From Dork to Diva: Shoulder/overhead press

The shoulder press, aka the military press, is a great exercise for shoulders and triceps. You can also do this exercise seated, but I find I am able to keep my back in a much more natural position if I have the freedom of standing. Doing the press standing demands that your torso muscles (abs, lower back, obliques, spinal stabilizers, and transversus abdominis) work harder in order to help stabilize your body. It’s also a much more functional movement; consider how often you reach for things and press things overhead when standing compared to seated. However, if you prefer to do it seated or even lying down, I’ve shown two variations below.


bad shoulder press

One of the biggest mistakes people make is doing the shoulder press behind the neck, as shown in the left hand picture. Great start for a squat, not so great for a shoulder press. While many people have been able to do the press this way without problems, many other people have experienced shoulder trauma (ranging from mild to severe) from behind the neck presses.

The problem in this case stems from the requirement of your shoulder to exert the most force (in order to stop and reverse the weight’s downward motion) when it is at the most awkward and biomechanically disadvantaged point of the movement. That position is abducted (upper arm held away from body) and externally rotated (upper arm rotated backwards).

The other common error is hyperextending (over-arching) the back, as shown in the picture on the right. Even just posing for the picture in this position made my back yell, “Noooo!”


So, the better way to do this exercise is to begin in front of the neck, as in the starting picture on the left. It’s good to do this in a squat cage so that you can set the bar down on the pins when you’re finished or if you fail (or, learn how to hang clean the bar up to the starting position). Tuck your pelvis under slightly, and tighten your abs. Don’t suck your tummy in, just tighten the midsection as if you knew someone was about to punch you in the gut. Bend your knees just a tiny bit. Use a grip just wider than shoulder width. Look forward.

The middle picture shows the bar in its position halfway through. As the bar moves above this middle position, it becomes less of a shoulder and more of a triceps exercise. If you’re looking for a challenging triceps exercise, I suggest standing presses with a narrow grip and only performing the top half of the movement. At the top of the press, do not lock your elbows out, but keep them slightly bent. Also, if you find that your presses are getting stuck in this position frequently, try adding some additional triceps work to your routine and see if that helps.

The right hand picture shows the top position. Remember to keep the midsection tight and the pelvis tucked under just the littlest bit. Avoid locking and hyperextending the elbows.

For some extra abdominal and shoulder stabilization work at the end of the set, try holding that bar up there for a few extra seconds or even longer. Easy at first… not so easy after 30 seconds or so.

variation #1: push press

You can also perform the basic standing shoulder press movement as a push press, which means that at the bottom you give the bar a little push with your legs to get it going. This makes it a more dynamic movement and you can use more weight than you would for a regular shoulder press, if you want. It’s a great sports-specific movement for athletes who need to press upwards while jumping: cheerleaders, basketball and volleyball players, etc.

Start the movement standing, as with a regular shoulder press. Squat down about 1/4 of the way, using your good squat form, as shown in the picture to the right. Then quickly reverse the movement and explode upwards, pushing through your heels and using that upwards force to start the bar’s ascent. After arms are fully extended, lower the bar under control to the starting position before squatting down again.

This movement should be smooth, so it’ll take a little practice to get the timing right. Don’t squat then press; aim to make it a coordinated motion that takes advantage of the boost provided by the lower body. The bar should almost “lift off” on its own. One word of caution: keep your chin out of the way! With a good upwards drive you can really smash yourself nicely in the jaw. Even with diva form, it’s hard to look cool when you’re lying on the gym floor under a bar, with half your tongue missing.

variation #2: dumbbell press on swiss ball

Here are two variations in one. The first variation is using dumbbells. Remember, nearly anything you can do with a bar, you can also do with dumbbells. The second part of the variation is doing the exercise seated on a swiss ball. If you can’t do the standing press, this is a good option because unlike a bench, the ball allows your hips to shift a little to accommodate the movement. One big advantage of using dumbbells instead of a bar is that your forearms can naturally rotate to whatever position is most comfortable for you. As you can see, for me that’s facing slightly inwards.

variation #3: lying side press

Here is an option for a person recovering from a shoulder injury. Because the upper arm (humerus) is not raised over 90 degrees to the upper body (as it would be in an overhead press), people with shoulder problems can often do this lift painlessly. The only bummer is that you can’t use as much weight with this exercise as you can with a regular overhead press, as you can tell from the wuss weight I’m holding (in the name of method acting, I’d just hurt my own shoulder by being an idiot about the bench press before taking the photo… another way I go the extra mile for you site readers).

But hey, it’s something to do while your shoulder gets better. I found that the lying side press was one of the few pressing exercises that didn’t bother the joint. This one can be done lying on a bench or the floor. It’s a bit tippy, so you might consider the floor. I’ve only fallen off the floor a couple of times and both those times involved margaritas.

To begin the lift, lie on one side holding a dumbbell in the upper hand, as shown. Do whatever you like with the other hand – I like to support my head for this. Drop the elbow behind the ribcage as well as you can. This is your start position.

Press the weight straight up to the ceiling, as shown in the second pic. This will be wobbly, which is why you have to use less weight. Hold the weight at the top for a second, then slowly lower to the starting position. Be sure to monitor the dumbbell’s path carefully on the ascent and descent. It comes down faster than you think, and your head is basically just a watermelon with a target on it as far as that dumbbell is concerned. Remember the law of gravity and keep the weight under control at all times. Start light and work your way up.