4 Overhead Press Mistakes That Are Terrible for Your Shoulders

We've all seen someone at the gym pressing huge dumbbells overhead, arching their back dramatically in order to get that last rep. And while it's fine to push yourself in your workouts, your form should always come first. In particular, doing shoulder presses with improper form can injure your shoulders and back.

The shoulder press is an easy exercise to mess up. (Image: Chainarong Prasertthai/iStock/GettyImages)

Although it seems like a straightforward exercise, there are more than a few mistakes you might be making while performing this move. If you want to make the most out of your overhead press, try these tweaks before your next push day.

Proper Barbell Overhead Press Form

Before we dive into common mistakes, let's first establish proper form. As with the chest press, the shoulder press can be performed with dumbbells, too, but Cameron Yuen, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, has laid out the form for the standard barbell overhead press.

  1. Set up a barbell on the rack just under shoulder height and grip the bar slightly outside of shoulder width, with the bar resting close to your wrist in your palm.
  2. Bracing your abdominals and lifting your chest, unrack the bar, making sure it doesn't slide further into your palm toward your fingers.
  3. Keep your forearms vertical, elbows directly under wrists and lift the bar over your head, contracting your core and glutes to avoid hyperextending the lower back.
  4. On the inhale, lower the bar back down to chest height, keeping the forearms vertical and using the stretch reflex to get right back to the next rep. Avoid holding the bottom portion of the lift for too long, as it can be stressful on the shoulders.

Overhead Press Mistakes to Avoid

Now that you have the basics down, it's important to be aware of these four common form mistakes that, at best, make the exercise ineffective and, at worst, can put both your shoulders and back at risk for injury.

1. Ditching Your Warm-Up

Raise your hand if you spend most of your day at a desk. If you're having trouble lifting your arm overhead, you're probably in the majority. That's why warming up before you overhead press is crucial, Yuen says.

Sitting in a chair all day causes you to tilt your shoulders and shoulder blades forward, flexing forward at the thoracic spine. "When you overhead press, you do the complete opposite of these movements," says Yuen. "If you want to maximize your time spent pressing overhead, you will want to warm up into the movement."

Fix it: Spend some time warming up and stretching the shoulders and back before you perform this exercise. The thoracic extension, thoracic windmill and swimmer's hugs are great movements to prime the muscles and loosen up any tightness. "This will free up range of motion for smoother overhead pressing," says Yuen.

Move 1: Thoracic Extension on a Foam Roller

  1. Lying on your back with your feet flat and knees bent, place a foam roller under your shoulder blades.
  2. Support your neck with your hands and extend your upper back around the roller.
  3. Exhale as you extend backward and relax into the stretch.
  4. Come back to the starting position and continue rolling for 10 to 15 reps.

Move 2: Swimmer's Hugs

  1. Stand up tall with your arms out to the sides and parallel to the floor.
  2. Wrap them around your body, as if you were hugging yourself.
  3. Open them back up as far as they can go without you jerking them back behind you.
  4. Repeat, crossing the opposite arm on top in the hug.
  5. Continue for 30 seconds.

Move 3: Thoracic Windmills

  1. Lie on your right side with your knees and hips bent at 90 degrees, with your arms straight in front of you at shoulder height.
  2. Circle your right arm overhead and behind your body, tracing the ground with your right hand.
  3. Repeat 10 to 15 times per side and switch sides.

2. Hyperextending Your Wrists

When you unrack the barbell, it may feel natural to hold the bar closer to your fingers, rather than on your palm/over your wrist. But this position actually hyperextends and compresses your wrist joints, putting you at risk for injury and hindering your ability to press correctly, says Yuen.

Fix it: Keep the bar closer to the base of your palm, not your fingers. This will prevent your wrist from collapsing, helping you keep a more neutral wrist position. This will also help you generate more force, as the bar is more closely aligned with your forearm.

3. Incorrectly Positioning Your Elbows

This is probably the most surprising mistake you may be making. You may be in the habit of front racking the barbell, holding it high on your chest/shoulders, with your upper arm parallel to the ground. But unlike a front squat, you actually don't want your elbows sticking out.

"The shoulder blade sits on your rib cage at an angle of about 30 degrees from your sides," says Yuen. "If you press with your elbows facing straight ahead or directly out to the side, you are actually pressing outside of maximal stability for the shoulder joint."

Fix it: If you want to keep your shoulders healthy and strong, keep your elbows pointing out at about 30 degrees from your side. This will help you maintain stability in your shoulder, keeping you safe from injury and giving you maximal shoulder press results.

4. Arching Your Lower Back

Especially if you don't overhead press too often, you may tend to lean back and hyperextend your lower back. If your shoulders are weak, the chest muscles take over to overcome the difficulty of the lift, causing your back to arch. Or, if you have a poor overhead range of motion, the back takes over more of the load, too.

Fix it: Before you press overhead, brace your abdominal muscles to keep your back from hyperextending. However, if you still feel a twinge in the low back, you may need to work on your range of motion or lower the weight you're pressing.

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