The overhead press is often praised as the best overall shoulder exercise and also just as often blamed for shoulder injuries – such as impingement, tendinitis or tendinosis of the supraspinatus tendon… or even rotator cuff tears.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. I’m not a personal trainer. I am a guy who lifts weights regularly and has strict overhead pressed 100kg/220lbs @ 85kg/187lbs. And I’m also working through a mild shoulder injury (tendinosis) right now.
I’m going to outline some opinions from what I believe are reputable sources and allow you to make your own decision about the overhead press based on those. I’m also going to give you my opinion on the matter based on the research I’ve done. I will also share my current training approach to work through my shoulder tendinosis and my plans for the future.
The Case Against the OHP
I’m going to link a very well-written article called ‘The Case Against Overhead Presses‘ posted by bodybuilder (among other things) Doug Brignole. I think his competition history in bodybuilding speaks for itself and he certainly knows how to develop a well-rounded, muscular physique. I doubt anyone is going to argue that.
Because you might not have the time to read the whole article, here are some relatively long cliffs (but shorter than the article to be fair):
– The OHP is not the most efficient way to target the lateral deltoid – or the center section of the shoulder – because this part of your shoulder is responsible for raising the arm to the side… as you would do in a side raise. I’ve included a video below where Doug Brignole discusses how to do a side raise, which he basically crowns the ‘king’ of shoulder exercises in his article. He believes you should do straight arm side raises (in various body positions with dumbbells or cables).
– The overhead press is also not the most efficient way to target the anterior (or front) deltoid either, which brings your arm up in front of you like you would in a front raise.
– The OHP requires ‘excessive external rotation’.
– OHP strains small external rotator cuff muscles (I assume he’s talking about the infraspinatus and teres minor) that should not be utilized to keep a heavy weight from falling foward.
– Raising the humerus (upper arm bone) into an overhead position, which is obviously required to overhead press, pinches the supraspinatus tendon and can cause pain, inflammation, tendinitis and tendinosis. Potentially even tears.
– The muscles are not properly aligned in the OHP to place significant stress on the lateral deltoid. Most of the stress is placed on the anterior deltoid and the rotator cuff muscles (to stabilize the movement) as mentioned.
– The OHP is traditionally (and in Doug’s opinion falsely) seen as a primary shoulder builder. He believes people may build impressive, strong shoulders in spite of using the OHP, rather than because of using the OHP.
– The overhead press is an ego (because you can use more weight) and illusion (because the lateral deltoid isn’t contributing significantly) strength movement for the shoulder.
– His conclusion: Do lateral raises instead of OHP for shoulder development.
Get Your Press Up!
Moving on to Mark Rippetoe’s perspective. I assume most of you know him as the author of the popular full body strength program for beginners called Starting Strength. He is an ex-powerlifter and strength coach.
The article he wrote about the importance of the overhead press is called ‘Get Your Press Up‘. My cliffs are below:
– The overhead press should be a staple in any strength program, especially one designed for sports.
– People aren’t strong enough with overhead pressing today, because it isn’t emphasized enough.
– Mark believes the overhead press is superior to the bench press for shoulder health, because it targets the shoulder as a whole unit.
– Overhead pressing works most of your body. The shoulders, traps, triceps and your ‘core’ all get worked by overhead pressing.
On the Safety and Efficacy of Overhead Lifting
Some cliffs are below again:
– The idea that overhead pressing is bad for the shoulders is not based on facts.
– Overhead pressing balances anterior (front) and posterior (back) shoulder muscle involvement. The bench press is anterior-dominant, but the OHP locks the weight out overhead and thus involves the back of the shoulder as well.
– Stabilizing muscles throughout the shoulder girdle are also worked to bring a weight overhead.
– Not preparing for ordinary overhead movement can cause shoulder dysfunction.
– The authors then describe how the overhead press should be performed in a safe manner. I won’t add cliffs for this part, because it’s fairly in depth and you should probably read it entirely.
– Another part of the article describes some things that cause shoulder impingement. The general idea is that it maybe be aggravated by overhead pressing, but this usually results from poor technique, bad posture, previous injuries and/or genetic abnormalities in the shoulder girdle (or elsewhere in the body).
– Conclusion: Overhead lifts done with proper technique and healthy shoulders are safe.
More Worthwhile Overhead Press Reading Material
The Truth About Overhead Pressing: While the previous three articles were more theoretical, this one by Tony Gentilcore is more of a way to actively assess your shoulders (to a certain extent) and figure out a way to work around not being able to overhead press, if you can’t pass some of the tests.
Cracking the Rotator Cuff Conundrum by Eric Cressey: A really great article about the rotator cuff, how the individual muscles function and also a nice training program to target them properly. This can make overhead pressing feasible and also safer (and stronger).
Shoulder Shocker by Joe DeFranco: If you’re unable to overhead press safely due to injury or other factors, this quick circuit might be a nice way to hit your shoulders.
My Approach and Opinion
In my humble opinion, I think Doug Brignole went a little far to conclude that overhead pressing is so dangerous and useless that it should be replaced in everyone’s training program with the lateral raise exercise. While some of his concerns are valid, others were shown to be without factual basis when it comes to an overhead press done with proper technique and healthy shoulders (as described in this article).
On another note, not everyone should be overhead pressing (in my opinion). Whether or not it can be done should be decided on an individual basis. You have to assess the current state of your deltoid and rotator cuff muscles, your overall posture, muscular imbalances, etc. and make sure the movement can be performed safely. Barring some severe injuries or genetic predisposition, most people should be able to work towards a situation where they are able to safely overhead press with proper lifting technique.
I’m currently experiencing pain in my shoulder due to postural deficits, muscular imbalances and previous technique errors. I trained for years without good balance in my training program, poor technique in some critical movements and general ignorance about mobility work, corrective stretching and ways to properly assess my posture and muscular balance.
Going forward, my approach is to train around the injury and utilize shoulder movements that I can perform pain free. This means avoiding exercises that aggravate the tendinosis I am experiencing, correcting my posture and muscular imbalances, and gradually working toward getting my body to a state where I am able to safely overhead press again. When I do go back to doing OHP, I will make sure to maintain my good posture and muscular balance with a well thought out assistance routine to my primary lifts. This will include rotator cuff specific exercises, foam rolling with a PVC pipe and self myofascial release with a lacrosse ball, corrective stretching (both dynamic and static), proper warmups, and a balanced workout plan.
I hope this write up helps some of you, who may be experiencing shoulder problems of your own. Or maybe you’ve just wondered about how safe the overhead press really is. I hope this article answered some or all of your questions.