Use the barbell shoulder press to build big, strong and wide shoulders
The shoulder press is one of the most important big lifts for maximising upper-body muscle size, strength and definition to transform your body and get an lean, strong and athletic physique. Use our complete guide to shoulder press better to build the body you want, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey
The barbell shoulder press is one of the “Big Four” weight-lifting moves, along with the barbell back squat, barbell deadlift and barbell bench press. And anyone who has been weight training for a while can instantly tell you their one-rep max for each of these exercises – even when you haven’t ask them for it.
These four lifts provide the greatest potential for maximising your muscular size and strength. It’s why all of them, and their variations, feature in all good fat-loss and muscle-building training programmes.
The shoulder press – or overhead press or military press as it’s sometimes known – deserves its place in this illustrious list of serious strength moves. Why? Because it’s one of the very best exercises for building bigger, stronger and wider shoulders, to transform your upper body and achieve the lean and athletic physique you want.
Read on to discover everything you need to know about the shoulder press, including our expert form guide and bonus lifting advice. And we reveal the common mistakes to avoid to maximise your shoulder size and strength, and detail the key overhead press variations that will sculpt the impressive shoulders you want!
What is the shoulder press?
It’s a standing exercise in which you press a barbell from shoulder height to directly above your head with your arms fully locked-out, and back down again. It’s an essential exercise to include in your training toolbox if you want to build shoulder strength, or if you want to increase the size of your shoulder muscles (also know as your deltoids or “delts”).
Why? Because the barbell shoulder press is a compound, or multi-joint, lift. That means that there’s movement in two or more joints. In the shoulder press, movement occurs in both your shoulder and elbow joints. In an isolation, or single-joint, exercise movement only occurs in one joint. Take the dumbbell lateral raise, another great exercise to build broader shoulders, where there’s only movement at the shoulder joint.
You can lift more weight with a compound lift, which is why the shoulder press is such an important exercise if you want to maximise the size and strength of your shoulder muscles.
What muscles does the shoulder press work?
It primarily works all three parts of your shoulder muscles. These are anatomically known as the: “anterior deltoids”, which are better known as your front shoulders; “medial deltoids”, or side shoulders; and “posterior deltoids”, or back or rear shoulders.
The lift also works your triceps, which are involved in straightening the arms to achieve a full lock-out with the bar directly overhead. And other important muscles have a part to play too. Your abs and lower back (your core) muscles must be fully engaged to offer stability and keep your torso strong and upright. And it’s important to have tight glutes when overhead press to offer even more fully-body stability.
A key variation of the shoulder press, the push press, brings even more muscles into play, including your legs, which are involved in the “leg drive” to initiate each rep. You can read more about the push press and the other varieties of overhead press below.
Why should I do the overhead press?
If you want bigger, stronger and broader shoulders then you can’t afford to ignore the barbell shoulder press! It’s one of the big four lifts for good reason because it offers the fastest muscle size and strength returns for your training time.
And remember, the broader your shoulders the more athletic and aesthetically-pleasing your physique. Why? Because wide shoulders indicate not only a strong and powerful upper body, but they also give the impression of making your stomach and waist appear narrower. How? Because your torso will resemble an upside-down pyramid: widest at the top and narrowest at the bottom.
That’s a body shape shared by swimmers, sprinters and most professional athletes. It instantly indicates a lean and mean physique. And the polar opposite of having narrow shoulders and a wide waist that indicates a lack of muscle mass and too much body fat.
So sculpting broader shoulders make your belly seem smaller, even if you haven’t yet managed to burn off your beer belly!
How much should I be able to shoulder press?
The overhead press is a useful metric to evaluate shoulder and upper body strength in relative terms to the your body weight.
How much weight you can shoulder press only matters if you’re training for a new maximum lift. But there is a way to rank your one-rep max effort into a performance-level category, and it’s based on how much you can lift in relation to your body weight. We use the EXRX system.
To work out your one-rep max performance, take your best-ever shoulder press effort and divide it by how much you weigh. It will then fall into one of these performance categories.
For example, a man weighing 82kg who can press 35kg (bodyweight x 0.4) for one rep would score as “untrained”. A 50kg (bodyweight x 0.6) max-effort would rank as “novice”.
A 62.5kg (bodyweight x 0.7) one-rep best effort is “intermediate”; a 75kg (bodyweight x 0.9) max is “advanced”; and a 100kg (bodyweight x 1.1) press or higher ranks as “elite”.
Not over the moon with your current performance category? Don’t worry! There’s loads of expert advice below on how you can increase your shoulder press best!
Will shoulder pressing improve my bench press?
Absolutely, but don’t just take our word for it. Here’s Jack Lovett, two-time British Natural Strongman Champion and founder of Spartan Performance.
“Overhead pressing is an often overlooked movement pattern and it happens to be my favourite way to develop upper body strength,” he tells us. “My bench press went from 180kg to 220kg during a training cycle than focused on the shoulder press with the bench press as an assistance [exercise].”
“During the same period my shoulder press went from 100kg to 155kg. If you improve your overhead press, then your bench press will go up – but that’s not the case in reverse in my experience.”
So, getting stronger in the shoulder press will boost your bench press one-rep max, but focusing only on boosting your bench will do very little for your overhead press numbers.
How to do the shoulder press
• Take the barbell out of the rack with an overhand grip and rest the bar at shoulder height, as if you’re setting up for a front squat.
• Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then press your feet hard into the floor to create whole-body stability and tense your abs and glutes to stabilise your torso.
• Press the barbell directly overhead, moving your head backwards to avoid hitting your chin or nose with the bar.
• Think of it more like moving your head around the bar; not moving the bar around your head. This will ensure you press the bar directly upwards, and not forwards or backwards.
• Once your arms are straight with elbows locked out, push your head forwards through your arms into a neutral position. Don’t lean backwards or force your head too far forwards.
• Lower the barbell back down to the start position under complete control, keeping your elbows tight, shoulders back, and abs and glutes fully engaged.
How to get better at the shoulder press
Use our expert tips and bonus advice to increase your overhead press to build seriously big and impressive shoulders
Keep your chin up
The barbell starts across your upper chest below your chin. So your head must tilt backwards slightly as you push the bar up in the straightest line possible to avoid hitting your chin and nose. As you press the bar up, tilt your head backwards enough so that the bar just misses your nose on the way up.
Start with a shoulder squeeze
At the start of each rep focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then focus on using your shoulders to initiate the lift and get the bar moving. Lower the bar back down under control, ensuring that your shoulders are fully engaged and managing the weight with good form.
Stand tall and proud
You need to keep the chest up and high during each rep to maintain a strong and stable upper back. This allows better and smoother movement patterns of all the muscles and joints involved in the lift, especially the shoulders, which are one of the most easily-damaged joints in the body.
Maintain strong and straight wrists
The better the starting position of your wrists, the better you can initiate the move with a strong push. You want your wrists to be strong and straight to create the optimal pressing path. Bent wrists will stress the joint and reduce your strength potential.
Get the right grip
The wider apart your hands are on the bar the weaker you will be and the less weight you will be able to lift. However, going too narrow will place excess strain on your wrist and elbow joints. The perfect grip is with your hands about shoulder-width apart. And keep your elbows directly underneath your wrists so you stay in the strongest bio-mechanical position for the lift.
Always engage your abs
As with all big lifts, a stronger core provides a solid platform for heavier lifting. And it prevents an excessive load on your lower back, with increases the risk of injury. Brace your abs at the start of the set – and keep them engaged until the final rep – to ensure your upper body is a strong and stable position. Make sure your glutes are tight too for an even greater stable base.
Common shoulder press mistakes and how to avoid them
Improve your overhead press by avoiding these rookie errors
Your feet are too close together
If your feet are closer together than shoulder-width apart then you’re going to have a very poor base of support from which to press. That will increase you risk of losing your balance and rocking forward or backwards, as well as limit how much weight you can press.
Your stance is so important for the shoulder press because your feet are your only contact point with the floor for stability. Stand with your feet at least shoulder-width apart and think of your body like a pyramid, with a wide strong base in contact with the ground.
Poor shoulder mobility
If you have poor mobility in your shoulder joints then your overhead press will resemble a standing incline bench press because you’re leaning back so much. Not being able to press directly overhead is also a sign of poor shoulder joint mobility or flexibility.
This isn’t something that can be fixed by shoulder pressing more often. Indeed, that can make the issue worse. Instead you need to go and spend time improving the health of your shoulder joints by dedicating more training time to better mobility and flexibility.
Not pausing overhead
If you let the bar drop down the instant your arms lock out you’re selling you muscle size and strength goals short. Why? Pausing in the top locked-out position means you have to grip the bar harder and that activates more muscle fibres in your forearms, triceps, traps and shoulders.
It also increases time under tension – which is a key driver behind building bigger muscles – of your shoulders, as well as your abs and core, which must keep firing fully to maintain torso stability. Try holding the top position for a second, two seconds or even up to five seconds to milk even more out of every rep.
How to do the main overhead press variations
There are a few key variations of the main shoulder press move, using different bits of kit and each with their own advantages. Here are the main moves that should feature in all good shoulder-building training programmes
Seated barbell shoulder press
This is very similar to the main move, except you’re sitting down. Typically this will be on an upright bench so your glutes and back are fully supported. This means your glutes and abs – two of the key stabilising muscles involved in the main lift – aren’t required to fire as fully.
In this variation you can lift heavier than in the main move because you go into a quarter-squat to initiate the start of each rep. This means your legs are involved to generate power to get the bar moving. So you don’t have to rely on shoulder strength alone to drive the barbell directly overhead. The push press is so beneficial because it therefore works the shoulders and delts, as well as the legs, glutes and abs through that explosive leg drive.
It also allows you to overload the target muscles during the eccentric (or lowering) part of each rep. Your muscles are stronger during eccentric movements than in concentric (or lifting) movements. And that usually limits how much weight you can use for a given move. But utilising that leg drive to get the bar moving upwards means you can lift a heavier weight than in the standard shoulder press. The key is to then lower it back down to the start position under complete control – taking at least two seconds or even four seconds or more. Why? to recruit even more muscle fibres, because the more you can target and fatigue the bigger and stronger your muscles grow.
Machine shoulder press
This machine is a common sight in all good commercial gyms. It’s one of the most popular weight-training machines in the world, along with the chest press machine and cable machines. They typically come in one of two types: either a plate-loaded machine; or one with a weight-stack that comes with a pin to select the desired resistance.
Like the chest press it’s a fixed-path machine. That means the movement path is fixed and can only move in one plane of motion (straight up). So your stabilising muscles aren’t required to support the movement, unlike in the barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell shoulder press variations. For this reason many people can lift heavier using a machine than they can using free weights. Don’t miss our complete guide to the shoulder press machine if you’re serious about building bigger and stronger shoulders.
Dumbbell shoulder press
The main advantage of this variation is that both arms work individually. So your stronger side can’t over-compensate for your weaker side, which can happen when using a barbell. You won’t be able to lift as heavy a total weight, but you will ensure both shoulders get worked equally. The move can be done seated or standing and they make a greater superset with the dumbbell lateral raise to build shoulder size and width.
Dumbbell Arnold press
It’s similar to the standard dumbbell shoulder press, except you start with the weights at shoulder height with your wrists rotated so the back of your hands face forwards. As your press the dumbbells up you rotate your wrists, so finish with your arms fully locked out overhead with your palms facing forward.
As you lower the weights back down your reverse the wrist rotation to finish the rep back in the start position. The rotational movement limits how much weight you can lift, but the big advantage is you’ll work those small but crucial rotator cuff stabilsiing muscles of each shoulder joint. You can do the move seated or standing.
Kettlebell shoulder press
Kettlebells are harder to hold and control than dumbbells as you press them up and lower than down. So each rep requires more work from the stabilising muscles of your shoulders, as well as you abs to keep your torso upright. You can also do kettlebell push presses (you go into a quarter-squat to initiate each rep) or kettlebell thrusters (you go into a half-squat or full squat to initiate each rep) to work your legs, core and shoulders.
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