Have a love-hate relationship with the overhead press? Want to do them, but your shoulders say no? Here are 5 exercises that work just as well.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes with my training, far more than I could ever cover in a single article. Heck, I could probably devote an entire book just to my mistakes alone that would rival War and Peace – meaning it’d be really long and really boring.
But mistakes can be powerful learning experiences, and the more I make, the smarter I get because learning what doesn’t work is almost as important as learning what does work.
I recently read a great quote from Zig Ziglar that’s pertinent here: “Some of us learn from other people’s mistakes and the rest of us have to be the other people.”
Guess that makes me the other people, and I’m okay with that. I’m not above admitting where I’ve gone wrong, and I’m fine with throwing myself under the bus to help others avoid going down a similar path.
First on the agenda is shoulder training. Here are a few mistakes I’ve made and, more importantly, what I’ve done to correct them so you don’t have to make the same ones yourself.
I went through a two-year phase where I did almost no specific shoulder exercises. I’d fallen victim to the popular idea that the delts receive enough stimulation from horizontal pressing and pulling, and any additional work would not only be superfluous, but also potentially injurious to the shoulders.
So I focused my energy instead almost entirely on bench press variations, push-ups, rows, and chin-ups, making sure to choose pulling over pushing for optimal shoulder health.
My shoulders felt great, but they didn’t get much bigger or stronger even though my lifts had all improved quite a bit and my chest and back had grown noticeably bigger.
I was also mortified to find that when I returned to vertical pressing, my overhead strength had tanked, even though my horizontal pressing had gotten better.
However, when I added more direct shoulder work back into the mix (both vertical pressing and lateral raises), my shoulders started growing again and my overhead strength improved quickly.
I was worried that putting more emphasis on vertical pressing would negatively impact my horizontal pressing, but I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. My horizontal pressing has also gotten stronger even though I’m doing less of it, leading me to believe that vertical pressing has more carryover to horizontal pressing than vice versa.
And by continuing to prioritize plenty of pulling into my program, my shoulders still feel great.
If you’re okay with mediocre shoulder development, then no direct work is needed; otherwise, give them some direct work. This really goes for any muscle group, be it calves, biceps, triceps, etc.
If size is your only goal, you’re probably fine just including some lateral raises in your program to accompany your horizontal pressing and pulling work, but if you want really strong shoulders too, vertical pressing is key.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the overhead press if your shoulders aren’t up for it, but try to find a way to train the overhead pattern in a way that won’t piss your shoulders off.
I know I just said that you don’t have to do the overhead press, but if you can, it’s a great exercise.
I scorned it for years because I fell into the trap of thinking that if it’s dangerous for some, it’s dangerous for all. That’s a mistake.
I absolutely wouldn’t recommend the overhead press for people with serious shoulder pathologies or those with poor shoulder and/or thoracic mobility that prohibits them from getting into a good overhead position. Unfortunately, quite a few people fall into this category, which may explain why the overhead press is so widely demonized.
But there are also plenty of lifters that are fine to overhead press, and I’m one of them. My shoulders are relatively healthy (they get cranky when I go overboard on pressing volume or go too heavy too often, but that’s to be expected) and I have great shoulder mobility, so it’s a safe exercise.
That’s a valuable lesson to internalize not just for the overhead press but for all exercises.
For example, I’ve written extensively about how I’ve nixed heavy squats in favor of more single-leg work, but I’ve also gone through a serious back surgery. That doesn’t necessarily make squats a dangerous exercise; it just means heavy squats aren’t the best for me given my injury history and limitations, and I wouldn’t recommend them for people with similar issues as mine. For many though, they’re great exercises with a proven track record of success.
The overhead press is much the same. If you can’t do it them, don’t sweat it and find a more joint-friendly alternative. It’s not a deal-breaker; no exercise is.
But if you can, by all means, have at it.
Once I added the overhead press back into the mix, I immediately started to see good things happening, so I naturally started pressing more, up to 3-4 times a week. I also got a little overzealous about trying to get stronger and let my form slip up. You know, where you make like Fat Joe and lean back so much it becomes a “Limbo Press.”
And then my shoulders and lower back started to bug me. Go figure.
Too often people will experience something similar and blame the exercise: “[Fill in the blank exercise] hurt me and is therefore dangerous.”
But that’s not a condemnation of the overhead press so much as it’s an issue of poor programming and execution. Big difference. Any exercise can be dangerous if you do it incorrectly or do it too much.
So how much is too much? Well, that really depends on the individual and the exercise.
I like higher frequency training for lower load exercises but find it crushes me if I try to employ it with heavy barbell work. And I think that’s a good rule of thumb for most people.
Some lucky few are able to crush heavy barbell work day after day with no seeming repercussions (and these are the ones that endorse such methods), but I think that’s asking for trouble for the majority.
Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing, so listen to your body and learn your personal threshold. A little common sense goes a long way.
With the overhead press specifically, twice a week is my limit, and even that’s pushing it if I’m also including a lot of other horizontal pressing and lower back intensive work in my routine.
I’m now training shoulders twice a week, once with the overhead press and once with a more shoulder and lower back friendly exercise like overhead pressing variations using dumbbells, kettlebells, or the landmine.
I’ll also sprinkle in some lateral raises from time to time, which, if you’re looking to do higher frequency shoulder training, is a much smarter choice than high frequency overhead pressing in my mind.
On that note, here are five different shoulder exercises you might not have tried that you can use either in adjunct with the overhead press or as a replacement if the overhead press is out of the question for you.
Like the name suggests, fling the weight up in a manner resembling a dumbbell snatch and lower it slowly under control as you would in a typical dumbbell shoulder press.
The dumbbell snatch is usually performed explosively as a means to build power where the power is generated more from the hips than the shoulders. Here though, the primary intent is to overload the shoulders.
Since you’re stronger eccentrically than concentrically and since you can snatch more weight than you could otherwise press – or even push press – this is a good way to overload the eccentric portion of the rep with far more weight than you could handle if you just did a normal press.
A typical dumbbell snatch is done with a pronated grip, but here I like snatching to a neutral grip to make it easier on the shoulders. Don’t get too caught up on the dumbbell snatch technique because that’s not really the point of the exercise.
Three to four sets of 5 will have your shoulders screaming, and it also doubles as one heck of a core exercise.
Chains are often used with the bench press to provide accommodating resistance and overload the lockout.
I suppose you could do something similar for the overhead press if you had some really long chains, but I like the chains more to provide a bit of instability from the chains swaying back and forth.
Set the chains so they aren’t touching the floor, which is different from how you’d set them up for the bench press. You won’t get accommodating resistance, but it’ll make for one hell of a wild ride.
As you can see from me shaking like a leaf on the last few reps, these really challenge core stability, which is a major and often overlooked weak link for many when it comes to the overhead press.
It’s one thing to try to cue yourself to stay tight, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, etc., but the chains teach you (or more like force you) to do it naturally and reflexively. When you go back to straight weight, it’ll feel like a walk in the park from a stability standpoint.
I’ll either use a combination of plates and chains or just chains. You won’t be able to handle as much weight as you normally can, so bear that in mind.
This could be used as an assistance exercise for the overhead press or as a standalone exercise for a different challenge.
Not for nothing, but it also makes for a massive shoulder and triceps pump.
I got the idea for this exercise from one of my online clients, Matt Roberts, who’s a personal trainer himself.
I’m a huge fan of the landmine press as a shoulder and low-back friendly pressing alternative and include it often in my programs.
The bands add accommodating resistance in a way that mimics the strength curve of the press, meaning you have greater loading at all points throughout the rep, and they also provide greater resistance for the eccentric portion of the rep, making them a great choice for hypertrophy.
To set it up, simply loop one end of a band over the sleeve of the barbell and stand on the other end with the same side foot of the arm doing the pressing. You can stand in either a symmetrical stance or a split stance, but I find a split stance feels much better.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
You won’t be able to use a ton of band resistance because if you use too much it’ll pull you off balance, but a little band tension goes a long way.
The bands really overload the lockout, making it crucial that you explode through the rep, but make sure that you’re still controlling the eccentric as there will be a tendency to want to rush it.
The landmine also works really well for lateral raises.
Stand perpendicular to the landmine with the bar in one hand; start with the hand even with the opposite side hip, as if you’re trying to reach into your opposite pocket. From there, keep the arm straight and perform a lateral raise-type motion.
The arc of the barbell turns it into more of a front raise/lateral raise hybrid and provides a unique stimulus from what you get with dumbbells or cables.
They look pretty wussy for sure, but try them before rushing to judgment because they’re very difficult. As a point of reference, I don’t use more than 10-12 pounds on the end of the bar on these, and usually five is plenty.
You may even find the barbell is too much at first, particularly if you hold it at the end, in which case you can just hold it farther down on the skinny part of the bar to shorten the lever arm.
If you’re strict and don’t allow for any body movement, it also challenges the rotary core quite a bit as you come across your body.
Of course, if you don’t have a landmine or something similar, just anchor the barbell in the corner.
If you’ve ever tried “bottoms up” kettlebell presses, then you know how much harder they are than regular presses. Kettlebell lateral raises are similar to that, only even harder.
The key is to keep the bell in line with the arm, which is much easier said than done and will really challenge your shoulders, forearms, and grip, making it a good way to kill several birds with one stone.
I wouldn’t use this as a primary shoulder builder, but it makes for a great finisher at the end of a workout. You can also experiment with doing static holds at the top.
If you’ve been having problems with your shoulder training, hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas to press through them.
And if you can’t press through them, at least do some lateral raises.