Of all the concerns new athletes bring me, lifting overhead is the biggest. Whether that’s due to a previous injury, lack of flexibility, or lack of understanding, this is a common area of concern and something that I want to highlight in this blog.

Lifting weights overhead is not only safe but functionally necessary. Not preparing for the ordinary, daily movements you do overhead would be setting you up for mechanical failure. Whether lifting a box to a tall shelf, clearing snow off the roof of your car, or even putting on a sweater, your body needs to learn how to move and support loading overhead. The ammo lift is a great example that supports the efficacy of overhead lifting. This used to be part of the Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test. This test had an athlete take a 30-pound ammo can and perform as many reps from the shoulder to overhead as possible in two minutes. The use of legs was allowed and encouraged, as it allows for more reps. This test was designed to test strength and stamina, and it is brutal, I’m sure!

The common conjecture that lifting overhead is inherently dangerous or destructive to the shoulder couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet, it has been ingrained in so many athletes’ minds that it instills a fear of going overhead. That is because it is a conjecture. Like “squatting is bad for your knees” or “swimming after you eat will make you drown,” these are not factual statements. They are unlike a hypothesis, a theory, or a law because those things need validation. While conjectures may be great predictions, they are not validated by facts.

Lifting weights overhead through movements like presses, jerks, or snatches is an excellent way to develop overall body strength. These movements improve your stability by creating a strong core. Your hips and core generate power, which can be transferred to your arms and overhead. When the loading is stacked over the body in proper alignment, athletes can use the strength of their upper back and trapezius muscles to support the lift. It is not just the shoulder that does the work. The body recruits multiple muscle groups to create stability. We commonly cue athletes to “shrug at the top” or “arms by your ears.” This tends to help create a good position and good muscular engagement.

Introducing an athlete who has had shoulder issues in the past to overhead movements is no easy task. However, athletes can gain a ton of function with the right dose of coaching, technique, and skill development. Take a torn rotator cuff, for example. After the injury, surgery, and all that fun stuff is healed, we take time to strengthen all the muscles in the shoulder (rotator cuff) through proper movement. The muscles learn to support one another and create a stable joint, reducing the risk of another strain, sprain, or tear. Not only does lifting overhead create strength and stability, but it also increases the range of motion. This can be essential for athletes who throw a ball, change direction or create force. Think about baseball players, lacrosse players, or even javelin throwers–they need this for their skill. It can even be essential in creating the power needed for a firefighter swinging an ax through a door.

In our Fundamentals classes, we spend an entire day on overhead lifting, making sure that new athletes understand the positions before they get into a class. We use minimal, if no, weight to ensure that even if a lifter fails, the risk to the shoulders is negligible. That concept carries over to class as well. When a WOD calls for push presses or snatches, athletes are encouraged to choose only loading that supports a solid overhead position. We also provide a ton of accessory movements on our strength days meant to reinforce a solid, stacked overhead position. Under the guidance of our coaches, we will show you the wide range of benefits that come with understanding and practicing safe overhead lifting.