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Mobility Series: the Press

Ah, the overhead shoulder press. It’s a glorious thing to see a bar go from someone’s shoulders to arm’s length over their head. It’s the highest you can bring a bar without throwing it. It shows your complete disregard for gravity. Take that, nature!

For the purpose of this article, let’s define the shoulder press as any movement involving an initial position of the weight in a front rack and final position with arms extended overhead, bar in hand of course. It includes, but is not limited to, the press, push-press, push-jerk, split-jerk, etc.

Let’s see what the movement from shoulder to overhead entails.

The physics

In the initial position, the body rests on a stable surface, aka the earth. Then there’s a long string of flesh and bones between the earth and the actual weight, aka your body. Now let’s assume the press is done standing. From what you’ll learn in this text, the change in position will not change much in the actual preparation for doing a press effectively.

Now, that long string of flesh and bones needs to sustain that weight as tightly and with as few loose parts as possible, otherwise there will be trouble. That starts from the feet and goes all the way up to the shoulders.

During the actual movement, there’s a shoulder flexion and elbow extension that happen relatively simultaneously. That basically means you’re bringing an object that had that a certain amount of potential energy to an even higher level of potential energy. That has the direct impact of elongating the flesh and bones part of the model, thus increasing the amount of stability needed to make it all stack up nicely.

The sequence of execution

It’s important to know the sequence of execution of a movement in order to make sure you can perform it correctly.

From the moment you have the weight on your shoulders, there’s stuff to do. Your feet are roughly hip or shoulder width apart, and will be firmly planted, with a serious will to screw them into the ground by externally rotating against the ground. This will make you squeeze your quadriceps muscles (quads) hard and your gluteal muscles (butt) harder. Then, to avoid leaning back, clench your abdominal muscles (abs) as if someone were to punch you in the gut. From there, press the weight up, vertically, along as straight a line as possible. First up, your anterior deltoid muscles (anterior delts) will fire. In order to support that, your trapezius muscle (traps) and scapular retraction muscles will counterbalance the tension. Then, as you get to eye-level, the triceps brachii muscles (triceps) will start to take over, finishing the movement. Now obviously, the sequence is way more complicated than that. Dozens of small muscles enter in the execution of the over head shoulder press, but those are the main ones.

Sooo… about that shoulder press?

If we’re moving weight overhead in a straight line, we basically need to make sure any muscle slowing that down will be as relaxed as possible to allow movement to happen fluidly. What muscle brings the hands down from overhead? What’s the exact opposite of a shoulder press? Yes, the pull-up. So basically, any muscle involved in the pull-up should be massaged, foam rolled, and trigger balled to death, right? Well, not really, but close.

What to stretch or mobilize?

Now pull!

The latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) are a good start. That big piece of steak goes from your neck to your low back and attaches to your arm. It internally rotates and adducts your shoulder. The lats are a major part of your upper back and if they’re tight, they will reduce the range of motion of your shoulders by pulling them down and forward. So you need to stretch and foam roll those thoroughly.

Arms over-head releases yout thoracic spine even more.

Next up will be your upper back muscles, which are responsible for the stability and movement of your shoulder blades. If those are tight, you’ll have issues making the bar travel upwards in a straight line. And that will lead to wasting energy in the movement. Foam rolling those will increase thoracic mobility, which in turn will allow you to move weight overhead in an easier fashion. In addition to this, using the trigger ball between your spine and the medial (close to center line) ridge of your shoulder blade will help the shoulder blade move better.

Make sure you’re a champ. Doesn’t have to be sport related, like this here.

Then we have the pectoralis muscle (pecs). That muscle internally rotates the shoulder and adducts the arm. So it makes sense to free it up so you can externally rotate and abduct the arm. A good ol’ pec stretch against a squat rack post will do the trick, and a little bit of trigger ball work will make sure all the little corners are freed up.

Last but certainly not least, a little rubber band traction performed on the arm will help hit the tight corners of your joint while staying in the safe zone. Don’t forget that.

Ok, then what?

Now that you’ve removed the handbrakes from your shoulder joint by various methods, it’s time to start lifting. Start with a PVC pipe or a broomstick, but start with only the weightless version of the movement. Lifting a weightless object will let you feel if your shoulder needs more mobility work, as you’ll notice if the handbrakes are still on. But if you have some kind of tightness, and you jump directly to lifting heavy stuff overhead, the muscle contraction from your pressing might make you miss some tightness signals, and then you’ll just end up lifting against yourself, thus being less efficient. So PVC pipe first. When performing the movement with the PVC pipe, make sure you squeeze all the muscles you would on a normal heavy lift. You want to wake them up properly and make your nervous system know that great things are about to happen. This applies to all overhead movements.

Now lift heavy, lift safely, and have fun!


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