Overhead Work

It’s common for lifters to have favorites and go-to exercises to train various muscle groups. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it is a safe and effective movement. While I have many of my own, most of them involve overhead work. The shoulders are the second most important muscle group in the body when talking about overall health and fitness. Healthy shoulders have a wide range of motion and are responsible for thousands of actions in everyday life. They push, pull, lift, and keep the arms attached during heavy deadlifts and kettlebell swings. Basically, they assist in all my favorite exercises.


While shoulder activation is one of the benefits of overhead work, it is not the only advantage. Any time the resistance is extended pass the shoulder, whether overhead or fully extended outwards to the front or sides, the body is forced to maintain balance. This includes every muscle group in the body adding to the radiating tension. I prefer this technique over isolating muscle groups because I can get the entire body activated with the same work. It also helps towards the end of a heavy set of overhead presses because I can add a small “bump” from the legs to those last couple reps in. (This is a little bit of a cheat, but it’s sometime needed for a heavy set as long as an athlete is not going too heavy as to need to start off a set with a bump. It should only be used for the last couple reps of the set.) This teaches the body to synchronize and work in rhythm. Any time the overhead position in maintained for an extended time, such as carries, lunges, and squats, the abs and spinal erectors are forced into an isometric contraction. Most feel the effects in the mid back because this is usually the weakest link, but it is a great exercise for both.


The two ways I use the overhead technique to really work the core are offset lifts and carries. If an athlete uses a single arm in the overhead lift, the body must fight to maintain a good shoulder and hip position for the lift. A 20kg kettlebell extended over head in one hand means that the core and hips must offset the pressure through the stabilizers. This causes an intense internal pressure taxing the entire core. When carries are added in, each step forces balance and stability from the ball of the foot all the way to the top wrist. This is the best way to incorporate the radiant pressure technique described in earlier posts. I like to mix these towards the end of a workout to drain the power and kick in a deep burn. I start with a heavy bell and perform overhead presses for a hard 6 to 8 reps and carry the weight for a couple hundred feet, then switch hands and go again. If the weight and distance is right, an athlete can continue to recovery one side while the other is working and cut out the break until they finish 3 or so uninterrupted rounds. Grab a heavy bell and give it a shot.


The dangers that come with overhead work are over extension of the back and the obvious danger of having weight above the head. The first can be mitigated by squeezing the midsection and using a weight that allows the lifter to stay up right. If they feel the need to lean back, they should go with lighter weight or focus on the core activation. If the weight is right and the stiff spine is maintained, the latter should not become an issue. If a problem should arise, ditch the weight forward and as you move backwards. Spotting a lifter in an overhead lift can be very tricking, especially when going heavy. For this reason, I just stay clear and make sure there are no trip hazards behind the athlete.

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