There has been lots of negative attention surrounding the idea of overhead pressing with certain athletes, primarily what are categorized as 'overhead athletes' such as baseball players, swimmers, etc. Many coaches feel that these types of athletes should not be doing any overhead work when in the weight room. Yet often times as coaches we are trying to iron out issues in these athletes with the muscles surrounding the scapula and the thoracic spine, that allow us to do an overhead pressing action.
So let me get this straight... we continuously find issues in all these areas which allow us to bring our arms overhead in a manner that is conducive to the health and safety of the shoulder. Then we try to strengthen all these muscles through prehab type exercises such as push-up plus's for the serratus, Y's, T's, W's, H's, L's, A's, B's, C's (okay maybe not A's, B's, and C's, but you get the point) for all the scapular retractors, wall slides for much the same plus the thoracic extension component, thoracic mobility using two tennis balls taped together, along with what I would consider the last line of defense prehab work: rotator cuff training. The list goes on and on, yet after the prehab work, we shy away from integrating it into the pattern were hoping to improve; brining our arms overhead.
To me it's like working on hip and ankle mobility, and all the activation exercises that go along with it, then never squatting or lunging... what's the purpose? Why do all the prehab and isolated work and then never integrate it into a functional human movement?
Now obviously if somebody has ankle and hip mobility issues, we definitely aren't going to load them heavy and expect max squats, but they still need to practice the movement of the squat. It's fundamental, and so reaching the arms overhead.
I don't think overhead pressing is such a bad idea, even for "overhead athletes". I actually think it is of high importance for these types of athletes. For example if one of the functions of the serratus is to help upwardly rotate the scapula and stabilize it against the rib cage when the arm is overhead, then I'm thinking we better train the athlete with an overhead movement so it knows how to do just that. Ahh... the beauty of the Principle of Specificity.
We definitely are still going to do some prehab or activation work prior or along with overhead pressing, but I am not going to avoid overhead pressing like I avoid admitting to the fact that I go with my wife to 'chick flicks' now and then. Did I just write that? Damn!
The great thing about overhead pressing is that when done properly you are required to activate the torso, extend the thoracic spine and stabilize through the scapular muscles and restore or reinforce a proper movement to the body.
One of the better ways to integrate or reintegrate the overhead pressing movement is to start with light dumbbells or kettlebells. DB's or KB's don't lock your arms into a fixed range like a barbell does, which obviously makes it better. The key is to start light and work on maintaining proper position and pause for a count or two at the top to reinforce all the muscles that stabilize the movement along the upper body kinetic chain.
Another great tip, which comes from the kettlebell community, is to be sure to keep your latissimus dorsi activated when overhead pressing. This is easier done with using kettlebells than dumbbells, but can be done with both. To use the lats, bring the weight overhead and then imagine pulling the weight down to your body when returning to the starting position. Or have a partner apply a little resistance on the underside of the elbow when attempting to bring the arm back down.
The reason this is so effective is because it gives the shoulder greater anterior stability. You see when you press the weight overhead the deltoid moves to the posterior aspect of the upper arm, exposing the under side of humerous, your arm pit. They only true anterior stabilizer in this position, outside the rotator cuff muscles, is the latissimus dorsi, which runs from the front of the humerous, around underneath and attaches to the torso and low back, tying into the hips through the thoracolumbar fascia. So not only is it giving the shoulder the anterior stability it needs but also locks it into a much more stable base in the torso and hip.
The bottom line is we need to maintain all movement patterns. If we load all other movements like vertical pulling, horizontal pulling and pressing yet don't vertical press, we are going to run into problems. The body likes balance and we need to maintain that. The case with athletes who are at risk or have shoulder issues is not a matter of which movements to use, but how much to load them.
All fundamental patterns have to be trained if athletes are going to train. Some maybe more than others, but we still have to train them all. And movements aren't regulated by muscles; they are controlled by the central nervous system. The CNS is what activates and deactivates muscles. If a pattern isn't trained properly, the muscles that power that movement won't be turned on by the CNS, leading to movement impairments and injury.