Miscellaneous notes on raising your arms

Posted on September 9, 2014

(Last Updated On: March 28, 2016)

I received a good comment recently on my post A progression to lifting your arms overhead pain free.  

“Hey Brian,

I started to incorporate these movements in to my daily routine. I just have some questions pertaining to some of the movements and how it should feel. When I do the backward rocking I find it extremely difficult to keep my elbows tucked, similar to the individual in the video (it seems as if at the end of the motion his elbows are pointing out to the side).

[Note from me: Here is the exercise George is referencing:

When I do the supine arm-raise with hand-slide I have extreme difficulty keeping my elbows tucked and raising my hands at all, especially with the left side. Pertaining to this exercise I have a few questions:

[Supine Arm Raise exercise:

1. when doing these exercises should I push to the point of resistance and then return to the starting position or should I hit the point of resistance and slowly try and push past that point. I guess the question is, is it better to do multiple repetitions of reaching the point of resistance or doing more of a slow static stretch?

2. Is it anatomically possible to have your hands completely overhead with elbows facing forward and biceps facing backwards?

3. I feel a huge stretch in my back (lats and especially the teres major/infraspinatus area) It also feels as if it’s accompanied by a major stretch/contraction in my serratus anterior (seems odd) Is this normal?

4. Finally, In the last year or so I noticed that i developed a decent amount of scapular winging (both sides). I also think that the culprit for this was that i for a long long period of time i removed overhead pressing exercises from my routine and heavily focused on overhead pulling and horizontal pulling/pushing. For basically the last nine months I have stopped all resistance training. Every upper body lift I did felt so imbalanced, the muscles on each side of my body did not contract properly or symmetrically. Do you feel that this is likely do to the varying degrees of scapular winging? Also, do you feel that this condition can occur from removing overhead lifting?

Thanks so much,

Hey George,

Re: Backward Rocking- I don’t cue people to keep their elbows in on this. It’s quite uncomfortable due to the palms down hand placement. What you can do is go with a different hand placement:

I’ve messed with this a little in the past and always assumed as a general rule it would be too uncomfortable on people’s wrists. I played around with it again yesterday with a few people and it actually seemed fine. Immediately multiple people went, “Oh, I feel more of a stretch under my arms now.” (Which is what you would expect anatomy wise.) So, maybe I should revisit implementing this!

Re: General form -You should go as far as you can without pain or compensatory form. Everyone has a line. You want to tow this line, but not push past it.

I almost always prefer movement over static holds. People are looking to get better at moving in certain manners. They usually aren’t looking to improve how well they can hold a certain position. I use some static stuff, but sparingly.

Re: Anatomy of shoulder- Yes, it is possible to have your hand completely overhead with elbows facing forward. I don’t believe it’s possible for everyone though. This is where things like acromion type can come into play.

Image credit: Radiopedia. See this link for more on the numbered types in the photo: http://radiopaedia.org/articles/acromial-types

Image credit: Radiopedia. See this link for more on the numbered types in the photo: http://radiopaedia.org/articles/acromial-types

For people who after a couple months still have trouble with this, I either tell them to simply not reach past that point, or, if the person is now pain free, to let the elbow turn out those last couple inches. I either avoid that range of motion, or don’t worry about it. Depends on the person.

Re: Sensations- Huge stretch in the lats / under the shoulder is normal.

Feeling a contraction / stretch of the serratus- A contraction of the serratus makes sense but a stretch not really (it’s contracting when bringing the arms forward and overhead). Really, to be able to *feel* your serratus is unusual. You could have some unusual mind-body connection ability going on, or your mind may be playing some tricks on you.

Lastly, scapular winging can cause distortions in how you raise your arms, yes. In terms of removing overhead pressing and winging, that’s plausible. But how you press dictates a lot. I’ve seen some prominent internet authors make the statement that overhead pressing is what keeps the shoulders healthy, balanced, etc. That really, really depends on how the press is being executed.

It’s not like I’d tell someone with shoulder pain to just press overhead more as a corrective modality. 9/10 people I start with can’t lift their arms overhead without compensating somewhere. For your average person, it takes considerable time and effort to be able to lift their arms overhead without added resistance. Add a barbell into the mix and most are asking for trouble.

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Posted in: Shoulder Pain