Pilates for Shoulder Health in Overhead Barbell Pressing

When I look around the gym, I see a number of people with foam rollers, lacrosse balls and bands doing all kinds of mobility and soft-tissue work. It’s a nice change from ten years ago where the closest we got to mobility work was a random hamstring stretch we learned in PE class.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

Yet now with so many resources around mobility available to us, people are still struggling with aches and pains, especially around the shoulder girdle. It’s no surprise, really. There are a number of trainees with exceptional strength or muscle mass training mobility with complete disregard to stability.

Stability is the Yin to mobility’s Yang, and one of the most critical components of shoulder health, especially in barbell overhead movements.

So what gives with all these aches and pains?

Stability is the Yin to mobility’s Yang & critical component of shoulder health, in safe overhead movements.
The Mobility Hype

No matter how strong or mobile we are, stability is necessary for performance and optimal shoulder health. Experts advise that we train mobility first and stability second. However, the  way things are going in the strength community, I’d argue we need to emphasize more stability in our training.

Shoulder injuries suck. I’ve paid the price for my neglience and it’s taken a long time to hit an overhead press without feeling like my shoulders will explode. Even if you’re lifting heavy weights reguarly, crushing PRs and doing so pain-free, avoiding shoulder damage by training stability and  mobility is the smart thing to do.

Even the strongest athlete might have stability issues, which is sometimes disguised as a mobility problem. Having a stable muscular base around the shoulder complex not only puts us in the best place to safely press overhead, but enables a clear path for force transfer from the lower extremeties to the shoulders. You know, to get that barbell overhead.

Mobility is still an important component of a healthy shoulder joint, but without stability we set ourselves up for the kind of injury that can take us out for months. Consider a super strong and hyper mobile gymnast. Even she needs consistent stability work to provide support and safety for tumbling.

It turns out that no matter how strong one is, how rich of a sports or lifting background one has, eventually instability around the shoulder complex will catch up with you.

Address muscular imbalances head on

One way to start building healthy shoulders is to addresses muscular imbalances head on, especially around the scapulae.

The rhomboids and trapezius, for instance, are responsible for scapular retraction. In overhead pressing, a coordinated effort between the upper and lower trapezius and serrates anterior aid in upward rotation of the scapulae. As you can imagine, a weakness in any of these muscles or inability to fully fire them puts the lifter at a disadvantage. Couple that with limited thoracic spine moility, insufficient core stability and lat mobility issues and you have the kind of overhead pressing that makes my eyes bleed.

A 2014 CrossFit Journal article on shoulder health explains that reversing muscular imbalances or preventing them altogether requires that we maintain proper strength of “phasic” muscles and proper length in the “tonic” muscles. Here’s a similar chart from the article:

Pectoralis major Serratus anterior
Upper Trapezius Romboids
Levator scapulae Lower Trapezius
Scalenes Deep neck flexors
Sternocledidomastoid Upper limb extensors
Upper-limb flexors


One of the advantages of taking a lifter through a Pilates sequence is that we immediately address the strengthening of phasic muscles using light spring tension while also opening up and lengthening the tonic muscles. In working through dynamic stability and mobility of the shoulder girdle, we also address spine mobility and core stability with movement.

As a Pilates practioner, instructor and lifter, I can tell you it’s a lot harder to think about all those elements in a heavy overhead movement. However, by slowing down the movement on the Cadillac or Reformer, we can integrate all these elements into a flowing series of exercises that demands kinesethic awareness, stability and mobility around the shoulder complex, spine and core and start retraining the body to “fire” where it needs to during movement.

Pilates movements for muscular balance and stability

The Leg Pull Front

This exercise requires shoulder protraction and activation of the serratus anterior and subscapularis. The serratus anterior may not be the sexiest muscle around, but it plays an important role in the upward rotation of the scapula (a.k.a. lifting that heavy barbell overhead). In this position you get to fire the serratus without the extra load of the barbell or creation of artificial stability.

The subscapularis can be found in the rotator cuff and is considered one of the most powerful muscles of this group. This important muscle promotes shoulder stability and is the primary mover in shoulder internal rotation. The dynamic movement of the Leg Pull Front makes this a great exercise for stability that can be done anywhere.

Chest Expansion

Chest expansion on the Cadillac

I love this exercise for so many reasons. It’s easily done on the Cadillac, Reformer or with any of the standing springs, and can be modified in many ways to increase or decrease the challenge to one’s core stability. But what I really love about it is that it’s a classic chest opener (as the name implies) and latissimus strengthener. The lats play a big role in multiple arm and shoulder movement, so it behooves us all to integrate a lot more lat and pulling work into our training. A tight and overactive pectorals major can internally rotate the shoulders further and create tipping of the scapulae. As you can see, one overactive muscle can put the others into a weakened or disadvantageous position for overhead pressing.

Long stretch, Up stretch and Down stretch series

This three reformer exercises require full body integration with an emphasis on scapula stabilization in the Up Stretch, mid-back strength in the Down Stretch and scapula stabilization in the Down and Long stretch. These exercises also demand core activation and spine control, making these exercises a fun and challenging combination that tackle all three “problem areas” in overhead pressing, mainly T-spine mobility, core stability and shoulder stabilization.

Want more? The Optimizing Your Athleticism Workshop is going down May 13, 2017 at Studio Flo Pilates. Register at studioflopilates.com to learn more about pilates integration for optimal shoulder health and movement.

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  1. Pingback: The Fundamentals of Hip Mobility For Lifters - Barbell Pilates with Trish DaCosta

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