How to Improve Overhead Mobility

Welcome back to Squat University! Last week we started a discussion on overhead mobility. We introduced two screens that can expose overhead mobility problems that can affect your barbell lifts (snatch, overhead squat, etc).

This week, I want to share with you a few of my favorite mobility exercises to address these weak links.

  • Mobilize (Joint & Soft Tissue)
  • Stretch
  • Posterior-Chain Activation

Joint Mobilizations

A restriction in thoracic spine joint mobility should be the first place to address. This type of stiffness will not always resolve with foam rolling or stretching. If you felt any tightness in your mid back when trying to bring your arms to the wall during the Wall Angel screen, this tool should help!

One of the best tools to improve thoracic spine mobility is to use a “peanut”. Some manufactures make a fancy peanut, which will cost you a pretty dollar. However, you can save a lot of money by taping two tennis or two lacrosse balls together.

Peanut.jpg

To perform a thoracic spine joint mobilization, lie on your back with your arms crossed in front of you. This will pull your shoulder blades (scapulas) “out” to the side. This will provide space to place the peanut. The tennis or lacrosse balls should rest on both sides of your spine.

Tennis Balls

With your arms across your chest, perform a small crunch by raising your shoulders off the ground a few inches. Hold this position for a few seconds before returning to start position. Make sure not to hyper-extend your lower back during this movement. We want to only move from the mid-back.

The peanut acts as a fulcrum on the spine (much like the middle of a teeter-totter) during this movement. When this force is applied to a stiff joint, it can help improve mobility.

 

 

Perform 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions on each segment of your mid-back that feels stiff (1). If you don’t feel any stiffness at a particular part of your spine during the movement, move the peanut up or down to another segment. It is normal to have restrictions in only a few of the thoracic spine joints.

You should not have intense pain during this maneuver. If you do, I recommend seeking out a medical professional such as a physical therapist or chiropractor.

Soft Tissue Mobilization

Once joint restrictions have been addressed, the next step is to clear up any soft tissue stiffness.  We can do this with a foam roller and/or a lacrosse ball. Athletes with restricted lats and pecs need to be mobilizing on a daily basis!

To address the lats, start by lying on your side with one arm raised above your head. Work the foam roller into the large muscle on the outside side of your armpit. This is where the lat muscle runs!

Lat Soft Tissue

Move up and down this muscle until you find an area that may be tender. Pause on this spot for a few seconds before moving on. Do not move quickly during this drill! Instead, roll in a slow and rhythmical fashion.

To address the pecs, start by finding a wall. Trap a lacrosse or tennis ball between your chest and the wall. Move the ball around your muscle until you can find any tender areas. Perform slow movements with occasional pauses at each area.

Pec Tissue Mobilization

You can add in some active movement with this mobilization as well. Once you find a tender area, start moving your arm out to the side away from your body. This can add to the effectiveness of the exercise.

Stretch

Once soft tissue mobilization is complete, the next step is stretching. I want to share with you my favorite stretches for enhancing overhead mobility.

  1. Prayer Stretch
  2. Corner Stretch
  3. Foam Roller Pec Stretch

If you were unable to pass the Supine Lat Stretch screen you would probably benefit from the prayer stretch. This is similar to the classic yoga pose called “child’s pose”.

Start in a kneeling position. Sit your hips back on your feet and push your hands out in front of you (one hand on top of the other). Next, let your chest drop down to the floor. Continue to reach with your arms together overhead while you let your breath out slowly. Try to sink your chest towards the ground. If you have stiffness in your lats, this should bring out a good stretch in your mid back. I recommend holding this pose for 30 seconds.

Prayer Stretch

If you were unable to pass the Wall Angel screen, you would probably benefit from stretching the pecs muscles (major and minor). Two easy stretches I use with my patients to clear up pec restrictions are the “corner stretch” and the “foam roller pec stretch”.

Find a corner in the room you in. Stand with your arms out to the side in an “L” position. Place your hands on the walls and slowly push into the corner. Make sure to keep your low back from hyper extending during this movement. You should feel a good stretch in your chest the more you push into the corner.  This stretch has been shown in research to be one of the most efficient ways to elicit changes in pec minor muscle length (2).

2014-07-30 23.40.39

Be cautious not to push too hard with this stretch. Doing so can place harmful torque on your shoulder joints. The goal is to only feel this stretch in your pecs, not your shoulders. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.

For some, the “corner stretch” can be too intense. The “foam roller pec stretch” is another good option. It is much easier to perform and places less torque on the shoulders.

Start by lying down with a foam roller positioned lengthwise along your back. The foam roller should rest in between your shoulder blades. Take a PVC pipe or a broomstick and raise your arms over your head as far as you can. Make sure to keep your entire back flat on the foam roller. You should feel a very light stretch in your chest as your arms hang in the air. The goal is to relax your upper body in this position and hold the low-load stretch for a long duration (~30 seconds to 1 minute).

 

Do not perform this stretch with a barbell or other heavy object in your hands. This can easily lead to too much torque on the shoulder joints. If you experience any tingling down your arms or in your hands, it’s a sign you are stretching too aggressively.

Posterior Chain Activation

After performing any of these upper body drills, then you need to strengthen the body into this newly gained mobility. It’s easy to focus on mobility restrictions and forget about strengthening the muscles that maintain good posture! In my opinion, both are equally important in maintaining good overhead mobility.

If you had stiffness in your thoracic spine, you need to follow up your mobility work with some endurance exercises. In this quick video, Physical Therapist Mike Reinold explains a simple drill he likes to use to enhance mid-spine extension endurance.

If you had flexibility problems in your lats or pecs, we need to focus on activating the scapular stabilizers (posterior shoulder musculature and lower traps). I recommend the “ER Press” exercise. This is a great drill to enhance overhead stability and help you feel more comfortable with your overhead squat and snatches.

Final Thoughts

After you have performed the corrective exercises, its time to check and see the progress you have made. Remember to always use a “Test-Retest” strategy when performing mobility work.

Your overhead movement during the initial screens should improve after performing these exercises. Mobility work should also lead to better technique in the overhead barbell movements. Checking both of these areas will allow you to see if the tools you are using are effective in addressing the change you desire.

The mobility exercises shared today are not a “magic pill” for improving mobility. They will not fix any stiffness in one session. However, if you notice a small change in your movement quality with the “Test-Retest” method, we are on the right track.

Until next time,

SquatBottom
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW

With

Kevin Photo
Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW

References

1)   Johnson KD & Grindstaff TL. Thoracic region self-mobilization: a clinical suggestion. IJSPT. April 2012. 7(2):252-256

2)  Borstad JD & Ludewig PM. Comparision of three stretches for the pectoralis minor muscle. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2006 May-Jun; 15(3):324-30

Published by

Dr. Aaron Horschig

Doctor of Physical Therapy, CSCS, USAW coach and athlete.

5 thoughts on “How to Improve Overhead Mobility

  1. Hello there. I’m a 44 your old male and I’m very active in Crossfit. I’m pretty good with all my Olympic lifts but I’ve been having wrist issues lately. Here lately cleans really been bothering my wrist and it seems when the bar is over my head I can’t get my wrist comfortable. Any suggestions on this or and stretching movements for this.

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  2. Jason, thanks for the comment. With overhead wrist issues I always look at overhead mobility and stability first. If the shoulder can’t get into a good position overhead or is shaky in that position, it can add harmful stresses to the wrist. So while the wrist may be the pain site, the cause may be at the shoulder. I’d check out the overhead stability screens form the previous blog post and the overhead stability screens from 2 weeks ago.

    Also if you are having issues with the wrist in the front rack position of the clean, I would check out Kelly Starrett’s youtube videos. I haven’t written on the subject yet so I don’t have any blog to refer you to at this this time. However KStar has some awesome videos on the topic.

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  3. Hello. I really enjoyed this article and will try implementing your suggestions to improve my overhead reach (I fail both screens). You mention this can be done daily. But, how exactly would I want to work this into my weekly strength routine? For example, should I perform all of the above in one session every day, only on rest days, other(?). Should I perform the session before or after a strength building workout, etc.

    Thanks for your feedback!

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