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Use the shoulder press machine to build bigger shoulders

Do you want to build the bigger, stronger and wider shoulders that would make even an A-list Hollywood action star proud? Then use my expert guide to making the most of the shoulder press machine to sculpt the awe-inspiring shoulders you want, says New Body Plan founder and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey

The shoulder press machine is pretty simple to use, right? Well, it can be. But it is surprisingly easy to set up in the wrong way. And if you do that, you’ll undermine the potential of every rep you perform.

You also need to know when to use it for maximum effect, and when it should be avoided. And if you really want to get the most out of the shoulder press machine, use our number one advanced training tactic for maximum muscle growth. Read on to get our expert guide on using this key item of gym equipment to fast track shoulder size and strength.

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What is a shoulder press machine?

The shoulder press machine is a standard item of kit that you’ll see in any decent commercial gym. It’s a fixed path machine, meaning that it moves in one plane of motion. It’s one of the world’s most popular bits of gym weight-lifting equipment, alongside the chest press machine, which you can use to maximise the muscular size and strength of your chest.

What muscles does a shoulder press machine work?

As the name suggests, it primarily works your shoulders, which are also known as the delts. The action of pressing a weight overhead will also develop your triceps, the muscles on the back of your upper arms.

Should I use the shoulder press?

This machine is particularly useful for beginners. That’s because it moves in a fixed path, which makes it easy to control. It’s basically hard to move the weight in the wrong way because the machine dictates where it goes.

Is it only for beginners?

No, it’s not just for beginners. It can be a valuable machine for anyone to use. If you’re training your shoulders you’ll need a range of exercises. Each of those exercises should have a purpose and can be thought of as a training tool. The secret of good training is to use the right tool at the right time. The shoulder press machine could be one of three or four delts exercises that you do in a session.

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What makes the shoulder press machine so good?

It’s really good for fatiguing your muscles safely. Because you’re in a fixed range of movement, there’s less chance of you injuring yourself. If you do a technically challenging exercise when you’re tired, it is easy to get something wrong. So you might use it as the final exercise in a shoulder session. That’s not the only way you can use it. It’s just an easy to understand and accessible one.

What are the disadvantages of the shoulder press?

The shoulder press machine isn’t great for developing your stabilising muscles. Any gym weight-lifting machine that locks you into a fixed path of movement won’t do much for your stability. It’s more focused on the superficial muscles. So if you want to build strong foundations to your shoulder strength, you’ll need to use other moves. Dumbbell, kettlebell and cable exercises are great for building shoulder stability.

What are the different types of shoulder press machine?

There are two main type. One is a plate loaded machine. This allows you to load weight plates onto the machine’s arms. The other is loaded with a weight stack. You put a pin in the hole of the weight you want to lift to select the load. The advantage of the latter is that it is very quick and easy to adjust the load. But both options will help you build shoulder size and strength.

How many sets and reps should I do?

How many sets and reps you do when using a shoulder press machine depends on your experience and training goals. Experienced exercisers will do more than beginners because they have a greater work capacity. It makes more sense for you to use higher reps than lower reps. There aren’t many cases where you’d do fewer than six reps, for example. Typically you might do 8-12 reps. But you could do 15, 20 or even 25 reps.

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How to do the perfect shoulder press machine rep

• Sit in the shoulder press machine according to the instructions.
• Position the seat height so that the handles of the machine are at shoulder height before you lift the weight.
• Press your feet into the floor and your head and shoulders into the back rest.
• Keeping your elbows directly below your wrists, press the weight up until your arms are straight.
• Lower the weight back to the start and repeat.

The most common shoulder press machine mistakes

Mistake #1: Elbows not below wrists
When you’re using a shoulder press machine you want your pushing action to be as strong and as effective as possible. You’ll achieve this when your elbow is directly below your wrists. When you’re in that position, everything is pushing directly upwards. If your elbows are behind your wrists then you’re pushing forwards as well as upwards, which is inefficient. Of course, you may not have the shoulder flexibility to do this. If that’s the case, you can lower your seat slightly to make it easier to get into the right position.

Mistake #2: Seat set at the wrong height
It’s difficult to get the movement wrong when using a shoulder press machine but it is easy to get the set-up wrong. One common error is setting the seat too high. When you do that, you’re forced to start in a position where your shoulders are slightly forwards rotated. This puts them in a weaker and more vulnerable position. The correct height will allow you to take the load off the rest and have your hands at just below chin height.

Mistake #3: Dropping the weight between reps
The only time the weight plates should return to the stack is between sets. During the set, you should maintain tension on the target muscles by keeping the weight off the stack.

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How to get stronger at the shoulder press machine

Go to failure to maximise muscle growth
On your final set of using the shoulder press machine, you can go to failure. This means doing as many reps as possible with perfect technique. So if, for example, your plan says do three sets of 10 reps, you go to failure on the third set. If you get to 10 reps and you can do more, keep going. This approach helps you to make sure you’re working to your maximum capacity.

Use drop sets to maximise muscle growth
This training tactic takes going to failure one step further. Once you reach failure on your final set, reduce the weight by about 20% and go again. Once you reach failure a second time, reduce the weight by 20% and go again.

This is an advanced protocol so it should only be used by intermediate or advanced lifters. It’s basically a way of squeezing extra reps out of your muscles. Two drops is a good option. More than that probably ends up involving ‘junk’ reps with a light weight. It is demanding so don’t use it every time you train. And only use it for one or two exercises per session.

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