Shoulder press exercises are a gym must for many but should everyone be doing them?
Barbell and dumbbell shoulder press exercises are a great way to build shoulder size and strength however, many people lack the proper overhead mobility to safely do the exercises.
Without that mobility, a lot of people compensate by over arching the mid / lower back to get the weight up which can lead to low back issues.
There are various tests and assessments you can do, a quick an easy one I like to use is shown in this photo:
Overhead Shoulder Flexion:
1 - Stand with your back to the wall, arms by your sides, thumbs facing forward
2 - Flatten your lower back into the wall
3 - Keeping arms parallel and palms facing, raise your arms forward and up in a big arc motion
4 - See how close you can get your thumbs to the wall WITHOUT letting your low back move away from the wall and keeping elbows forward facing
Arms won't go higher than about 135 degrees without any compensation (about halfway between arms being parallel to the floor and touching the wall) - I wouldn't recommend any overhead work at the moment. If the issue is muscular then a combination of mobility work, soft tissue work and foam roller may be best option, and lots of it.
Arms are between 135 degrees and a few inches from the wall without any compensation - Exercises such as landmine shoulder presses are a possible option. If close to the wall but have to compensate to touch, I would limit two hand overhead exercises. Maybe some 1 arm shoulder presses whilst working on mobility, sort tissue and foam rolling. Ensure perfect form is important here to to avoid low back compensation.
Arms can easily touch the wall with no tightness, elbows flairing or low back compensation - You should be fine with pretty much any overhead work. Main thing is to focus on form and keep doing what you're doing.
It is important to note that:
1) If there is any joint type pain with doing the test, it's best to get that looked at by a doctor or physio and get that pain addressed first
2) If the issue is structural i.e. how your joints limit the exercise, no amount of mobility, stretching and soft tissue work will resolve it, it will only allow you to work towards getting the maximum range of motion from the shoulder joint but overhead pressing may be best avoided.
3) If you can get your arms overhead but they flair out to the side, then using a wider grip when pressing should feel better on your shoulders than using a narrow grip.
Exercises to Try
I wanted to give you two exercises to try that allow you to work overhead but in a way that can be more friendly than a standard shoulder press.
Based on your shoulder test, if you could get your arm to approximately 135 degrees but not to the wall then try a landmine shoulder press.
If you could get your arms to the wall but they were out to the side making you look like a human "Y", then try the shoulder Y press. You would also likely be fine doing wide grip overhead exercises as well.
Landmine Shoulder Press
• Stand tall with feet hip to shoulder width apart and brace abdominal muscles tightly.
• Stand facing landmine. Hold barbell in one hand, raised to shoulder level with palm facing towards body. Elbow should be approximately 45 degrees to body, wrist 90 degrees to bar.
• Throughout movement, keep palm facing inwards.
• Breathe out and press barbell upwards until arm is extended.
• Important: Do not lean back when completing this exercise.
• Breathe in and lower barbell towards shoulder until at ear level and repeat.
Shoulder Y Press
• Stand tall with feet hip width apart and abdominals braced tightly.
• Hold a dumbbell in each hand, raised to shoulder level with palms facing forward. Elbows should point out to sides.
• Throughout movement, keep palms facing forward.
• Breathe out and press dumbbells up and out approximately 45 degrees overhead.
• Important: Do not lean back during movement.
• At top of movement, should be making a "Y" Shape.
• With control, lower dumbbell back to ear height.
Improving shoulder mobility
There are many strategies or drills that can be used to improve shoulder mobility (so long as the issue isn't structural). The first one to cover is thoracic spine / upper back tightness.
The thoracic spine is pretty much between the shoulder blades and due to factors such as office work, and spending more time on computers leading to poor posture, the thoracic spine gets tight and jammed up.
With the human body, generally where one joint or area suffers, the joint or area directly above and / or below is impacted and suffers too. In this case the shoulders suffer when the upper back gets jacked up.
Two of the exercises I like to use are the cat/ camel and the side lying cross-over or side lying thoracic rotation as in the photo.
They can easily be done as part of a warm up in the gym or at home.
1. Cat / Camel
• Start on hands and knees. Knees underneath hips. Hands underneath shoulders.
• Arms should remain straight throughout entire exercise.
• Simultaneously roll head down towards chest whilst rounding back up towards the ceiling until a stretch is felt. Hips and shoulders should not move.
• Return to start position with straight back.
• Raise head up and at same time arch back down towards floor. Hips and shoulders should not move.
• Repeat this in a nice smooth manner for 8 - 12 repetitions
2. Side Lying Cross-Over
• Lay on side with both legs straight. Place a medball at hip height and bring top knee up to rest on it throughout exercise. Knee should be bent 90 degrees.
• Extend both arms fully, directly in front of body.
• Keeping top arm straight, raise it up towards ceiling in as big an arc motion as possible, continue motion and rotate arm behind body. As arm rotates, rotate upper body and aim to have top shoulder touch floor behind.
• Eyes should follow rotating hand.
• Reverse motion to return arm to start position.
• Aim to do 8 - 12 each side
• If you can't touch the floor to begin with, don't worry, just try to go a bit further every time you try the exercise
Stretches for Shoulder Mobility
The lat muscles (latissimus dorsi) are the two big back muscles that are on each side of the middle of the back. They start from the low back and hips and run all the way up to the arms.
If these muscles are tight then you will likely feel them stretch or cramp when you try the shoulder test and try to keep your elbows facing forward.
I have found that people with poor overhead mobility really benefit from these stretches.
The first stretch you can do is the Standing Lat Stretch:
• Hold onto a door post or solid frame and stand at arm's length or slightly further away
• Keep shins vertical whilst pushing the hips back and bending at the waist
• You should feel a stretch going down the side of your arm pits and likely down the side of your back
• If you want to add more of a stretch, push the same side hip away from the structure even more. i.e. if you're holding on with your left hand, push your left hip as far back as it'll go.
The second stretch is a bit more advanced as it is more aggressive, the Bar Hang or Hanging Lat Stretch:
• Stand underneath a bar and raise arms overhead.
• Hold onto bar with arms straight and bring feet up off the ground
• Grip width can start at outside shoulders and gradually move hands in.
• Take a deep breath in and breathe out hard as you relax into the stretch as much as possible.
• Hold for time.
That's it on improving your shoulder mobility. Give the test an honest try and see how you do. If you have tightness or poor mobility then try the mobility work and stretches and try the test again to see if there's any improvements.
This is my, mostly, Personal Trainer musings and information which I hope you'll find helpful!