What is an Overhead Athlete?

A parent asked me this question at the last Arm Care Seminar I gave at my clinic, Complete Game Physical Therapy in Lowell, MA.  I love this kind of question because it makes me take a step back and think.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the specifics of rehabilitation and injury prevention that I need to remember to pause and consider the overall picture of who we are working with and how these patients are differ from the general population.  In this blog, I want to review what an overhead athlete is and how best to meet the unique demands of his or her training and rehab.    

Definition of the Overhead Athlete:

An overhead athlete is defined in Webster’s Medical Dictionary as “one who uses their upper arm and shoulder in an arc over head to propel a ball toward the opposing team.” This includes throwing sports such as baseball and softball, but it also includes volleyball, tennis, and track and field throwing events.  And though it doesn’t completely fit this definition, I would also include swimmers as overhead athletes.

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The Overhead Athlete and the Shoulder:

Shoulder health is obviously crucial for overhead athletes, so let’s briefly review shoulder mechanics and considerations here.  The shoulder is a ball and socket joint.  The socket is not very deep so the shoulder doesn’t have a lot of boney stability (which is why we have so much mobility in the shoulder).  An easy way to imagine the shoulder socket is to picture a golf ball on a tee.  The shoulder gains it’s stability from the rotator cuff (the muscles that surround the ball) and the labrum (the tissue that makes the socket a little deeper).  When all is balanced in the shoulder, the ball stays centered in the socket and everything works well.  Problems arise when there is an imbalance around the shoulder and the ball gets off center in the socket.  This imbalance can lead to shoulder pain, tendonitis, rotator cuff/labral tears, or even elbow problems as the athlete’s body tries to compensate.

Considerations for the Overhead Athlete:

Here are a few considerations for keeping the overhead athlete healthy.  It is not an all inclusive list, but just a few simple things you can do to help reduce the likelihood for injury.

  • Posture:  Watch your sitting and standing posture. If you have a slouched posture in which your shoulders round forward, the ball will sit forward in the socket.  If you are doing this all day and then try to perform an overhead sport, it will be very difficult for the joint to center properly.  Maintain good, upright posture with your head, shoulder and hip staying in line throughout the day.

  • Muscle Balance:  The muscles surrounding the shoulder are often out of balance.  The muscles in front of the shoulder tend to be stronger than the muscles in the back.  When you exercise, do extra work on pulling type exercises (rows) vs. pushing type exercise (presses) to help restore that balance.

  • Using Your Whole Body:  The shoulder can’t do it alone.  If you try to rely on just your shoulder to generate power, you will surely get hurt.  Perhaps you’ve heard a coach say, “Power comes from your legs.”  This statement is true.  Power is transferred through your core, so be sure to work your core and legs when you train or rehab.  Also, make sure proper mechanics are in place so that you are transferring power effectively and efficiently.

Simply, overhead athletes should train and rehab properly to meet the specific demands of their sport.  If either you or your child is an overhead athlete, be sure your trainer or rehab professional has a thorough understanding of these concepts.   Have a great season!