Overhead Athletes and Pressing

Okay, I’m going to open a big can of worms with this one, and you may think I am crazy, but I don’t know if an overhead athlete (baseball/softball/swimmers ect.) should be allowed to press with a barbell, whether it be overhead pressing or bench pressing. The more and more I think about it, I’m just not sure it makes sense.

can of worms

The problem is that there is no real consensus on whether an overhead athlete should be allowed to press with a barbell. Some strength coaches and physical therapists will tell you that overhead athletes should be pressing overhead. They’ll explain that if the athlete is going to be put in an overhead position during competition they need to be strong in that position. Fair enough.

On the other hand, others would argue that the overhead athlete should not doing any type of training overhead – they do way too much of it already. Think about how many times a college aged swimmer has been put in this overhead position throughout the course of their swimming career – the number is staggering. Again, fair enough.

I understand both sides of the argument, but I keep going back to the same thing; risk vs. reward.

risk versus reward

My issue with the traditional barbell bench press locks the athlete into a certain position, not allowing a free range of motion while the athlete presses. This also places an athlete in a fixed scapula position (lying on a bench) as opposed to a free scapula position where the scapula is not pinned down, like a push up.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the work Eric Cressey (the king of shoulders) is doing and you will find many of the same thoughts. Cressey has seen overhead athletes that complain of pain while bench pressing (fixed position) immediately stop and perform push ups instead (free position) and report zero pain while doing so.

My other issue is that most overhead athletes can not get into a correct overhead position. These athletes have such poor tissue quality around the shoulder and/or such poor shoulder mobility that it doesn’t allow them to get into a proper overhead position, creating much more un-needed stress on the shoulder joint.

Since I am advocating not performing any barbell pressing with overhead athletes, the question remains what would I recommend?

As simple and basic as it sounds, I think push ups are king for most overhead athletes. I think you should aim to exhaust push ups and progress them in every way you can think of. Weighted push ups, feet elevated push ups, weighted feet elevated push ups, chain or band resisted push ups, TRX push ups, and whatever else you could think of would work. Clap push ups probably don’t fall into this category, they typically look terrible and do nothing but cause wrist pain in a lot of athletes.

A close second would be Landmine Presses and various cable presses. Landmine presses and cable presses have an additional bonus of allowing you to perform them uni-laterally, which creates a great functional carryover for an overhead athlete (or any athlete for that matter). Also, these exercises can be performed tall kneeling, 1/2 kneeling, standing or even in a split stance to allow for more options when programming. Finally, cable presses can be performed in a push-pull fashion, adding a little more variety and fun.

Finally, if you have to, Alternating DB Presses or 1-arm DB Presses would come last. These exercises are exceptional for most all athletes, just not overhead athletes because they don’t allow for that free scapula motion. However, if you insist on having some type of heavy horizontal pressing in the program, these movements are much better options then the traditional bench press.

Last but certainly not least, I would take an aggressive approach to trying to keep the shoulder healthy year-round. Adding shoulder mobility, rotator cuff strength/stabilization exercises throughout the program is essential.

  • Shoulder mobility: Alternating Shoulder Flexion on a Peanut, 1/2 Kneeling T-Spine Rotation, Bench T-Spine and other mobility drills you have in your training toolbox.
  • Rotator Cuff Strength/Stability: Bottoms Up Kettlebell Presses, Bottoms Up Kettlebell Carries, Floor Slides, Bear Crawls, Lateral Crawls, Band Pull Aparts, Seated External Rotation, Cable External Rotation, Cable Internal Rotation, ect.

Long story short, I would stay away from the barbell with an overhead athlete, simple because the risk:reward isn’t worth it. There are so many more options to train pressing strength that have a much lower risk for injury and/or pain that it seems the barbell should fall to the bottom of your list of training tools, maybe even off your training list all-together.

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