Improving Performance for Overhead Athletes

By: Steven Kennedy, PT

“Keep your shoulder blades down and back” is advice many of us have heard either in the gym or when trying to “stabilize” the arm for overhead or throwing movements. Unfortunately, this is not the best advice when trying to improve movement and patterning of the shoulder girdle for the thrower or overhead athlete. When trying to lift your arm overhead, whether that be to the front or the side of your body, your shoulder blade must move to achieve full range of motion. For every 2 degrees your upper arm (humerus) moves, your shoulder blade (scapula) moves 1 degree. Go ahead, try keeping your shoulder blades down and back and reach overhead- you’ll probably get 1/2 or 2/3 of the way there and then your arm will come to a grinding halt. For the throwing athletes, try pinning your scapula down and back and watch how much power you lose by not allowing your shoulder blade to follow its natural course of movement. Proper movement and mechanics of the shoulder blade are critical for safe and effective overhead and throwing motions.

Athletes with shoulder injury tend to present with similar issues in the clinic. They often have tight neck (upper fibres of trapezius), back (latissimus dorsi/teres major), and/or chest muscles (pectoralis minor and/or pectoralis major). All of these muscles can impede the natural motion of the shoulder and shoulder blade when lifting the arm overhead or throwing a ball. Not only do these athletes present with tight muscles but they tend to have weak and deconditioned muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis). Having a strong, conditioned rotator cuff is critical to help prevent shoulder injuries from occurring and to maximize performance.

Below are just a few exercises that help with training and improving the mechanics of the scapula for overhead and throwing athletes, as well as rotator cuff strengthening exercises that can be used either as a warm-up or for regular shoulder maintenance. Remember, if you are experiencing shoulder pain or are looking to improve performance with overhead or throwing movements, don’t wait around and hope for a change. Go get it looked at by a physiotherapist or athletic therapist!

  1. Wall slides

This exercise is used to prime the muscles surrounding the scapula and helps train its proper mechanics for overhead movements. Start by facing a wall and have a staggered stance with one foot in front of the other. Rest both forearms flat on the wall with the upper arms just below 90 degrees in front of the body. Push your shoulder blades away from your body so that your upper back takes on a slightly rounded shape (we don’t want your shoulder blades winging or stick out off the back). Proceed to slide the forearms up the wall in a ‘Y’ shape while continuing to push the shoulder blades away from the body. Do not let your back overly extend-you want to try to keep your rib cage pulled down towards your belt buckle. Once the elbows are fully extended, lift your hands off the wall a few inches by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Place your hands back on the wall, slide your forearms down to the start position and allow your shoulder blades to return to the start position. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.

                 
  1. External and Internal rotation at 90 degrees

This exercise is used to strengthen both the internal and external rotators of the rotator cuff. Attach a band at eye level on a wall or post. To train the internal rotators, you want to be facing away from the band. The band will be attached to the wall behind you. Grab the band with one hand and proceed to take a few steps away from the anchoring point in order to create tension through the band. Hold your upper arm out to the side, 90 degrees away from the body to mimic a throwing position. Start with your hand slightly behind your head and move your hand in a throwing motion as the palm travels towards the ground. Your upper arm should be rotating parallel to the ground and not moving forward and back. Return to the start position and repeat for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

If you want to target your external rotators, you would simply face the band’s anchoring point, take a few steps back to create tension, and repeat the same movement. The only difference is that the start position is with the hand facing down (the end position for internal rotation) and the end position is beside or slightly behind the head (the start position for internal rotation).

                 
  1. Pectoralis minor self-release

This self-release technique will allow the pectoralis minor, a fan shaped muscle underneath the collar bone and on top of your rib cage, to release and allow for better overhead and throwing movement. Place a lacrosse, ball hockey, or tennis ball, below your collarbone, halfway between your shoulder and your neck. Use the weight of your body to sandwich the ball between the ground or wall, and your body. This area on your upper chest will likely feel tender for the typical overhead and throwing athletes. Sustain pressure on this area for 1 minute or until the tenderness under the ball starts to decrease. 

                 
  1. Latissimus dorsi self-release

Releasing the lats helps your upper arm move freely overhead without restriction. I like to use a foam roller for this exercise, but a ball works too. Lie down on the side of your body and have your arm elevated overhead. Place the roller or a ball on the outer edge of your shoulder blade, in the space between the shoulder blade and arm. Move your body up and down over the roller from the armpit to the rib cage. This one will likely be very tender also! Roll this area out for at lease 1 minute or until the discomfort starts to subside.