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Safer Overhead Military Press

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Two weekends ago we were in Virginia on a medical consult with colleagues. One of the docs is an osteopath and collegiate team doc who really knows his orthopedics. I enjoy our discussions of the best techniques to retrain healthy muscle use. He mentioned that he discourages his team members from the overhead military press (lifting weight directly overhead with both arms). He mentioned the frequent, serious shoulder and neck injuries this exercise often produces. The numbers show that he is correct.

I asked his opinion on my view that these injuries usually only occur when allowing mal-positioning, such as the forward head and rounded shoulders, and overarching the lower back. Read how these positions produce injury in the posts Breasts Causing Upper Back Pain is a Myth and Change Daily Reaching to Get Ab Exercise and Stop Back and Shoulder Pain.

My colleague reminded me that the military press is not usually functional, which means that except in cases like my carpenter husband Paul who lifts substantial objects overhead all day at work, people do not lift overhead for daily life. Given the large number of injuries the overhead press causes, he'd rather people strengthen in other, more functional ways.

It is true that most lifting overhead is not directly over the shoulder, as in the military press. However, most people need to lift things overhead as part of daily life, and often use the overhead press during recreation, as in the photo, at right.

Here is how to do the overhead press in ways that I believe can keep it healthy, and how to transfer that healthy positioning to lifting laundry, groceries, babies, and other daily weights:

  1. Before doing lifting, use the quick check in Thumbs Can Show Tightness That Leads to Upper Back Pain.
  2. Do the pectoral stretch described in Fixing Upper Back and Neck Pain.
  3. Make sure not to arch your lower back to lift your arms, as explained in Change Daily Reaching to Get Ab Exercise and Stop Back and Shoulder Pain

Keep your shoulders down and your chin in, then lift. By keeping head and shoulder position from drooping forward, you will prevent the shoulder bone from squashing your rotator cuff and other soft tissue when you lift your arm. Use the healthy shoulder, neck, and lower back, positioning in #1,2, and 3 (above) for every overhead lift, from pulling off a shirt, to putting away groceries, to lifting children, putting things on shelves or overhead racks, to lifting weights. You will get better exercise and prevent injury.

Photo by subscription to ClipArt.com
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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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