Should You Be Lifting Overhead?

When it comes to shoulder flexion, patience is key.

In theory, we all generally embrace the idea of a safety-first motto.

But, when it comes to the reality of the gym, so many of us are tempted to say, “Eff you, safety! I want to press overhead. I want to jerk! I want to snatch!” (All the while ignoring the cues our bodies are giving us when we end up in positions we intuitively know aren’t helping us.)

The voice in our head—aka our ego—is strong. So, we continue to let it dictate our decisions. We keep pressing overhead with a barbell. We keep jerking. We keep snatching.

And then we find ourselves in pain or chronically injured.

Ready for a reality check? (Apologies in advance, this might hurt your ego.)

It’s time to discover if you’re really ready to be lifting overhead with a barbell.

The Simple Shoulder Flexion Test

Use the following steps to determine far can you get your arm. This determines your readiness for overhead movements like barbell presses, jerks, and snatches.

  1. Set yourself up with your back against the wall and feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bend your knees a little bit so you can get your bum, your entire back, and the back of your head against the wall.
  3. With a STRAIGHT arm, raise one hand over your head. Make sure you keep your bum, back and head against the wall the whole time. Pay extra careful attention to the lower back—it’s often what wants to peel off the wall first. And make sure your arm stays straight. It’s worth filming for feedback, as often we think our arm is straight when it’s not.

The Scoring System: Red Light

STOP, you’re not yet ready! You’re a red light if you cannot touch your thumb to the wall while maintaining the three points of contact (bum, back, head) on the wall and a straight arm.

The Scoring System: ​Yellow Light

Proceed with caution! You’re a yellow light if you can get your thumb to touch the wall while maintaining all points of contact with the wall and a perfectly straight arm.

Yellow light for overhead pressing.

The Scoring System: Green Light

Go! You have been cleared to lift overhead safely. You’re a green light if you can get the back of your wrist to touch the wall while maintaining the three points of contact and keeping a straight arm. If this is you, see if you can do it with both arms at once!

Green light for overhead pressing.

So what does all this mean?

I know what you’re thinking, “If I’m not allowed to press overhead with a barbell because I’m a yellow light (or a red light), what can I do?”

Below are two exercises for those of you who are yellow lights and red lights that get you continuing to press vertically, but in a safer, more appropriate way for your current mobility level.

Single Arm Dumbbell Press: Yellow Lights

As sexy as you have decided the barbell is, DBs are cool, too!

Isolating one arm at a time is a lot easier if your shoulder flexion isn’t yet a green light. It also helps you to keep a neutral spine if you do these in a seated or split position.

Landmine Press: Red Lights

If you don’t have an actual landmine contraption, you can do these by placing the barbell securely in a corner.

Landmine presses allow you to continue building strength through pressing vertically, but by deliberately reducing the range of motion overhead. This helps you avoid putting strain on your spine and your shoulder joint. Work one arm at a time, and just like the single DB press, you can also do these in a split position. Or you can try them in a half-kneeling lunge position.

Working Toward a Green Light

For those of you who are ready to humble down and embrace more acceptable movements for your current level of mobility, but still want to improve your shoulder flexion so you can eventually be a green light, below are three exercises for you to add to your warm-up to improve shoulder flexion.

Shoulder Flexion Reps

Remember the red, yellow, green light test? You can turn this into a mobility drill, too.

Add 20 reps per arm—two seconds up, two seconds down—to your warm-up, either against the wall or on the floor. Focus on perfect posture and keep those points of contact with the wall (or floor).

It’s a great way to open up your shoulders while reiterating perfect posture. Over time, you should be able to get that arm a little closer to being a green light.

Prone Lift-Offs

Prone lift-offs are a good way to work on improving your active range of motion.

Lay on your stomach. Grab a dowel (narrowing hands will be harder, wider hands easier) and raise the dowel overhead with straight arms. Hold for two seconds at your end range. Then relax again. Keep your glutes and abs tight so your spine doesn’t extend.

Add 2 sets of 10-15 reps of these to your warm-up.

Supine Raises

Lay on your back on a bench. Keep your entire spine glued into the bench (this probably means bending your knees to your chest). Then grab a dowel with 5-10lbs on it and slowly lower your arms as far as they can go into an overhead position while maintaining your points of contact with the bench. Then quickly pull the dowel back up to your starting position.

Add 2 sets of 10 to your warm-up.

When it comes to shoulder flexion, patience is key.

For best results adhere to your current level of mobility and stay the course.