Master the Z-Press, Build Your Shoulders

Can’t do this exercise? Troubleshoot the problems with this handy guide.

The Z-press is a fantastic exercise not only because it hammers the shoulders, upper back, and midsection, but because it can be a diagnostic tool for common inadequacies. If you feel like you’re pressing a square peg into a round hole every time you program this exercise, troubleshoot with the following tests and fixes.

Use the dumbbell version as a baseline assessment. It allows you to keep a consistent neck position through the press and tends to be more shoulder-friendly than the barbell version.

Dumbbell Z-Press

Sit with your legs straight out in front of you and press the dumbbells overhead. Film from the side or have a buddy watch your form.

  1. Keep an upright torso.
  2. Get your weight on your seat bones – not your tailbone.
  3. Get in a full overhead shoulder position at the top of the rep.
  4. Keep your knees extended throughout the lift.

Don’t sweat it if you can’t get the backs of your knees all the way to the ground. Unless you have significant knee hyperextension (or atrophied calves and hamstrings), this isn’t going to happen. A relatively straight line between your hip joint, knee joint, and ankle is what you’re looking for.

Failure to achieve these things means you’re Z-pressing with compensations – movements that occur to make up for deficits. If that’s the case, let’s look at the most likely culprits plus some potential fixes.

Problem 1: Limited Hamstring Flexibility

If you find your pelvis rolling back and your weight on your tailbone, you find it difficult to maintain an upright torso, or you can’t keep your knees reasonably straight throughout the rep, your hamstrings might be fighting you.

The Fix

In the long term, address the root flexibility issue. Consistent, heavy eccentric (lengthening contraction) exercises, such as Romanian deadlifts, will do more for your hamstring flexibility than any static stretch. In the short term, try this modification.

Dumbbell Z-Press with Foam Roller Modification

Simply set up with a foam roller under your knees. The foam roller encourages you to keep your knees slightly flexed, thereby reducing or eliminating the compensations that ruin your Z-press.

Problem 2: Shoulder Range of Motion Deficit

The inability to achieve a clean overhead position could result in several compensations. Test your overhead range of motion to rule out this problem.

Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion Test

Stand with your heels 6-8 inches from the wall with glutes and shoulder blades touching it. Roll your pelvis and introduce slight lumbar rounding to allow the low back to touch the wall.

Keep your low back in contact with the wall as you raise your arms overhead. Inability to touch your thumbs to the wall without arching your low back indicates shoulder overhead range of motion is lacking.

The Fix

Use stretches and activities to improve overhead range of motion. Again, heavy eccentric exercises, like emphasizing the lowering phase of a lat pulldown or pull-up can be very helpful. Or consider this:

Prayer Position Lat Stretch with EZ-Bar

Kneel approximately the length of your torso away from a bench. Grasp the outer camber of a curl bar and place your elbows on the bench. If you don’t have an EZ-bar, a short barbell or a broomstick will work.

Get a stretch by lowering your hips toward your heels. You can bias the stretch on the lats and teres major with less elbow bend or bias the stretch on the triceps’ long head with more elbow bend. Accumulate about 90 or more seconds per day in the stretch position – 3 sets of 30-second holds.

Problem 3: Inadequate Mid-Back Extension

To get into a good overhead position, the thoracic spine must have a modest amount of extension (arching back). If it’s not adequate, compensations occur.

The Fix

Mobilize your T-spine.

Thoracic Extensions with Foam Roller

Sit in front of a foam roller with knees and hips bent. Tuck your chin toward your chest; maintain this neck position throughout. Attempt to wrap your shoulder blades forward around your chest as you give yourself a tight hug.

Lie back over the foam roller with it positioned anywhere between the swell of your low back and the base of your neck. Perform a mini-crunch to lift your upper body slightly, then exhale as you relax your shoulders and head toward the floor.

We’re using the foam roller as a fulcrum to create mid-back extension. Expect only a small amount of movement, and don’t be surprised if you feel some cracks and pops. It’s evidence of desirable movement of the small joints of the thoracic spine.

Do several mini-crunch/relaxation mobilization cycles, and then re-adjust your foam roller slightly up or down the mid-back. Complete 2-3 bouts of 30-60 seconds per day.

Problem 4: Poor Stability

Inadequate control or capacity wrecks the Z-press as fast as a lifter wrecks a buffet after leg day. If none of the culprits above seem to be the issue, there’s a good chance your form will benefit from working on the stability of the shoulder complex and mid-back muscles.

The Fix

Use a reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) technique to train the back of the shoulder and spinal extensors. RNT techniques create targeted de-stabilization during exercise and require the neuromuscular system to make the necessary corrections.

Z-Press RNT

Start with an unloaded barbell. Use a training bar or even a broomstick if the barbell and bands are too much. Place the bar on the safety catches at mid-thigh height. Loop light resistance bands from the middle of the squat rack’s uprights to the sleeves of a barbell. You should have one band on each side of the rack.

Sit far enough away from the squat rack to make sure there’s tension on the bands. You should feel the bands pulling your shoulders, scapula, and upper back forward. It should not be so great that it messes up your form.

Do 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps. End the set early if your form breaks down. Do these RNT sets on your shoulder/upper-body push day as a warm-up for 4-6 weeks.

After You’ve Got It Mastered

After running diagnostics on your Z-press and incorporating any necessary modifications and remedies, try this alternating unilateral press variation to torch your shoulders and midsection.

Alternating Dumbbell Z-Press

Actively support the non-pressing dumbbell at the bottom of the movement while you press the other dumbbell. I prefer the foam roller modification over the standard dumbbell Z-press for comfort and added stability.