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Overhead Stability: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

If you have been in strength sports long enough, you probably have had some interaction or experience like this in regards to overhead lifting:

“I don’t have enough shoulder mobility.”

“I can’t get locked out.”

“I lose the bar (insert direction here)”

Moreover for some, if you were to seek medical advice about it the general response would be not to lift overhead at all. Fortunately, that perspective is relatively misinformed and doesn’t hold much clout, especially if you were to reference any national or world record attempt in weightlifting or strongman.


The reality is your shoulders were meant to do many things, including putting stuff over your head, and they can be very effective at accepting weight (see above) when assessed and trained properly. To do so, there needs to be an understanding of how the shoulder works and how to make the most of it during training.

Shoulder Anatomy and Biomechanics

Let’s step back into the science classroom for a moment and talk anatomy. The shoulder complex has multiple joints with different mechanisms that all work together to raise and lower the arm. This includes the glenohumeral joint (GHJ), acromioclavicular joint (ACJ), the sternoclavicular joint (SCJ),  and the scapulothoracic junction (which is a combination of the upper thoracic spine and corresponding joints as well as the scapula and its attachments to the rest of the complex).

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 9.33.43 AM


In context with the muscles and ligaments, arm elevation looks like this: (embed)

As the video illustrates, there are many moving pieces to the puzzle, but when broken down the components can help guide a more comprehensive training.

All of the joints involved in the shoulder complex have their own movements (arthrokinematics). To begin, the GHJ is a ball (humerus) and socket (glenoid cavity) joint which means many degrees of freedom for movement at the price of a lack of stability. Most of the supportive structures around that joint are ligaments, and the muscles have the double duty of providing extra support as well as generate movement. The muscles work in force couples that allow for the humerus to roll/glide in the glenoid cavity(deltoid primarily) while also stay seated in the joint properly for maximum range and stability (rotator cuff group, serratus anterior). The next piece to the shoulder puzzle is the scapulothoracic junction. This is part of the reason why it is common to hear about shoulder injuries in strength sports and the fitness world as well as in the general population. Conversely, the SCJ is a saddle joint which means it has limited degrees of movement and is more stable.  For the arm to raise, the distal end of the clavicle raises and tilts back while the proximal end moves downward. It is not as common to have many injuries in this area, but it does happen. Since the scapula doesn’t attach like a traditional joint, its movement is dependent on the surrounding musculature. The spine of the scapula has ligamentous attachments to the clavicle which is another component of the shoulder complex. The scapula has to slide out and upwardly rotate in rhythm for the arm to raise.

(Scapula movement video)

This movement is caused by the force couple of the middle and lower traps (abduction) and serratus anterior with teres minor (upward rotation). The scapula is seated above the posterior thorax cavity and held in place by the rhomboid group, trapezius, and upper border of the latissimus dorsi. Scapular movement has to occur at a specific point in the shoulder range, and the muscles surrounding the scapula play a part in stabilizing the shoulder as well. Commonly, strength and coordination deficiencies are seen surrounding the scapula which leads to range of motion restrictions and subsequent compensations in other movement patterns.

Flexion vs. Scaption: Moving in Different Planes

As you’re reading this article, raise your arm up overhead (if people look at you funny, tell them the article told you to do it). If you raised your arm right in front and overhead, that is considered forward flexion. Lifting wise, this correlates to presses and jerks. If you were to raise your arm out to the side and then overhead, this is considered abduction (think lateral shoulder raises). If you move in a plane right in between forward flexion and abduction, this is considered scaption or the scapular plane. This is roughly where the snatch receiving position is for most people. All of the mechanics discussed above occur in both movements, however, result in different arm positioning. In forward flexion, the line of force (or direction where load/weight is transferred) is straight down the arm and has slightly higher flexibility demands to reach completely overhead. Conversely, with scaption, the line of force is more at an angle. This is more advantageous when the angle is in line with the scapula, especially when it comes to accepting load overhead. In the snatch or its pressing variations, in most cases, it is the most secure position to press from at that angle. However, more weight is typically lifted in jerk or push press because the trunk support is better suited for pressing. As discussed above there are many factors that go into both movements and any overhead reaching/lifting, but there are nuances that make them different. And they should be trained differently as well. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at how to take care of our shoulders, train them more effectively, and take your lifting to the next level.

Stay strong and move well friends!


About Me Blurb:

Josh Walters is a physical therapist, barbell junkie, music enthusiast, and part time foodie from Albany, Oregon. His sports and training background spans 10+ years including high school football and track, powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and Olympic weightlifting. He trains out of Crossfit Train in Corvallis, Oregon as a 105+ kg weightlifter when he is not working with patients at Samaritan Community Hospital. Most of his philosophy in training and treatment is evidence informed, but effectively practical. Currently, he is working on finishing his sports medicine certifications, coaching credentials, and partnering with local community projects. Find him on social media here:

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