Enhancing Strength & Performance in the Overhead Athlete: Flexibility

Steve Wowzynski, MPT, CMTPT/DN

Enhancing StrengthA well-rounded flexibility program is vital to overall performance. If there is too much tension in one area of the body, compensations will occur in other areas that could lead to injury.  This concept holds true for the shoulder region of the overhead athlete as well.

Take for example the rotator cuff.  In overhead athletes, the rotator cuff needs enough flexibility to allow for full internal and external rotation of the shoulder. That said, the rotator cuff muscles alone are not the only muscles that need to be flexible to allow the shoulder to have full range of motion. If the pectoralis major and minor are tight, the shoulder will not reach full external rotation, forcing the rotator cuff to work harder and potentially contributing to an overuse injury.

VolleyballThe same case for flexibility can be made for the oblique abdominal muscles. If you are right-handed and working overhead, your left oblique abdominal muscles need be flexible enough to allow for trunk rotate and side bend to get the shoulder into full position and then contract to draw your shoulder forward.  This allows you to serve a volleyball or make a strong throw from the outfield to the cutoff man. With poor flexibility, your arm will not reach full height and the volleyball will hit the net or the ball will bounce into the infield or be offline.

Here are three flexibility exercises to assist you in reaching your maximal potential position for full athletic function overhead, one for the shoulder, one for the chest, and one for the full body/trunk.


Sleeper Stretch

Position:  On the side of your dominant arm rolling slightly back onto your shoulder blade, support your head/neck with a pillow.  Position your arm up to a 90 degree angle from your body, elbow bent to 90 degree.

  1. Using the opposite hand, push down at your wrist toward the table until a stretch is felt at the shoulder.   
  2. Hold 60 seconds, relax, and repeat 3 times.  Feel free to utilize  deep belly breathing to assist the shoulder in relaxation during this stretch.
  3. Switch your position to repeat for the other shoulder.

Goal:  Your arm should eventually have flexibility to rest on the table with your elbow remaining perpendicular to your body.


Doorframe Pec Stretch

Position: Stand by the outside corner of a wall or doorframe, with your arm at a 90 degree angle away from your body, elbow bent to 90 degrees.

  1. Stretch by turning your body away from the doorframe until a stretch is felt. You may need to raise or lower your arm to feel a better stretch. 
  2. Hold for 15 seconds, relax, and repeat 5 times. Switch arms and repeat the stretch.


Oblique Rotation Stretch


Position: In a lunge with your front leg bent and back leg straight behind you.  

  1. Place your dominant arm outside your front leg on the ground if possible. 
  2. Staying in the lunge position with your legs, rotate your opposite arm up to reach for the sky. 
  3. Hold for 15 seconds, relax, and repeat. Switch which leg is in front and which arm is touching the ground and repeat the stretch.

In the next article of this series, we will address resistance training to develop power for overhead athletic activities. If you have any questions about a training or injury prevention program or have an injury or soreness that just won’t go away, feel free to contact our overhead athlete experts at MotionWorks Physical Therapy at info@motionworkspt.com.