by James Alvarado
Overhead pressing is a topic often misunderstood and discouraged amongst pitchers in the baseball community. One of the biggest questions asked is, “Is overhead pressing bad for a pitcher?” Well, it depends. That might not have been the answer you were looking for, but it should be understood that all overhead pressing is not created equally and not all overhead pressing movements are meant for everyone. The fact of the matter is, everyone is different and there are multiple factors to determine whether or not overhead pressing should be included in your training program. There needs to be certain “qualifications” in order to incorporate overhead pressing in your program which we will briefly cover in this article along with different variations of overhead pressing.
Scapular Upward Rotation
When it comes to overhead pressing in our pitching population, we need to understand the demands of throwing a baseball and the pathology of both the scapular (shoulder blade) and humerus (upper arm) first before including any type of overhead pressing in our program. There is much more to look at than just the shoulder region, but for the purpose of this article we will focus on this area only. In a perfect world, all of our pitchers will reach about 60 degrees of upward rotation through the scapula. We need to realize however, we do not live in a perfect world and most pitchers will not reach this degree of upward rotation. The scapula and humerus ideally should move in a 1:2 ratio. When the arm is completely abducted at 180 degrees, 60 degrees of rotation should come from the scapula and 120 degrees coming from the humerus at the shoulder joint. When we lack upward rotation through the scapula, the upper arm now needs to work harder to make up the ROM to get into an ideal throwing position. This will often compromise the integrity of the glenohumeral joint and increase the risk of pitchers developing shoulder injuries.
Assessing Movement Patterns
Now that we have a little understanding of how the shoulder and upper arm should ideally move in an overhead movement, we can move into the assessment part and see if you are “qualified” to overhead press. One test that I will typically perform to assess shoulder mobility is the standing shoulder flexion test (pictured below). This test gives me immediate feedback and is pretty straightforward if we can load the shoulder joint in the overhead position. The goal of this test is to see if you can successfully raise the arm directly above the head, keeping the arm straight, spine neutral, and not compensate from other areas of the body. There are other tests you can perform as well, but this is a basic pass or fail test that allows you to identify which areas need improvement in order to press overhead both safely and effectively.
Shoulder Flexion Test
If you look at the first picture we will see an excessive arch in the lumbar spine and flaring of the rib cage. This is an end result from lack of ROM in the shoulder joint, and the body compensating through the lumber spine to get to the end range of the movement. Almost 10 out of 10 times if you cue the person to keep their ribs down, the upper arm will move from the overhead position to a little more in front of the face which will give us a more honest measurement of the test. In the second example, you will see the client keeping the spine in a neutral position, but they land short of the finished position. Now this could be for a couple of reasons like a tight lat, poor serratus recruitment, or even lack of recruitment of the upper trap. The end result is still the same, and although we may find some areas to improve to get to the overhead position, this person is still not ready to load the shoulder joint overhead. Of these 3 pictures, the only example of a person who is ready to overhead press is the last picture. Simply put, if you cannot get to the end position actively without load, you have ZERO reason to then load that joint in a range that you are physically incapable of getting to.
Choosing the right movement
The first step in choosing the right movement is to establish what type of press you will be doing. Restricted pressing exercises is what you typically see more often being performed in gyms, such as: the bench press, back supported shoulder press, incline press, etc. In these exercises, our shoulder blades are pinned back into a bench and restricted from free movement. With unrestricted pressing, our shoulder blades are able to move more freely. When dealing with the pitching population, we need to train and view them differently than we would a gen pop client. There also needs to be a different change in mindset as the goal should be to train movement patterns instead of muscle groups. The fact that pitchers will have decreased scapular upward rotation compared to position players is a BIG indicator that we need to include pressing exercises which help drive upward rotation. Now that we know decreased scapular upward rotation will increase the risk of our throwing athletes, it’s probably a good idea to train that movement pattern.
Because of the large amounts of stress the body takes from throwing a baseball, I like to be very conservative in my programming when it comes to pitchers. To start things off, I will not have ANY of my pitchers press a dumbbell or barbell overhead even if they have the mobility to get there. First off, when we overhead press with a barbell, it increases the amount of internal rotation in the shoulder because of the hand position, which decreases subacromial space, and increases the likelihood of impingement coming from the supraspinatus. HOWEVER, I love utilizing variations of the landmine press. This unrestricted pressing movement is at the top of my list for training scapular upward rotation in pitchers when done correctly. The 1-arm bottoms up Kettle Bell carries/walks is also another great unrestricted overhead movement that I love to use for our pitchers. By flipping the kettle bell upside down, it adds a stability component to the exercise which is great for rotator cuff recruitment as well as serratus recruitment. The yoga push up can also be very beneficial when first introducing movements to help drive and teach scapular upward rotation.
In short, there is no one or correct answer to the question, “Is overhead pressing bad for pitchers?” We have to understand how the scapula and humerus should work and move together, and assess each athlete on a case by case basis. Only after assessment, can we determine whether a pitcher should overhead press, and if not, substitute other various pressing motions. The first goal of training is always safety, and decreasing risk of injury.