By Brian Tabor, M.S. Exercise Physiology, SDSU and NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
The shoulder press, a.k.a. overhead press, was king of upper body strength exercises before the bench press gained popularity in the 1950s. The overhead press requires muscular involvement from every muscle in your body placing great stress on the deltoids, triceps and upper back muscles. Luckily for us, with the increasing popularity of CrossFit and functional training, the beloved exercise is once again gaining prevalence in the gym community. However, popularity does not necessarily mean that everybody is performing the exercise correctly. Here are some tips and common mistakes:
Before you begin the overhead press, make sure your legs, butt, and abs are all flexed tight. This will keep your posture upright and keep you from leaning forward. Grip the bar just outside the shoulders and squeeze tightly with your wrists straight and knuckles pointed up towards the ceiling. Your elbows should be under the bar forming a vertical line of support from elbow to wrist to bar.
Take a breath and press overhead until the bar is fully locked above the crown of your head. This exercise will require you to squeeze your shoulders blades together at the top of the movement to finish. You may lean towards the bar as it passes your gaze, but make sure your legs, butt and abs are all held tight throughout the exercise in order to avoid an excessive forward lean.
If you can still see the bar when it is pressed up towards the ceiling, you either need to squeeze your shoulders back to finish the full range of motion or tighten up your legs, butt and abs to correct your posture. The lift should finish overhead as the name implies, not up and in front of your face. In order to avoid an injury, if you are unable to complete the lockout overhead you may need to work on your shoulder mobility prior to heavy pressing.
Overhead pressing is a great alternative to the bench press if you are trying to improve your functional strength. Aside from developing sculpted shoulders and arms, this exercise also strengthens your abdominals as you support the weight and elevate your center of gravity with each press. The full body aspect of the overhead lift makes it a better fit for individuals who are trying to improve their metabolism and overall fitness with strength training. If you decide to incorporate the overhead press into your training, choose a conservative weight and focus on keeping your body tight with each repetition.