Ditch the Barbell for Big, Healthy Shoulders

by Eric Bach

5 Single-Arm Exercises You Gotta Try

Overhead barbell presses can restrict joint mobility and mess up your shoulders. Here are five one-arm alternatives that work better.

When Dorian Speaks, You Listen

Six-time Mr. Olympia champion Dorian Yates once said, “Shoulder width is an absolute requirement to display the V-taper that will make or break your physique.” So when Dorian speaks, you listen. You start to push more weight in search of wider shoulders and a stronger press.

But there’s a problem. You spend all day hunched over your computer like a Neanderthal and you have the mobility of a fork. Even worse, you’ve got beat up shoulders from imbalanced training, and an old injury or two. Your shoulders desperately need work, but every time you do barbell overhead presses, it feels (and sounds) like someone dumped gravel into your synovial fluid.

It’s time to learn how to prevent debilitating shoulder pain while building strong and healthy shoulders.

The Problems With the Barbell

The best tool or exercise is one that maximizes performance while minimizing the risk of injury. That’s not always the barbell.

The movement pattern of the overhead press is restricted by the bar, often leading to excessive stress on your shoulders because they lack mobility. This results in compensatory movement patterns down the kinetic chain. The end result? Multiple ouchies.

Look, if you can’t barbell press overhead with ideal form, you need to find an alternative. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with both acute injuries and chronic shoulder pain.

Still, this doesn’t mean you have to avoid all overhead movements. Rather than throwing the muscular baby out with the bathwater, work backward. This means replacing bilateral work with unilateral (single limb) exercises. The result will be strong, muscular, and injury-resistant shoulders.

Why Unilateral Training Works

1. It Corrects Muscular Imbalances

While some hardcore lifters roll their eyes at the idea of unilateral training, single-limb work is one of the best old-school methods in the book. It exposes muscular imbalances, corrects those imbalances for well-rounded strength development, and provides a new training stimulus to prompt new growth.

Ever notice how one arm lags behind the other on the barbell bench press?

Strength differences between your limbs highlight imbalances that are often exacerbated by bilateral barbell training.

Barbells aren’t bad. But if you have imbalances, you’re opening the door for injury. Adding in single-arm pressing will bring up weak points on each individual arm to build muscle while preventing imbalances and injuries going forward.

2. It Hammers Your Core

By adding in single-limb training, you’ll attack anti-lateral flexion and thus your internal/external obliques and quadratus lumborum. Compared to boring yourself to tears with planks, unilateral work builds functional core strength and big muscles to boot.

3. It Improves Motor Unit Recruitment

Adding unilateral lifts into a balanced plan recruits untapped motor units for greater strength, power, and muscular development. By improving motor unit recruitment, you’ll have a greater number of muscle fibers at your disposal for your big lifts.

Now, this isn’t to say you need to avoid bilateral lifts entirely. But unilateral work in conjunction with optimally executed bilateral work is a winning recipe for a strong, jacked, and healthy body.

5 Alternatives For Pain-Free Pressing

1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press

This exercise builds brutal strength and core stability. When you use dumbbells instead of a barbell, your core works to stabilize the unbalanced load. This provides a wicked anti-lateral flexion component, hitting your obliques harder than a medicine ball to the gut.

Okay, that’s a stretch, but single-arm dumbbell presses, done with heavy weight, can be used as a pure strength movement to build bigger shoulders and to give you a resilient mid-section.

Keep your feet shoulder width or slightly wider and brace your abs. Extend the non-working arm to your side, hold it on your hip, or drape it across your body onto your obliques.

Just as you do with a bilateral overhead press, create a shelf by keeping your elbows up to engage your lats. This puts the arm in a safer position to press overhead. Then lock out at the top of each rep. Finish in a joint-stacked position.

Don’t, however, do this:

Try 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps as your primary strength building shoulder movement.

2. Split-Stance One-Arm Dumbbell Press

This one adds an extended stance position to further challenge your core, namely your lateral subsystem. This is a group of muscles composed of your gluteus medius, adductors, quadratus lumborum (QL), and tensor fasciae latae (TFL). They’re charged with aiding in the transfer of force and stabilizing the lumbo pelvic hip complex.

If you have an interest in performing weightlifting movements like the split jerk, this is an awesome regression to build head-to-toe stability and balance along with strong, muscular shoulders.

You’ll need a wide stance with these. Brace your abs hard and control the movement. You’ll need to go light. Try 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, focusing on slow tempo and control rather than setting strength PRs.

3. Single-Arm Push Press with Accentuated Eccentric

The push press takes the single-arm press and adds explosive power. You’ll use an explosive dip and drive upwards to generate force through your upper body. This builds incredible stability from your wrist to your ankle.

You can keep this heavy and explosive for a pure power-based exercise, or you can take your strength and size to the next level with an accentuated eccentric – a slow negative. In this variation, you’ll perform an explosive concentric press and then lower the weight, taking 4-5 seconds to return it to the original position.

Because a push press allows for a heavier weight, you’re overloading the explosive press portion of the exercise. By lowering the weight under control, you’re taking advantage of your eccentric strength and overloading your shoulders, creating tons of muscle building tension and metabolic stress. Here’s a front view:

  • For pure power: 3-4 sets of 4-5 reps.
  • For strength and size: 3-4 sets of 4-5 reps with a 5-1-1-1 tempo.

4. Bottoms-Up Pressing

Bottoms-up pressing requires you to take a typical kettlebell and flip it. The heavy portion of the kettlebell now sits on top. Your entire upper body has to work double time to maintain ideal position, thereby improving strength, stability, and muscle fiber recruitment all at once.

Further, the vice grip it requires, combined with the inherently unstable kettlebell, forces your rotator cuff to work hard. You’ll eliminate your need for endless sets of band-external rotations.

Don’t underestimate these presses. You’ll be activating nearly every muscle in your body to stabilize and press the weight overhead. Beyond other benefits, bottoms-up pressing requires incredible focus and alignment for proper execution. Any loss of focus or wobble in technique will cause you to lose control.

Start light with bottoms-up presses. As a pre-lift primer or finisher, start with two sets of 8-10 reps per side.

5. Half-Kneeling Landmine Press

The half-kneeling landmine press is a primo pressing option, especially for lifters who need to improve thoracic mobility before being able to safely press overhead. Since the load is asymmetrical in nature, you’ll get the thoracic mobility work you need, in addition to improving the stability of the scapula.

As an added bonus, the half kneeling position and the position of the barbell require an anti-rotation stimulus. This hammers your internal and external obliques, along with your lateral subsystem.

Hold a half-kneeling position, squeezing the glute of your down leg. Brace your core to prevent extension and rotation. Press straight, keeping your chin tucked. Pause at the top of the movement and lower under control.

Program the half-kneeling press as a primary strength movement and use 3 sets of 8.