Not All Overhead Movements Are Created Equal

5 Reasons Why Your Overhead Demands Are Different From Lift to Lift

A huuuuge thing that I’ve been finding lately with some of the CrossFit, Fitness Athletes and active individuals that I’ve been working with is that overhead activities are not all the same, by any means.  It’s been fascinating to hear and test out that you can be overhead in two or three different lifts or exercises and your shoulder will respond significantly differently between them.  

What do I mean?  “A strict press seems to bother me way more than an overhead squat.”  Or,  “I have no problems when I do jerks but as soon as I try to snatch it seems to be way worse.”  I guess the point is that many times we see where the weight ends up and assume there are more similarities than there actually are between lifts.  Think of it as not as important for “where you end up” but really important for “how you get there.”

That being said, what I want to do is break down, as simply as I can, some (BY NO MEANS ALL) of the key components of shoulder health when looking at functional movement that stand out clinically to me over the past 4+ years of working with fitness athletes.  Point being in...don’t try to master the overall movement until you’ve mastered the individual parts of the sum.  

1. The Ankles: yeah I said it...your ankles are the first thing that come to mind for me for your shoulder health.  If you do any form of snatch, overhead squat, thruster, etc. then forgetting about your ankle health could lead to long term issues with your shoulder health.  As the feet/ankles are the first contact with the ground, inefficiency at the ankles can create changes up the chain and increase stress on the shoulders (think forward trunk lean).  

2. Latissimus length/flexibility: the lats primary action is to internally rotate the arm and pull it towards our body (extension of the shoulder).  Many overhead activities require the ability to elevate/flex the arm away from the body and externally rotate it.  Thus, if you are limited in lat flexibility, you may have a hard time even getting your shoulders in an appropriate position for certain movements/lifts.  And even if you do, that lat length is going to result in a tug of war at the shoulder joint itself.  (Lat length test)

3. Thoracic Mobility: The thoracic spine and rib cage is the foundation for our shoulder blades to rest on.  Lack of proper extension or mobility in this segment results in a less likely ability for the shoulder blades to posteriorly tilt, upwardly rotate, and stabilize properly overhead.  If you can’t move well through the spine and ribcage, the rest of the upper quadrant often times is challenged to carry out its appropriate function.  (t-spine mobility test)

4. Scapular Stability: hand in hand with part 3 above is the ability for the muscles that attach the shoulder blade to the rib cage to sequence, coordinate, and stabilize proper shoulder blade mechanics while the arms are transitioning and stabilizing overhead.  If the scapula is not a stable base, we ask the rotator cuff, deltoid, bicep, and elbow musculature to do more that it likely should have to.  (reach, roll and lift)

5. Grip Strength: Did you know that distal activation (gripping objects well) leads to improved proximal stabilization (the shoulder performs better)?  Many times, the reverse effect can take place where a lack of adequate grip strength for pushing, pulling, and carries can drastically affect how the shoulders operate.  You would think grip strength would improve over time with repeated barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell work (and it does), but if grip strength is limited due to pain, past injury, or poor dynamics at the elbow/wrist, then your overhead positions could suffer.

I could go on for a while longer.  But I think this is a great place to start.  Don’t be surprised if one overhead lift or activity goes better for you than another because each movement/lift has different pillar elements and requirements to it.  But if you are surprised about how you struggle or have pain with one lift or movement but not the other (even if the ending position is the same) then these are 5 good starting points to assess and have fully evaluated to see why you might be having said pain or limited performance.

Want to make sure your shoulders are optimally healthy regardless of what lift or position you’re in overhead?  Then now’s the time to come check out “The Prerequisites for Performance” live event that we are hosting at Motus Rx Physical Therapy.  Dr. Eric Wallace, DPT and Functional Movement Therapist and Steve Huft, Occupational Therapist and CrossFit certified instructor are running a 5 week live event that will detail how to stay moving efficiently so you can bulletproof your body and perform at the highest level.  First live event starts Wednesday, July 26th with a focus on front rack assessment and performance and cost per class is $15.00.  RSVP by emailing Eric or Steve at or or calling 920-540-2344.