The overhead press is a lift that has great potential for rowers, but also carries more risk than other lifts. The unfortunate result of this is that most tend to discard it from programs when a few simple technical tweaks, adjustments, or mobility drills may be all you need to get on the right track. Executed correctly, the OHP strengthens the entire upper body and builds a bulletproof upper back for better connection and power transfer through the entire stroke. Many rowers with weak shoulder girdles can’t sustain the amount of force that their legs can produce. Their legs go down hard, but their upper-back rounds and all that pressure never makes it down the oar handle. The OHP is also a great developer of many muscles that rowing fails to, making it a great “bang-for-your-buck” exercise for the scapular muscles, triceps, and deltoids.
Thoracic spine, or mid-back, mobility is crucial to being able to perform the overhead press. While thoracic mobility is something that many rowers DO struggle with, it is important to make sure that the athlete receives plenty of instruction before making a diagnosis. Often, what looks like a mobility restriction is actually just an athlete who doesn’t understand the correct technique.
Review the basic technical cues in my “How to Train Your Rower” series on the overhead press. The most common errors I see are starting from a poor rack position, not pressing the bar back toward the forehead, and arching at the low-back. Check out the video below for a detailed explanation and demonstration.
The first error is most often caused by a lack of instruction. Everyone should have the mobility to get into a good rack position. However, like the hip hinge, it is not an intuitive movement and some athletes can require extra instruction to get there. If an athlete can get into a good rack position, but flares their elbows or presses the bar out in front of them the second they start to apply force, that athlete likely has weak mid-back and shoulder muscles so their triceps and anterior deltoids take over the lift. Strict rowing variations like the batwing row, facepulls, band pullaparts, and YWT raises, as well as something like a bottoms-up kettlebell hold/walk to work shoulder stability at that range of motion should help build up the shoulder girdle strength to be able to press.
The second error is similar to the first. If an athlete starts in a poor rack position, they will have a hard time correcting that once they start applying force and will end up pressing the bar out in front of them rather than back toward their forehead and then directly over their head. The ideal bar path is as close to a straight line as possible, so the bar should start under the chin and move toward the forehead as the bar clears the face. Most often, I find that athletes who start in a good rack position are already in a good position when the bar is at the forehead.
Finally, a strong lockout for the overhead press is with elbows straight, head neutral, and bar directly in line with the feet. Many rowers, either for lack of mobility or technical knowledge, either press the bar out in front of them at lockout or arch their low-back to keep the bar in line above them. Cue the athlete to brace their torso (flexed glutes and abdominals) and then lock the bar out directly overhead. Inability to do this may be the result of poor mobility.
What do I do if I have a mobility restriction?
I thought you’d never ask! We spent all this time so far talking about thoracic spine restrictions, so let’s take a moment to address why it happens, how to fix it, and what to do in the meantime.
Most often this is down to what muscles rowing does and doesn’t develop. Rowing uses a lot of lats and a lot of upper traps as the power muscles, but not a lot of the finer postural muscles that contribute to thoracic extension. Combine this heavy usage with the amount of sitting that almost all of us students, employees, and commuters do, and you get very strong and very tight lats and traps that restrict shoulder and thoracic extension.
“Mobility for Rowers: Thoracic Spine” contains your answers in detail, plus video. In short, stretch and foam roll the lats and traps, strengthen the rhomboids, lower and middle trapezius muscles, and external rotators of the shoulders. Loosen the restricted muscles, strengthen the weak muscles, attain better balance between the two.
In the meantime
Continuing to try to OHP while working on mobility restrictions is likely to just ingrain bad movement patterns and make it harder to truly fix the problem. Try to find a variation of press exercise that you CAN do without running into the same restriction. Often, using dumbbells, doing one arm at a time, or using a seated variation of press (seated overhead or incline press, for example) can be performed without as great demands on mobility.
Why should I OHP instead of just bench or incline press?
If you have the mobility, the standing overhead press offers greater benefits to rowers than prone or seated presses for the additional demands on torso stability, core strength, and mobility. Mobility is very much a “use-it-or-lose-it” quality. Once you have the mobility required to OHP, simply performing the OHP is also performing thoracic spine mobility maintenance which will also help you when rowing. The OHP also prioritizes development of the deltoids and mid-back muscles much more than the bench press, which focuses more on triceps and chest. I will often program the OHP as a main work exercise and a bench press variation (incline or dumbbell) as assistance work.
Strict OHP vs. Push Press
In the strict OHP, the knees do not move once the athlete begins the lift. In the push press, the athlete dips from the lower body and then explosively drives the weight overhead with the use of both upper and lower body strength and power. Both of these lifts are excellent for different reasons. The push press can be loaded heavier, forces the athlete to transmit force from their lower body to their upper body in a sport-similar pattern, and equally works the muscles of the mid-back and shoulders, all of which make it seem like the superior exercise. However, sometimes it is simply too much. It is often best to give rowers’ sore and tired legs a workout off and have them strict press, using lighter loads with less systemic stress. I also find that the simpler strict press is easier for athletes to master.
Is barbell OHP the only option or can I use dumbbells or kettlebells?
The main advantage that a barbell offers over other forms of loading is its ability to achieve maximal loading. In an exercise like the squat, the barbell allows us to load significantly more weight on the athlete than they could hold with dumbbells or kettlebells. For the deadlift, most gyms do not have dumbbells heavy enough to come close to what can be loaded on a barbell. However, the overhead press is naturally a much lighter exercise than either of these two, and therefore, maximal load is easier to attain. Dumbbells and kettlebells offer the advantage of unilateral training (one arm at a time) as well as greater priority on the stabilizer muscles of the mid-back and shoulders. If you prefer these variations over the barbell and have heavy enough dumbbells or kettlebells to load the lift sufficiently, go ahead!
Don’t be intimidated by the OHP. It’s a great exercise that just requires a little extra attention and care to get going on the right path. Once you master the fundamentals, it will reward your efforts many times over both in the boat and on the land with better catches, stronger connection to the oar, and healthier shoulders.