Lifting weights above your head is one of the most powerful movements you can do, but this shoulder exercise isn't as simple as it looks. If you're struggling with your overhead press, you're definitely not alone.
Why is the overhead press so hard? Chances are, because you're missing some of the mobility you need to do this shoulder exercise right, explains Samuel Chan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
Read on to learn what to do if you have trouble with overhead presses.
1. You Lack Upper-Back Mobility
Although the overhead press is a shoulder-dominant exercise, it requires quite a bit of upper-back mobility, Chan says. If you're unable to extend your upper back upward, you won't be able to fully reach the press up.
Working on some back mobility exercises each day can help gradually improve your ability to extend your upper back as needed for an overhead press, according to Chan. Foam rolling can also help relieve tightness in the upper back.
Move 1: Cat-Cow
- Begin on all fours, knees in line with your hips, shoulders stacked over palms.
- Slowly arch your back, raising your chin up toward the ceiling, pausing for a moment.
- Then, round your upper back, drawing the navel into the spine, raising the back toward the ceiling.
- Alternate between these two motions.
Move 2: Supine Lumbar Rotation
- Begin lying on your back with arms out at your sides and knees bent, feet flat on the ground.
- Keeping your arms out, rotate your knees to the left side, placing your palm on top of your right knee to press it closer to the ground.
- Pause here for a moment, then switch sides, rotating to the right.
2. Your Shoulder Mobility Is Limited
Your shoulders connect your arms to you torso, enabling you to move your arms in all directions, according to the ACE. So your ability to lift a barbell or dumbbells over your head depends a lot on your shoulder mobility, Chan says.
If you lack shoulder mobility, it can be hard to do an overhead press without arching and dumping the exercise's weight into your lower back.
The mobility in your shoulders can be affected by a variety of factors, including instability, overuse (more on that below) and tightness or lack of flexibility in the upper body, including your chest, back and trapezius muscles, he says.
Improve your shoulder motion during an overhead press with gentle mobility exercises, Chan says. These stretches move your shoulders through, and expand, their available range of motion
Move 1: Child's Pose
- Sit back on your heels and stretch your arms forward, relaxing your forehead to the floor.
- Feel your lower back, hips and waist lengthening as you tap into your deep breathing.
- Stay in the pose for eight to 10 breaths.
Move 2: Lat Stretch
- From child's pose, walk your outstretched hands over to the right, feeling a stretch across the left side of your body.
- Pause her for a few breaths, then walk your hands back to the middle.
- Repeat this stretch on the right side.
3. You Can't Control Your Shoulder Blades
Another crucial part of a proper overhead press is your shoulder blades (scapula). When you lift anything up above your head, your shoulder blades need to rotate up, Chan says.
But your shoulder blades depend on a few muscles, including your upper and lower trapezius and the muscles around your upper ribs (aka serratus anterior). If these muscles are weak, they'll fail to rotate your scapula up, making your overhead press a struggle.
Increasing your scapular activation and strength will give you better control over these muscles. Chan recommends incorporating a half-kneeling landmine press or half-kneeling kettlebell press in your upper-body workouts.
The half-kneeling version of the shoulder press prevents you from using momentum to lift the weight, making them a little more effective in activating and strengthening the shoulders. If you don't have weights, you can perform equipment-free shoulder exercises like scapular push-ups.
Move 1: Half-Kneeling 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.
Move 2: Scapular Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and your wrists stacked underneath shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your arms straight, drop your ribs and chest toward the ground, pinching your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Draw your spine toward the ceiling while pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
4. You Need to Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff
Your rotator cuff, which are the muscles and tendons that keep your upper arm bone attached to the socket of the shoulder, enables the shoulder joint to move in its full range of motion, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
Weakness in your rotator cuff can also be a reason you're struggling with the overhead press exercise, according to Chan.
"Poor stability of the rotator cuff may increase the risk of shoulder impingement when you're doing an overhead press," Chan says. Shoulder impingement happens when the upper part of your shoulder joint pinches your rotator cuff.
Including some rotator cuff exercises and stretches into your shoulder routine is a surefire way to improve the stability of this joint. These moves strengthen the four muscles that make up your rotator cuff and improve your overall range of motion, helping the joint glide more smoothly.
Move 1: Wall Slide
- Stand facing a wall with the hand of your injured arm against it and a towel under your palm to decrease the friction.
- Raise your arm and push the towel up the wall with a moderate amount of force.
- Go as high as you can without causing pain or shrugging your shoulder and hold the position for five seconds.
- Slide your palm back down the wall without losing your pressure against the towel.
Move 2: Side-Lying External Rotation
- Lie on your side with your bottom arm supporting you and your top elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, with your upper arm along your side and your palm resting against your stomach.
- Move your shoulder blade down and back like you're trying to tuck it into your back pocket.
- Lift your palm up and away from your abdomen without allowing your elbow to leave the side of your body. Go as far as you can without pain.
- After holding this position for a second or two, slowly return to the initial position.
5. Your Shoulders Are Irritated From Overuse
If you're feeling pain when you press overhead, your shoulders may be dealing with an overuse injury. These injuries happen when you use improper exercise form or train too hard too quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Repetitive motion can also be a source of overuse-related pain, per the Mayo Clinic. Performing too many overhead press motions back to back, day after day without proper recovery can cause irritation in the upper-body muscles.
If you're trying new shoulder exercises, ease into the moves by gradually increasing your load week after week, the Mayo Clinic recommends. Prioritize your form instead of the amount of weight you're lifting or the number of reps you're doing.
Also, include plenty of cross-training activities and avoid working out the same muscle groups every day.
6. Your Core Is Weak
When combined with a weak upper back, poor core stability can lead to arching of the lower back when you lift weights overhead, Chan says. While some arching is OK, it can cause lower back pain over time if you go too far beyond the natural arch of your back.
Plus, arching your lower back allows your chest muscles to assist in your overhead press. This isn't a bad thing either, but it means you aren't targeting your shoulders as much as you'd like, which is the point of the exercise, Chan says.
As you press weights overhead, focus on contracting your core and tucking the pelvis to activate your abs, Chan says. He also suggests doing planks and plank variations into your ab workouts.
But make sure to choose a variation that's appropriate for your fitness level and modify as needed. "This exercise will challenge both your shoulder and core stability," he says.
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Improve Mobility in the Hips and Shoulders"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Shoulder Impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendinitis"
- Mayo Clinic: "Overuse Injury: How to Prevent Training Injuries"
- American Council on Exercise: "Exercises to Gain Thoracic Mobility"