Raise your hands for some “Overhead Mobility”!

//Raise your hands for some “Overhead Mobility”!

Raise your hands for some “Overhead Mobility”!

Still avoiding those ‘Overhead Squat’ WODs? Or perhaps you hold a particular grudge against handstands or Jerks because you just can’t seem to get yourself in the right position? Then today’s post is for YOU.

Generally, you can improve your overhead positioning by working on two different areas: mobility and strength/stability. Check out some of the examples below and incorporate them as much as possible into your daily life, if not at least during your warm up or between your sets at class. You might be pleasantly surprised with your suppleness!


Most people share a couple of mobility issues thanks to our largely seated lifestyle today. If you’re someone who sits down at a desk frequently, sits behind the wheel a lot or is even bent over doing trades all day, you probably* have quiet tight and shortened pecs and a somewhat hyperkyphotic spine with limited mobility. These two things combined, destroy a lifter’s overhead mobility and stability by preventing the establishment of the proper structure regardless of strength and technical ability.
Some mobility drills to help you loosen up include:

Foam Rolling

Rolling over the upper and mid-back with the roller perpendicular to the spine is something you can do multiple times daily, but at a minimum, should be part of your pre-training routine. This is a very simple, easy way to get some movement in the T-spine and starting loosening it up. Along with rolling, try simply lying over the roll, with your arms stretched overhead, and try to relax to get the spine to settle over the curve of the roll. Spend several seconds on a few different locations from the mid to upper back.

Half Round

Another variation of the above:  lie over a chunk of white foam roller cut into about 4 inches wide and a half-round shape. Lie with your T-spine curving over this, just like with the regular foam roller, but this is a little easier to do for long periods of time because it’s lower and a bit softer. You could also try doing this while holding a plate in each hand with her arms out in a 90/90 orientation (upper arm 90 degrees from the body, and elbows bent to 90 degrees). This combines T-spine mobility and shoulder girdle stretching.

Leaning Bar Hang

This is one of my go-to shoulder girdle stretches—it’s simple, unglamorous, and effective, just the way I like stretches. Hanging from a pull-up bar with about a jerk-width or slightly wider grip and keeping  toes on the floor (or on a box as needed) a couple feet behind the bar, hang from the bar while leaning your chest forward through your arms (the feet on the floor allow you to create the forward lean, but also allow the body to relax a bit more into the stretch. The convenient bonus of this stretch is that it provides some nice traction for the lower back, which is very beneficial for lifters.
overhead + crossfit woden

Door Jamb Pec Stretch

This is another very simple stretch that works wonders. With the elbow somewhat bent and higher than the shoulder, place the forearm on a door jamb (or power rack upright, stall bar upright, etc.) and push the chest forward to open the shoulder girdle.
overhead + crossfit woden

Underarm Stretch

Again, simple and effective. Lift your arm overhead and bend the elbow completely, and place the backside of your upper arm near the elbow against a power rack upright or similar. Keeping your abs tight to avoid lumber hyperextension, lean forward to open the shoulder as much as possible. Use your free hand to hold the wrist of the arm being stretched and push it out to the side somewhat. You can do a similar stretch with a band.
overhead + crossfit woden

Partner T-spine Mobilisation 

Start with one partner on their knees with arms overhead and elbows supported on a box or bench to orient her trunk horizontally, the second partner can then use their thumbs on either side of the kneeling partner’s spine to push down, moving up and down their mid and upper back, to get some movement in their very tight and hyperkyphotic back.
overhead + crossfit woden

Bust Stretch

(Ha!) Try this after your partner T-spine mobilisation. Get partner one to sit on their knees and place their hands behind their head. Partner two can place one of their thighs against partner one’s back to brace and pull partner one’s elbows back towards partner two.
overhead + crossfit woden

Stability & Strength

Coupled inseparably with mobility is stability—the two have to exist at equal levels for things to work properly. The overhead position for the snatch and jerk are perfect examples of this—having adequate mobility to achieve the proper position isn’t that helpful if a lifter can’t maintain the position under load. This is partly a function of strength, but also an independent factor of proprioception, etc. there is a lot of overlap, especially in the way we train them.
First, with snatches and jerks, try holding the bar overhead (usually in the squat or split) for 2-3 seconds before recovering. This, is an effective way to improve both overhead strength and stability, and adds no real time to the lifter’s workouts like additional exercises do.
Second, try to isolate and correct all the technical faults that contribute to overhead instability. The more precise a snatch or jerk, the easier holding the bar overhead is because additional and unpredictable movement are minimised.

Third, make sure to warm up well—I’m frequently surprised how this one goes overlooked by so many people. Failing to warm up adequately means not even being able to access whatever range of motion you do have.

Fourth, use training exercises to address overhead strength and stability directly.  The following exercises are ones you can use to work on your overhead mobility. You can click on each for a video demo (courtesy of Catalyst Athletics) and information about execution and programming:

Putting it to Use

The most important thing to know with regard to improving overhead mobility (and mobility in general) is that it requires a frustrating combination of consistency and patience: it will not be a quick fix.
Some of the above exercises should not be used for individuals with extreme inflexibility—behind the neck exercises should be avoided if it causes pain. Push presses behind the neck will probably be the first that become accessible as flexibility improves, as the momentum created by the legs carries the bar through the most limited range of motion and consequently reduces the demand on the shoulder structures. The amount of leg drive can be reduced, and/or the weight increased, over time as mobility improves.
The bottom line is this: do as much mobility work each day as you can stand, do it consistently for a long period of time, include exercises in your training that help create or maintain mobility and strengthen and stabilise the overhead position, and expect it to be a long, boring process.
*This is not a diagnosis! The best thing to do is talk to your coach, get a postural assessment and if serious, see a registered physio, chiro or soft tissue therapist.

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