The Supermove Series: Shoulder Press

Prime your body to reap the benefits of this barbell exercise.

We've deconstructed the squat, now it's onto an upper body supermove: The overhead press. A consequence of weight lifting's recent renaissance of sorts is that more exercisers are working these movements into their rotation. And with good reason; according to a study by the American Council on Exercise, it’s the best move for firing up the anterior deltoids (the muscles on the front of your shoulders.) 

But it's not without risk, and in the case of the overhead press, many exercisers are left with neck or back pain. The movement itself is not to blame, though. The likely culprit, for those who haven't suffered a shoulder or rotator cuff injury, is a strength imbalance caused by inflexibility. 

“When you don’t have the shoulder range of motion to raise your arms over your head, your body compensates by using your neck, scapula or low back,” says Justin Jacobs, Tier 4 manager at Equinox 92nd Street. And because those muscles aren’t the prime movers in the exercise, they tire out faster. “Everyone should naturally be able to get their arms over their head, so if you can’t you should work toward that position over time,” says Jacobs. His pain-free way to do it is this progression, which gradually becomes more challenging as your range of motion increases.

Start with the test
—can you keep your head, shoulder blades, and hands pressed against the wall as you raise your arms? If so, you’re all clear to do a standing barbell press (move 5). If you can’t, or you’re working your way back from an injury, incorporate move 1 into your regular warm-up every day; then gradually progress to moves 2, 3 and 4. Whichever version you do, aim to perform an overhead press two or three times a week.