The Best Stability Ball Exercise You’ve Never Done: Ball-To-The-Wall Overhead Press
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
The overhead press is one of the most fundamental and important movement patterns there is. If you’re unable to perform the movement without pain or discomfort nine times out of ten it comes down to faulty mechanics, poor muscle activation, and improper positioning. In other words, a fully functional athlete with optimal body mechanics should be able to perform a proper overhead press, and variations thereof, with no issues. With that said I periodically like to employ modifications of the overhead press that are a bit more “glenohumeral joint friendly” while still placing ample tension on the musculature of the shoulders. This is particularly true for some of my overhead athletes. Some of these more “joint and mobility friendly” overhead pressing variations include landmine presses, high incline presses, scrape the rack/rolling wall presses, and one of my new personal favorites, the standing ball-to-the-wall overhead press.
Here’s one of my NFL quarterbacks and GSP sponsored athletes Taylor Heinicke performing this ball-to-the-wall overhead press with dumbbells as we prep him for the upcoming season. As previously mentioned, I’ll still routinely employ traditional overhead pressing exercises even with my overhead athletes, however, this particular variation does provide several unique attributes that no other overhead press provides. Here here are 7 unique benefits of the ball-to-the-wall overhead press.
1. The ball-to-the-wall overhead press involves an approximately 10-20 degree angled torso position. This slight incline makes it easier to pack and centrate the glenohumeral joint into the most biomechanically sound position, similar to landmine presses and high incline presses. For individuals with shoulder injuries and overhead mobility restrictions this exercise provides the perfect features.
2. Similar to the above point, the ball-to-the-wall overhead press helps to optimize shoulder/scapular retraction and depression throughout the entire duration of the exercise. Other more traditional “joint-friendly” overhead presses such as the landmine and scrape the rack presses involve a slight forward torso lean. While this can feel quite natural and comfortable it can also reinforce slightly undesired shoulder elevation and scapular protraction (particularly during the eccentric phase) due to the gravitational effects involved with a forward torso lean.
In fact, one of the most common errors I routinely witness lifters, coaches, and trainers make during landmine presses is that they fail to produce optimal shoulder retraction and depression and instead keep their shoulders and scapula overly locked and fixed. The slight backward angular torso lean involved with the ball-to-the-wall press helps eliminate this issue while still providing a very mobility-friendly overhead press.
3. Related to the topic of proper shoulder positioning is the discussion of t-spine mechanics. During the ball-to-the-wall overhead press, the combination of the ball wedged between the wall and the lumbar spine helps to reinforce the natural curvature of the low back while also optimizing thoracic extension and T-spine mobility. That’s because the upper back, neck, and head, can extend slightly back behind the ball due to the unique support and mechanics of the exercise. Additionally, because the torso is slightly angled back, this further helps extend the t-spine as the entire structure and musculature of the upper torso can naturally shift posteriorly. In contrast, landmine presses and scrape the rack presses involve the opposite body lean with a forward torso angle, making it all the more challenging to achieve optimal t-spine extension since the joint structures and targeted musculature tend to shift anteriorly.
4. Most standing overhead presses place high levels of tension and compressive forces on the low back due to the direct vertical force vectors and axial loading components. While this can be desirable under certain scenarios as it teaches the athlete how to stabilize the spine and strengthen the surrounding musculature, periodically deloading the vertebral column can be an effective strategy for enhancing spinal health and recovery. With that said, due to the unique lumbar support from the stability ball, the ball-to-the-wall squat is one of the most low back friendly overhead pressing exercises there is particularly when it comes to standing variations.
5. If you’ve read any of my chest training articles you’ll know I’m a huge fan of head-off presses as the position not only helps to strengthen the neck but also helps to elongate the cervical spine, which has a direct positive impact on improving shoulder mechanics and overall spinal alignment. Fortunately, the same benefits can be accrued during the ball-to-the-wall overhead press as the mechanics feel quite similar to a high incline press only the lifter can produce optimal cervical elongation rather than cervical compression, typically seen when the head is compressed into a fixed bench. If you’re football player, MMA fighter, boxer, soccer player, or a fitness enthusiast looking for a joint friendly shoulder press that simultaneously builds neck strength, this one’s tough to beat.
6. Because the lifter and the load is essentially being supported by a stability ball during the ball-to-the-wall press, this creates high levels of instability and oscillations. Although it’s not necessarily enough to detract from the amount of load the lifter can handle, if the athlete uses excessive momentum and doesn’t control the entire movement, the sudden jerks will cause the ball to bounce, roll, and oscillate making it nearly impossible to control. To dial this movement in, the lifter will be required to use smooth and controlled mechanics essentially forcing them to utilize an eccentric isometric protocol.
7. Besides eliminating excessive momentum, the ball-to-the-wall overhead press also helps to expose asymmetries and imbalances. If you press more from one side, tilt, or wiggle, then the ball or your body will roll and shift thereby disrupting the entire movement. This is further magnified if you perform the movement using ankle dorsiflexion (sitting back on the tips of the heels) as Taylor demonstrates in the above video. Besides helping to set the hips back posteriorly throughout, which helps optimize overall spinal alignment, the dorsiflexion method eliminates the ability of the lifter to rely on their toes to help them stabilize sloppy upper body mechanics and cheat their way through the movement.
Although I generally like to employ positions that force the lifter to use their toes to help stabilize their body, periodically eliminating this stabilizing component can force other areas, namely the core and upper body, to work overtime to control the movement. Hence the case with the dorsiflexion protocol. If the lifter wiggles, shifts, or loses balance, they’ll be unable to use their toes to anchor their body into the ball and recover their position. In other words the margin for error is markedly smaller.
As an added bonus the anterior tibialis muscles and ankle dorsiflexors are some of the most critical yet neglected muscles when it comes to athletic performance, fitness, and overall movement mechanics. Performing ball-to-the-wall presses with this method helps to address this common weakness.
Squatting Ball-To-The-Wall Overhead Press
A more advanced progression of the ball-to-the-wall overhead press involves holding an isometric squat position throughout the duration of the set as shown here by my awesome client and national figure competitor Leslie Petch. Notice the 2 advanced variations she performs including the highly difficult single leg variation.
This squatting ball-to-the-wall press truly taxes the entire body from head to toe making this one of the most intense full body exercises you’ll ever attempt. Although these aren’t necessarily as mobility friendly as the angled standing version described above due to a lack of an angular component, this variation does have quite a few of its own unique attributes, 5 to be exact.
1. Similar to the straight leg angled version, the lumbar support from the ball makes this overhead press very low back friendly and easy on the spine. Additionally, it still provides the benefits associated with direct vertical force vectors and axial loading that transfer well to more traditional overhead presses. Simply put, it teaches you to stabilize the spine and low back (via enhanced core activation) while also reducing stress and compressive forces to the actual lumbar region.
2. On a similar note, the squatting variation of the ball-to-the-wall overhead press makes it impossible to over-extend the lumbar spine and produce excessive lordotic curvature. One of the most common issues during overhead presses is allowing the hips to sag forward into excessive extension which places enormous tension on the low back and lumbar spine. Because the hips will be forced to sit back to maintain the 90-degree squat position, the athlete will be unable produce the aforementioned compensation pattern.
3. This incredibly strict and rigid upright torso position that’s ingrained by this exercise makes it nearly impossible to lean back and cheat. As a result the squatting wall-to-the-ball press truly isolates the daylights out of the deltoids and traps even more so than most presses.
4. Besides eliminating the backward lean that reduces tension to the targeted musculature of the shoulders (typically placing more tension to the upper chest), the squatting ball-to-the-wall press also provides constant tension to the shoulders including in the overhead lockout position. That’s because holding a squat while performing overhead presses changes the dynamics of the movement by providing extreme tension in the top fully contracted position that absolutely annihilates the musculature of the shoulders.
During most overhead presses, the top lockout represents a position where the lifter can typically rest the involved musculature as they can use their overall body structure to maintain an overhead slot position similar to that used with Olympic weightlifting. Although this crushes the core it tends to reduce tension to the deltoids. The squatting ball-to-the-wall press eliminates this resting phase as the top lockout position is just as difficult as the bottom stretched position due to a constant tension component that’s difficult to replicate with any other overhead press.
5. Besides improving overhead pressing mechanics that translate incredibly well to traditional military presses, the ball-to-the-wall squatting press also improves squatting technique. That’s because it helps to reinforce the idea of sitting back into the heels during squats as it’s nearly impossible to perform these without this element. As a result the level of intramuscular tension throughout the entire lower body including the quads and glutes is quite high.
Progressions and Practical Application
These can easily be progressed to a single leg squatting variation making the level of full body motor control, stability, and balance needed to successfully complete these through the roof. Oh and yes, the legs get absolutely demolished on these as well since you’ll be performing an unstable single leg weighted wall sit all while executing an overhead press.
While this is not something you would frequently incorporate into your routine as the single leg version will most likely detract slightly from the upper body overload component, if you’re looking to deload the upper body while still maximizing workout intensity on your overhead presses this one can’t be beat.
Bonus: Mastering The Single Leg Ball Squat
Before attempting these single leg squatting overhead presses I highly recommend becoming efficient at single leg ball squats as they’re plenty difficult to master without the overhead pressing component. This is also a great substitute for the pistol squat or any other single leg squatting movement as it involves significant balance, stability, and mobility, as well as a strong overload component.
You’ll also notice I have Leslie performing these using the kettlebell upside down pinching method (pinching the bell portion of the kettlebells). Because most lifters won’t be able to handle heavy loads (in fact bodyweight will be ample for most), holding dumbbells or kettlebells using a pinching grip method helps create concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation (full body tension) thereby increasing neural drive and muscle activation to the working extremities. It also helps eliminate energy leaks due to the increased full body tension thereby enhancing balance, stability, and overall body mechanics. These are deceptively intense on the entire lower body including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
They’re also incredibly effective for improving foot and ankle stability as the entire foot and ankle complex is forced to work overtime to stabilize this movement. Surprisingly this doesn’t detract from lower body activation but instead enhances it as the improved foot and ankle activation increase neural drive up the kinetic chain thereby increasing recruitment of the larger lower body muscle groups. Don’t be surprised if you have a tremendous burn when performing these as the level of metabolic stress, muscle damage, and mechanical tension are through the roof.
To learn more about implementing unique upper body presses into your routine check out my Complete Templates.