Whether you’re working on a weightlifting program or just want to get back mobility, it’s important to keep the muscles in your upper body conditioned.
These muscles help you do everyday tasks, such as putting dishes up high in a cabinet or placing items overhead on a shelf.
One way to keep your upper body in shape is by including the overhead press, also called a shoulder press, in your overall exercise routine.
When executing any exercise that involves using weight, you need to understand the function and pattern of the movement before you hit the gym.
Rader explains that an overhead press is simply a movement in which resistance is pushed above the head. You can do this in a variety of ways, such as by using:
- both hands simultaneously
- one hand at a time
- a single barbell held by both hands
- one free weight in each hand (a free weight being an object not attached to a piece of equipment)
Check your shoulder mobility
With this in mind, you also need to find out if you have the shoulder mobility, or range of movement, to perform the exercise safely.
To determine this, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Matt Pippin suggests performing the following test:
|What to do||When to improve range of motion||When to use overhead press|
|Keep your entire body still. Slowly lift both arms overhead.||If you can’t easily get your arms in line with your ears, then you shouldn’t do overhead pressing with a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebells.||If you can get in line with your ears, you have the prerequisite shoulder mobility necessary and can follow the steps below.|
Grip and hold
For the standing barbell press, walk up to the bar and grab it slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with palms facing away from your body. Then follow these steps:
- Take the bar off the rack and step back. The bar should be resting in your hands right around your collarbone.
- To start the movement, brace your abs, squeeze your butt to engage your glutes, tilt your head back, and drive the bar up toward the ceiling.
- Once the bar passes your forehead, return your head to neutral while fully straightening the arms overhead. At the top of the press, make sure your abs and glutes are still engaged and you’re not bending your lower back.
- Slowly lower the bar back down to your shoulders, tilting your head back to make room.
Keep your elbows in
Pippin notes to keep your elbows either directly underneath your wrists or slightly more inward.
“This angle will allow for optimal force production. If the elbows flare out to the side, you’re losing leverage from which to push from,” he explains.
Use your abs and glutes too
Pippin also recommends keeping your glutes and abs engaged throughout the movement.
“This is your pillar of support from which to press. Losing this stability will make the bar shake and reduce the amount of weight that you can push,” he says.
There are several benefits of including the overhead press in your workout routine. Overhead pressing can increase:
- strength and size of the shoulder muscles
- strength and size of the triceps muscles
- strength and size of the trapezius muscle
- strength in the core muscles, such as your obliques, transverse abdominal muscles, lower back, and spinal stabilizers, when performing the exercise while standing
- performance of other exercises, such as the bench press
Performing the same exercise repeatedly can lead to boredom, overuse, and a decrease in performance and gains.
So, if you’re looking to train the same muscles required in the overhead press but want to vary your workouts, you might be wondering if there are other exercises you can do. Here are some to consider:
- The Turkish get-up is a popular kettlebell or dumbbell exercise that
uses the same musclesas the overhead press.
- You can change the grip when using dumbbells to do the overhead press. Rather than your palms facing out, switch to a neutral grip with the hands facing each other, elbows pointed in front of you.
- Any type of rowing exercise that works the back and rotator cuff muscles may be a good swap. This can include a seated row machine, bent-over row, barbell row, or dumbbell row.
- Pushups work some of the same muscles as the overhead press, including the pectorals, triceps, and shoulders. Plus, since no weights are required, you can do them anywhere, anytime.
- Exercises that target the small muscles in your shoulders and upper back, such as scapular retraction and prone lateral raise, can help you decrease injuries and allow you to perform the overhead press more efficiently.
Standing overhead press
If you choose to do the overhead press from a standing position, you’ll work most of the large muscles in your upper body, including the:
Because being upright requires balance, you also use the muscles in your core, including your abdominals and lower back.
In an upright position, you compensate for balance changes during each phase of the overhead press and create stability through the spine to ensure a proper foundation for a loaded overhead movement, explains Brent Rader, DPT, physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.
In addition to the power from your upper body, your lower body helps assist when you push a weighted bar overhead.
Seated overhead press
If you perform the overhead press in a seated position with your back pressed against the back of a pad, Pippin says the core activation will go away. The shoulders and triceps will perform all of the work.
It’s important to use proper form when doing the overhead press to ensure that you’re getting the full benefit of the exercise as well as to avoid injury.
The correct form may vary from person to person, as body type and bone formation also vary.
Here are five common mistakes to avoid when performing the overhead press:
1. Your stance/feet positioning is off.
It’s important to make sure your stance is wide enough to give your body stability during the lifting, meaning no less than hip-width apart.
You also want to make sure your feet are helping to anchor your body and keep your glutes and hips in line with your upper body. If your feet aren’t in a stable tripod positioning, it prevents the rest of your body from being stable, and this imbalance could cause injury as other parts of your body are forced to overcompensate.
2. Incorrect arm/shoulder form.
When lifting, your elbows should point in the forward direction, and lock at the top of the press so that you’re reaching a full range of motion. Flared elbows can lead to a shoulder injury.
Your triceps should also be aligned with your wrists because your wrists and elbows are supporting the weight and path of the barbell.
When the wrists and elbows aren’t properly lined up, it may be hard to have enough momentum to lift correctly or comfortably.
You also want to avoid shrugging your shoulders to protect your rotator cuff muscles.
3. You’re pressing the weight in an incorrect path.
When the barbell isn’t being lifted in the right path, a number of issues may occur. If you lift it too far in front or behind, you may lose your balance, which is very dangerous.
Lifting too far forward can also cause you to work a different group of muscles called the anterior deltoids, which will prevent you from increasing the load as easily and miss reps. Similarly, lifting too far in the back can incorrectly work your posterior deltoids.
You can check your form by having a coach watch you from the side or recording the lift in a side view for your own reference. When checking the lift, you’ll want your body to create a line from the side.
4. Your neck and back are not lined up correctly.
Your lower back shouldn’t be arched or hyperextended while lifting. Your lower back should always be in a neutral position, with only a slight arch in your upper back while the chest lifts. It may help to squeeze your glutes to avoid arching your back.
Your neck may move at first so that the barbell can be lifted straight up, but you should extend it slightly forward after the barbell has been lifted so that your spine isn’t too arched.
5. You’re lifting weight that is too heavy for you.
It’s important to never lift more weight than you can handle. If the barbell is too heavy for you to lift, you may have incorrect form and can be in danger of injuring yourself.
To avoid injury and reap the benefits of performing the overhead press, you should always use the accurate form and avoid weights that are too heavy.
“Free weights such as dumbbells allow for different angles to be stimulated compared to a traditional barbell,” Pippin says.
Also, if you have some wrist or shoulder limitations, Pippins says dumbbells can allow for a path of less resistance, allowing you to perform the movement a little more safely.
Additionally, Pippin says that kettlebells, if used upside down or bottom’s up, allow you to train your shoulder in a more stable way with much less weight.
“The bottom’s up position creates a giant stability component, as the bell will shake uncontrollably. This is a great training tool for the shoulders and is a great way to introduce overhead pressing while working on building up shoulder mobility,” he explains.
It can also be helpful to have a coach or trainer oversee your lifting to ensure you’re doing the movement correctly if you have access to one.
When lifting, you’ll want to choose a well-lit location with enough space for your movement and equipment. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning” manual, it’s best to use a space that has a ceiling height of at least 12 to 14 feet. The area should be cleaned regularly, and the best type of flooring is either rubber or carpet.
Always consult with a doctor or healthcare professional first to make sure that this exercise is appropriate for you, and get medical attention immediately if you become injured. It’s important to always take lack of hydration, dizziness, muscle pain, blurred vision, headaches, and other physical symptoms seriously when exercising.
Your upper body and trunk house the muscles of your chest, shoulders, back, arms, and core. Collectively, these muscle groups allow you to perform several tasks, including reaching, rotating, and lifting overhead.
While not as common as reaching in front of your body or turning to the side, lifting or pushing overhead is still a movement we need to be able to execute in many daily activities.
The overhead or shoulder press is one of several exercises you can use to build and keep up your shoulder strength.