Q and A: Overhead Pressing

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Q: I have a question about vertical pressing. When you press overhead, is there a certain movement or

non-movement/pattern the scaps should follow, or should it just depend on what is natural for the individual? Also, what cues do you give people when overhead pressing? Hope this makes sense! Thank you!

A: To answer your question, there’s a natural “rhythm” the scapulae should follow in conjunction with the humeri called “scapulo-humeral rhythm.”

That is, for every 15 degrees of shoulder abduction, ten degrees occurs at the glenohumeral joint (as well as five degrees at the scapulothoracic joint). Looking at the whole picture, however, given 180 degrees of shoulder abduction, 120 degrees occurs at the glenohumeral joint and 60 degrees occurs at the scapulothoracic joint. As such, if we wanted to be really concise and simplify things, once past 30 degrees of abduction, for every two degrees the humerus moves, the scapulae should move one degree.

Unforunately, when there are changes to the scapulo-humeral rhythm, the head of the humerus does not remain centered and it can lead to problems with the rotator cuff tendons such as tendonitis, tendonosis, or rotator cuff impingement.

When this pattern is “clean,” you see proper upward (and downward) rotation of the scapulae. Conversely, as is the case much of the time, this pattern is usually (for lack of a better term) really shitty for most people due to a multitude of reasons:

1. Soft tissue restrictions

2. Poor t-spine mobility

3. Poor glenohumeral mobility

4. Weak/inhibited upward rotators (lower traps, serratus anterior)

5. Too much benching, crunches, playing World of Warcraft/not getting laid, to name a few.

As such, when it comes to overhead pressing, it’s oftentimes beneficial to “screen” people to make sure whether or not they can get away with it without causing issues down the road. As I’ve noted in the past, there’s no such thing as contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated exercisers, which is why you’re missing the boat entirely as a trainer or coach if you’re not properly assessing your clients/athletes.

Moving on to the direct question, as far as “cues” to use when showing someone how to overhead press, I prefer that people stand on their two feet rather than sit down on a bench. Doing so places more of a direct challenge on the core stabilizers, and well as makes the exercise more challenging in general.

Also, you’ll notice that a lot of people compensate poor upward rotation with lumbar hyperextension when performing this exercise. In essence, they end up making it more of a standing incline press rather than a standing overhead press, which again, is why it’s important to “screen” people to see whether or not they should even be doing this in the first place.

That said, assuming they’re in the clear, I like to tell people to squeeze their glutes through the duration of the set, which will posteriorly tilt the pelvis forward and take some of the burden off the lumbar spine. From there, all I really do is tell people to explode up, bringing their elbows to their ears without shrugging the bar up. Control the weight down, and repeat. Certainly not a exhaustive list when it comes to technique, but really, all we’re talking about here is lifting something over your head. It’s not rocket science……;o)

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