Overhead Pressing — Yay Or Nay?
The overhead shoulder press is an exercise that can help build foundational strength and resilience in the upper body. However, regardless if using a barbell or dumbbells, the execution of the exercise can leave a lot to be desired. While overhead pressing can have a multitude of benefits, we see many struggle to perform it correctly without putting more stress on unwanted areas. I’d even argue that the majority of people utilizing this exercise in their routine doesn’t have the requisite mobility to properly execute it. We’re going to discuss some things we see with this movement, assessments to see if you should be performing it, and alternatives that will still yield a training stimulus while being mindful of positioning.
Should You Even Be Overhead Pressing?
From a mobility standpoint, many athletes or gym goers struggle with this exercise because they lack the ability to get into the appropriate overhead position. Here are some common faults that we see when it comes to overhead pressing. This video will show a number of different things that we look for to determine if someone should be overhead pressing or not.
Low Back Arched Excessively
Positioning of the spine can be problematic when pressing overhead because the failure to properly brace will create inefficiency with the movement. Overarching might not be a bad thing in isolation, but over time and as the weight progressively gets heavier, the lower-back might not enjoy that and the result could be distress, or worse, injury.
Lack Of Shoulder Overhead Flexion
Another reason the lower-back might arch is due to the shoulders not having full overhead mobility to lock out at the top. The lower-back will arch to make it look like the shoulder is going completely overhead but not everything that meets the eye is true!
Lack Of Upper Back Movement
As you can see, a lot of compensatory movements that we see in the lower-back are usually due to something else not pulling its weight. When the arms move overhead, the upper-back should extend with them. Failure of the upper-back to extend will cause the lower-back to pick up the slack and create more stress in an area that doesn’t want it.
Easy Assessments or Interventions
We try to implement some easy assessments that clients or athletes can utilize on their own. Because so many people lack the appropriate upper-back mobility, for the sake of this article we’re just going to show you an intervention to help address this. When it comes to assessing shoulder mobility, the tests we utilize target mainly the latissimus dorsi muscle. The lat muscle, as it’s affectionately called, is the biggest muscle in the upper body as it spans from the waistline all the way along the ribcage and attaches into the shoulder. Potential tightness in this muscle can be problematic when attempting any overhead movement as it can limit the shoulder’s ability to get in a good position. If you struggle to do either of these tests, seeing a local clinician with a good understanding of movement to help determine the source of the issue would be recommended.
Lie on your back and attempt to raise your arms over your head without your lower-back arching. If you can do that without issues, then move onto the next test below
This test is a progression from the above one where now you are bringing your knees up to your chest and then performing the same movement. If you can do that without issues, then it’s unlikely that your lat is the main reason you struggle with overhead pressing.
This intervention is targeting the upper back to help improve positioning when attempting to perform movements overhead. You can position the foam roller in different areas of the upper back to help target areas that could be contributing to potential tightness or discomfort.
Overhead Press Alternatives
The alternatives that we’re going to show you are the ones that we use with a lot of our athletes and clientele. They check the boxes of improving overhead strength and stability all while reducing the likelihood that any other area becomes problematic when performing the exercise.
We are big fans of the landmine setup to gradually expose a person to overhead movement but in a position they don’t feel they need to force. Start with a double-arm position to get a feel for the angle of pressing and then progress depending on the desired outcome.
This single-arm variation allows the shoulder to do more stabilizing at the top of the motion and you can get a better idea if one shoulder or the other is struggling with positioning at the top.
If the angle of pressing isn’t adequate enough, you can perform this landmine press in a half-kneeling position to increase the amount of overhead movement required. The half-kneeling position also forces better positioning for the spine to help reduce that over-extended position.
If you truly want to isolate strict overhead pressing, the Z press is your go-to. The position of the legs and hips force the low back to be in a more of a neutral position and it is really hard to cheat this movement. You’ll need good upper-back mobility as well as full overhead shoulder movement to perform this!
This movement isn’t technically an overhead press, but we like to use this exercise to really emphasize low back position and trying to stabilize overhead. Anchor a band behind you while in a tall kneeling position. From this position, brace your abs, squeeze your butt to maintain good lower-back/pelvic position, and try to press the band overhead without the band pulling you excessively into an overhead position you can’t control. This is a really good task to practice if you struggle with overhead work, as it can clean up the movement to make your movement more efficient!
Overall, the overhead press comes down to risk versus reward. If you did some of the assessments and aren’t having any issues performing the movement, then more power to you! If you struggled with the assessments or felt discomfort while performing these assessments, then using some of the alternatives to the overhead press that we laid out would still be super beneficial for you. I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as a bad exercise. It’s mainly the execution of the exercise that makes it more troublesome when it comes to overall health and fitness. The goal of a training routine is to enhance your health, not leave you needing more attention because you are trying to push through discomfort solely for the reason of wanting to perform a certain exercise!