I personally believe that the shoulder press should be known as the overhead press. The main reason being that you don’t only work your shoulders during a press overhead, you work your entire body! The overhead press is often over shadowed by gym rats favouring the bench press as the best mass gainer for the upper body.

This however, is not a reason to avoid doing it.

Quite the opposite actually.

The overhead press, especially the standing military press, was the corner stone exercise that has built some of the most impressive physiques to date, both in bodybuilding and strongman. You can improve your balance and co-ordination alongside the size and strength of your entire body when you program your shoulder pressing exercises correctly. Pressing a weight overhead will test the strength and stability of all 3 heads of your shoulder musculature (anterior, medial and posterior), your shoulder girdle (the muscles surrounding your shoulder blades) as well as your core (both your abs and lower back) and if you are performing standing variations of the shoulder press then you will also train your glutes, quads and hamstrings to add stability to the lift.

You can perform the shoulder press exercise a multitude of ways using a large variety of equipment. All of the exercises I am going to go through have similar benefits for eliciting gains in strength and size but some are more challenging than others to perform and bring in other areas of your body such as your legs, core and back.

If you are new to using the shoulder press in your training, then you should start with the seated dumbbell shoulder press. Using an upright bench will provide stability during the movement, stop you overarching your lower back and allow you to concentrate on keeping tension through your shoulders when pressing the weight. Using dumbbells allows for greater control and range of movement – both of which are ideal for learning new movement patterns of an exercise and can allow you to add weight quickly to what’s being lifted.

The military press can be performed with numerous pieces of equipment but the barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell military press are the most used in commercial gyms. All of these various pieces of equipment provide a large amount of stimulus to build size and strength in your shoulders and as you are standing whilst performing the exercise you have the added benefit of building your core, back and leg strength as well. This is due to pressing the weight from your shoulders in a standing position to overhead (where you are least stable). If you really want to challenge your core, back and leg strength then perform a one handed dumbbell or kettlebell standing shoulder press. This is a fantastic exercise to highlight weak points in your body that can then be addressed accordingly in your program. Pressing overhead with one arm forces you to provide stability through your core, lower back, glutes and thighs as the weight is moved up and down. Once you have mastered the difficulty of pressing one-armed overhead with the dumbbell and kettlebell you can further increase the difficulty by including the Javelin Press in your program. The Javelin Press is a standing one-armed barbell overhead press. This will build full body strength, stability and balance and is an exercise that adds the ‘look like a badass’ proponent to it.

The push press is another advanced variation of the shoulder press and is closely related to the military press. Instead of trying to keep your body braced and still when pressing the weight off your shoulders you use power developed from your legs and core to aid in moving the weight from your shoulders to above your head. This variation allows for greater amounts of weight to be pressed overhead and can lead to good developments in strength, size and power. Timing is everything with this exercise so start with a lighter weight and ensure that your technique is spot on before looking to lift more. This exercise can be performed with various pieces of equipment (much like the military press). Think of dropping your hips backwards into a ¼ squat before pushing the weight upwards from your shoulders by driving from your legs and arms at the same time. Don’t allow your weight to shift forwards onto your toes when you are bending your legs as this will create an improper line of force development and you will push the weight forwards instead of upwards.

The inverted shoulder press is a slight regression to a handstand press up. Although you are only moving your bodyweight with these exercises they can be an efficient and effective tool to packing on some serious muscle on those shoulders. The inverted press is the easier of the two exercises here but as long as you are controlling your rep speed both up and down it can still be a decent exercise to include in your shoulder training. The handstand press-up is one of the hardest bodyweight exercises to perform period. Perform the HSPU against a wall and try to keep your body as still as possible whilst moving up and down in the press. Your aim with both of these exercises is to get your forehead as close to the floor as possible each repetition. A couple of great exercises here for when you are unable to get to a gym and want to train your upper body.

Although the shoulder exercises listed differ slightly with how they are performed, there are some key points to consider when perfecting any variation of the shoulder press:

– Strength comes from the ground up, so make sure that you set up your stance to be shoulder width apart and that all of your joints from your ankle to your shoulders are in line and supporting one another. This provides stability when a weight is pressed overhead and will stop you moving around like a tree blowing in the wind.

– If your weight moves onto your toes during the lift, then it is likely that your stance is too narrow.

– Keep your lower back tight (do not overarch) and brace your core throughout. A good technique to use here is to suck your belly button towards your spine. This will keep your ribs down, stop you arching your back and brace your core. If you are nearly falling over backwards as you are pressing the weight above, then it is likely that you are arching your back too much and the weight is too heavy.

– Keep your elbows directly under the weights and your forearms parallel to each other during the movement.

– Begin the exercise by gently touching the weights on your shoulders and as you press the weight above your head think about driving your elbows through the weights and pushing your biceps to cover your ears. This will provide the best line of press and stop you pushing the weight forwards.

– Ensure that you are able to lock out your elbow joint at the top of the movement and that the weight is stable and placed directly over your shoulder joint.

– Slowly return the weights back to your shoulder (maintaining tension in the shoulder muscles throughout) before beginning your next rep.

– Your choice of equipment matters depending upon the goals of your training. You can lift more weight overall with a barbell and so the volume you can accumulate will be higher meaning greater gains in strength and size. Dumbbells will highlight any discrepancies between the right and left side of your body. Kettlebells create a need for more stability due to the increased range of motion when performing the overhead press. A combination of all of these pieces of equipment in your training program will give you the best results for overall size, strength and stability in the shoulder joint.

Lots of benefits to utilise overhead pressing in your training. Don’t use too much weight and ensure correct technique throughout the movement. I hope this article has been useful to you and thanks for reading. As always please message me if you have any questions on anything that I have covered above.

Written by: Adam Wakefield

I have been working as a personal trainer for over 9 years. I began my career in the fitness industry after completing a degree in Sport Science where I graduated with Upper Class Honours. I have always had a thirst for all things related to health, fitness and nutrition and it wasn’t before long that I owned my own gym.

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