Pressing is one of the fundamental exercises for developing upper body strength.
One of the original Olympic lifts, being able to press serious weight over your head was once considered to be the ultimate feat of strength.
Nowadays we seem to be more concerned with how much we bench, but in fact, the benefits and carryover of the shoulder press make it more valuable by comparison, especially if you are a functional fitness athlete.
In this guide we’ll look closer at some of those benefits, as well as discuss some of the common errors (and more importantly how to fix them!) when performing presses overhead.
Overhead pressing is a highly functional movement pattern.
Moving objects on a high up shelf or placing luggage in an overhead compartment are just a few examples of how you use this movement every day without even realizing it.
Working on this exercise in the gym will help you to do it more safely in your day-to-day life.
The versatility of pressing makes it one of the most accessible exercises out there. It can be practiced using a barbell, plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, or a machine.
Load the exercise to develop strength and stimulate muscle growth, or use lighter loads with high reps to improve muscular endurance.
This exercise has a great capacity for transfer to other sports and other exercises found in CrossFit and functional training.
Jerks, dips, and handstand push ups are just some of the movements that benefit from improving your pressing strength and technique.
What Muscles are worked
Overhead pressing primarily works the anterior and lateral deltoids, the muscles that abduct your shoulders and give them that rounded bodybuilder look.
While it may be called a shoulder press in some circles, this exercise also works your chest, traps, and triceps.
If you are performing the exercise correctly, you’ll also notice how maintaining proper posture challenges your core, and demands stability and support from your glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Other variables such as how you perform the exercise (standing, seated, inclined, or with back support) can target specific muscles.
How to Shoulder Press
The Shoulder press is an impressive-looking lift, but only when performed correctly and without using too much load.
There’s more than one correct way to press, but here we’ll look at the standards that apply to CrossFit athletes pressing with a barbell from a standing position.
- Take the barbell with your hands just outside of shoulder width.
- Load the bar into front rack position; the barbell rests on the anterior deltoids, with your elbows slightly ahead of the bar.
- Set your feet at hip distance apart.
- Initiate the rising phase by squeezing your shoulder blades together
- Keep your core and lower body engaged, but still.
- Start to extend your arms, keeping your head back until the rising bar passes your head.
- Continue to press out the barbell until your arms reach full extension.
- Draw your head back slightly and begin to lower the bar with control to return to the initial position.
While the overhead press may look straightforward, it can be difficult to execute, especially when you get closer to moving submaximal loads.
These are some of the most common exercise faults and how to fix them.
Bar Path and Range of Motion
The name of the exercise doesn’t only refer to the muscle groups that are worked but, also the position of the bar as you perform it.
The shoulder press should be an upright movement in which the barbell connects with your shoulders at the beginning and ends locked-out over the shoulders and hips.
It’s typical to see athletes push the bar forward, deviating from a vertical bar path because it feels more natural however, pressing excessively out of alignment can produce stress for the back, shoulders, and spine which can result in injury.
The bar should be able to make contact with your delts at the beginning of each rep. If you have a hard time starting in this position, warm up with wrist, thoracic spine, and external shoulder mobilizations to improve your front rack position (Here are the Top 4 Mobility Drills for CrossFit).
Alternatively, you can use dumbbells or kettlebells which allow you to keep a lower position for your elbows.
As the barbell leaves your shoulders, move your head back slightly to letting it rise in a straight line.
As you reach lockout, bring your head through your arms so that the bar is set directly over the center of your head.
Rib Cage Flare
To correctly perform a shoulder press, you should be able to move your arms
overhead while keeping your spine in a neutral position (your rib cage down).
If you begin to feel your lower back arch, especially as you reach the lockout position of the press, it could mean that you are working with too much weight, you’re not engaging as you lift, or that you lack the shoulder mobility needed to move your arms independently of your spine as you go overhead.
This error is especially notable while performing the standing press.
Instead of a standing press, practice correct execution of the exercise by changing its position.
Start by working in a half-kneeling position, keeping your hips under your shoulders and your ribcage down as you press.
When you’re able to perform this exercise correctly, you can progress by moving to a standing staggered position, and finally, the standard version.
Gradually work up to using heavier loads and avoid loads that do not permit you to maintain a neutral spine. You can also perform overhead presses while seated on an incline bench.
Having the back supported helps you to stay aware of your lumbar curve.
It’s a temporary fix, but if you want to work up to performing the standing shoulder press, don’t forget to include shoulder mobility exercises into your warm-up and weekly routine to improve your range of motion and shoulder health.
Check out our article “Shoulder mobility for CrossFitters” for some ideas!
Loss of Tension
This fault is commonly seen especially when performing various reps in a set.
Finding and keeping tension while pressing is difficult because your lower body must remain static as your upper body is explosive.
How can you take advantage of the leg drive to press the bar overhead? By making the most of your core! Bracing the muscles around your abdominals in midline facilitate the transfer of force from your lower body to your upper body allowing you to move more weight overhead.
Just before the rep, brace your core by taking a huge mouth inhale to fill your stomach and push it outwards. Initiate the lifting phase by squeezing your quads, core, and glutes as you exhale aggressively. After locking out, inhale and lower the bar smoothly. Just as it makes contact with your shoulders go for the next rep.
Strengthen your core by regularly incorporating core stability drills in your training (planks, dead bugs, and Palloff presses to name a few). A strong core helps to keep your spine in a neutral position.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start to familiarize yourself with some variations of strict pressing. Here are just a few variations that you can use to improve your other lifts and skills.
Dumbbell shoulder press
Pressing with dumbbells or kettlebells can be very useful for identifying muscle imbalances.
Using free weights demands more stability from your muscles and joints, forcing them to work harder to perform the exercise.
Pressing with dumbbells also gives you the option of using a hammer grip (palms facing each other) which can be a little easier on your shoulders
Pressing with free weights can also be a good alternative for anyone who struggles with the front rack position.
This exercise is performed while seated with your legs extended out front.
Pressing in this position really requires you to keep an active core in order to successfully complete reps.
If you want to improve your posture, scapular tension and control (all of which are important skills for strict gymnastics skills), the Z press is an effective tool.
Named after the Terminator himself, the Arnold press is a one of the more complete pressing exercises.
The rotational component of the lift causes your shoulders and upper back to pass through several planes of motion in each rep.
The Arnold press is extremely useful for CrossFitters because it reinforces scapular control. Just like the standard press, this can be performed either standing or seated.
In the world of strength and fitness, this exercise has many names.
Strict press, shoulder press, and overhead press are used almost interchangeably, but it all translates to lifting the weight over your head.
Call it what you want, the shoulder press is an essential exercise for developing the shoulders, back, and core.
If you want to build absolute strength or improve your shoulder stability, include this exercise into your weekly training.
By regularly practicing the correct technique, you’ll start to see gains in your other lifts and skills.
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