If we're being honest, the shoulders are the glutes of the upper body. But if you want capped delts and some poppin' guns, you need to prioritize the safest and most advantageous exercises. Spoiler alert: Barbell shoulder presses aren't on that list.
To maximize your shoulder growth, skip the barbell press and focus your attention on the single-arm half-kneeling kettlebell or landmine press. This move is not only safer but will help you activate and target other parts of your body, too.
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The Risks of Barbell Shoulder Presses
Barbell shoulder presses are probably one of the first exercises that come to mind when you're training shoulders, but they're often not the safest option, says Sam Becourtney, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
It's a common go-to upper-body movement, but it demands a lot of stability and mobility. And if you don't have that, it can be easy to strain your lower back, Becourtney says. Since the goal is to press the weight directly overhead, many people overarch their lower back, which can lead to pain and may strain your muscles, especially if they're lifting heavy.
The barbell shoulder press also puts your shoulders in a risky position, Becourtney says. When you press directly overhead, your muscles and tendons are compressed and lack the space they need to glide into proper position. Unable to move properly, your shoulders can easily get injured in this position.
Even the grip you use on the barbell can make the move more risky. "With the overhead barbell press in particular, you are forced to be in a pronated (shoulders internally rotated, forearms facing down) position, which puts the shoulder joint in a potentially compromised position."
The More Effective (and Safer) Shoulder Exercise
If you want to keep your shoulders and back safe, Becourtney recommends swapping out the barbell press for the half-kneeling single-arm landmine or kettlebell press (depending on the equipment you have available).
Unlike the barbell press, this exercise allows you to more easily engage your glutes, core and lats, helping you stabilize the weight and providing a safer position. "Also, with these variations, you do not have to press strictly overhead in a vertical fashion," Becourtney says. "Instead, you press more at a 150 to 160 degree angle, which is less taxing on the shoulder joint."
Single-arm movements also help you target upper-body muscle imbalances, Becourtney says. Usually, you're able to feel which side is weaker, and if you perform them in front of a mirror, you can see which side is stronger. With a barbell press, on the other hand, you may be relying on your dominant side without even realizing it.
Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Kettlebell Press
- Begin in a half-kneeling position with your left leg in front of you, bent at 90 degrees, foot planted on the ground. Kneel on your right knee.
- Hold the kettlebell at shoulder height in your right hand in a front rack position, letting the bell rest on your elbow.
- On an exhale, press the kettlebell over your shoulder.
- Pause for a moment, then bring the weight back to shoulder height in the racked position.
Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Landmine Press
- Begin in a half-kneeling with your left leg in front of your body, bent at 90 degrees, foot planted on the ground. Kneel on your right knee.
- Hold the barbell (attached to a landmine) in your right hand at shoulder height.
- On an exhale, press the barbell up and away from your body.
- Pause and then bring the weight back to shoulder height.