There I was hitting power snatches sometime this past winter when I felt something that scared the crap out of me – as the barbell settled overhead it felt like my left shoulder slid out of place. I quickly bailed from the weight, and knowing that I had hurt my shoulder I felt like a middle school boy getting turned down by his first big crush all over again. Before weightlifting, I played baseball for 15 years and as a result had very loose shoulders. I was basically a noodle – I had great mobility, maybe even too much, but lacked the stability necessary to catch a few hundred pounds overhead. My upper body resembled that of Justin Bieber more than that of an avid weightlifter, and it was apparent I would have to beef up my shoulders and upper back ASAP. On my road to overhead shoulder stability, I started small with scap strengthening and mobilization and worked up to more complex movements and heavier weights.

From Hypermobile to Bullet Proof

Step 1: Scapula and Rotator Cuff Strengthening 

My first step in transforming my overhead stability from middle school P.E. status to somewhere respectable was to strengthen my scapulas and rotator cuff. Scap strength and function is vital for overhead movement because weak scaps lead to increased stress in the front of the shoulder and rotator cuff impingement. In his work, Eric Cressey writes a lot about how overhead athletes must have sufficient upward and lateral rotation of the scapula in order that the head of the humerus stacks safely over the glenohumeral cavity. In meathead terms, as your arms move overhead your shoulder blade has to move up and to the side of your rib cage unless you want your rotator cuff to get CRUSHED by the big bone in your arm. To accomplish this I added to my program T’s and Y’s while lying on a bench, wall slides and shoulder flexion to a wall. Eric Cressey outlines some scap upward mobility drills in this video:” target=”_blank”>

I also increased the amount of horizontal rowing I was doing in order to add some USDA Grade A beef to my upper back. I hit chest supported T-bar rows like it was my full time job a few times a week. I would work in the scheme of 12 to 20 reps across three or four sets and saw great results. The rowing paid off and strengthened my upper back, especially the lower/middle traps, rhomboids and posterior deltoids which all helped to optimize scapula stability, strength and function. As my upper back and shoulders got bigger and stronger I made sure to stay on top of my mobility and soft tissue work. My go to stretch was a banded lat stretch and I would use a lacrosse ball or the end of a barbell to roll out my lats and posterior shoulder so that I would not go full out meathead and develop mobility restrictions.

Step 2: Dumbbell Work 

When my shoulder felt good enough to press I started to DB incline press, seated military press and single arm OH press. Two days a week after weightlifting I would choose one exercise – either an alternating DB incline press, seated military press or single arm OH press. Again, I stayed in the 12 to 20 rep range and emphasized keeping my core engaged, ribs down and ensuring my shoulder blade moved up and around my rib cage. It is vital to engage the core to keep your spine neutral and achieve proper scapula upward rotation when pressing overhead or else you have a better chance of finding a 5 legged pig at a pet store than catching a barbell overhead properly. 

Step 3: Barbell Overhead Work

After several weeks of focusing on pressing with dumbbells, I graduated to doing barbell overhead work, such as strict military, push press, SOTS press variations and overhead squats. For these exercises I won’t push the weight too much, except for OH squats. I think the best exercises for building strong overhead shoulder stability are jerk grip overhead squats and pressing from the hole of a snatch. When OH squats are programmed for that day I will go for heavy attempts as long as my shoulders don’t feel fried because it is definitely not wise to attempt a snatch at weight you have not even overhead squatted before.

How Far We’ve Come

So there you have it – nowadays I feel comfortable and strong catching weight overhead and I no longer have the upper body of a 14 year old. However, I still have a long way to go. I believe the key to building overhead stability is starting with the small things – scap strength and function, upward mobility of the scapula, and upper back strength. Then build overhead pressing strength with dumbbells and eventually a barbell. Furthermore, you must work to maintain proper movement patterns by revisiting remedial drills every once in a while. At the end of the day, gains upon dysfunction are not gains at all. If you try to build overhead strength upon a poor foundation of overhead movement patterns then you will never be able to catch big weights overhead. Anything built upon a poor foundation eventually collapses, so focus first on moving well and then add weight and complexity to your program.


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