What Is The Deal With Upper Back Pain During OHP?

February 28th 2020

The overhead press is a great exercise that works the shoulders, pecs, and triceps and can be overloaded for increased muscular strength and hypertrophy.

However, some people may experience pain in the upper back while performing the overhead press.

If you have ever experienced pain while performing the overhead press, you may be tempted to stop and try a different exercise.

However, knowing why you are experiencing the pain and taking the steps to overcome it will serve you far better in the long run rather than by dropping the exercise in its entirety.

When you start working out, your body starts to get used to the high demands that working out requires.

As a result, you might feel pain or discomfort because your body is starting to use muscles as if it were the first time.

This might result in an increased chance of injury which could be the cause of your pain.

Another possibility that might be causing the pain is poor form.

You might find that just by incorporating a few simple tweaks to your form, you will be able to overhead press without any pain.

In this article, we will discuss the most common causes of pain while performing the overhead press, as well as ways to overcome them.

How to perform the overhead press properly



The first step is to assess whether or not you are currently performing the overhead press properly.

Any slight deviations to your form may be the cause of your pain, so this is the easiest area to fix.

In order to perform the overhead press, use a power rack or squat rack. Somewhere where you can put the bar in a fixed position and set your form up properly.

This is crucial because by doing so, you will ensure that you have the same starting position every time.

The opposite of this is by performing the overhead press while it is on the ground with a clean.

Though this might be more convenient, especially if your gym only has a few squat racks or power bars, but it will also be detrimental in the long run because you are not setting up the same exact way every single time.

So, start with the bar in a power rack at around shoulder height.

You want to grab the bar with both palms at around shoulder width.

You can play with what grip feels most comfortable for you, but most lifters prefer the thumbless grip.

From here, you want to stick your chest out, but you don’t want to do it overtly so that you feel your lower back is curved in hyperextension.

You also don’t want to bring your shoulders too far back because it will also put your upper back into hyperextension.

You want to be able to find a balance between having forward shoulders and keeping your shoulder blades nice and tucked.

You will also want to focus on the position of your head and make sure that it is not too forward or backward.

These two form cues are what you need to focus on the most if you are having pain in your upper back while performing the overhead press.

From then, simply grab the bar and hold it so that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor, as if they were pointed straight up.

Lift the bar straight up, and while you do so you want to shrug your shoulder blades and bring your head forward.

Then bring the bar back down, unshrugging your shoulder blades and bringing your head back to its starting position.

Repeat this for the set number of reps your program has you performing.

Possible causes of your pain

Now that you know the cues for proper form, let’s discuss some of the areas you might be feeling the pain and what might be the cause of it.

First off, there are many different types of pain. Some might be muscular, ligamentous, cartilaginous, and even neural and each one is treated differently.

Muscular strain

There are many muscles in your upper back that all work to stabilize your scapula.

If you are experiencing pain in your upper back, it may be due to a muscle strain of any one of these muscles in this area.

What exactly is a muscle strain?

A muscle strain is when the muscle is overstretched or overworked.

Normal muscular breakdown is necessary for muscular growth which is the main reason why we go to the gym, but if you break the muscle down too much, it might result in a muscular strain.

If you suspect this to be the cause of your pain, then taking some time off from strenuous upper back exercise will help to give the injured muscle time to heal.

One way to tell your injury might be due to muscular strain is if you are able to lift heavy weights, but with pain.

If that is the case, then all the other structures are most likely intact, and it is just the muscle itself that is damaged.

Another very similar condition that could be involved is tendinopathy or a strain within a tendon.

This is less common than a muscle strain but if you are involved in high repetitive movements, it might be the cause of it.

Tendinopathy could be inflammation of the tendons due to overuse or being overstrained.

Pinched nerve



A pinched nerve is a condition involving the nervous system and the symptoms could feel like tingling in your skin on your back, shoulder, and arms.

If you feel tingling, or you feel like your skin is pricking while performing the overhead press, it might be due to a pinched nerve.

A pinched nerve is when the spinal cord compresses on your nerve root.

It most commonly occurs in the neck and lower back regions.

If you are experiencing pain in the upper back, it may be due to a pinched nerve in the neck.

This might be due to poor posture or poor form while performing the overhead press.

Double-check to see if your neck is protruding too far forwards.

If you suspect you have a pinched nerve, you will want to rest and see a doctor and physical therapist in order to get a clearer idea of the degree of the injury.


Ligamentous sprain

This is perhaps the most uncommon cause on this list but could be the source of your pain, nevertheless.

In addition to there being tons of muscles, there are a lot of ligaments that work to stabilize your spine and your shoulder to your thorax.

These ligaments are located more on the outside of your shoulders, but the pain can radiate to your upper back.

Spraining one of these ligaments could be caused by either trauma (such as falling onto your shoulder) or a chronic injury (if your job requires a lot of shoulder movement) and will usually result in instability in your shoulder.

There are different degrees of sprain which range from minor that requires rest to severe which may require surgery, so it is best you see a doctor or physical therapist to give you a better treatment plan.

What should beginners do when they have upper back pain while overhead pressing?

To summarize the previous section.

If you suspect the pain is due to a muscular strain:

You will want to rest the muscles, ice it, and you could follow the STARR rehab protocol which could decrease the amount of strength loss you might experience while at the same time, increasing the rate of healing.

If you suspect the pain is due to a pinched nerve, or ligament sprain:

See a doctor to get a more accurate diagnosis and for a better treatment plan.

What is the STARR Rehab protocol?

The idea behind the STARR rehab protocol is to speed up recovery by allowing the repaired tissue to organize the scar in the proper orientation through light exercise.

To do it, on top of the icing and resting your injury, perform a high amount of reps (25) with little to no weight.

By doing so, you aren’t aggravating the injury because no weight is being loaded, and you are also providing more blood flow to the area through movement.

In addition, you are also allowing the body to orient the scar fibers in the same direction as the muscle which speeds up the healing process and will get you back to your regular strength levels faster.

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