Question: In the gym I never see anyone overhead pressing anymore. Is this an exercise I should be avoiding? I mean I obviously want to have bigger stronger shoulders, but I don’t want to get them hurt.
Answer: It depends (to steal Tony Gentilcore’s favorite phrase). Same response as if you asked about deadlifts, or squats, or bench press or Romanian unilateral overhead concentric elbow extension triples.
Any overhead pressing motion needs to be looked at on an individual basis. Does it have the potential to be a great addition to an exercise program? It absolutely does; if it is performed correctly by the right individual. Any overhead pressing requires a tremendous amount of core stability as well as shoulder strength. But how do you know if you should being doing these exercises?
Before we go any further it’s important to look at if you are an athlete or not. Any throwing athlete such as a baseball player, especially pitchers, or quarterback in football shouldn’t be overhead pressing. The physiological adaptations caused by a lifetime of throwing such as limited glenohumeral internal rotation or ‘beaking’ of the acromion process (a change in bone shape) can make overhead pressing a risky choice with limited return on that risk.
(A side note: this is how we should look at any exercise selection. Does the risk of performing the exercise for THAT individual outweigh the reward of successfully completing the exercise or progressing with it over time? If the risk outweighs the reward for any individual, do NOT do it.)
But let’s just say you’re not a professional (or aspiring professional) baseball player or quarterback. You’re just a regular folk trying to get an awesome body. Should you be overhead pressing?
It STILL depends.
Now we need to look at a few factors that could contribute to an increased risk while performing this exercise. The first thing we are going to look at is core stability, particularly core stability involving anti-extension. Over extension of the lumbar spine is a HUGE postural problem I am noticing more and more lately. This is best described as arching your back while standing and females do it just as bad as males! An overhead press requires us to be upright so we need to control our lumbar spine before we add weight to this equation and dramatically increasing the pressure on our lumbar spine (in whatever position it happens to be). Add weight to an already bad position and you are asking for trouble.
A good test to see if you possess the lumbar stability to do an overhead press is a simple wall slide. Stand with your back against a wall and your entire low back touching the wall. You shouldn’t be able to reach between the gap between the wall and your lower back. If you can’t get into this position, don’t even think about pressing anything over your head! And we haven’t even started the exercise yet! Now, keeping your back position stable, reach back to put your arms back on the wall. Keep your elbows and shoulders at 90 degree angles and slide your elbows, forearms, wrists and fingers up the wall. Yes, that’s everything that can possibly touch the wall. We need to have everything touching in order to clear you for overhead pressing. If you can’t get everything back on the wall, or you can but lose your back position, that means you are not stable enough to press anything over your head, it’s that simple. If you can’t even get your arms back to the wall we are looking at a thoracic restriction (upper back). This also means we shouldn’t be overhead pressing. If our upper back is too tight, we are not going to be able to get our scapula (shoulder blades) into a stable position to press from.
So there is a quick and easy way to see if overhead pressing is for you. If you are able, it is certainly an important movement to get stronger at. If you are not able, the risk of a shoulder injury does not outweigh the reward of completing the exercise.