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F.I.S.T Part 2: Upper Body

In this second article of the Functional Integrated Strength Training series we will continue to focus on upper body exercises. As you will see, the shoulders will receive biased attention, but advanced exercises will incorporate the lower body. The core will always be active, especially the inner unit, to provide necessary joint stiffness and stability for the spine. Remember that our goal is to help our clients be better prepared for the demands of daily life activities, on the job activities, and sports performance through our exercise selection.

Let’s take a look at how we can do just that with the performance of the overhead pressing pattern. This pattern of movement is important to develop because life activities or specific work activities often require us to lower objects from an overhead position or raise objects overhead. Athletes that perform overhead striking or throwing patterns also will benefit from training this pattern. It is important to develop proper scapulo-humeral rhythm with the overhead pattern and also challenge the shoulder girdle with the task of multi-plane stabilization.

Before we walk through the functional continuum of the overhead press, I need to lay some ground work. We will start our progression in a seated position, then onto the feet to integrate the legs to develop greater functional carryover for life’s activities. Starting exercises in the seated position often proves to be beneficial as one progresses through a movement pattern. There are many reasons why not to be in a hurry to get a client on their feet. The dumbbell overhead pressing movement must be learned first without having to also learn how to stabilize the spine and pelvis in the standing position. Performing the exercise in the standing position is often poorly demonstrated by novice lifters. Thus, the individual is at a higher risk to suffer a spinal or S.I. joint injury due to lack of core control which is demonstrated by excessive arching of the lumbar spine and or forward movement of the pelvis.

In regards to properly stabilizing the spine and pelvis, the key is to activate "the inner unit" prior to pressing the dumbbells overhead. This is accomplished by drawing the belly button up and in toward the spine. This activation will provide much needed stiffness and stability for the spine, pelvis, and ribcage, so that a neutral position may be maintained throughout the exercise(1). In regards to inner unit activation, I like to think of the belly button moving inward on a scale of 1-10. When sitting upright with the dumbbells near the shoulders, think of activation around a 3, just prior to pressing upward increase to a 10. When the dumbbells are overhead maintain maximal activation and slowly lower to the shoulders where you can again decrease activation to a 3. Obviously, the overhead position places the highest demand upon the spinal and shoulder girdle stabilizers, thus the need for the greatest activation. Other essential alignment points are; maintain a rigid torso, keep the shoulders over the hips, and ears over shoulders without any forward head movement.

The seated exercise progression will be performed on a stability ball to develop strength within the stabilizers of the spine, pelvis, shoulder girdle, as well as the important thoracic and cervical extensors. Supporting the head and upper back on a vertical bench pad will not develop these qualities.

There is one more very important factor that we must discuss before allowing our clients to perform overhead pressing motions. We must asses the client’s ability to reverse their thoracic curvature as the arms are raised overhead. The first picture clearly shows that the exerciser can not raise the arms directly over the shoulders. The thoracic curvature has not been reversed and the hands are well in front of the shoulders. Notice the sternum has dropped, a forward head posture is noted, and the spine is flexed. This person is at a very high risk to develop an impingement syndrome if allowed to perform resisted overhead pressing movements. This client should perform corrective mobilization exercises, postural strengthening exercises for the spinal extensor chain, and flexibility exercises for the pectorals, lats, and internal rotators. The trainer should seek advice from a physical therapist, chiropractor, or C.H.E.K. practitioner. The client should be able to raise the hands directly over the shoulders as seen in the second photo. Don’t be fooled by the clients ability to just raise the hands over the shoulders. There must be no compensation by gaining range through the lumbar spine which would be reflected by excessive arching and a noticeable and exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt. The client should maintain a neutral lumbar curvature with no noticeable increase in anterior pelvic tilt and the belly button should be drawn inward toward the spine as the arms end overhead.

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Poor posture Ideal posture

The seated progression will include a bilateral dumbbell press with the forearms in a neutral position, the 4-way shoulder press, and the single dumbbell overhead press. Once the client has mastered proper spinal stabilization and pressing technique, they may progress to their feet.

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Bilateral Overhead position
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4 way Overhead position
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Goal post position (start eccentric) Goal post position (end eccentric)

As the client moves to their feet, I like to vary the exercise and stabilization demands by performing the overhead press in a functional square stance, staggered stance, or on 1 leg. All of these options promote a static position of the pelvis and spine throughout with a greater need for core control. These options do a great job of training the gross stabilizers of the hips, pelvis, and spine while performing the overhead press.

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¼ squat square stance (overhead position) ¼ staggered stance (overhead position)

Once stabilization has been mastered in the standing static positions, the exerciser may progress to more highly integrated exercises. It is obvious that much more dynamic stabilization is required from the pelvic and spinal stabilizers as well as the shoulder girdle stabilizers. The dumbbell(s) move overhead at a more rapid speed as the legs help to push the weight overhead. The photos will show a few variations of the full squat to press and the ½ squat or ½ lunge to press.

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1 d.b. squat to push press (Overhead position)
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Square stance 1 arm push press (Overhead position)

Remember that there is no set timeline as to when the client should move to the next exercise within the progression. The only absolute is that the client must maintain proper stabilization of the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle while performing the chosen overhead pressing exercise.


  1. Lee, D. (1999). The Pelvic Girdle. 2nd Ed. Churchill, Livingsone.
  2. Cibrario & Stone. (1999). Functional Integrated Strength Training for the Upper Body Part 1. Video. F.I.S.T. INC., Northbrook, IL.