Returning to Overhead Movements With Shoulder Pain

Is shoulder pain keeping you from the overhead movements?

Usually, if you’re looking to build shoulder strength, overhead pressing is a great route to take. But, if you’re already dealing with shoulder pain, the overhead pressing position can feel less than ideal. Does that mean you should ditch the shoulder workouts altogether? Absolutely not! In this post, we’ll outline a few ways that you can progress towards returning to overhead pressing.

Shoulder Pain in Overhead Press
The full overhead press may be unbearable for those experiencing shoulder pain. 


Sometimes the position is painful because you just don’t have the mobility to get your arms fully overhead without compensation. Mobility is about your ability to move through ranges of motion. There are three things in your shoulder joint that have to move through their available range in order for you to get your arms overhead.

  1. The shoulder joint itself, or glenohumeral joint, must move into flexion.
  2. The scapula must upwardly rotate.
  3. Your thoracic spine must move into some extension.
Shoulder Mobility Test

Sit cross legged with your back against the wall. Then lift your arms overhead to touch the wall with your hands without letting your head or back come off the wall.

Can’t get your arms to the wall? That’s ok! Start by adding in the mobility drills below.

Supine Eccentric Lat Pull Over
Wall Slide

Thoracic rotation


When we think about returning to overhead pressing, it isn’t just mobility at work. You have to build strength and tolerance in addition to mobility to get in the position. So, mobility works hand in hand with increased strength and tolerance to get you into an overhead press. Below is a great progression for gradually increasing the overhead tolerance and strength.

Scap Down Dog

We included this closed chain shoulder exercise because they tend to be more tolerable for individuals with shoulder pain. It helps with motor control for scapular upward rotation. The scapular push up potion reinforces upward rotation during the overhead position. It does this through the use of the serratus anterior, which is a key muscle for scapular rotation.

Landmine Press

The landmine press is a fantastic tool to continue building strength even with a slightly decreased range of motion. It also helps to reinforce the scapular upward rotation and rotator cuff strength since the axis of rotation is so far away from the lever arm (aka your arm).

Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press

Using a kettlebell instead of a barbell allows you to have more variation in movement, because your hands aren’t in a fixed position. The bottoms up variation further increases rotator cuff strength due to the inherent instability of the bottoms up position.

Wall Roll Press

Here we’ve progressed to the barbell, at last! One thing you can play around with as you return to barbell work is your hand position. Often times, people complaining of shoulder pain in the overhead position perform the barbell press with their hands very narrow. Moving your hands out even half an inch could decrease pain and increase tolerance to pressing. So, make sure to check those hands!

Other Considerations

You can adjust the weight and change the tempo. For example, taking 3-5 seconds to raise and lower the weight. This will increase the time under tension, help to sensitize the tissue to the movement, and allow you to increase strength when you are unable to increase weight due to pain.

These progressions can also overlap. For example, you can work on mobility while continuing to incorporate sensitization to overhead pressing and strength.

Questions or dealing with shoulder pain? Reach out here or make an appointment!

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