When you hear overhead athlete what do you think about? Do you think baseball or tennis player? Do you think about the weightlifter? Crossfitter? What about basketball?
You see, there is many different types of overhead athletes. Yet, preparing these athletes can be both entirely different and also very similar. Many don’t consider basketball an overhead sport but next time you watch a basketball game take a closer look at the players blocking, dunking, and rising up for a shot. It is indeed an overhead sport. Furthermore, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, Kobe Bryant, underwent rotator cuff surgery late in his career. Again, just more evidence that the game of basketball is an overhead sport.
So, what is it about the overhead athlete that is unique? Well, other than the lack of return to sport tests for the upper extremity, gaining end range stability is absolutely crucial for preparing them for their sport. Later in this article I am going to show you some of my favorite end range shoulder stability drills that I’ve had success with. These are drills that can be used across all of the athletes mentioned above (within your clinical reasoning framework of course).
First, let’s talk about screening the overhead athlete. This step cannot be overlooked as this is the cornerstone to determine what our overhead athlete needs. For those of your who are also strength coaches, this is part of our “Needs Analysis” phase. There are a few must have screens for this part. The standing shoulder flexion screen gives us an overall first look at movement quality. Does the athlete have full range of motion? Is it smooth? Does the athlete substitute with the lumbar spine or forward neck? Is their rib flare? Pain? From here we can break down the motion in supine with a lat screen if the movement is limited. See the video below for an explanation on this. We can also look at subscapularis and pec minor tone and mobility here.
Once we’ve established a baseline of movement quality and possible restrictions there are a few key muscles to look at testing. While I hate MMT’s, they serve a purpose at times. Looking at serratus anterior strength is one I often look at with this population. I will also look at middle trap, low trap, and RTC strength. Again, without some type of assessment it does not matter how “good” of an exercise it is or how “cool” it looks. There’s a lot of great exercises out there but they might not be appropriate for YOUR athlete. Assess, don’t guess.
Now for the fun part. Once you’ve worked on ROM and basic strengthening you will want to start working on end range stability. I often see this phase botched and it’s a disservice to our overhead athletes because ultimately, we do have to load them to prepare the tissues and shoulder for more intense activity and their sport/positional demands. See below for a short list of exercises I use. For the complete list and progressions/regressions check out my full videos on our Insider Access page.
My favorite OH exercises
Dr. Brian Schwabe, PT, DPT, SCS, COMT, CSCS
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