Shoulder Pain When Pressing/Reaching Overhead…Check This Out!

Shoulder pain.

It sucks, like a lot. Like more than having to pee really bad in the middle of the night, but your tired and its freezing, and you don’t want to get out of bed. It even sucks more than Post Malone’s outfit for the 2018 American Music Awards…like WTF??!!


It is also one of the most common ailments effecting athletes, lifters, and really just about anyone who does anything remotely active. 

And the most likely scenario when pain shows its ugly face is during overhead pressing or reaching actions. 


Well, without getting too technical, when we move our arms overhead the space between the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) and the scapula (shoulder blade) tends to decrease. This is an issue because between those two bones we have our soft tissue structures that can be impinged and damaged such as the rotator cuff, labrum, etc. 


The key when we move our arms overhead is to mitigate or eliminate shutting down the space between the humerus and scapula. If we don’t, then we risk the potential for the soft tissues to be damaged, resulting in pain and injury. 

So what must we do? 

We must first understand what it means to keep the space between the humerus and the scapula open. 

The Shoulder Joint

The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint. When the ball (head of the humerus) moves upward (when we reach overhead) the socket (scapula) must also move in a fashion that allows the ball to stay in the center of the joint. 

The movement that the scapula must go through is a combination of upward rotation and elevation…this simply means that the scapula must rotate up and rise towards the head slightly. 

This movement creates a pocket for the head of the humerus to stay within, and prevents it from bumping up into the scapula. 

Here is a quick video describing what we are talking about. 



So now that we know what the issue is, here is what we need to do to address it. 

1. Decrease Lat Dominance 

Your lats are a huge muscle that has a powerful play on the scapula. You can see this by looking at its attachment point to the inferior angle of the scapula.


When the lat is super strong, stiff and possibly short (which is in many athletes and strong individuals), it prevents the scapula from moving upward as the arm goes overhead. 

For this reason we want to shut down the lat a bit during overhead pressing/reaching. 

The best way to do so is to perform soft tissue work on the lats such as foam rolling. 

The lats start at 6:10 in this video…



After rolling the lats we will want to stretch the lats out and try to inhibit the activation of the lats. Try this stretch and breathing drill out. 



Once the lat is able to chill out a bit, it is time to attack and strengthen the movement and muscles responsible for moving the scapula upward. 

Upward Rotation and the Serratus Anterior

When we are looking at upward rotation of the scapula, we must address the serratus anterior, which is the muscle primarily responsible for upward rotation (and protraction) of the scapula. 

The serratus anterior is the fan shaped muscle that is beneath the scapula, looks like fingers on the ribcage (of lean individuals), and is also known as the boxers muscle.



To attack the serratus anterior we need to go into overhead / reaching actions with the intent of feeling the scapula wrap up and around the ribcage. Here are some great exercises to do so. 



I would suggest attacking the exercises in this order as they are layered in a way so that the previous exercise is a foundation for the next. 

Then you can move into overhead pressing variations, again with the intent of feeling the scapula wrap up and around the ribcage with each rep. 



With overhead pressing, sometimes it is a bit tough to get the serratus to kick on without also pushing against something as you would in the wallslide.. This again likely results in a bit of pain, which is never a good thing. 

To address this, try utilizing a band around the the forearm of the pressing side and face away from the anchor point so that the band is trying to pull your arm backwards…but don’t let the band win. By pressing against the band (protracting) while also upwardly rotating, the serratus has a greater potential to kick in and strengthen.


Putting it all together 

When it comes to shoulder pain with pressing/reaching overhead, we must address the movement flaw that is exacerbating the inability for the scapula to get out of the way of the humeral head. 

One of the primary muscles that is weak / not performing well is likely the serratus anterior, and when you neglect the serratus anterior, optimal should health is nearly impossible. 

Don’t let shoulder pain, especially with overhead pressing/reaching, limit your ability to be active and athletic. Understand what needs to happen when we go overhead, and follow the advice above to get and stay pain free. 

If you want more specific help with your training, reach out to me at to get started in person or online. 


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