What are the first exercises you think of when someone says they’re doing “upper body?” Bench press? Biceps and triceps? Dumbbell lateral raises? The obsession with growing arms, shoulders, and chest means cable columns, dumbbells, and benches are abundant in any gym with a weight room. So why do so many strength programs underemphasize, underrate, or completely omit the most important exercise for developing upper body strength and maintaining shoulder health?
What are you talking about, Liz?
I’m talking about the Standing Overhead Press, which shall henceforth be referred to as “the press!”
I’m not sure where the press got such an undeserving reputation of being an unimportant, or even harmful, exercise. Go to any globo gym and you would be hard-pressed (no pun intended) to find anyone standing up and pressing a barbell over their head. Instead you’ll see people doing seated military presses, seated dumbbell presses, lateral raises, and shrugs in order to grow and strengthen their shoulders. So what gives?
My suspicion is a lack of understanding. Many doctors, physical therapists, and trainers simply don’t know how to properly teach an overhead press. Because of this, they have spread fallacies that pressing overhead will lead to shoulder problems. Countless healthcare professionals and fitness instructors have incorrectly taught their clients how to perform these overhead movements, and it’s the incorrect movement that leads to injury and thus the spread of false information.
The first fallacy is that pressing or reaching overhead is bad for your rotator cuff because it “causes impingement.” Impingement is the trapping of soft tissues between two bony landmarks. In subacromial (or shoulder) impingement, the tendons of the rotator cuff and bicep, along with the bursa, are pinched between the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) and the acromion, the part of the shoulder blade that extends outward over the shoulder joint (you can palpate it easily by feeling for the flat boney spot right on the top of the shoulder joint near the outside).
The theory is that a weak rotator cuff fails to stabilize the humeral head in the shoulder joint, causing it to migrate up during shoulder movement and impinge the soft tissues in this small space.
The second fallacy of impingement is that the muscles that upwardly rotate the scapula are weak and unable to clear space for the rotator cuff when the arm is being lifted up overhead. This causes the humeral head to jam into the acromion, which has failed to rotate out of the way, and crushes the rotator cuff. Crap, that sounds awful!
But this isn’t true if you’re doing the press right! In a properly performed overhead press, one that doesn’t cause impingement, there is a nice big shrug that comes along with it. The purpose of this shrug is to safely open up that small space as much as possible so we don’t smoosh our rotator cuff tendons!
Smart, right? I know!
The muscle responsible for this “safety shrug” is the upper trap.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, physical therapists and fitness trainers everywhere grasped onto the notion that “proper shoulder elevation” should not heavily involve use of the upper traps. When people come in with rotator cuff pathologies they beat out of them any “activation” (we will save this “activation” bull sh*t for another day) of the upper trap during arm-lifting movements based on the belief that if the smaller scapular movers are weak, the upper traps will “over-compensate” leading to overuse, trigger points, myofascial pain, muscle tightness, neck stiffness, and strength imbalances. I’ve actually heard a physical therapist say that a “tight” upper trapezius could lead to compression of the subacromial space. Down, upper trap, down!
At PRS we teach them just the opposite. One of the first things we enforce during the press is the top position. At the top of the press the bar is directly overhead in line with with your spine and the middle of your foot. Your elbows are locked and, OMG, your shoulders are actively shrugged up toward your ears.
The shoulder shrug, which is an upper trap contraction, upwardly rotates the scapula, pulling the acromion away from the humeral head and preserving the subacromial space. So, not only is it impossible for an upper trapezius contraction to cause subacromial impingement, but avoiding such movement may lead to the very thing that people are so afraid of when pressing overhead.
For anyone who either skimmed or didn’t follow all of that the first time you read it (I know it’s a lot), allow me to summarize:
So now we know that overhead pressing isn’t actually bad for our shoulders, but what benefits does it provide us over other exercises?
First: The press works the muscles of the shoulder the way they work in real life. Our muscles don’t work in isolation when we go through our daily lives. Rather than singling out and strengthening each muscle in an isolated, single-joint fashion, we should strengthen the shoulder in the way it was designed to work, with all muscles doing their part in order to move the arm overhead. Most physical therapists know that seated knee extensions don’t translate very well to getting off the toilet, yet they are quick to prescribed isolated internal and external rotation to help with overhead movement. No comprende.
Second: The press provides the most “bang for your buck” when strengthening the muscles of the shoulder. There are 17 muscles that attach to the scapula, each with a unique role in the movement of the shoulder, which itself consists of 4 joints. Not only would it be incredibly time-consuming to train each one in isolation, but isolated muscle work does not translate well to multi-joint, compound movements. Aka: LIFE. The press translates extremely well to everyday tasks because it strengthens the rotator cuff in the way it works in real life scenarios - to stabilize the humeral head within the shoulder joint. If you want to train all the muscles of the shoulder, the press is your jam. The press will also make your shoulders and upper trapezius grow. No need to perform lateral raises and shrugs, which actually have a much higher risk of injury, and take more time, than if you regularly incorporate a properly performed press into your routine!
Third: When performed standing, the press involves a lot more than just the shoulder. Because you are being asked to maintain balance while pressing a heavy object overhead, you must maintain control of everything from the bar all the way to the floor. Since the press has the longest kinetic chain (most moveable parts over the greatest distance from the feet to the barbell overhead) of any of the main barbell lifts, it improves balance, stability, and even core strength.
Lastly: The barbell press can also be progressed for a long period of time. When working muscles in isolation there will eventually come a time where the nature of the movement and the mode (dumbbells, pin loaded machines, resistance bands, springs, kettlebells, etc.) prevent you from being able to keep adding weight. Take shoulder internal and external rotation, for example. Dumbbells can only get so heavy and bands can only be so strong before you physically cannot make them any heavier for what those muscles can do in isolation. A press, however, can be trained and progressed for years and years, AND YEARS, by gradually and incrementally adding weight to the bar.
Again, for the casual skimmers, let’s recap the benefits of performing a standing overhead press:
Strengthens all muscles of the shoulder in a functional way
High carry-over to daily tasks
Makes your shoulders looked jacked
Involves the entire human kinetic chain
Improves balance and stability
Can be progressed for a long period of time
And is entirely safe for the shoulder when performed correctly!
So next time you head to the gym for some upper body gainz, make sure to head over to the barbell rack and do your presses!