By Zach Dechant
For many years, upper body training with baseball athletes has been considered something of an enigma. A team physician once told me that baseball athletes should only focus on DB movements for the upper body, where athletes must use a weight that they can lift for 25+ reps. While this may sound shocking, that thought process was often commonplace in baseball. Not only was upper body lifting supposed to be only endurance-based, but the list of exercises often started and stopped with just a handful of available movements. Overhead press…NO WAY! Use a straight bar for anything and somebody’s shoulder might explode!
In my opinion, training the upper body with throwing athletes is not necessarily the what, but the how. The movement is what matters. Moving correctly is priority No. 1. If you take care of movement, the list of exercises that overhead athletes have at their disposal goes up exponentially.Training the upper body with throwing athletes is not necessarily the what, but the how. The movement is what matters, says @ZachDechant. Click To Tweet
It’s no secret how important the scapula is in the health of an overhead throwing athlete. A stable scapula gives rise to a healthy and mobile glenohumeral joint. The human body is a stabilizing/mobilizing machine to create motion. Look no further than Mike Boyle’s information on the “Mobility/Stability Continuum” for clarification that summarizes the body’s organization in movement. If you’ve read Mike’s book, you understand the importance of stability in the scapulothoracic joint. For the shoulder to effectively move, the scapular complex must provide stabilization.
While absolutely true, it must also be made mobile. Scapulohumeral rhythm is the kinematic interaction between the scapula and the humerus. The interaction of the two is important for optimal function of the shoulder. Sue Falsone uses the term “scapular mobility” in her book “Bridging the Gap” and I absolutely agree. The scapula must be trained to MOVE.
All too often, I see coaches and athletes purposely try to keep the scapula from moving in an exercise. They pin the scaps down for the duration and move through the arms on pulls, pushes, etc. The thought that the scapula must be stable has been taken too far out of context in some situations. Not only is this not training proper motor control of the scapular stabilizers, but it puts undue stress through an overhead athlete’s money-maker: the shoulder.
The more experience I gain, the more I realize that there may be no bad exercises, just bad exercises for that particular person. Are the movements we have coined “bad for baseball” for decades really all that bad?
I’ll be the first to admit that for years, I observed the ban on overhead pressing. You never would have seen one of my athletes pushing something overhead. Why? It’s bad on the shoulder. What opened my eyes that it may not be as bad as we’ve come to believe? Our own in-house EMG studies on serratus function. Moving the arm overhead is what the serratus does. How can we train it any better than that? The further the arm went up, the more serratus function improved.
To select exercises for athletes, you need to determine two things. The first is whether or not the movement is sound, as in: Do they have poor movement patterns that break down and expose them to risk of injury? Can they do the movement? And second, does their body optimally allow for that movement to occur?
Some athletes don’t have what it takes anatomically to perform an exercise. An athlete with deep hip sockets will never squat ass to grass, and for an overhead athlete with a type 3 hooked acromion process, the struggle to get full humeral flexion overhead may not be worth the fight. Anatomical features matter in an athlete’s body and will often dictate what they can and cannot do.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the four most common patterns I associate with upper body training for baseball athletes and the errors in motion that limit the full benefits of those movements. These four primary patterns are the horizontal push and pull and vertical push and pull.
Horizontal pulling is first on the list for good reason. The horizontal pattern may be the most important upper body pattern for baseball athletes, yet it is often the most overlooked. Young athletes forever and ever will train what they can see in the mirror—the frontside. Ask an eighth grader if they know how to bench press, then ask if they know how to do a reverse pull-up or horizontal row.Across the board, horizontal pulling is the most common weakness we find in incoming athletes, says @ZachDechant. Click To Tweet
Recently, I had a junior college athlete enter our foundation program who could easily perform 30 strict rep push-ups, yet struggled to do five—yes, five—quality reverse pull-ups. Across the board, horizontal pulling is the most common weakness we find in incoming athletes.
The scapula should retract straight back with horizontal pulls. I actually prefer to cue athletes to pull back and down slightly into depression with the movement. One of the reasons for the addition of cueing depression into the mix is to keep athletes from shrugging as they pull. Many athletes will compensate retraction with hard shrugging or elevation, utilizing the more dominant upper traps as they pull. This is a huge compensation pattern and one we don’t want.
Famed therapist Vladimir Janda classified the upper traps as overactive and facilitated, while the scapular stabilizers like the rhomboids and middle and lower trap were classified as weak and inhibited. Slight depression helps athletes stay out of the overactive upper trapezius.
A big issue with pulling movements is athletes don’t incorporate the scapula at all. Motion occurs at the glenohumeral joint, compensating for a motionless scapula. Essentially, the arms do the work instead of the scapular stabilizers. The shoulder will dump forward into anterior tilt as the humerus drives into hyperextension.
An easy catch to see if your athletes do this is to observe if the elbow is behind the body at end range with the center of the shoulder forward of that. Focal points for horizontal pulling should be built around the elbows. Cue athletes to pull through the elbow and not the hands.
Another big mistake I see many athletes make is not releasing the scapula on the eccentric lowering of a horizontal pull. Athletes will try to keep the scapula packed together throughout the entire movement instead of allowing it to fully release and navigate around the rib cage. In essence, they hold an isometric contraction of the rhomboids in a mid-state of retraction.
We want the scapula to release and move around the rib cage into end range. Strength and motor control go hand in hand with motion and we need full and proper motion to occur in all upper body patterns.
The scapular stabilizers need to develop the coordination of proper pulling patterns. Holding the scaps pinched together is not the human body’s optimal movement. We want to fully develop the ability to contract and relax the muscle through full ranges of motion. We want the scapula and glenohumeral joint to work together in an optimal combination.
The reverse pull-up, or horizontal row as many call it, is our bread and butter for teaching the horizontal pull pattern. Bodyweight mastery should be our first priority in strength development with untrained or low training age athletes. The reverse pull-up not only provides the opportunity to develop the horizontal scapular pull pattern, but also addresses glute firing, pelvic control, and posterior core stability for athletes. Only when athletes have mastered the reverse pull-up do we advance into other forms of strength development.
- Cable low rows
- Single arm DB rows
- Chest supported rows
- Single arm standing cable row
On the flip side of horizontal pulling is pushing, the most known upper body pattern in athletics. Everybody loves the bench press. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, the barbell bench press with baseball athletes. Is the bench press the devil that baseball coaches everywhere make it out to be? Definitely not.
The devil isn’t always in the exercise itself, but in how an athlete performs the movement or in the athlete’s anatomical variances themselves. There’s plenty of research out there that corroborates a positive correlation with throwing velocity and the bench press. Many of the studies aren’t directly related to the bench press itself, but strength training in general. Many cited using the bench press in the strength protocols that garnered velocity improvements.
In one study that did specifically look at the bench press, the researcher took 14 elite senior handball players and found that throwing velocity was related to absolute load in the bench press. That doesn’t mean you should run out and start benching to hit 90 mph off the mound, but it tells us that horizontal pushing movement is important.
Throwing a baseball creates large internal rotation forces in the humerus. Those internal rotators consist of the massive pecs and lats. Yes, pushing is important. The issue often lies in how athletes do it, and how much of it they do. For years in baseball circles, the DB bench press was THE upper body exercise of choice. As you’ll see, the bench press leaves a lot to be desired for scapular motion, but is certainly not the devil for baseball athletes that it’s made out to be. There are advantages and disadvantages to its use as I’ll discuss below.
What many people fail to realize is that horizontal pushing and pulling movements are the exact same scapular patterns. The scapula moves into retraction and protraction, circumnavigating the rib cage. The only difference is the emphasis of the muscles concentrically performing the movement. The most common issue with pushing movements is, again, the athlete’s inability to move through a full range of motion.
Lack of Protraction
Take the push-up, one of the Big Five patterns in my foundation program. With push-ups, many athletes don’t fully protract the scaps at the top of the movement. Often, at the top of the movement, we see a chicken-winged appearance with a valley between the medial borders of the scaps. Athletes aren’t fully capturing one of the most positive benefits of the push-up, which is protraction, as well as serratus activation.
Cue athletes to keep pushing and reach the upper back as high as possible. Here, an external cue is great. I hold a hand an inch above their body and tell them to try and touch their upper back to my hand. This is one of most important aspects of horizontal pushing movements—scapular protraction. This is a large reason why the push-up and its many variations make up such a large part of my foundation program with incoming athletes. I want scapular motor control. Back to Janda and his Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS).
The serratus anterior is another commonly weakened and inhibited muscle. This is one of the big reasons why variations of the bench press aren’t in my foundation program. Laying on the scaps while pressing doesn’t allow for scapular movement around the rib cage. That’s not to say the bench press has no use in the baseball population. It certainly can be a healthy addition to a program, depending on the volume of its usage and, again, the movement itself.
Scapular Anterior Tilt
Poor movement patterns exist with horizontal pushing the same as they do in pulling. Athletes commonly dump forward into scapular anterior tilt as they reach the eccentric end range in pressing movements. This is where the exercise selection itself doesn’t matter and movement quality does. Whether on a push-up, DB bench press, or barbell bench press, if the humerus moves into hyperextension and dumps the scapula into anterior tilt, the exercise no longer matters. It’s all the same result: added stress and possible aggravation in the front of the shoulder. Do it enough times and you’ll be sidelined.Whether on a push-up, DB bench press, or barbell bench press, if the humerus moves into hyperextension and dumps the scapula into anterior tilt, the exercise no longer matters. Click To Tweet
Athletes need to learn to retract the scaps posteriorly while in the eccentric or lowering phase. As the humerus moves toward the body’s midline, the scapulae retract. Allowing the scaps to move back frees up space for the glenohumeral joint and eliminates the shoulder driving forward or the scapula dumping into anterior tilt. An athlete who does not posteriorly retract the scaps will again compensate with humeral motion, putting unnecessary stress on the soft tissue structures surround the GH joint. Horizontal pushing and pulling movements should be the same regardless of which side does the work.
It’s no secret that the hand pick-up push-up is my go-to with our incoming athletes. The benefits of push-ups start with scapular patterning and motor control, and they also teach athletes to stabilize the anterior chain. Again, you should teach low-level athletes how to control their own body weight first.
- Barbell bench press
- DB bench press and variations
- Single arm cable press
Vertical pulling, just like the horizontal patterns thus far, requires scapular motor control and full ranges of motion. Athletes often lack the ability to get into the full overhead positions required by vertical pulling and pushing. Soft tissue restrictions are often at the top of the list when it comes to full humeral flexion, but again, anatomical variances can often factor in.
The prime movers with vertical pulling are the lats. Not only are they a prime mover in internal rotation and the throwing motion, but their fascial connections are in large part responsible for human reciprocal motion such as walking, sprinting, and swinging.Two common errors athletes make when vertical pulling are not using the scapulae at all and arching the spine to achieve overhead motions, says @ZachDechant. Click To Tweet
The biggest issue with the vertical pulling movements is the pull itself. Often, athletes do NOT use the scapulae at all. Done correctly, the scapulae should move into and out of upward rotation throughout vertical plane pulling movements. The top of a vertical pull and push, if frozen in a still frame shot, should look the same on the scapula. The exact same can be said for the bottom positions as well.
If the bottom of your pulldowns or top of your pull-ups look like this…
-chin poked out
-shoulders rolling forward
You’re doing it wrong. Pull through elbows instead of hands and don’t pull too far! Shoulders should never move forward.
With vertical movements, we often see the hunched-over chin-up/pull-up, with the chin jutting forward over the bar and the shoulders rolled forward. Many athletes pull with the arms only and dump into anterior tilt—a common theme. Again, cueing athletes to pull through the elbows has shown positive results for increasing the efficacy of scapular movements.
Another common error throughout vertical pulling is arching the spine to achieve overhead motion. A large rib flare is often a compensation pattern for a lack of overhead motion. The latissimus muscle originates from fascial connections throughout the spinous process from T7-L5, as well as the pelvis iliac crest. Anything having to do with the lats also has an effect on the lumbar spine, and vice versa. An athlete lacking full overhead flexion will arch through their low back to achieve the desired positions for what they deem a proper vertical pull.
- Pull-up and variations
- Lat pulldown
- Cable pulldowns
- Straight arm pulldowns
The topic of overhead pressing in baseball has long been the elephant in the room. Is it the dreaded shoulder killer that everyone thinks it is? For years, I stayed away from the overhead press. Much of the negativity toward the overhead press results from either the poor movement itself or athlete anatomical variances. Just like anything, one size does not fit all.Much of the negativity toward the overhead press results from either the poor movement itself or athlete anatomical variances. Just like anything, one size does not fit all. Click To Tweet
There are certain athletic populations that shouldn’t squat based upon their hip anatomy. The same is true with overhead pressing. There are athletes who don’t and will never have full adequate overhead flexion. Whether soft tissue restrictions or bony anatomical issues with the clavicle, some athletes just aren’t made for it. With that said, the benefits of overhead pressing make it hard to shy away from in some form or fashion.
Reaching or pressing overhead requires high degrees of freedom not only of the glenohumeral joint, but the scapula as well. Full flexion or abduction overhead means large motion from the scapula. About one-third of the total overhead motion comes from scapular assistance when raising the arm.
During shoulder flexion/abduction, there is about 120 degrees of movement that occurs at the glenohumeral joint, while 60 degrees occurs at the scapulothoracic joint, creating a 2:1 ratio. This movement is known as the scapulohumeral rhythm. Missing pieces of that ratio means compensations will occur. The body will find a way to do what needs to be done. If overhead motion is what an athlete needs, they will find a way to achieve it, whether that occurs from a flared rib cage and additional forces put on the spine, or the shoulder taking added stress.
The biggest benefit of overhead pressing or reaching of some kind is scapular upward rotation. The importance of upward rotation in an overhead sport cannot be exaggerated. The serratus anterior, upper, and trapezius contribute to upward rotation. The serratus anterior is the beast that we need working well for healthy shoulders in baseball athletes, yet it’s another one of Janda’s UCS-inhibited muscles that is commonly shut down.The biggest benefit of overhead pressing or reaching of some kind is scapular upward rotation. The importance of upward rotation in an overhead sport cannot be exaggerated. Click To Tweet
The mind-muscle connection has shown to be successful for us here. Trying to have athletes tap into upward rotation movements with the scapula has been key. The all-important serratus anterior is a crucial piece of the puzzle and is a muscle with which athletes often have no clue how to connect.
Instead of simply pushing the weight, we prefer that athletes visualize wrapping the scapula around the rib cage into the armpit. We want them trying to create the mind-muscle connection into the serratus muscle to feel that movement occur. External cues such as reaching as far as possible or reaching for an object can assist here as well. However, I still want them internally focusing on what they feel and connecting dots to the motion itself.
There are many ways to circumvent the problems associated with athletes who struggle getting overhead. For those coaches who just don’t have the means or ability to screen for such issues, there are plenty of variations that still garner the benefits of overhead pressing without putting athletes at risk. Does overhead pressing mean we’ve gone back to the old days of behind-the-neck military-style pushes? No, there are plenty of movements that we either don’t have to absolutely load or are range-of-motion-restricted that can still give us benefits. I list some of them below.
- KB carries
- KB presses
- Landmine pressing variations
- Variations of Turkish get-ups
- Wall slide variations
Achieving Stability Through Motion
No matter the task, the scapula needs to be trained through full ranges of motion. Don’t get so caught up in the stability of the joint that you paralyze it. Only through full motion do you create intermuscular coordination and stability throughout. Teaching the scaps to move means optimal function for a healthy shoulder.No matter the task, the scapula needs to be trained through full ranges of motion. Don’t get so caught up in the stability of the joint that you paralyze it, says @ZachDechant. Click To Tweet
The fact of the matter is that there should be few exercises that you can’t include in your exercise bank. The real key may not be in an exercise itself, but how the athlete performs it. It comes down to the athlete’s anatomical makeup, how you coach the exercises, and the volume to which the athlete does them.
Boyle, Michael, et al. Advances in Functional Training: Training Techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes. On Target Publications, 2015.
Falsone, Susan. Bridging the Gap: From Performance to Rehab. On Target Publications, 2018.
Sahrmann, Shirley. Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. Mosby, 2008.