Shoulder Exercise: The Overhead Press

What is it for?

This exercise primarily trains our deltoid muscles and to be even more precise it focuses on our anterior and medial deltoids (the deltoid muscle is the one that sits on top of your arm on your shoulder. Red in the diagram – .). The secondary muscles it works on are the triceps (back of the arms) and the upper trapezius muscle (the muscle that looks like it joins from your neck to your shoulders). This is not one of my favourite exercises, however there is no doubting its benefits to your strength and the effects this has on your day to day lives.

Our shoulders are notoriously weak and there will be a lot of you who will try this exercise for the first time and think to yourselves “this is easy” then suddenly it could be as few as 5 repetitions into the exercise and the ache will suddenly come in. It is not a nice feeling but it is just the muscle being completely exhausted by the exercise. Those of you who do train regularly and are familiar with this exercise back will probably look back with a “fondness” at the aches you used to endure.


There are strict rules to be followed in the overhead press and those of you who are regular readers will recognise the usual 90 degree rule (using 90 degrees at your joints in your exercising creates a strong and safe base for any exercise). For the overhead press you have a choice of equipment. They have the machines in gyms that are by far the safest way to do this exercise if the machine is set up correctly (check with a member of staff to help you set it up right). Barbell and dumbbells are another option, whilst not as safe as the machine they are, in my opinion, far better than the machine as they use small stabilising muscles in your shoulder which makes it more functional. For those of you who don’t have access to a gym or dumbbells then don’t worry. The shoulder muscles are very weak and so even a bag of sugar in each hand or a couple of cans/tins can be very effective (make sure the sugar is not open!).

For today’s example we are going to use dumbbells as the technique is the hardest of them all. The starting position is important. It is advisable that you get a training partner or gym instructor to hand the weights to you when you are in the position as you can damage your shoulders by trying to swing the weights in to position.

The starting position is to have your elbows at shoulder level and out to the side (creating 90 degrees at your shoulder). Now have your arms bent at 90 degrees at the elbow so that your hand is directly above your elbow. You should now look like you are making a “goal posts” shape. Now this is the point that you have the weights placed into your hands.

Now you are ready to start the exercise. You need to push the weights up and together so that they touch above and slightly in front of your head. This should be a slow and controlled movement and you should not stop and rest at the top. As soon as your arms are straight and above your head then start the downward movement to take you back to the start position. It is tempting to just drop back to the start position, but don’t. Instead make sure it is a nice slow controlled movement on the way down. As with a lot of exercises it is also tempting to hold your breath during the movement, don’t, make sure you breathe and it is best to breathe out on the way up and in on the way down. The diagram below should show you the positions you need to be in at the start and at the end.

Overhead Press Diagram

There are a few other points that you need to be aware of. Firstly you can carry out the exercise standing or sitting and with or without a back support. In my opinion and the opinion of many others is that it is always best to be sitting and with a back support. The back support should be just off vertical so you are leaning back by about 5 to 10 degrees. This prevents you from damaging your back and can help you concentrate on not arching your back during the movement.

Secondly always start with a light weight and build up slowly. You can cause a lot of damage to your shoulder if you pick a weight that is too heavy. You can also do a lot of damage to your head if you can’t hold it properly, so be careful.

Thirdly if you don’t have anyone to help you to get into the start position then it is important that you get to it as safely as possible. To get to the start position hold the dumbbells in each hand and complete a bicep curl so that the weights are now at shoulder level. Now push straight up in the air so that the weights are now above your head and your arms are straight. From this position you can now safely lower the weights into the start position. Reverse this technique to lower the weights. This way is best practise as you will minimise the chances of injuring yourself.

The Do’s

Breathe in a controlled manner
Choose a weight you know you can manage
Get assistance to get into the start position
The movement should slow and controlled
Keep within the 90 degree range
Have your back supported

The Don’ts

Don’t hold your breath
Don’t drop the weights down into position
Don’t complete the movement too fast
Don’t swing the weights into position
Don’t arch your lower back
Don’t do this exercise if your blood pressure is more than 140/90
In your Program

This is an important exercise to add to your routine but it should be placed in the right order. In your workout always train the larger muscles first and finish with the smaller muscles. There are exceptions to this rule but we will get into that another time. So the shoulder exercises come after legs, chest and back but before arms and stomach and any specialised supporting muscle exercises. In my opinion, if you are not body building, it is best to treat the shoulders in a more toning type of training. That means to complete repetitions of 15 or more and sets of 1 to 5. Of course you can combine it with other types of shoulder exercises and there are many different ways to add this into a program. However that is another topic, which we will cover in the future.

And a Warning…

Whilst this is a good exercise there are some contraindications that you should be aware of. The obvious one is that if you are suffering from a bad back or shoulders do not attempt this exercise. Secondly and maybe not so obviously if you have a high blood pressure (above 140/90) then do not even think about doing this exercise. This exercise is well known for putting a lot of pressure on the heart due to the movement being above heart level. That means that the heart has to work that much harder to get the blood to the muscles working. When the heart has to work against gravity it is put under a lot of extra pressure which can be a disaster waiting to happen. If you are unsure of your health then please check with your doctor. Remember it is always safer to be cautious when it comes to exercise and your health.

If you have any questions please email them in and I will answer them as soon as possible. Good luck with it and be safe.