Login | September 30, 2020

The shoulder press

Pete’s World

Published: November 25, 2019

When talk turns to building strong, muscular shoulders, one exercise stands out among all others as the penultimate shoulder builder - the good old-fashioned shoulder press.
Sometimes called the overhead press, this exercise is not only great for building strong, muscular shoulders, but it can also help in developing a powerful abdominal region and increase one’s bench pressing strength.
But before you get all giddy about shoulder pressing, understand there’s a down side to this exercise and that involves the fact that it can put the shoulders and spine in vulnerable positions when it’s executed improperly - which occurs far too often. I’ll talk more about this later.
First thought, let’s take a look at the muscles activated during shoulder pressing. The primary movers include the anterior deltoid (front shoulder), the lateral deltoid (outside shoulder), the posterior deltoid (back of the shoulder) and the triceps (back of the arms).
Secondary muscles activated during the shoulder press, the so called stabilizer muscles, include the rotator cuff, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and the rhomboids. What’s more, core muscles like the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis contribute to this stabilization process.
Now as you probably know, the shoulder press can be done from either a standing or seated position. And I’m often asked if one mode is any better than the other. Well, current data indicates that from a muscle building standpoint both standing barbell and dumbbell presses are the way to go.
What’s more, standing presses are also easier on the low back and they work the abdominal region more.
On the other hand, if you’re more concerned with the amount of weight you can press overhead then the seated shoulder press (barbell or dumbbell) is the way to go. In the seated position your body is more stable and you can handle more weigh but you’ll be sacrificing that abdominal engagement.
As far as shoulder pressing variations go, know that gripping the bar/dumbbells with an overhand grip (in the standard shoulder press) hits the upper chest muscles in addition to those shoulder muscles.
Alternating dumbbell presses provide additional core stabilization work because of the unilateral nature of the exercise.
Arnold Pressing - lowering the weight while rotating the dumbbells inward until palms are facing the face - incorporates all three deltoid heads, front, lateral and posterior, and more trapezius recruitment. That makes this variation much more muscle group inclusive than the standard shoulder press.
Seated Single-Arm Stability Pressing is a variation that involves pressing a single dumbbell overhead while placing the opposite arm across the stomach and holding a square, level stance. This movement pattern is great for strengthening the posterior shoulder stabilizers - rotator cuff.
Next up is proper shoulder pressing protocol, and it’s pretty simple.
Standing or sitting, keep elbows slightly in front of the body yet pointed out to the sides with barbell/dumbbells held shoulder high such that the bar would cross over the sternum.
Press straight up, in alignment with the spine, to an overhead position by contracting the shoulder muscles and extending the elbows.
End position is several degrees shy of full lockout
Slowly lower weight back to start position.
Now I mentioned earlier that when performed incorrectly the shoulder press can put the spine and shoulders in vulnerable positions. So let’s finish up by looking at what not to do when performing this exercise.
Too much back arching. All that weight translates right down the spine. And an overarched spine, when weighted, is extremely unsafe for a myriad of reasons. Concentrate on shoulders back, chest forward, and a slight arch.
Letting the bar drift too far forward. The barbell/dumbbells must be kept in proper alignment with the spine. Too often I see exercisers letting the weight drift forward, which results in dangerous shear forces on the back and shoulders.
Limited range of motion. This is a common no-no. When you perform the shoulder press, go through the full range of motion, which entails starting with the weight at sternum level and pressing up to a position that’s just shy of elbow lock.
Cadence is too fast. Again, as with any exercise, think of a lifting cadence of at least two seconds up, one second at the top, and two seconds down. It’s not a race…and in weight training slower is usually better.
Okay, now I think it’s time to press on with that shoulder workout.