Correcting Your Overhead Press

One popular exercise you see many a gym rat doing is the overhead shoulder press.  There are many great variations to this exercise, but like all great things, leave it to people to screw it up.  Shoulder injuries are far too common in gym goers and the general public, so keeping it safe and healthy in your workouts is the way to go.  I hope you take this info and put it to use.

Picture A:  typical form seen in the gym

Picture A: typical form seen in the gym

Here in picture A, this is what you typically see in the gym.  The shoulders are   in a “T” formation meaning the upper arms are straight out to the side of the body.  Another way to describe this is to open the arms up as wide as possible.  I’ll admit this can make someone with a well developed chest look massive and can really show off the arms as you perform the exercise. (maybe why it is done this way so much).

However, this cranks the shoulders back into external rotation, adding a lot of unnecessary strain on the joint.  If, posturally, you suffer from internally rotated shoulders, like the guys who bench press on all the days that end in “Y”, you will have trouble getting into this position.



lack of shoulder external rotation

The lack of external rotation will cause the lower portion of the arm to comeforward at an angle, putting the wrist in front of the shoulder causing more of a forward incline press (activating more front deltoid) rather than a vertical press that will activate the whole shoulder.


Other compensations could be a forward head posture (like in the picture) or excessive arching in the lower back.


Picture B: Incorrect form from the front

Picture B shows the incorrect form from the front.  My chest is open up wide, cranking my shoulders back, and I am arching a little through my lower back (even if not visible in the picture).

This form can also cause you to seek more stabilization by way of the upper traps by getting into a shrugged position in the shoulders, since the joint is cranked back and stabilizer muscles are weak and need assistance.

All of this can/will just continue to reinforce the use of tight muscles through the neck and shoulders, giving them more of a workout than your deltoids.  Possibly leaving you with neck strain or headaches.

So lets’s discuss how to correct this.  A couple easy tweeks will keep your shoulders healthy so they can grow and get strong, which is your goal, right?


Picture C: A more friendly shoulder position

To fix this issue the first thing we are going to do is perform the movement in the scapular plane.  This will provide the stability we need, allowing the deltoid to do more of the work without all of the unneeded compensation from the other muscles.

It will also prevent us from falling into the nasty postural positions of pushing the head forward or arching through the lower back.  To achieve this we are bring our elbows in about 30-45 degrees.  I say about 2 and 10 o’clock.

As you can see in Picture C my elbows are now more in front of my body than behind.  My head is in a correct and comfortable position.  Maintaining a neutral spine is easier without being top heavy behind my head, so avoiding a lumbar arch is easier.

Picture D: Good form from the front

Since a lack of external rotation through the shoulders is not an issue by working within the scapular plane, I am able to keep my forearm vertical rather than in a forward angle, keeping my wrist directly above my elbow.

During the pressing motion, keep a slight bend in the elbow at the top of the press.  There is no reason to fully extend, in general fitness standpoint, and will prevent any unneeded shrugging at the end of the range of motion.  Another benefit is it keeps constant tension on the muscle.

Also as a side note, I personally like to use a staggard stance when doing any overhead pressing.  I find it easier to keep out of my lower back.




About The Author

Kevin Fulton

Kevin Fulton is personal trainer in Pittsburgh, PA. His goal is to help his clients look, feel, and move better. In his spare time you can find him under a barbell or practicing jiu jitsu.

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