The One Move That’ll Boost Your Lifting Power
Improve upper back and shoulder mobility

June 2, 2016

Whoa there, Flintstone. Hoisting heavy objects overhead may feel primitively pleasing, but it’s a great way to mess up your shoulders and lower back for good if your form is faulty.

Poor mobility leads to imperfect form, which aggravates joints and causes lingering pain, say researchers in the U.K. Use this quick test to check your form before diving into overhead lifts like the shoulder press, pullup, push press, military press, and overhead squat.


overhead-press-illo 2

Illustration by Steve Sanford

First, stand with your arms at your sides and your feet hip-width apart. Then raise both arms at once, keeping your lower back and elbows straight, palms in, and arms by your ears.

How to Improve Overhead Mobility

If you’re having trouble mirroring this, you need to start stretching before your workouts. This thoracic rotation drill will increase mobility in your upper back and shoulders. You can even do it between sets during your workout.

Here’s how to do it: Grab a foam roller and kneel on the floor. Place the roller on the back of your lower legs, just above your heels. Now sit back onto the roller, so that you’re holding it tightly between your glutes and heels. Dig your toes into the floor.

Next, hinge forward until you can place your right hand on the floor, with your right arm straight. Place your left hand on the back of your head, with your elbow bent.

You’re ready to perform the movement: Keeping your hand in place, rotate your left elbow and shoulder toward the ceiling as far as you can (your upper back will rotate with them). Hold for a second, and then rotate back down. That’s one rep. Do a total of 10 reps, and then repeat on the other side.

As you limber up, your form should fix itself so you can slowly return to overhead moves. Test yourself every week to mark your improvement.

Until you can execute the test properly, replace any overhead dumbbell, kettlebell, or other free-weight move with more-stable high-incline exercises.

Try an incline dumbbell bench press. It hits the front of your shoulders and should allow you to develop overhead strength while reducing the likelihood of injury.

Do it: Lie on a bench with the backrest set at a 45-degree incline. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest with your arms straight and your palms turned toward your feet. Lower the dumbbells to chest level, and then press them back up to the starting position.