Overhead Strength For Your Lifts

Here is another great article from our guest writer John Grace. John Grace is a coach at Athletic Lab, based out of Cary, North Carolina. John has his CSCS and USATF Level 1 certifications and coaches youth to professional athletes at Athletic Lab. Check out how to  up your overhead strength and make a possible weakness a strength in your training.

Pressing should be an integral portion of a weightlifter’s program.  Pressing is considered a secondary lift to the Snatch and Clean & Jerk, but overhead strength is paramount for a successful lock out on both of these lifts. If pressing is neglected, it can severely hinder an athlete’s ability to successfully make lifts consistently.  Poor overhead strength could also result in increased incidence of shoulder injury. Weightlifters will generally perform an upper body press (press, push press, bench press, etc.) one to three times a week depending on the phase of training.  To understand why pressing may be valuable to your weightlifting or strength training program we will look at the anatomy of the shoulder, some restrictions, and technique.

The shoulder is arguably the most complex and mobile joint in the human body.  Because of this, it is also very susceptible to injuries. From dislocations to an array of soft tissue injuries, the shoulder joint is at risk almost any time you touch a barbell. Unfortunately, some athletes have a higher potential for injury than others based off of the anatomy of their shoulders. The acromion or acromion process as the outer end of the spine of the scapula that (a) protects the glenoid cavity, (b) forms the outer angle of the shoulder, and (c) articulates with the clavicle.  There are three types of acromions: type I, type II, and type III.  Type I is “normal” and can best be described as flat. Type II and type III are curved and hooked; type III more so than type II. (see featured image) If you have type II or III, this will obstruct the outlet for the supraspinatus tendon. Cadaveric studies have shown an increased incidence of rotator cuff tears in persons with type II and type III acromions.(1) Training these stabilizers, such as the rotator cuff, is what makes a strong lock out possible.

Figure 1 (see featured image)

The scapula (shoulder blade) plays a large role in posterior shoulder stability since all four rotator cuff muscles attach along the scapula. In normal abduction (movement away from the midline of the body), the scapula moves laterally (externally) in the first 30° to 50° of shoulder abduction. As further abduction occurs, the scapula then pivots through an arc of approximately 65° as the shoulder reaches full elevation (upward travel).(2) When the lock out occurs, these rotator cuff muscles along with the other scapular stabilizers, are what help to maintain a strong stabilized position overhead. While overhead pressing is important, it is equally important to keep these stabilizers working properly.  Gains in overhead pressing will not be possible unless the scapular stabilizers are operating optimally.  If you suspect your scapular stabilizers are not operating properly, consider working on improving their strength.

Technique will differ from lifter to lifter, but there are a few things to keep in mind when pressing and jerking. Depending on the press variation you are performing, you should have the same grip width you would use to Jerk or Snatch. This will help keep consistency in the lock outs and will transition well to the competition lifts (especially if you are a beginner). When pressing, you’ll want to concentrate on keeping the shoulders directly over neutral hips during the dip and drive. Not only will this help prevent injury to the spine, this can help to keep the weight concentrated in the heels during the lift and allow the bar to travel in the best path to successfully complete the lift. A common problem to push pressing and Jerking is pushing the weight to the ball of the foot too early and breaking the neutral spine. From a side view, it can look like the hips are shifting forward during the transition from the dip to the drive and the abdomen is jutting out in front of the hips. These don’t necessarily coincide with each other, but either of these errors will most likely result in a missed lift in front. Adding in some additional core work and incorporating some presses and jerks from behind the neck can help alleviate this problem.

Keeping your shoulders healthy in a sport like weightlifting will be difficult in the long term, but properly performing presses and lock outs can help extend the life of your shoulders.


1.) Allen E. Fongemie, M.D., Daniel D. Buss, M.D., and Sharon J. Rolnick, Ph. D. Management of Shoulder Impingement Syndrome and Rotator Cuff Tears. American Academy of Family Physician. 1998. Feb 15. 57.4. 667-674.

2.) Kibler, Ben, MD. “The Role of the Scapula in Athletic Shoulder Function” The American Journalof Sports Medicine. March 1998. 26.2. 325-337

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