Whether it’s from past injuries — or you just have poor mobility at the shoulder — this article takes you through two ways of adjusting your overhead presses to relieve stress and reduce the risk of potential injury and improve your shoulder mobility when pressing.
Written by Coach Austin Current
Time and time again we are plagued with injuries to our shoulders. Even if you are not hit with an injury to your shoulder specifically, you may have limited ability to take your arms through a large range of motion, especially overhead. The shoulder is a very complex joint with a large range of motion. The human skeleton is famous for sacrificing joint safety for more mobility — allowing us to move in all sorts of ways and do things like throwing a rock or baseball with pinpoint accuracy. So, the benefit doesn’t come without a cost.
The deltoid is the most notable muscle group that helps move this part of our body. The deltoid muscle divides into three distinct regions: the front (anterior), middle (medial), and rear (posterior).
The primary role of the deltoids in training is to aid in the raising or extending of the arms. The main action we see changes based on the direction that the arms are moving:
Front (Anterior) — Flexion, or raising the arm up in front of the body.
Middle (Medial) — Abduction, or raising the arm away from the body.
Rear (Posterior) — Extension, or rotating the arm behind the body.
The deltoids are a very involved muscle group with numerous functions to help us pick up and move weight in and out of the gym. Due to the repetitive usage of the shoulders (and deltoids) in our daily lives and in training, it’s important that we train this joint and accompanying muscle group using exercises that match our individual capabilities and limitations.
One of the most common ways of training the front and side of your shoulder is vertical pressing. Whether standing or seated, the shoulder press is an excellent way to place muscular tension on the deltoids and train the shoulder joint through a large range of motion.
Now, if you have ever performed an overhead pressing motion, you’ll know that sometimes it doesn’t feel all that great — especially when you aren’t set up correctly. Below, I will cover two methods for improving your shoulder press if you’re someone who experiences pain while performing this popular movement pattern.
Method 1: Adjust Your Arm Angle
We often think more is always better. I often get trolled by my lovely wife about my lack of mobility in my shoulders — especially external rotation (pictured below). When I try and rotate my arms back toward 90 degrees, I’m met with discomfort and can’t completely get into position. Does this mean I can’t overhead press effectively? Not at all. I simply need to adjust my arm angle to match my mobility limitations.
Adjusting your arms can free up mobility limitations and allow you to get more out of your overhead pressing. Note: this adjustment can start to shift the bias from the middle (medial) deltoid to the front (anterior) deltoid. This isn’t wrong, it’s just the appropriate adjustment to make in this training scenario. If I need to make up the lost volume on my middle deltoid, I can simply add a few sets of a dumbbell lateral raise. Boom — I was able to perform the overhead press without discomfort, and I was able to accommodate my goals by adding another exercise to my workout.
What happens when you don’t want to shift the focus from your middle delt onto more of your front delts during your overhead pressing? Keep calm, and read on.
Method 2: Adjust the Bench Angle
I was always taught that seated overhead presses should be done with a 90-degree bench. However, in actuality, more people would benefit from a bench angle closer to 60-75 degrees (pictured below), allowing for less need for external rotation at the shoulder.
This bench adjustment can not only save your shoulders from discomfort but also potential injury down the road. In my coaching experience, more people would benefit from making this simple adjustment in their setup: allowing for more range of motion, and less overall discomfort throughout the exercise.
Putting It All Together
Lifters often have trouble with mobility at the shoulder. This leads to a decision: Do I work around it, or do I skip the exercise altogether? In this article, I wanted to highlight your ability to individualize the arm path with overhead pressing variations — especially when using dumbbells using two simple methods. So remember, you can individualize your arm path to fit your mobility limitations. Or you can adjust the bench angle to accommodate your mobility limitations better — this will keep you in the gym and allow you to progress a tremendous shoulder exercise for years to come.
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Written by Coach Austin Current