Improve Your Overhead Press by Testing These Five Areas - The Barbell Physio

Improve Your Overhead Press by Testing These Five Areas

Improve Your Overhead Press by Testing These Five Areas

Overhead lifts such as the military press, snatch, and jerks are staple movements in the strength and conditioning and performance worlds to improve strength and power.   Far too often, people perform the overhead press without proper technique. The compensations they demonstrate lead to abnormal loading of different soft tissue structures and can ultimately lead to pain. And pain should never be a normal response to exercise. Improve Your Overhead Press by Testing These Five Areas

The overhead press, among other lifts, is a combination of sufficient mobility, stability, and motor control in order to perform the lift safely and effectively.  If you are lacking in one or more of these areas, the body will compensate or cheat in order to perform the movement. 

Some common compensations are:

  • Forward Head Posture
  • Extended Lumbar Spine
  • Overly Packed Shoulders
  • Shrugged Shoulders

More often than not, the compensations mentioned above occur in the majority of people who are performing overhead press.  I am by no means preaching that I have perfect form 100% of the time.  There are times when you are going for a rep max and your form may slip a little bit.  This can happen when pushing the limits of repetitions and weight. If you use the following plan of analysis, you will quickly determine what you need to improve your overhead press.

Improve Your Overhead Press

Shoulder Mobility Demands for Overhead Pressing

Shoulder Flexion

We like to see someone be able to exhibit full overhead shoulder flexion, or the ability to have the arms go completely overhead in the military press.

What is considered “normal”?  Well, when the humerus, or upper arm bone is in line with the ear.  This tells me that the individual has a normal amount of shoulder motion in order to complete the overhead press from the glenohumeral joint, aka the shoulder.

What if the arm doesn’t reach overhead?

There can be a few problem areas that cause limited shoulder flexion, soft tissue restrictions or capsular restrictions.

Soft tissue restrictions refer to tightness in the muscles that cross the shoulder joint.  Specifically, latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis minor, and the triceps.

These muscles either attach on the trunk and cross the glenohumeral joint or attach on the scapula and the humerus.  Decreased mobility in these areas can contribute to decreased shoulder flexion.

Here are some quick and easy ways you can fix shoulder mobility to improve your overhead press:


Capsular restrictions can be a little tricky to try and resolve on your own.  Many joints in the body have a capsule that surrounds them.  The capsule is like a ziploc bag that surrounds the joint.  Occasionally, the folds in the capsule can become stiffened and limit motion at a particular joint.

I would not recommend doing band distractions are trying anything to mobilize your glenohumeral joint.  Find a licensed physical therapist or sports chiropractor to assess and properly improve shoulder joint mobility.

Other areas that can limit the overhead press are shoulder internal rotation. If you don’t have adequate shoulder internal rotation, approximately 70 degrees, this can also be a limiting factor.  Performing self-myofascial release (SMR), as shown in the video above, followed by some of the active exercises we show below can also help to improve your overhead press.


Decreased Thoracic Spine Mobility

As we start to move away from the shoulder, poor thoracic spine mobility, specifically the ability to extend and/or rotate can play a huge role in affecting the function of the shoulder. If the thoracic spine lacks mobility or stability, this places the ribs in a poor position. If the ribs are in a poor position, the scapula is in a poor position. Last, if the scapula is a poor position, then the glenohumeral joint will be in a poor position for activity overhead.

Here is a video on how to assess Thoracic Spine Mobility Actively:

Normal thoracic spine mobility in the quadruped position as shown above should be 50 degrees with the line of the trunk in relation to the horizon. If someone doesn’t exhibit 50 degrees or greater of passive thoracic rotation, then this is another area that should be improved upon.

We want to assess both active and passive thoracic spine mobility because if someone is limited actively, but has full passive mobility, then they need to perform some type of stability or motor control exercise.

If someone is limited both passively and actively, then we know that they have limited thoracic spine mobility. If active is limited but passive is not, then a stability problem is to blame (more on this later).

Doing various thoracic spine mobility drills can help to improve thoracic spine mobility and in turn, decrease stress placed on the glenohumeral joint and improve your overhead pres.


Stability Needs For Proper Overhead Pressing

Now that we have covered what areas of the upper body need to be mobile in order to adequately perform overhead pressing, let’s take a look at what areas need to have stability.

Don’t mistake stability with strength.  Stability and strength are two different things.  A way you can think of stability is “controlled mobility.”  It is the proper timing and sequencing of a joint or joints that allow for the proper performance of a movement.

Regarding the shoulder joint, the scapula needs to be able to move in a controlled fashion in order to allow for the arms to get overhead to perform the pressing movement without causing pain and/or compensation.

To determine if someone has adequate upward scapular rotation, or movement of the shoulder blade upward, we need to watch them move.

Scapula RotationWhen watching someone’s scapula, or shoulder blades move, we would like to see 55-60 degrees of upward scapular rotation.  This will allow for adequate movement of the scapula so that humerus don’t crash into it when going to press overhead.

If you aren’t sure if by just watching them move if they have 55-60 degrees of upward scapular rotation, you can use an app on the iPhone called Clinometer.  When the person completely reaches overhead, place the long side of your iPhone on the medial, or inside border of the scapula to get a reading for the amount of rotation.

You can also look and see where the inferior angle, or the bottom point of the scapula is when the person is when they have stopped reaching overhead.

Ideally, we would like to see the inferior angle of the scapula at the midline of the body when the arms are fully overhead.

If someone has 55-60 degrees of upward scapular rotation, then we know that have enough stability of the shoulder blade in order to get their arms overhead in order to overhead press safely and effectively.

If someone doesn’t have enough upward scapular rotation, here is a drill  to help improve that.

This drill can be performed for 8-10 reps in the warm-up prior to your workout or you can superset them into your program and perform them after a primary lift.  It could look something like this:

A1: Barbell Overhead Press x 5

A2: Sidelying Rib Roll x 5 reps ea.

A3: Quadruped Assisted Reach, Roll, and Lift x 5 ea


After we have assessed thoracic spine mobility, we need to make sure it has adequate thoracic spine stability.  That is the same test as performed above for thoracic spine mobility, but the athlete is performing it actively versus someone assessing it passively.  Again, 50 degrees is ideal for thoracic spine stability.

This can also be used using the Clinometer app.  Place the base of the iPhone 1/2 way between the scapula at the mid point between the top and bottom of the scapula as mentioned above.

If someone doesn’t have 50 degrees of active thoracic rotation, then doing this drill can help improve thoracic spine stability and in turn place the shoulder in a better position to overhead press (more drills HERE). 

Now that we have assessed and looked at various drills to help improve shoulder and thoracic spine stability and mobility, we need to put it all together and be able to move as one, cohesive unit.

Core Stability
The “core” is an important piece for all forms of lifting, especially overhead pressing.  The lifter must maintain a neutral spine in order to properly execute a lift.  If the core is in an ideal position, it places everything above it and below it in an optimal position to perform.  If the core is not in an ideal position, compensations up and down the kinetic chain.
A quick and easy test to perform to see if someone has adequate core stability is the Trunk Stability Push-Up (TPSU) from the people at the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).  The TSPU is a test to see if someone can maintain a neutral spine position while performing a push-up.  Areas of compensation during this movement can include:
  • Lumbar Flexion
  • Lumbar Extension
  • Loss of a Neutral Spine
  • Rotation of the Trunk
A simple movement such as this can indicate whether or not someone has the ability to maintain a neutral spine while moving through their upper and lower extremities. This Dead Bug Exercise Progression will make a great protocol for an athlete needing better core stability to improve your overhead press.


If you can perform these movements well and are pain-free, then you want to start incorporating overhead pressing with good form back into your routine.  These drills are important to continue to perform either prior to a workout or supersetted into your workout in order to maintain adequate shoulder and thoracic mobility and stability.

If military pressing is either painful or may not be appropriate for you, try some of these other variations.


Andrew Millett is a physical therapist located just outside of Boston, MA.  He considers himself a hybrid physical therapist bridging the gap between physical therapy and strength and conditioning.  Andrew has experience with using the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), Functional Movement Systems (FMS), and Integrative Dry Needling (IDN).  He has treated all types of clients ranging from middle school athletes up to the collegiate and Olympic ranks.  Andrew’s goal for all of his clients are to get them moving and feeling better and back to doing what they love to do.

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