Overhead Presses – Strong Shoulders – Strong Core

The overhead press is an excellent exercise which targets the deltoid muscles (i.e. shoulder); however, the technique utilized and the body position chosen, matter greatly in terms of safety and effectiveness.  Additionally, those with certain shoulder limitations (i.e. rotator cuff tendon issues) may not be able to perform the overhead press or may require significant modifications to prevent further damage to the tissues.

If you consider your daily round, think about how many times a day that you reach over your head to brush or wash your hair and put up or pull down something from a shelf.  The movement pattern that you experience at the shoulder joint is repeated many times a day, so we want to strengthen the shoulder joint and to keep it strong and mobile without compromising the integrity of the joint.  Additionally, when we reach overhead, particularly to lift something of significant weight, we need to possess the nose to toes core strength and stability to do so without compromising the spine.  We want the spine to remain stable where needed so that the shoulder joint may move safely and effectively.

Consequently, while there are many different exercises which target and strengthen the shoulder joint and its supporting structures, the overhead press is a practical, functional exercise to learn and include in most clients’ exercise programs.  This week, the overhead press is the highlighted exercise.  Keep in mind, that even without external resistance; this is a valuable exercise to perform regularly.  As always, prior to beginning any exercise program, please consult your physician.

Perform 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, two-three non-consecutive days/week

Progression #1

  • Begin in a standing position, arms suspended by your sides, shoulders rotated back/down, rib cage lifted, navel pulled toward your spine and the pelvic floor muscles pulled up and inward.
  • Knees are relaxed; shoulders, hips, knees and toes are all facing the same direction with the legs approximately hip distance apart.
  • Flex your arms at the elbow joint, arm pits closed, elbows facing forward and fists facing inward at the clavicle line.
  • Engaging the deltoids, press the arms straight up toward the ceiling until the elbows are fully extended.  
  • Then, lower your arms back to the beginning position and repeat.  

Progression #2

  • Add a relatively light dumbbell in each hand and perform the exact same sequence.

Progression #3

  • Once you have mastered this exercise with the light dumbbell, you may add additional weight; however, you should never experience clicking, popping sounds or sensations and never experience pain.  Additionally, your lumbar spine can only handle so much weight over the head safely, so listen carefully to your body and only add weight when you are strong enough both in the shoulder joint and the nose to toes core.

Progression #4

  • Once you feel comfortable with the dumbbells, you may attempt to perform the overhead press with a barbell, either free or from a Smith Machine.  Again, begin with lighter resistance and work your way up to greater load as your shoulder joint/core are strong enough to manage the load.

Progression #5

  • Attempt this same exercise with a kettlebell, unilateral (i.e. one hand).  Remember to “rack” the kettlebell correctly with the bell on the outside of the hand/forearm, close to, but not resting on the wrist and the body.

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