But Most People Can do Them if they Follow Some Guidelines
Shoulder presses are a great exercise that help build upper body strength and size. They work not just the shoulder muscles (deltoids), but also the triceps, and provide a nice challenge to the core to stabilize an overhead load. Interestingly, the overhead press, as the shoulder press is also known, was the third Olympic weightlifting exercise until 1972, when it was discountinued due to issues around proper form.
While the shoulder press is a great exercise for many strength practitioners, some people find it causes shoulder issues such as rotator cuff pain or biceps tendon inflammation. Others find their lower back suffers after pressing because they have to lean back too far to get the weight overhead. There are fixes to both of these issues.
Stability and Mobility are Both Important
There are two major, yet connected issues that prevent people from pressing without pain and damage: the lack of a stable, mobile shoulder joint, and the lack of a stable, mobile mid-spine. Stability and mobility are the two primary factors that affect how well a joint moves. Stability is strength: the ability to make sure the joint doesn’t move when you don’t want it to. Mobility is controlled range of motion. The joint moves where you want it without the risk of strains or sprains. Mobility is different than flexibility in that flexibility is passive: it’s how far an external force can push a joint. Mobility is created by the muscles that surround the joint.
In order to safely press a weight overhead, you need to be able to keep the weight positioned in line with your centre of gravity: the imaginary line that bisects your body front-to-back. If there are limitations in your shoulder joint or your mid-back, and you cannot extend your arms past vertical when overhead, you pressing form will be compromised.
An easy test to determine whether your overhead positioning is limited is to stand up against a wall, and lift the arms up overhead. Can you touch the wall behind you with your hands? Oh, you can? Great! Except the problem is it’s very easy to cheat yourself into that position by arching the lower back. Now try to brace your abs and really focus on only extending the upper half of your spine when the hands come up. Was there a difference in range? If yes, you used your lower back to create range. If you can’t hold your hands against the wall fairly comfortably without using the lower back, you need to work on your mid-back and shoulder mobility. If you can’t even touch the wall without cheating, I would focus on improving range of motion first before any overhead dumbbell or kettlebell work, and use other exercises, like incline dumbbell presses, to target the shoulders.
Don’t Overload the Shoulders
Resistance training programs usually separate out shoulders from other muscle groups, but we have to consider that many non-shoulder specific exercises also involve the deltoids and rotator cuff. All chest work, especially incline pressing, involves the anterior deltoid, most back work involves the posterior deltoid, and the rotator cuff and medial deltoid work hard to stabilize the gleno-humeral joint during all upper-body exercises. In addition, holding the weight in your hands during lower body exercises like deadlifts also loads the shoulder muscles, as does holding the bar in place during front or back squats. This all adds up to tremendous, frequent, and mostly unintentional loading on the shoulders. No wonder there’s such a plague of rotator cuff tears, biceps tendonitis, and impingement issues in the fitness population. The shoulder joint and its surrounding muscles simply can’t handle the amount of work we ask of them.
The Fix: Reduce Load While Improve Resilience
To improve the overall health of your shoulders and to prevent injuries, you need to slowly improve their resiliency while managing the load you put on them. Here’s the necessary steps to improve shoulder resiliency:
Stability Before Mobility
We need to push overhead from a stable base. This means stable legs, stable hips and a stable core. It means being able to stand up straight, without leaning back, and pressing a heavy weight overhead. Next time you’re at the gym, watch how many guys crush their lower backs when shoulder pressing. Some people even exaggerate it in order to move more weight. This is a terrible idea. You want some upper body extension, but from the mid-back, not the lower back or hips.
Work on Releasing Restrictions
This one can be a tough one to figure out, so getting a competent trainer or physio to evaluate you if you have shoulder issues is the way to go. Sometimes it is fairly simple for a physiotherapist or similar practitioner to release these muscles, so it is absolutely worth trying. The two biggest culprits in shoulder restriction are the chest muscles (pecs) and the big back muscle (latissimus, aka lats). Loosening these two muscles before overhead pressing is a great idea.
To stretch the pecs, lie on a foam roller (if you don’t have one, get one ASAP, they are extremely useful). Your hips should be on one end, and your head on the other. Bring your arms up next to you, with elbows at 90 degrees. Now slowly move the arms up and down, feeling a good stretch through the chest muscles. Don’t let the lower back come off the roller. Do a solid minute of this.
To stretch your lats, grab on something about head height or a bit higher. Now lean forward while shifting the hips back. You can swing the leg on the same side back behind the other leg for an extra stretch. You should feel the stretch down the side of the body along the ribs.
Strengthen Your Support Muscles
The rotator cuff and the serratus are the two most neglected upper body muscle groups, and they need attention the same as other muscles. If you don’t train your rotator cuff, eventually they will not be able to handle the stress of pushing and pulling repeatedly with heavy weights. Watch the video for my 4 favourite rotator cuff exercises, one for each of the four muscles that make up the system.
The serratus is an important stabilizer of the shoulder joint, and it helps rotate the shoulder complex upwards. Upward rotation is critical for giving you range to move the arm overhead. Unfortunately there is a common practice among weight-lifters to pinch the shoulder blades together for all movements. This practice restricts both the engagement of the serratus and the ability to extend the arm overhead, and should only be done for selective exercises, such as the bench press. When overhead pressing, allow the shoulder-blades to glide apart as you push up.
Improve Mid-Back Mobility
We will use a simple movement to improve your mid-back mobility. It is a passive stretch for the spine and surrounding muscles. Grab a foam roller, position it across your mid-back side-ways, and link your fingers under your head. Then slowly roll back, trying to bring your head closer to the ground while keeping the hips touching the floor. Hold the bottom position for 5 seconds, then slowly roll back up into a gentle crunch. Repeat 15-20 times.
Take Care of Your Shoulders
Shoulders are one of the most commonly injured areas of the body, and having deficiencies in the overhead press is a common way to injure them. If you are having issues with rotator cuff pain, biceps tendonitis or other issues, try to implement some of the guidelines above and you’ll be surprised at the difference. Your shoulders will benefit from taking care of them!