29 Nov The Overhead Press – Is It Bad For The Shoulders?
Is the overhead press bad for the shoulders? That’s a common question and often a very debated one.
Should you avoid this exercise?
And, what are the benefits versus the risk?
I’ll give you my perspective, as both a strength athlete and former PT (physical therapist). I’ll tell you why I love this exercise, but it may not be right for you.
I’ll talk about pressing in the context of using a barbell, which can be viewed as the most demanding on the shoulders.
THE GENESIS OF THIS ARTICLE
When I was doing one of my clinical rotations many years ago as a physical therapy student, I was fortunate to work with an outstanding orthopedic physical therapist named Martin Kelly.
Martin just happened to be one of the top PT’s in the area of shoulder joint dysfunction in the country. You can imagine that working under his mentorship was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my career as a clinician.
He’s one of the smartest guys I ever had the pleasure to work with. He’s the co-author of the great book, Orthopedic Physical Therapy of the Shoulder.
One of major lessons I learned from Martin was about role of rotator cuff and scapular imbalance in shoulder joint dysfunction.
If there is muscle imbalance in the shoulder, it can cause many problems that lead to pain and dysfunction. So, normalizing muscle firing patterns and recruitment is a key to shoulder health.
This is one major reason why I love the kettlebell get-up so much for optimizing the shoulder.
It tends to clean things up, with regards to shoulder strength and imbalance.
Anyway, I recently came across an article reviewing a long list of reasons we should avoid doing the overhead press.
Well, let’s just say I didn’t agree with it and I’ll explain why I feel this way.
I do realize it was simply written with a lack of understanding about the shoulder or the proper technique required for an efficient overhead press. Let’s press on here.
RISKS – SHOULDER IMPINGEMENT
For clarification – the overhead press does not cause shoulder impingement.
Shoulder impingement can certainly be worsened by overhead pressing movements, but in most cases is not caused by pressing overhead.
Shoulder impingement is a common painful shoulder condition in which the subacromial space (area underneath the acromion) can become encroached that leads to pain.
The soft tissue structures (tendons and bursa) can become damaged, irritated, inflamed, or degenerative.
Shoulder impingement can be caused by extrinsic factors (mechanical wear and tear with repetitive motion – with lack of optimal rotator cuff or scapular function) or intrinsic factors (degenerative factors such as aging of the rotator cuff). Muscle imbalances that cause poor motor control or an irregular shaped acromion (hooked acromion) are also causative factors in shoulder impingement. There are other factors, as well.
If any shoulder dysfunction is present (as just mentioned), then overhead pressing is not the wise choice in exercise selection – until the underlying dysfunction and pain symptoms are completely resolved (if they can be).
I have a simple rule about training. It’s not rocket science, but it’s often disregarded.
If it hurts – don’t do it.
Find something else that does NOT cause pain.
We have plenty of exercises to choose from, so choose one that doesn’t cause pain.
Common sense right? But, common sense is not always common practice.
AC JOINT COMPRESSION
The acromioclavicular (AC) joint in the shoulder is the joint between the acromion and the distal end of the clavicle.
The most common injuries to the AC joint are the result of direct trauma injuries (fractures) or separations.
That can lead to long term problems in the joint such as degenerative osteoarthritis, for example.
Motions that can aggravate the AC joint include reaching across the body toward the other arm (horizontal adduction).
If you’ve had a previous AC joint injury and you lift, then you’re at higher risk for problems there.
In a normal, healthy individual that has NOT had any history of AC joint injury, there should not be problems associated with the AC joint, as long as proper lifting technique is used (in this case, with the overhead press).
LOW BACK STRAIN
Low back strain should be mentioned here because of the tendency to lean back with heavier loads during the standing press.
This is just a result of improper technique, to be honest.
A slight backward lean with heavy standing military presses is acceptable and even necessary, but when it becomes excessive – that’s a problem.
In my opinion, low back strain is a weak argument for avoiding the overhead press.
BENEFITS OF THE OVERHEAD PRESS
Just a few days ago I was putting boxes up in the attic.
They were large, heavy boxes and I had to hoist them up overhead to get them up.
Again, I had to lift heavy boxes overhead (yes, this is a functional activity folks).
You know what was going through my mind as I was lifting these irregular shaped boxes overhead?
Having the overhead strength to do this makes it a helluva lot easier.
That’s just one example of functional strength.
FULL BODY STRENGTH, STABILITY, AND MOBILITY
Performing a standing press is not just a shoulder exercise.
This is often a misconception about the exercise.
If you do the press correctly, the glutes, abs, thighs, lats, arms, and much more are firing at a high level.
Just to stand with the bar in the proper set up takes a great amount of stability and strength.
And, when you press overhead, you need full upper body mobility to get the weight up in the lock-out position.
SUPPORTS OTHER LIFTS
Many lifts go overhead.
Kettlebell snatches, jerks, the get up, and the bent press finish overhead. There are others.
For the classic Olympic lifts and many assistance exercises, you must go overhead.
I can’t really imagine not going overhead with exercise training. Our shoulders are designed to have full range of motion – and this means elevating the shoulder above 90 degrees.
The standing press is a foundation for total body strength and integrity when it comes to strength training and performance.
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL EXERCISES YOU’LL EVER DO
Much like the squat or deadlift, there’s an incredible feeling of power when you press heavy weight overhead.
While it’s an exceptional upper body developer, it goes beyond that.
So, why don’t most people do the overhead press?
Well, it’s a hard and demanding exercise.
There are some technical nuances to perform it correctly.
And, honestly, I’m just not sure the majority of people really understand the value of this lift – which is why you typically don’t see most people in commercial gyms performing the standing overhead press.
By contrast, you will see more many people in a seated press machine.
Fundamental lifts for all humans are:
- squat variations
- press variations
Sticking to the fundamentals is what produces the best results. It’s important we remember that.
1-BASELINE SHOULDER HEALTH
You should be asymptomatic with overhead motion, this goes without saying.
This means no pain or provocation of pain symptoms with overhead elevation or shoulder pressing motion.
If you have pain when you elevate your arm or go overhead, then the press is not a good exercise for you right now.
Proper shoulder mobility and stability must also present, as well as thoracic mobility to go overhead.
Baseline shoulder health is essential to press overhead and if you have that, then the next consideration is technique.
While the standing press may seem simple, it’s the little details in the lift that really matter.
This is a lift that needs to be executed with proper technique and that’s a problem for most.
If there’s not full body tension under the bar, the technique will not be optimal.
The use of proper breathing, muscular tension, and a proper set up is critical for pressing success.
There are many nuances to the overhead press, that are beyond the scope of this article.
What’s important to understand, is that like any other key lift or exercise, technical mastery matters a great deal.
Dan John recently revealed the answer to an important question is his book Before We Go.
The question was “if you could only do one exercise, what would it be?”
The answer was the one arm press.
He also defined great lifting as the inclusion of these 3 things:
- Picking up stuff from the ground
- Lifting weights overhead
- Carrying objects for distance – or time
You can see that lifting overhead is one of the 3 essential elements in successful training.
I can’t think of any respectable training book or program that doesn’t include some variation of pressing, can you?
It’s fundamental, but there are considerations.
For me, I’ve been doing heavy overhead pressing for over 30 years now with no shoulder issues to this point.
I confess to spending substantial time on shoulder optimization exercises like the get-up, for example. I believe this greatly helps in keeping my shoulders healthy and strong.
The quick summary points in this article are these 2 things.
1-DON’T DO IT IF IT HURTS.
2-LEARN TO LIFT THE BAR (OR BELL) OVERHEAD CORRECTLY.
Is the standing overhead press bad for the shoulders?
The overhead press is an outstanding exercise, providing you have good shoulder health and you have to perform it the right way. You need requisite mobility and stability.
Another article I found discussed that you have to “earn the right” to overhead press.
Like any exercise you perform, know why you do it.
If you can’t answer – why I am doing the shoulder press – then it’s probably not a good exercise for you right now.
Hopefully, I’ve given you some reasons to consider.
*NOTE: If there is an “optimal” overhead press for the health of the shoulder, the kettlebell press would be it. Why? It’s a natural groove of motion to press from. That means we tend to press the kettlebell in a more natural plane of motion for the shoulder joint (the scapular plane).
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