29 Nov The Overhead Press – Is It Bad For The Shoulders?
For whatever reason, I’ve had a lot of questions about the overhead press recently.
Is the overhead press bad for the shoulders?
Is this an exercise you should be avoiding?
What are the benefits versus the risk?
I’ll give you my perspective as both a strength athlete and physical therapist.
I’ll talk about pressing in the context of using a barbell, which can be viewed as the most demanding on the shoulders.
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, Martin Kelly.
Martin just happened to be one of the top PT’s in the area of shoulder joint dysfunction and working under his mentorship was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life.
He’s one of the smartest guys I ever had the pleasure to work with in the clinic and is the co-author of the book Orthopedic Physical Therapy of the Shoulder.
One of major lessons I learned from Martin was about role of rotator cuff imbalance and scapular imbalance in shoulder joint dysfunction.
If there is muscle imbalance in the shoulder, it can cause a lot problems.
This is one major reason why I love the Turkish get up so much for optimizing shoulder health.
It tends to “clean up” a lot of things.
There’s some really silly crap on the internet.
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
The vast majority of what I read is good, quality content.
But, I recently came across an article reviewing a long list of reasons we should avoid doing the overhead press.
It was pure nonsense.
Rarely do I come across articles that get me as fired up as this one did.
But, it was simply written with a lack of understanding about the shoulder or the proper technique required for an efficient overhead press.
Ok, let’s move on and discuss the overhead press.
Let me say this now – the overhead press does NOT cause shoulder impingement.
But, shoulder impingement can certainly be worsened by overhead movements.
Shoulder impingement is a common painful shoulder condition in which the subacromial space (area underneath the acromion) can become encroached.
The soft tissue structures (tendons and bursa) can become damaged, irritated, or inflamed.
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 imbalance that causes poor control or an irregular shaped acromion (hooked acromion) are also causative factors in shoulder impingement.
If shoulder impingement (or any shoulder dysfunction is present), then overhead pressing is probably not the smartest choice in exercise selection until pain symptoms are resolved.
I have a simple rule about training, it’s not rocket science, but it’s often ignored.
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 hurt.
And, if everything hurts, you need to be under medical attention.
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.
In a normal, healthy individual that has NOT had any history of AC joint injury, there should be no problem 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.
BENEFITS OF THE OVERHEAD PRESS
Just a few days ago I was putting boxes up in the attic.
They were large, heavy boxes.
I had to hoist them up overhead to get them up.
Guess what was going through my mind as I was lifting the 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.
If you do it correctly, the glutes, abs, thighs, lats, arms, and so much more are firing at a high level.
Just to stand with a bar in a 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 a lock out position.
SUPPORTS OTHER LIFTS
Many lifts go overhead.
Kettlebell snatches, jerks, the Turkish get up and bent press finish overhead, overhead squats, and waiters walks.
The Olympic lifts and many assistance exercises.
The total body strength you develop as a result of the standing press helps other many other lifts.
The standing press is a foundation for body strength.
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.
It’s an exceptional upper body developer, but it goes beyond that.
So, why don’t most people do the overhead press?
Well, it’s a hard and demanding exercise.
Fundamental lifts for all humans are:
- squat variations
- press variations
Enough said about the fundamentals.
1-BASELINE SHOULDER HEALTH
You should be asymptomatic with overhead motion.
That 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.
The bottom line is that baseline shoulder health is essential to press overhead.
If you have that, then the next consideration is technique.
While the standing press may seem simple, it’s the little details in this lift that really matter.
Especially with a barbell.
This is a lift that needs to be executed with proper technique and that’s a problem for most.
If there is not a full “lock down” of the body under the bar, the technique will be compromised.
The use of proper breathing, muscular tension, and a proper set up is critical for pressing success.
Dan John recently revealed the answer to an important question is his new 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 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 essential elements in successful training.
I can’t think of any respectable training book or program that doesn’t include pressing of some variation.
It’s fundamental, but there are considerations.
I’ve been doing heavy overhead pressing for over 30 years now with no shoulder issues, to this point.
I do confess to spending substantial time on shoulder optimization exercises, like the Turkish get up, for example.
Again, the 2 quick summary points are:
1-DON’T DO IT IF IT HURTS.
2-LEARN TO LIFT CORRECTLY, PERIOD.
Is the standing overhead press bad for the shoulders?
The overhead press is an outstanding exercise, providing you have good shoulder health and you perform it the right way.
It’s easily one of the most valuable lifts and one of my goals is to continue pressing overhead for as long as I can.
*NOTE: If there is an “optimal” overhead press for the health of the shoulder, the kettlebell press would be it. I’ll fully explain why in a future article.
If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere you’d like.