4 Exercises to Improve Overhead Performance in WODs

Overhead positioning is a primary aspect of many functional fitness workouts (WODs) and training programs. Whether it is pressing, jerking, HSPU, pull ups, and/or any other variation with a wall ball or kettlebell, proper overhead positioning stabilization is key to performance and injury prevention. This is true for CrossFit® athletes as well as any athlete moving weight overhead for repetitions over constrained (or unconstrained) time domains.

The shoulder complex is a dynamic structure, build to move in multiple planes of movement, involving a number of joints and connective tissues. Assuming lifters have adequately addressed shoulder mobility and warm-up exercises, these additional exercises can be performed before WODs to help prevent injury, train stabilization, and enhance performance.

Scap Pull-Ups/Rows

Both overhead pressing movements and pull-ups/muscle-ups involve a high degree of scapular control. Stabilizing the scapulae during these heavily loaded and/or ballistic exercises will decrease the likelihood of shoulder injuries. Controlled repetitions on scapular depression, elevation, protraction, and retraction will increase strength and movement coordination in the posterior shoulder, lats, and scapular region.

Try performing any of these movements (depression, elevation, retraction, protraction) while hanging from the barbell for a given amount of times to reps. Additionally, you can add contracted holds to maximize isometric strength.

Behind the Neck Presses (Jerk or Snatch Grip)

Behind the neck pressing and jerking movements are great exercises to do in warm up sets prior to WODs involving snatch, jerk, or thruster variations (anything with a barbell overhead). Proper overhead positioning and bar path patterning will increase efficiency during fatiguing WODs.

Try doing 3-5 sets of 5-10 repetitions with light weight in any variation (strict press, push press, power jerk, split jerk) and grip (jerk or snatch grip) with light to moderate loads.

Hanging Variations

Spinal loading from squats and pressing can take a toll on the spine and create flexibility issues in the shoulders if not addressed. To help counteract this, coach Chris Espinal suggests deadhangs, hanging with various grips, and swinging to be a great way to decompress the spine, improve shoulder mobility in the overhead position, and enhance grip strength.

Shoulder flexibility is a must for a good pressing position. A complete dead hang is a good way to decompress the spine and with enough awareness also a good way to find sticky areas in the lower back and hip. Some of Chris’ top suggestions are deadhangs, ape swings, supine grip hangs, and Ido Portal’s famous Shawarma.

Bench Supported Rows

This rowing variation is great for increasing muscle mass, scapular retraction, and strengthening the posterior shoulder, lats, rhomboids, and traps. The lack of pull movements in the horizontal plane of motion in many WODs makes rowing variations key for addressing muscular imbalances.

Try doing these with maximal tension and contractions, controlling the weight on the way down. I like doing these for 3-5 sets of 10-20 repetitions with moderate loads.

These are only a few common practices of preventive shoulder strengthening exercises performed by overhead athletes across many sports and activities. The emphasis across all of these exercises should be on finite motor patterning within active movements, structural integrity, and controlled repetitions.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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