One of the best muscle builders for shoulders is the overhead shoulder press. Just like the bench press or barbell squats, it’s a compound exercise in which many muscles are working together.
The main muscles involved in the pressing movement are the front deltoids, side deltoids, triceps and upper pecs.
If you want boulder-like shoulders you can’t go wrong with the overhead shoulder press.
There are some things that you should know before you get started so here’s your no bs guide to the overhead shoulder press.
How to Overhead shoulder press
Medical Disclaimer: Always make sure to consult a fitness professional to understand how to add new exercises to your training regimen safely. This information is not to be taken as medical advice
As humans, we learn best to do things by seeing someone else do them successfully. Here’s a short clip to show you how the shoulder press is done.
Quick notes for form
- Place the bar on the squat rack/power rack hooks so that it’s at your upper chest level.
- Grip the bar slightly outside of your shoulder width.
- Use an overhand grip, with your fist facing the sky.
- Activate your core and contract your glutes for stability.
- Keep your hips and knees locked in place. Your back should also be kept straight throughout.
Common Mistakes [And their Solutions]
Arching the Lower Back
Either use a mirror or record yourself shoulder pressing, if you notice that your lower back is arching, you’ve got 1 of 2 issues.
- Insufficient stabilizing
The reason the overhead shoulder press is a full-body exercise is because you’re standing up. By sitting down, you take out the stabilizers and replace them with a bench.
Make sure that you’re engaging your core, squeezing your glutes and quads.
If this doesn’t fix the arch, you have tight lats.
- Tight lats
Give this experiment a try.
Stand with your back flat against a wall, and lift your arms in front and then above you.
The latissimus dorsi (lats) are a muscle on the back that can, when tight, restrict overhead movement. In a sense, they create a downward force every time you press overhead.
As a result, the lower back compensates for this issue, which only makes things worse.
Many exercises can be done to correct tight lats but the base principle behind all of them is to stretch out the lats.
For example, hanging from a pull-up bar with an underhand grip for 20-30 seconds, a few days a week can help stretch out the lats. It also helps to create a mind-muscle connection to that stretch.
Excessively bending the wrists
Bending the wrists back towards you leads to increase strain on the wrists which can not only be painful but puts your wrists at a mechanical disadvantage when you shoulder press.
The optimal wrist position is to keep them in line with your forearms with your fists facing the sky and the bar resting on the bottom of your palm
Elbow flaring is when your elbows are pointing outside and away from your body. This usually happens because of a wide grip. Putting your elbows in this position reduces the engagement of the triceps making it significantly more challenging to press the weight up.
There is also the risk of injury if you flare your elbows out without realising it during a set.
Before you start your set, you want to ensure your elbows are tucked in front of you and that you grip the bar slightly outside of shoulder width.
The wide-grip shoulder press, regardless of its variation, has its place in shoulder workouts, however, it uses much lighter weight for it to be safe.
Pressing the barbell around your head
Shoulder pressing requires a straight bar path. Meaning the barbell, from your chest to above your head, must go in a straight line. That’s a bit difficult when your head is in the way.
When you don’t know the solution to this issue, you usually press the bar around your head, leading to a curved bar path. The result of that is a reduction in your maximum strength for the exercise.
To correct this issue
- Lean very slightly back
- Pull your head back
- Stick your chest up and out.
- Press the barbell and once it passes your head, bring your head back to neutral.
- Do the same thing in reverse as you bring the bar back down.
Overhead Shoulder Press Variations
The standing overhead press is one of the more difficult forms of shoulder press. Here’s 3 alternatives which are not only easier but can be used to work up to the overhead shoulder press.
Overhead Shoulder Press [Smith Machine]
Using the Smith machine is a great way to work towards the standing Overhead Press (OHP). The bar is set up to force you to use a straight bar path, making it easier for you to learn the form and pick out any mistakes you’re making.
It is best done with moderate weight and controlling each repetition for 8 – 12 reps.
Wide Grip Overhead Shoulder Press
The wide grip reduces the involvement of the triceps, putting more tension on the front delts and upper pecs. This means that you’ll have to lower the weight to a moderate level.
If you’re still working on the form, pair this exercise with a Smith machine.
It is best done with moderate (likely lower than the previous variation due to lack of tricep involvement) weight and controlling each repetition for 8 – 12 reps.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
A very common form of OHP is the seated shoulder press using dumbbells. Because of the seated variation, you’re capable of lifting very heavy dumbbells (more on this later).
A scientific study on body positioning (standing or seated) and the use of dumbbells vs barbells for muscle activity during OHP found that using dumbbells for both the seated and standing variations for OHP gets noticeably more activation of the front deltoids when compared to using a barbell. The side deltoids are also more activated in the standing variation using dumbbells as opposed to using a barbell.
The article says that “Using dumbbells instead of barbells forces those individuals who engage in resistance training to control and balance the weights independently and thereby could increase and/or reduce the involvement of agonists, synergists, stabilizers, and antagonists”1
Benefits of The Overhead Shoulder Press
The key benefit of the OHP is the significant activation of the front deltoids during the movement. If you’re main goal is to build those front delts, then this exercise is an obvious pick.
Another benefit of the standing OHP is the raw strength you can develop from. If strength is your thing, and you want to lift very heavy weights, then the standing OHP stands right next to the big 3, deadlifting, bench press and barbell squats.
Whether you’re doing OHP for strength or muscle size, make sure you are doing the form right. Just like the deadlift or barbell squats, the OHP can be risky if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Who Should Do It?
The overhead shoulder press is not for beginners. Period.
As you saw in the form, and common mistakes section, there are a lot of moving parts, making it very difficult to learn quickly.
If you’re a beginner, the best way to overhead shoulder press is to work your way up to it.
For example, you can master the form of the below, then work on the overhead shoulder press:
- Shoulder press [machine variation] – Practicing the upper movement
- Seated shoulder press [dumbbells] – Practicing stability
- Seated or standing shoulder press [smith machine] – Using the barbell/lower body stability
Finally, you can practice the overhead shoulder press.
Using a smith machine is very different to using free weights, so I recommend you start with light weight, making sure your form is good before you increase the weight to a moderate level.
Besides the beginner, gym-goers that are constrained on time or prefer compound movements, in general, may do this exercise.
Since many upper body muscles are working together during the lift, you can be more efficient in your workout in less time. Not to mention you can lift heavy on compound lifts.
This workout may be more preferential to gym-goers that have a UL split or a ULPPL split.
The Muscles Worked
Here’s a quick overview of the muscles worked when doing the standing overhead shoulder press
- Anterior (front) deltoids
- Upper pecs
- Upper trapezius
- Lateral (side) deltoids
- Posterior (rear) deltoids
Stability and Isometric hold:
- Abdominal region (core)
- Lower Back
Hypertrophy & Strength
Compound lifts like the overhead shoulder press, deadlift and bench press are commonly associated with lifting very heavy so are great for pure strength gains. They can also be used for hypertrophy by using moderate weight and progressively increasing the weight throughout the weeks or months.
The basic rule of thumb is:
Strength gains – 8 Reps or below
Hypertrophic (muscle building) gains – 8-12 Reps
Remember that the overhead press puts a lot of stress on the body and nervous system so it isn’t ideal to do too many reps.
Advice from a gym bro
Standing OHP is tough. Especially if you are a beginner. Following a plan to work your way up to it is the best way to get good at it.
I also like to think of the standing OHP in parts:
- Getting the bar off the hooks
- Setting up
- Lower body stability
- The press movement
- Putting the bar back on the hooks.
Pro tip – Most gyms have safety bars that come with the squat rack. By setting these up on the squat rack right below your setup level, you can safely practice the OHP without worrying about crushing yourself under the bar or dropping the bar because of a lack of strength.
Don’t underestimate getting the bar off the hooks.
If you have a wobbly start or spent too much energy getting the bar off the hook, it can negatively affect the rest of your set. Be it motivation or fatigue. It matters!
- Saeterbakken AH, Fimland MS. Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1824-31. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873. PMID: 23096062.
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