Are overhead presses, also known as the military press, part of your shoulder routine? They’re a favorite of bodybuilders who want strong, well-defined shoulders, and it’s one of the best exercises for working the shoulders and upper body. If you could choose only one exercise for broadening your shoulders, this would be it! The overhead press activates the anterior deltoids the most, followed by the medial deltoids, and to a lesser degree the posterior deltoids. So, it’s an ideal exercise for getting anterior deltoid definition.
Plus, the overhead press is a compound exercise that works more than one muscle group at the same time. When you press a barbell or two dumbbells overhead, you activate the muscles in your deltoids, pectorals, trapezius, and your triceps but your core also gets in on the action since you have to tighten your core muscles to stabilize your body when you lift. Your postural muscles, the smaller muscles that help you maintain perfect posture, are also called into play with the overhead press. These include the serratus anterior teres minor, and the supraspinatus muscles.
Despite their benefits, overhead presses place stress on your shoulders and back if you do them incorrectly or use a weight you’re not ready to handle. That’s why it’s important to learn proper form when you do this exercise and start with lighter weights that you can control. Fortunately, there are other steps you can take to lower your risk of back pain from doing overhead presses. Let’s look at some of those, so you can overhead press in a way that’s safe and effective.
Why Overhead Presses May Hurt Your Back
The most common reason people develop back pain with the overhead press is they arch their back when they press overhead. One reason this happens is you’re using too much resistance. If you struggle to get a weight overhead because it’s too heavy for you, you arch your back and contort your spine to get it over your head. Then, if your spine arches as you bring it back down, it places added force on your upper spine. Over time, this can lead to pain in the upper back or even a herniated disc.
How can you lower your risk? Focus on keeping your spine neutral throughout the exercise. Your spine should never be overextended. One way to keep your back from hyperextending when you press overhead is to brace your abdominal muscles and hold them tight throughout the lift. Getting the biomechanics correct is so important that you should ask someone knowledgeable to critique your form when you do the exercise. If your form is off, the risk of injury with overhead presses is higher than with other exercises where you don’t take the weight overhead.
Shoulder Mobility Could Be a Problem
What if this movement is problematic for you? Some people have problems pressing overhead without arching their back because they lack good shoulder mobility. When your shoulders have poor mobility, your back has to take over the work of getting the weight overhead. Shoulder tightness due to muscle imbalances in the shoulder also makes it harder to lift overhead without triggering back pain. Poor shoulder mobility can come from a variety of causes, including inactivity, anatomic problems with the shoulder, poor posture, muscle imbalances, and shoulder injury.
One way to correct this is to do more balanced shoulder strengthening training. When you do exercises that require “pushing,” balance these movements with “pulling” exercises that work the opposing muscles. Balanced muscle strength is important for safely lifting overhead. Some “pull” exercises for the shoulders include upright rows, reverse flys, and face pulls. Shoulder mobility drills and regular stretching may also be beneficial.
A past shoulder injury, a history of a rotator cuff tear, or shoulder impingement can also reduce shoulder mobility. A shoulder impingement, where the humerus presses on the tendons in the shoulder can sometimes lead to a rotator cuff tear because of the constant pressure of the bone on the tendon. If you have a history of shoulder problems, the overhead press might not be the best exercise for you. It’s best to get clearance from a sports medicine doctor before doing presses with heavy weights, especially if you have a history of shoulder pain or injury.
Core Strength Matters Too
You should also have a baseline level of core strength to safely do overhead presses. However, some sources believe the role core strength plays in successfully performing this exercise is overstated. However, you need core strength to perform your best with most strength-training exercises.
So, make sure you’re including planks and other core-strengthening exercises in your routine. Also, tighten your core muscles by drawing your navel in when you lift the weight overhead and hold this position throughout the movement. This creates a more secure foundation in your mid-section that helps protect your back and spine.
Watch the Angle of Your Arms and Hands
Another mistake that can cause shoulder pain when you use dumbbells to press overhead is holding your arms too far to the side. Most people who use dumbbells place their hands and arms directly to their sides and hold the dumbbells in a straight line with their shoulders. This position places too much stress on your rotator cuff. It’s safer and easier on your shoulders if you bring your arms forward so they’re slightly in front of you and shift the angle of the dumbbells to 45 degrees so that one end points toward your shoulder. Give it a try and see if it doesn’t feel more natural!
The Bottom Line
The overhead press tops the list of exercises that can give you broader shoulders and more shoulder strength. Compound exercises, like the press, also work multiple muscle groups and helps build functional strength. Watch your form and make sure you’re not hyperextending your back. Also, work on core strength and include shoulder mobility drills in your workouts. The shoulder joint, being a ball-and-socket joint is quite mobile and that makes it more prone to injury. So, train smart!
- com. “Picture of the Shoulder”
- Kroell, Jordan & Mike, Jonathan. (2017). Exploring the Standing Barbell Overhead Press. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 39. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000324.
- Graham, John MS, CSCS*D, FNSCA Barbell Overhead Press, Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2008 – Volume 30 – Issue 6 – p 70-71. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318189a9fe.
- com. “Fix Your Overhead Press and Stop Shoulder Pain”
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