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3 Reasons Why You Need to Lift the Barbell Over Your Head

Bad information and poor technique hurt this essential movement's reputation.

by
Mark Rippetoe

Bio

March 24, 2014 - 11:30 am

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Pressing a barbell overhead is one of the oldest exercises in the gym. It might well have been the first exercise invented after the first barbell was discovered. Since it is performed while standing with the bar in the hands — after the bar is cleaned from the ground to the shoulders, or taken from the rack at shoulder height — the entire body is involved in the exercise. From the floor to the hands, the job of pressing the bar overhead is shared by all the muscles in the body.

But for some bizarre reason, the press has acquired the entirely undeserved reputation as a dangerous exercise for the shoulders.

Due to a poor understanding of the mechanics of the movement, doctors and physical therapists commonly advise against performing this perfectly natural and perfectly safe exercise. The alleged problem is an injury known as “shoulder impingement,” and nothing could be further from the truth. The correctly performed press (incorrectly-performed exercises do not count) is not only perfectly safe for the shoulders — more importantly, the press is the best exercise for keeping shoulders strong and injury-free. Here’s why.

Starting Strength Seminar

1. Performed properly you cannot impinge the shoulder tendons with an overhead press.

Impingement means the entrapment or “pinching” of the soft tissue between the bones in the area of a joint. Shoulder impingement occurs when the rotator cuff tendons get squeezed between the bones that comprise the shoulder joint — the head of the humerus, the distal end of the collarbone, and the distal end of the scapula. The AC joint, formed by the bony knobs at the end of the shoulder blade (the Acromion process and the coracoid process) and the end of the collarbone (the Clavicle), lies on top of the joint itself, which is formed by the head of the humerus and the shallow cup of the glenoid on the scapula. The entrapment occurs when the tendons get pinched between the head of the humerus and the AC joint.

Let’s investigate this “impingement” scenario for ourselves.

Stand up straight and raise your arms to a position parallel to the floor, like the letter “T” with your palms facing the floor. Now, bend your elbows to 90 degrees, and raise them a little more, just a little above your shoulders. You will feel some pressure and discomfort in your shoulders, and this is impingement — your cuff tendons are being squeezed between the AC and the head of the humerus.

Now, rotate your hands up so your palms face forward, elbows still at 90 degrees, like you’re surrendering, and raise your hands up over your head. Then shrug your shoulders toward the ceiling as high as they’ll go. Notice the absence of the pinching sensation. This is the correct lockout position of the overhead press, and during this motion your shoulders did not feel the same impingement pressure they did in the previous position.

Amazing, but why?

The shrugging of the shoulders at the top rotates the scapulas up and in, towards the middle, pulling the knobby parts of the AC away from the head of the humerus, so that there is more space between them.

It is therefore anatomically impossible to impinge the cuff tendons in a correctly performed overhead press.

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2. More muscles working in coordination with the feet on the ground is much better for practical strength production.

The press is traditionally and correctly performed in a standing position, with the barbell in the hands and the feet on the floor (the seated press is a different exercise entirely). Remember from the deadlift article that the “kinetic chain” is all the musculoskeletal components between the load on the bar and the base of support — the ground. As with the deadlift, the kinetic chain of the press is the entire body. Everything between the bar in the hands and the feet balancing against the floor participates in the exercise. Legs, abs, back and neck muscles, and the obvious shoulder and arm muscles all work together in the press.

Sixty years ago, the press was the primary weight room exercise for the upper body. It’s a damned shame the bench press so thoroughly replaced it.

Back in “the day,” as the kids say, shoulder injuries were rare enough that most lifters didn’t know what the rotator cuff was. The press made the shoulders strong — the whole shoulder, front to back, not just the front of the shoulder and the pecs (the “chesticles”) like the bench press does. The bench press allows the use of heavier weights because it’s a shorter movement, but its kinetic chain leaves out the parts of the body that balance you while you move the bar.

For athletics and physically active people in any application, more muscle mass working in coordination with the feet on the ground is much better for practical strength production than isolation exercises, because this is the way your muscles operate in sports and in life. There are no sports that use only two or three muscles or one leg or one arm at a time, so the use of isolation exercises with light weights makes very little sense, especially for someone who is not already strong enough to press a significant fraction of their bodyweight overhead.

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3. Your whole body benefits.

Physical therapists are taught a lot of muscular anatomy in school. They know the origins and insertions of the muscles — the points on the bones where the tendons of the muscles attach — and consequently they know how each individual muscle functions by itself. They like to rehab injured muscles by isolating their function and working them with very light weights. The isolated function of the muscles that lie on the back of the shoulder blade is “external rotation” of the upper arm. This motion occurs when you lay your arms down against your ribs, bend your elbows and rotate your forearms out so that your palms face forward. Your humerus rotates “externally” along its axis when you do this, and the rotator cuff muscles make this happen in isolation.

The question is: what is the normal daily role of a “rotator cuff” muscle, and does it perform this function all by itself? Does it make your shoulder externally rotate, and that’s all? Or does it primarily function as one of several muscle groups that stabilize the head of the humerus in the glenoid, while also externally rotating the arm when you’re in a physical therapy office, lying on your side with a two-pound chrome dumbbell in your hand? The rotator cuff muscles are just another muscle group that helps hold the shoulder together, and they are best trained — and rehabbed — while performing this function.

The press is precisely the movement that uses all the shoulder muscles in this manner. Since they are functioning simultaneously with the other muscles that press the bar overhead, they are both strengthened with and protected by the rest of the muscles that operate the shoulder girdle. This is their normal function — synergy, not isolation, and the best way to make them strong and healthy.

So, if you start pressing with a light weight and grow stronger by adding a little weight each time you train, all the muscles you use in the press get stronger. From your hands to your feet, your whole body benefits from this perfectly safe and very important exercise. Once you’re able to handle heavy weights correctly overhead, you’ll know that strong shoulders are healthy shoulders, and the best way to make them strong is by pressing the barbell overhead.

Mark Rippetoe is the author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, Practical Programming for Strength Training, Strong Enough?, Mean Ol' Mr. Gravity, and numerous journal, magazine and internet articles. Rip was a competitive powerlifter for ten years, has coached many lifters and athletes, and has given seminars to thousands around the country.

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All Comments   (31)
All Comments   (31)
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I've read Starting Strength, and want to follow the program. I've been getting great "exercise" three days a week in a circuit training type gym. I actually feel like it has helped me get in good shape, but I think I've hit the point of diminishing returns, and need to pursue actual strength training. The difficulty for me is 1) finding a reasonably priced gym with the right equipment, and 2) finding a workout partner similarly interested. Neither are so easy, as it turns out. And I don't have room at home for a squat rack, etc. But, I'll figure it out at some point.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you depend on a workout partner for your training, you are placing your outcome in the hands of another person, and you know how that works out. You don't need a partner to train.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, I'm glad to hear you say that. I was assuming for safety reasons I should have a spotter for some of the lifts (bench press?). Thinking about it, maybe I can just get in there myself, start at the weights I can start with and get going. I very much appreciate your candor. As a 50 year-old, times-a-wasting...
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Is this movement advisable for people worried about back issues? I have a narrow spinal column, and have trouble whenever a disc bulges, as has happened in my neck. I would not want to invite trouble by causing extra pressure in my lower back, but I'm not sure if this is a concern or not.

Basically, is this movement tough on the spine?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
This movement, like all the basic barbell exercises, places stress on everything. That's how it works. Start light, go up from there, and the whole system -- including your back -- gets stronger. The specifics are in the book and on my board at startingstrength.com
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Mark. Much appreciated.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, is there any fundamental training difference in weightlifting to grow strong and lifting for huge muscles?

I've never really known any of the big body builder types, but I have known several men with slim, lean builds able to lift frightening amounts of weight. I've always wanted to ask someone who knows what he's talking about what the differences are (if any). Thank you.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
The differences in training for size and strength are negligible at first. It's only after a couple of years of training that specialization is necessary. When you first start training, the same stress makes you both stronger and bigger. Later, the training emphasis changes for the two different adaptations.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, I have never been able to do pullups, beyond 1 1/2 at one point many decades ago. I have long had a goal of 15 pullups, but nothing I've done seems to move me any closer to even bending my elbows while hanging.

Will this exercise help with finally being able to lift my own bodyweight, or should I look to some other barbell exercise as well? Currently, I can get a 90 lbs lat pulldown machine bar to my chest.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions at PJMedia.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your problem is that you're just not very strong. So anything that makes you stronger will help with your chinups. Presses and deadlifts will both help. As for specific exercises for the chin, see my website Q&A.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
The press has helped me more than any other lift. For several years, I had a shoulder problem of non-specific origin that affected pretty much all of my daily activities, with a numbness/tingling down the back of my arm in into my hand, along with discomfort when performing certain movements, although I had no problem when it came to 'lifting weights'. After visits to two different shoulder surgeons, x-rays, an MRI (with contrast), a nerve study, cortisone shots that did nothing, three runs through physical therapy and learning every isolation/band exercise you can probably think of, it was was still a problem, and had gotten only marginally better.

So, when I got to the introduction portion of the press chapter in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, to call it a revelation would be an understatement. As the amount of weight I press has continued to go up, the problem has continued to disappear to the point that I rarely think of it any more. Hopefully this article will have the same effect on people with similar issues, and they'll consider putting away their green Therabands and three pound dumbbells that haven't been helping, and start pushing something progressively heavier overhead.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Any problem with doing these in a seated position?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
According to what I know, yes there's a big problem. A seated press robs you of the benefits of the full kinetic chain engagement. A seated press is to the press as the leg press is to the squat.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am currently "rehabbing" an impingment situation in exactly the way you describe, plus some similar exercises. I'm seeing some improvement, but Mark, are you suggesting that another way of rehabbing would be to do some light barbell presses? Or are you saying that once rehabbed I can build strength by barbell presses? I have your Starting Strength book, by the way.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
I get the core strength advantages of training with the bar and the multiple joint movements, but have used shoulder press dumbells for years to keep my beat up shoulders (wrestling, rucking, swimming, rugby) healthy and pain free and flexible, and they seem to stablize my goofy shoulder joints. Any downsides to dumbell presses, other than not getting the full core strength workout (or the fact that it takes extra effort to keep good form)?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have this same question, since I switched to training one-armed dumb-bell presses when I was training in a boxing gym, under the advice of a coach. That was a year or two ago. It was his idea that the cross-body loading of the one-armed dumbbell press trained the force generation action of punching better than the bar-bell press. I have no idea if this is hoakum or not, but my shoulders have gotten stronger.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's not surprising that if you hadn't been training your shoulders and then started training your shoulders, they would get stronger. This is a common misconception among sports coaches, and many strength coaches, that the method of strength acquisition must mirror the use of the strength after it is acquired. Strength is a general adaptation, so the question is actually: what is the best way to get strong? Standing barbell presses are the best way to get strong. then, you're stronger. You keep boxing while you get stronger with the barbell press, and you hit harder as a result. Using a method of training for strength that is not nearly as effective at getting you strong is obviously an inferior way to get stronger.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
When I perform the demonstration test you describe, there is certainly less resistance to raising my arms when the hands are up (palm forward). But I still feel a degree of tightness, and pain in the shoulder joint as long as my upper arms are parallel to the floor. That only seems to go away when I extend my arms to the ceiling (and shrug).

This caught my attention because I often see people in the gym doing dumbbell overhead presses in this manner: keep the arms wide, bring the dumbbells down to around even with the head, and then press back up. (It sort of reminds me of people doing a behind the neck overhead press, except that since there is no bar, you don't have to crane your neck forward.)

When ever I've tried to do the dumbbell overhead press in this manner, it feels like I am tearing up my shoulder when I get to the bottom position. I find I can only do this sort of exercise if I start with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and elbows forward. Once my arms have extended half way or so, I can rotate my palms forward, allow the elbows to flare out a bit, and complete the extension. (More like an Arnold press, except starting in an neutral position.)

What I've noticed about your prescribed barbell press is that you do start out with a medium grip that leaves the elbows tucked in and pointed more forward than out. I'm wondering if keeping the elbows tucked in and forward (not flared out to the side) is an essential part of avoiding impingement?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
The correct grip and proper form with a Barbell, not dumbbells, as described in my book, eliminate all of these problems with the movement.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Coach Rip: question for you.

I returned from Afghanistan with a compressed superscapular nerve and torn supra and infraspinatus (left shoulder). I've had two surgeries to correct both issues and remove scar tissue (second surgery five days ago).

I have a copy of Starting Strength and used your program in my strength training before.

I've been attending physical therapy, but I haven't regained the mobility or strength to press a barbell. Would you recommend continuing to work on mobility before returning to strength training? Or is there value in strength training before I return to full mobility?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd recommend that you start pressing a light weight to work the range of motion. I have rehabbed several shoulder injuries with the press and chinups. Nothing works as well.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks, coach. I'll jump right on it.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
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