I’m an evidence guy. Before I make a decision about sports training and rehabilitation I like to see scientific evidence on paper, which proves something. Lastly, I’ll rely on my own, and others experiences in the clinic and training facility.
Surprisingly, this topic isn’t easy to write about as there is no evidence that directly supports this from either point of view. I suspect there isn’t much evidence on this topic because; baseball players and coaches don’t want to put themselves at risk by partaking in a controlled trial where one group performs an overhead press, another group does not, and we measure the injury incidence from it over time.
Nobody wants to take that risk of getting injured and not being able to compete.
So with a lack of written evidence, my opinion on this topic is pulled from my personal experience, experiences of others, and factual anatomy and kinesiology.
First, overhead pressing is an approximation or compressive exercise–where the humeral head/ball is being pushed closer to the socket or glenoid fossa. The muscle contraction used is a concentric, or muscle shortening contraction. Throwing on the other hand is a traction exercise—where the ball and socket get pulled further away from each other. The type of muscle contraction used here is an eccentric, or muscle lengthening type. So it may not make much sense to perform a concentric approximation exercise when the main type of contraction used is eccentric. I am a huge supporter of eccentric exercise at the shoulder to maintain or gain health, and immediate performance enhancement. Training this way has worked wonders for my overhead athletes. My opinion: I cannot base performing or not-performing an overhead press on this alone.
Loss Of Internal Rotation/GIRD
Baseball pitchers are prone to decreased shoulder internal rotation after games and cumulatively over the course of a season1. Assuming you are a healthy pitcher, and your range of motion values are equal in total arc at the beginning of each game and season; this pathological loss of internal rotation is related to muscular or capsular tightness from the high eccentric forces that go through the posterior rotator cuff.
Imagine going to the gym and lifting only your biceps for 100 reps every time you went. Over time, your biceps would start to get very tight, and you would lose the ability to straighten your elbow unless you performed a specific stretching routine. This is what occurs in the throwing shoulder.
This loss of internal rotation range of motion negatively changes the motion of the ball inside the socket/the humeral head inside the glenoid. If you have a pathological loss of internal rotation at the shoulder compared to your opposite side, when you perform movements overhead the ball moves too much upward and forward inside the socket. In medical lingo, the humeral head migrates superiorly and anteriorly on the glenoid, putting stress on the structures it comes in contact with (the supraspinatus tendon, biceps tendon, bursa sac, and anterior-superior labrum).
Under low loads, this may not harm you initially. But regarding overhead pressing with weights—you risk placing significant stress to those tissues–tearing or seriously inflaming them that could sideline you on the bench. My opinion: As a baseball pitcher, based on this topic, I would not perform the overhead press if you have an internal rotation deficit, had a previous shoulder injury or have had previous shoulder pain that lasted more than 48hrs.
Current Injury Prevalence In The Professional Baseball Pitcher
Piggybacking on the above topic, the amount of rotator cuff tears, and labrum tears among current professional pitchers is approximately 73-80%, and these are in asymptomatic pitchers2,3. While I truly believe these numbers can be significantly reduced with proper training, I have to assume that most of you out there aren’t getting the proper arm care—flexibility training, proper strength training—no matter what level you play at. There is just too much misinformation out there. On top of this, there is a significant increase in the amount of articular cartilage trauma that occurs in the throwing shoulder in those that have gotten to the professional level3. My opinion: Based on the injury prevalence in professional asymptomatic baseball pitchers, I would not perform the overhead press, as symptomatic injury is right around the corner, especially in older pitchers (19+ years old) who pitch at a high level (college or professional).
Tight Latissimus Dorsi’s
Baseball pitchers tend to have tight Lats or Latissimus Dorsi’s based on my personal account. Just as the posterior rotator cuff experiences high muscular activity during throwing, so does the Lat4—and because of this the Lat gets tight. When you have tight Lats you are unable to lift your arms completely overhead.
When you perform an overhead press without your arms straight overhead, you are pressing more forward, or anteriorly…not too mention you may compensate by arching your back. Since you know that humeral head migration superiorly and anteriorly, or forward are not good for you, pressing into this position is no-no. My opinion: As a baseball pitcher, if you have tight Lats, I would not recommend performing an overhead press.
Weak Scapular Muscles
Piggybacking on this topic (can you see how interconnected the body is?) you may not be able to lift your arms straight up overhead because of weakness in your scapular muscles, the Serratus Anterior or Lower Trap, among other muscles. This is known as decreased upward rotation of your scapula. For the tightness reasons mentioned above + the potential to have reduced upward rotation strength and stability; My opinion: As a baseball pitcher this is a potential double whammy for you. I do not recommend using the overhead press if you are found to have scapular muscle weakness in overhead positions.
Overall, adding these responses up, the only way I would let a baseball pitcher perform an overhead press is if I personally cleared them for strength and flexibility deficits, they were young (<19 years old), and were without a prior history of shoulder pain or injury. Even still, I would be hesitant, and likely perform the motion in a limited range.
So unless you can be medically screened for these by a good physical therapist, I will advise you to not perform the overhead press. I feel the movement of the overhead press is riskier than that of the bench press, since the arm is placed overhead in a mechanically less stable position. There are lots of other exercises you can do to increase power and eccentric strength at the shoulder which are much more effective in doing so. Search around this site, you’ll find some answers!
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- Litner D, Mayol M, Uzodinma O. Glenohumeral internal rotation deficits in professional pitchers enrolled in an internal rotation stretching program. Am J Sports Med. 2007. 35: 4: 617-621
- Andrews J, Carson W, McLeod W. Glenoid labrum tears related to the long head of the biceps. Am J Sports Med. 1985. 13:5: 337-341
- Miniaci A, Mascia A, Salonen D, Becker E. Magentic resonance imaging of the shoulder in asymptomatic professional baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2002. 30:1: 66-73
- Escamilla R, Andrews J. Shoulder muscle recruitment patterns and related biomechanics during upper extremity sports. Sports Med. 2009. 39:7: 569-590