How To Assess And Improve Your Overhead Mobility
Push jerks, snatches, and overhead squats are often times the most difficult and frustrating exercises to perform, usually, due to lack of mobility not necessarily strength. It is not uncommon for an athlete to be able to back squat 400 pounds, but then can barely overhead squat the bar. Athletes find they want to “push the weight”, but are limited due to mobility and muscular imbalance.
In this article, we are going to first address what causes overhead (OH) limitations and then demonstrate simple, yet effective methods that, if performed correctly and consistently, will help fix these limitations.
First things first. Two major issues that limit OH mobility are having limited mobility in the thoracic spine (T-Spine) and/or shoulder girdle.
Limited Mobility in the Thoracic Spine:
Tight Pectoralis Muscles (AKA a tight chest):
This is due to years of poor posture and not doing anything about it. Unfortunately, just about everything we do is from the forward seated position; driving a car, eating, watching TV, even sitting and reading this article right now. If not taken care of, this causes us to have an imbalance. Our scaps and posterior chain muscles in our mid-back become weak and we end up with tight pectoralis muscles (aka a tight chest). If you don’t do anything to strengthen your posterior chain and relax your chest then you end up with a hyperkyphotic thoracic spine, also known as hunchback, which then limits OH mobility.
Here is a test to see if you have tight pectoralis muscles and are at risk of developing a hyperkyphotic thoracic spine.
- Stand with your back against a wall
- Keeping your arms on the wall, raise them to shoulder height
- Bend your elbows at 90 degrees with your fingers pointing forward
- Now try to bring the back of your wrist/hand to the wall. If you cannot bring your wrist to the wall without your mid-back popping off the wall then you have a mobility limitation in the T-Spine that needs to be addressed.
There is a certain order of exercises that should be done to really get the full benefit of the fix. It goes like this; soft tissue, stretch, strengthen. To help open your chest, the first thing we want to do is roll. Grab a soft ball or a lacrosse ball and lean on it. Yes, that’s it.
As seen in the picture, lean on the lacrosse ball with it placed on your chest. Stay there, occasionally moving around the area for about 3-5 minutes and then switch to the other side. If it hurts more in one spot, stay there!
After we have rolled, it’s now time to stretch. Stand next to a bar or rig and place your arm on the rig with your elbow at 90 degrees. Slightly lean forward and hold for about 2-3 minutes. Repeat both sides twice. (See picture left)
Now that we have stretched, it’s now time to add in the strengthening exercises. This doesn’t mean, let’s go bench press. We need to do just the opposite and strengthen our mid-back/scaps. At a minimum 3x/week adding in a pull after the workout or incorporate it into a warm-up will do just that.
Here are 3 different exercises that you can perform:
Tight Shoulder Girdle:
Similar to why athletes are prone to having a tight chest, a tight shoulder girdle is also due to daily life and muscular imbalances. Having tight latissimus dorsi (your lats), can cause stiffness in shoulder flexion, abduction, and external rotation. This makes it very difficult to push anything overhead.
Here is a test for shoulder stiffness:
Sit on a bench with your back straight. Place the palm of your left hand on the back of your neck. Then place the back of your right hand on your lower back. Without moving your back, try to slide your hand together. Ideally, you will be less than a fists width apart. Then repeat on the other side.
Continuing to follow the theme of soft tissue, stretch, then strengthen, we want to first grab a foam roller. As seen in the picture shown, spend about 3-5 minutes on each side rolling your lats going from right under your armpit, to about midway down your side.
Now that we have addressed some soft tissue work, now we can stretch. Here are two stretches that are great for stretching your lats.
Soft tissue, stretch, now let’s strengthen. It’s time to increase shoulder stability. Doing each of these exercises 3-4x/week will do just that.
3 Rounds: 10 Reps of Each
Remember, everything takes time. OH mobility will not fix overnight, but with consistency over time it will start to progress. Now let’s get to it!