If you’ve seen Saina Nehwal execute her incredible smash, leaping in the air, reaching up at full stretch, and still finding the power to whip that shuttlecock with tremendous force, you must have wondered at the dynamics of that shot, the superb physical conditioning that allows her to play it. For people who play racket sports, overhead strength, or the ability to generate power when your hands are held above your head, is critical. Basketball, volleyball, rock-climbing, Olympic weightlifting, even cricket, need a fair bit of overhead strength.
How does one build it? The traditional way, of course, is to do heavy shoulder presses over-the-head, since the shoulders generate most of the power in over-the- head activities. But most people remain trapped in doing only that and nothing else. Training the shoulders with traditional “bodybuilding” exercises tends to make the deltoid muscles overdeveloped compared to the rotator cuff muscles. This destabilizes the glenohumeral joint where the upper arm meets the shoulder blade. Shoulder and upper-arm movements are the result of a combination of several joints, primarily the scapulae (or shoulder blades, which connect the arm to the collarbone) and the glenohumeral joint.
In daily activities, the scapular muscles move and stabilize the upper body. They hold the upper body in position so that we can reach, flex, pull and push with our arms and hands. They stabilize the humerus (upper-arm bone) in its socket.
It is impossible to develop overhead strength without strengthening all the joints and muscles involved. The exercises here focus on developing strength in the overall shoulder girdle, which will enable more powerful overhead movements.
Holding it together
The rotator cuff muscles, which rotate the shoulder joint, are also located on the scapula. They are stabilizers as well as movers, though stabilization is their primary function. During an overhead lift, these muscles play a big role in stabilizing the heavy weights, otherwise the shoulder joint will just collapse.
Basically, you can have massive deltoids, but if your rotator cuffs are not well-conditioned, those deltoids mean nothing. A considerable amount of training time needs to be dedicated to building strength and endurance in the rotator cuff muscles in preparation of overhead lifting.
Lower-body and torso strength matter too.
The body works in an integrated chain of muscles and bones, and a strong and stable core and legs are important for overhead activities as well. In fact, the legs and trunk provide 51-55% of the total kinetic energy and total force produced to complete overhead activities, while the shoulder itself only contributes 13% to the total energy production and 21% of the total force produced. Exercises for the hip and trunk should always be included in a shoulder-strengthening, maintenance or rehabilitation programme.
A lot of overhead activities in sport are also performed when the body is supported on only one leg, for example a tennis serve and smash, a volleyball serve, etc. The glutes, the adductor group of muscles (inner thigh) in the grounded leg along with the quadratus lumborum (the muscles on either side of the lower torso) are the primary stabilizers of the torso when the body is supported on one leg. Unless the torso is supported firmly, it is not possible for the shoulders and arms to generate any power in the overhead position.
Heavy dead lifts and back-extension exercises are the best way to develop strength in the torso.
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The thruster develops strength in the whole body and recruits all those muscles that assist in lifting a weight over the head. Ankle to shoulder, every joint flexes and extends in this exercise to propel the barbell to an overhead position.
Hold a barbell at collarbone height, arms at shoulder-width, and squat down to at least 90-degree hip and knee flexion, more if you have a good range of motion. From the bottom position, extend the knee and hips powerfully and at the same time flex the shoulders to a near lock-out position at the top. Try to move all the joints and muscles in good synergy and combination. This is one repetition. Work 6- 10 repetitions, depending on the weight lifted. Three-four sets would be ideal. Always begin with a light weight so that you can master the movement and gradually develop strength. Increase the weight in small increments as you get stronger.
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Swiss ball ‘W’s, ‘Y’s and ‘T’s
Lie prone with your chest on the apex of the Swiss ball, feet on the ground, body in extension. Raise your arms to form a “W”, “Y” and “T” in that order ( the picture shows a “T”) . This is one repetition. Repeat for 10 repetitions and three sets. These movements train the rotator cuff muscles to build strength and endurance to support strong lifts.
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Farmer’s walk with kettlebell
Grab a kettlebell (the weight should be challenging enough to induce some amount of torso instability) and raise it over your head with one arm. In a fully flexed position (biceps against the ears), walk 15-20m, resisting all sway, both in the shoulder joint and in the trunk. Change hands after one round and repeat for three-four rounds. You can also do this with a dumb-bell, but it does not induce as much instability.
Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.
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