T Nation

Bill Starr - Overhead Pressing


This is from the latest "ghost wolf", from one of the magazines:

"Bill Starr had an article that, had I not been dead, might have convinced me to add overhead pressing into my workouts. He starts with a bit of history. Did you know that before Joe weidered the sport of bodybuilding away from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), contestants were awarded a certain number of points for being athletic?

They could earn these points by playing college football, getting a black belt in karate, or competing in Olympic meets which typically took place just a few hours before a physique show. Since overhead lifts were on the menu at the Olympic meets, bodybuilders regularly worked the Olympic lifts.

In 1972 the IOC dropped the overhead press from Olympic weightlifting competition and, in a trickle-down effect, it fell out of favor with bodybuilders. Starr claims the reason the overhead press was dropped was actually due to difficulties in judging form, not scads of lower back injuries.

Bill says not to worry; you're not going to injure your lower back unless you bend it excessively ? as in bending over so far you appear to be doing a standing bench press. Here's the interesting part: Bill claims that after the shift away from overhead pressing to bench pressing, rotator cuff problems, which had been almost unheard of, became commonplace.

His argument? Overhead lifts kept the rotator cuff muscles strong in proportion to the rest of the back. Starr goes so far as to state overhead lifts can even rehabilitate rotator-cuff injuries. He recommends starting with dumbbells and gradually working up in weight, strengthening the muscles in your upper back until "your rotator cuff no longer bothers you." Might be good prehab, too."

I know that was long, but what do you guys think about it? Is overhead pressing actually good for your rotator cuff? It goes against some T-Nation articles, but bill starr is a pretty good source too :).


Funny, I have rotator cuff issues at the moment (left shoulder) and have had them in the past (right shoulder, just to keep the balance), but I can still overhead press without any pain. I've always used dumbells, not sure if that would make a difference.

Overhead press is my main shoulder exercise, so I was left scratching my head when I read Ghost Wolf's negative comments on that article.


The conditioning and training world is full of contradictions and differences of opinions. If it hurts (Bad pain not good pain like squats) then dont do it. If it feels ok, do it.



Joe DeFranco mentions never performing them due to the humorus and the AC joint I believe. I however have had no problems.

Maybe all the cleans I do help the RC stay strong.


overhead pressing doesn't build the upper back. rows do.

and yes, OHP is not evil.


supraspinatus: abduction @ the shoulder joint

infraspinatus: lateral rotation @ the shoulder joint

subscapularis: medial rotation @ the shoulder joint

teres minor: lateral rotation @ the shoulder joint

these are the four muscles of the rotator cuff. I am just getting over a strained supraspinatus (which turned into a strained infraspinatus) I primarily O-lift, and have taken the last week off (GPP, no heavy lifting) to give these issues time to rest. For the record, any overhead pressing motions were causing discomfort to the supraspinatus.

Any split jerk/power jerk caused continued pain and discomfort which ultimately led to the infraspinatus issue. Prior to performing a full snatch, it is common to rotate the elbows outward and this caused extra pressure on the insertion point of the infraspinatus. (Greater tubercle of the humerus)

I can see overhead presses as prehab, not for rehab. ART, ice, and lots of ibuprofen were needed to rehab those muscles, and specific exercises (lookup Buckberger) to retrain the ROM.


The problem is that people have different shaped acromion processes, which you will not know unless you have some imaging done on the area. This can cause primary impingment, which is a naturally cuased supraspinatus impingment due to an anatomical variant.

Secondary impingment is the same result caused by changes due to wear and tear, trauma, imbalance in training, among other things.

The bench press didn't get very popular until app. the 1960s. Before that olympic lifting and the overhead press were the big boys. With the increase in popularity of powerlifting and bodybuilding the bench took off. This lead to imbalances in trainig which has increased the incidence of shoulder problems.

It's not hat the overhead press is evil, but everyone is a little right here, both Starr and Defranco.


Your post describes my lifting experience with uncanny accuracy. I never made much progress in the bench due to shoulder pain that would set in around 225lbs. Last December I started Olympic lifting. I thought my shoulders were going to explode for the first couple of months. Now, I'm 90% free of all shoulder problems. I absolutely attribute it to the over head work. It has saved my ability to work out. I'm a believer.


When I first started doing STANDING military and BTN barbell presses my rotator cuff muscles got sore.

I thought at first I had injured them, but after analyzing the situation I concluded that I was actually working them and they were sore from that.

After several weeks no more soreness and no more shoulder pain...go figure...

I guess while I was standing (always used to do them seated) the rotator cuff muscles were forced to work (stabilize) my arms...

Re: working the upper back

I get a slight pump in my upper back anytime I do standing overhead lifts...


hmm there are no bad exercises really, more to do with the underlying problems of the person...

stretch the crap of out of neck, upper traps, pecs/subscap, lats and delts and see what happens to your shoulder pain.
Then strengthen the lower/mid traps, rear delts and scapulars. Get the scapulars firing properly and further note the pain in the shoulders or lack of

I had pain in my shoulders years ago even when driving a car. Thanks to years of hunching over on desk, computer or playstation! Presses, benches, pullups and dips eventually started to hurt as well. But I got it sorted

Now I press and bench heavy, do tons of throwing and play BBall

let me add some recent thoughts from my training journal -

Well today marks the day I finally cured my left shoulder impingement! Months of cuff work never did much for it. Rear delt and mid/lower trap worked helped a bit. Pec and lat ISO stretches and scapular control work helped a lot, and the final peice of the puzzle was lots of stretching of my neck/trap and shoulder muscles. I've been doing this stretch where you hold your hands behind your back and rotate the shoulder back and down hard, while stretching you neck in every possible direction several times a day for the last week. Combine that frequent rolling of the shoulders back and down with the mid traps and hardcore trap stretches.

I can do benches, pullups, dips and presses fine now. And that's with me doing 150+ throws 4 times a week. Whereas a few years ago even cuff work used to hurt like hell! Goes to show that those exercises aren't really as bad as people say, its more to do with the underlying problems of the person. For me it was - hunching over a computer or playing Playstation games for long periods of time = tight shoulders/necks and traps...

--------------------Climbon replied
When trying to correct/recover from an injury or rehabilitate someone else, you have to look at the "big" picture. You need to take everything into account; work, posture, exercise, strength, flexibility, etc. I am of the belief that there is no bad exercise, but all exercises don't fit the individual. Overhead pressing will never cause any injury in some, but will in others because they lack the necessary flexibility or their shoulders sit in a slightly different anatomical position.

I guarantee that the cuff work you did helped you to improve. It will help most people given that these muscles are normally weak and there are muscle imbalances. You could not tell at the time because the slump/slouch posture is one of the main causes of impingement. (As a test,, bring your shoulders as far forward as you can. Now try to raise your arm overhead without pulling your shoulders back. What happens? What do you feel?)

Sorry for the long rant, but I deal with this just about every day. I am glad you are feeling better. Keep doing your stretches and your cuff work. This will help to prevent injury and use better posture when on the computer. (A strong rotator cuff will help to keep the humeral head from sliding forward in the glenoid fossa which would change the mechanics of the shoulder and would likely lead to more impingement as noted in the above test.)

-----------------------I replied

I'm not saying the cuff work didn't help, but it didn't fix my immediate problems, and it's not like I have weak cuffs from all the cleans and snatches I did. I have done cuff work before when I was younger in my BBall only days and they helped fixed my shoudler problems I developed from BBall - taken from the 10min cuff solution book

So now that I had shoulder pain again I thought if it worked before, why not do the same stuff? Well it did nothing and even made it worse!
The problem was that with my shoulder and scapular control out of wack, that doing cuff work was making things worse because the muscles in there were getting torn up against the structures in there. Now that I have fixed this, it's not a problem, but I don't really need to do isolated cuff work anymore, since cuban snatch raise and other compound external rotation work no longer cause pain.

Scapular control and strength is something that isn't talked about as much as cuff work, but I feel it's way more important. Same for mid/lower trap strength and tight traps. Just about everything makes the upper traps tight - from olys, deads and shoudler/bench work etc

If a person can do presses fine as a teenager or younger then they have no genetic problems, if they then have problems later on then it's caused by the issues listed. Which can easily be fixed.
I never had any pain in shoulders when younger, I rember doing tons of bodyweight dips/chins and presses during my boxing craze period (which requires healthy shoulders). But when I started hitting the weights seriously a few years back they did eventually cause me pain, and had to modify my form to be able to do them with less pain, same for benching, but after sorting out my problems I no longer have the same issues with em

---- then later on

My shoulder no longer hurts doing thumbs up frontraises, so I added em today to strengthen and beef up my serratus anterior muscles. To further bring up my shoulder firing balance and bulletproof my shoulder health. Bit by bit I'm completing the healthy shoulder puzzle - each step opens up a door to go further onto good as new shoulders
My shoulder feels so good now, almost like new, they used to hurt a lot just even driving a car many years ago. I'm glad I started taking steps to stretch every tight thing (neck, traps, pecs, lats), strengthen (cuffs, mid/lower traps, rear delts, serratus, scapulars) and get proper firing balance back into the surrounding muscles when I did. Otherwise I'd probably be heading into surgery right now...


To add further anecdotal evidence to this argument, when I have had shoulder problems in the past, it has always been from benching, and not from overhead pressing.


I have also been doing static stretches for the last few weeks and I feel much better. I do them throughout the day. I stretch my shoulders, pecs, neck, etc.

I am the same way(except for playstation)I have had an office computer job for 10+ years.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. I have done direct rotator cuff work many times in my 10 years of lifting and it never seemed to help. If anything I felt more pain. It seems the biggest problem is tightness in the pecs, neck, traps, and shoulder.

good post thanks


I've been OHP for since I started lifting (10-11yrs ago). Never had a shoulder problem. I've P.P.'d over 400, so I don't think weight is an issue.


I completely agree with a few exceptions. Upright rows, for example, are just asking for trouble.

Good to see you posting over here, Colin. I remember when you used to post over on Dr. Hatfield's board - made for very interesting and informative discussion. How's your training going?





Hey Ill Cazzo. What's your current numbers?


narrowgrip yes, wider grip, not too bad, if pulled up to nipple level only.
And using lower/mid traps and delts to pull, leaning slightly forward. Steep bent over type row more or less

Training is going ok - strength levels more or less about the same, although I'm about surprass a few of my all time bests - hopefully
But I'm a bit lighter/leaner, running much faster and jumping a bit higher than this time last year. More reactive, agile and explosive etc :slight_smile:


what about improperly done high pulls?


as stated earlier, the problems that arise with upright rows is the narrower than shoulder grip causing an impingement in the shoulder joint. High pulls really wouldn't be performed with a narrower than "clean grip" so there wouldn't be any problem from that standpoint.


also like benching you can make the military press safer by altering your form

use a medium grip, pull the bar apart, bring the elbows in a bit, and slightly forward, pull shoulder blades back together and down, tense lats hard and lock eveyrthing tight - just like doing a powerlifter style bench

and pop your head forward once the bar clears the top of the head

I'm much stronger when I do this