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Pain Free Overhead Pressing

Jun 09, 2021

 Dr. Dale Bartek PT, DPT


The overhead press is one of the popular exercises in the world of strength training.

When executed properly, the press can have a massive benefit.

However, the overhead press proves to be a huge challenge to train hard and heavy while keeping the shoulders and lower back healthy in the process.

This is largely due to the fact that many people don’t possess the full 180° shoulder flexion mobility needed to press directly overhead.



...and as a result they compensate and put stress on other areas of the body such as the low back.


*** Notice the demonstration of excessive lumbar arching when moving both arms into full overhead flexion.


Why does this happen?

  • Inadequate capsular shoulder mobility
  • Poor scapular mechanics (upward rotation)
  • Upper thoracic mobility deficits (Extension)
  • Tight hypertonic lats, teres major, pec minor

...did i miss any?


With the absence of needed shoulder mobility the body will always take the path of least resistance. In this case... the lumbar spine, an area of the body that is a little more statically unstable, goes into excessive extension to accommodate.


Ouch. Shoulder pain with a side of back pain. 


It’s a common misconception that pressing can only be performed at 90 degree angles (push-up and bench press) or 180 degrees (straight over head).

Some of your best press training will happen at various angles between 90° and 180°.

I'll save some for later... here we are strictly talking about overhead pressing so I want to share a few alternatives for traditional overhead pressing if your shoulder mobility isn't quite where it needs to be yet.


High Incline Bench Set Up:

This set up allows you to train towards the "overhead" end of the press spectrum without the unwanted pressure and compensations that happen directly overhead.

*** notice feet and knees slightly elevated to help position the lumbar spine in neutral.



Cable Press:

What I love about cables if you can set up just about angle you can possibly think of. Explore various angles and resistances and you reap all the benefits of intelligent pressing.



The Landmine Press (half kneeling, tall kneeling, or standing)

The king of shoulder friendly presses. There’s no special equipment necessary. All you need is a barbell and a corner. The natural arc of the bar sets you up for optimal shoulder and scapular patterning.



And as always, don't strengthen a dysfunction.

If you don't have full overhead flexion, use these variations instead of traditional over pressing and start working on your shoulder mobility!

If you don't know anything about your shoulder mobility... don't guess!