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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.

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  • Test Press (Wall Angel)

    Test Press (Wall Angel)

    Stand with shoulder blades, butt, and heels against a wall, feet hip-width apart. Raise arms out to sides in a goalpost position, elbows slightly lower than shoulders, palms facing away from you. Extend arms overhead, keeping backs of hands against the wall. Bend elbows to return to starting position. 

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  • Supine Dowel Press

    Supine Dowel Press

    Hold a dowel (or lightweight BodyBar) with hands shoulder-width apart, and lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on floor. Bend elbows and hold dowel on chest with palms facing ceiling. Extend arms overhead, bringing dowel toward the floor. Bend elbows to return to the starting position. (When you can do this move through a full range of motion while keeping your back flat against the floor, you’re ready for the single-arm band press.)

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  • Single-Arm Band Press

    Single-Arm Band Press

    Anchor a resistance tube low behind you, and get on all fours, holding end of tube in right hand. Bring right hand to right shoulder, palm facing left and elbow at side of waist. Keeping back flat, extend right arm in front of you. Bend right elbow to return to starting position. Repeat on opposite side to complete set. (When you can do fully extend your arm while keeping your back flat, you’re ready for the bottoms up press.)
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  • Bottoms Up Press

    Bottoms Up Press

    Kneel with right knee on the floor and left foot on the floor in front of you. Hold the handle of a light kettlebell in right hand in front of right shoulder, pointing bottom of kettlebell toward ceiling, and extend left arm at your side. Extend right arm, raising kettlebell straight up toward ceiling; bend elbow to return to the starting position. Repeat on opposite side to complete set. (When you can do this exercise without rocking forward or back, try the kneeling barbell press.)

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  • Kneeling Barbell Press

    Kneeling Barbell Press

    Kneel on the floor with knees shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell with hands in front of shoulders, palms facing away from you, elbows pointing toward floor. Extend arms, pressing the barbell overhead. Bend elbows to return to the starting position. (If you can fully extend your arms over your head without splaying your ribs out, you’re ready for a standing barbell press.) 
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  • Standing Barbell Press

    Standing Barbell Press

    Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell with hands in front of shoulders, palms facing away from you, elbows pointing toward the floor. Extend arms, pressing the barbell overhead. Bend elbows to return to the starting position. 

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