True or false: the Bench Press is the king of upper-body exercises.
The answer? False! Are you surprised? If you are, you're not alone. The Bench Press hogs the limelight when it comes to upper-body strength exercises, but long before Monday became synonymous with chest day, the Overhead Press and Shoulder Press variations were carving boulder shoulders for years.
In fact, for decades, the Overhead Press was the third competitive lift in the Olympics (along with the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk). Even after the Overhead Press was discontinued in the 1972 Olympics, heaving heavy weight overhead still played a key role in the Jerk portion of the Clean & Jerk. Long story short, the ability to hoist a barbell skyward is a key component of being strong, explosive and athletic.
Mistake 1: Going Overhead Before You're Ready
As an intern at Cressey Sports Performance, the country's premier baseball strength and conditioning facility, I learned that you have to earn the right to perform overhead exercises. Dealing with dozens of overhead athletes every day, including a handful of Major League Baseball pitchers, I discovered that the shoulder is a powerful, yet delicate, joint and must be treated with care to avoid devastating injuries.
How do you "earn the right" to lift overhead? You need a few things:
- Full shoulder flexion range of motion (the ability to lift your shoulders straight overhead)
- A strong anterior core (the ability to use your abs to hold your spine in a neutral position)
- Adequate length in the lats (short for latissimus dorsi, the large wing-like muscles that make up a good chunk of your upper back and are the prime movers for Pull-Ups and Pull-Downs)
Cressey Sports Performance Coach Greg Robins shows you how to test for all three requirements with the Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion test. If you can perform this exercise pain-free and with good form, there's a good chance you're ready to lift overhead.
Learn more about how to determine if you can safely do overhead exercises.
Here's how it's done:
- Stand with your back to the wall and your heels 6 to 8 inches from the wall.
- Press your head, back and butt into the wall.
- Make a double chin and pull your ribs down by pressing your lower back into the wall.
- With straight arms and thumbs up, raise your arms overhead toward the wall, attempting to touch the wall without arching your back or moving your head away from the wall.
- If you failed the test, don't fret. A few common problems are often to blame, so try these three corrective exercises:
Mistake 2 - Breaking the "Phone Booth"
You should be able to do a proper Overhead Press in a phone booth. You press the bar up without overarching your lower back or pushing your head too far forward.
An effective Shoulder Press requires the bar to finish directly over all the joints involved—the wrists, elbows and shoulders. A few common coaching cues can throw off the path of the bar and should be avoided in lieu of "stacking" the joints from top to bottom. You want to press through the roof of the phone booth, not break the walls.
The main reason the Overhead Press was dropped from the Olympics was the ridiculous amount of lower back arching adopted by competitors to essentially turn the lift into an Incline Press. This arching reduces the distance the bar has to travel, but at the expense of the lifter's lower back health.
Wrenching the lumbar spine into extension under heavy load might make you feel "tight," but it's far from the safest or optimal strategy for stability. Instead, use your abs and glutes to brace your body into a rock solid position for pressing heavy weight. Try this:
- Set up under the bar with a shoulder-width grip, squeezing the bar as if you were going to melt it with your hands.
- Get the bar on your collarbone with your elbows rolled directly beneath it, creating a straight line from wrist to elbow.
- "Stack" your abs by pulling your ribs down. Imagine flexing as if someone were going to punch you in the gut.
- Squeeze your glutes as if you weren't going to make it to the bathroom in time, all while rolling your belt buckle toward your chin.
- Take a huge breath of air into your belly, sides and lower back. Imagine creating a "ring" of air around your waist.
- Hold that breath, unrack the bar and press away.
"Push your head through" is another common cue that can be counterproductive. Coaches tell athletes to push their head forward between their arms as soon as the bar clears their face. But excessive forward head posture can place the bar too far behind the shoulder joint, greatly increasing the chance of injury while doing little to assist in the lockout portion of the lift. Don't poke your head forward or you'll headbutt the phone booth wall. Instead, make a double chin to lock your head in place and press the bar slightly backward at lockout to finish directly over your shoulders.
Mistake 3 - Using the Wrong Bar
The Overhead Press is traditionally performed with a barbell, but it's the least shoulder-friendly of the countless Shoulder Press variations. You can press with nearly any implement, and choosing the right one can be the difference between pain and progress.
If you can't pass the Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion test, or if pressing a barbell bugs your shoulders, try the Half Kneeling Band Press or Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press seen in Mike Boyle's video at the top of the page; or go with a Landmine Press, which changes the angle of the press for a more shoulder-friendly bar path.
Pressing the Issue
Lifting weight overhead is a fundamental movement pattern that has a place in nearly any exercise program, but shoulder pressing can be problematic for athletes as well as average Joes. Avoid these three mistakes to ensure a faster path to bigger shoulders and a stronger press.
RELATED: Should Athletes Press Overhead?
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