Own Your Overhead

The secret to happiness is picking heavy things off the ground.  

 What if I told you....that the ability to get overhead is as simple as this picture?

What if I told you....that the ability to get overhead is as simple as this picture?

Then putting them overhead.

And yes, I'm only half joking.

I've written about 30 blog posts on the former, but I haven't completely covered the latter. Here's my attempt to change that.

It's hard to write about pressing weight overhead because ~50% of people struggle with owning that position.  Sometimes it's a stability problem or a mobility issue - both of which are secretly stability issues. For others, they may be "cleared" to press overhead, but they suffer from back or shoulder pain.

How can you tell if you struggle overhead or if you own that position?  I'm a fan of the ol' Shoulder Flexion to Wall test.  Here's Eric Cressey explaining it much better than I ever could:

While you can use this as a general mobility and movement prep drill, I like using it as a screen.  It makes intuitive sense - if someone can't keep their pelvis neutral and get their arms overhead, I'm not going to put a weight in their hand.  More importantly, if someone can't get their hands back to the wall, they easily understand why putting a weight in their hands isn't a great idea.

If you can pass this test easily?  Welcome to the club.  And be prepared for a lot of other people to hate you.

If you can't pass it? Don't worry.  I've used the following approach to help many people regain their ability to get truly overhead. I hope it works for you too!

1. Start with the Floor

 Extension on the left, flexion on the right.

Extension on the left, flexion on the right.

When people lose the ability to get overhead, the blame usually falls on a lack of thoracic extension (the ability to arch our back and extend behind us).  After all, we need thoracic extension to get our arms above our head.  So if we can't extend our arms, we just need more extension, right?  But what if our thoracic spine is already extended?

That's exactly the problem most of us have.  Our thoracic spine is already too extended, so the path to getting overhead isn't trying to get more extension - it's actually to improve our thoracic flexion.  This idea is counterintuitive but it's akin to fixing a door that won't close.  You could just try to close the door harder (by gaining extension), or you could fix the hinges and the door frame (by gaining flexion).

Here's an example of what I mean and it's how I usually start someone who has lost the ability to get overhead:

Despite my terrible audio, I hope you caught at least some of what I was saying.  As you can see, there's a lot going on with this exercise!  

First, we're using our hamstrings to stabilize our pelvis, allowing our spinal erectors to relax and taking us out of our extension pattern.  Next, by reaching toward the ceiling we're facilitating flexion and ensuring that our obliques/abs do the work.  We're also using gravity to help us stretch our lats and reclaim our lost mobility.

Lastly, by using our breath and getting full exhales, we're restoring the position of our diaphragm.  And to drop a major knowledge bomb, a badly positioned diaphragm is the main reason people struggle to get overhead.

2. Take it to the Wall

Once someone has shown the ability to get to the floor without compensating, it's time to stand up.  That's when I like to employ a similar looking exercise:

As I mentioned, when we no longer have the floor underneath us, we have to create our own stability.  It gets harder to keep our back flat on the wall, but that's why I love using the block - we get adductors, pelvic floor musculature (yes, guys need this too), and bit of abs.

After someone owns both of these drills, it's time to incorporate other types of overhead work. Kettlebell Pullovers, Turkish Get-Ups, and Bottoms Up Pressing is all fair game.  

Because it all helps in your pursuit of happiness putting heavy things overhead.