guys well that pretty much wraps this one up! Hopefully it helped you out, and just remember, if you have to ask yourself “should I be doing this?,” the answer is probably “no.” If you even have to ask yourself, then that’s your answer right there. So just be safe, do your research, and don’t do anything stupid. Make sure you’re checking out our instagram, @powerlux_fitness, and our YouTube Channel for more athletic workouts and ways to train like an athlete for the everyday person! If you’re interested in working with PowerLux Fitness, if you want programming, training, or a consultant, don’t hesitate to reach out! We have top of the line trainers with experience training professional athletes ready to help you!
Until next time, stay rad ??