4 Reasons Your Shoulder Workouts Need More Overhead Pressing

Jul 1, 2022 | Effective Shoulder Workouts, Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

If you frequent globo gyms, you’ve heard the question, “how much do you bench?” (if not directed at you, then at someone with a bigger chest than you). But is the bench press really worth all the hype, or do we just gravitate to it because that’s where we started as teenagers? What other upper body movements could be more useful? Dave Leek is a personal trainer and coach out of Ontario, Canada. He’s been in the fitness industry for almost 20 years and currently maintains a roster of remote clients while coaching CrossFit. As a dad, functional training and longevity are important to him. That includes having strong shoulders. In this piece, he takes us through some shoulder anatomy before outlining why the shoulder press is such a dominant upper body movement—it helps with functional fitness, strengthening the supporting muscles, improving your physique, and preventing injuries.

Dave Leek Headshot
Dave Leek

Why Are Big Chests Are Overrated?

In 1899, the ‘Russian Lion’ George Hackenschmidt performed the first ever recorded floor press. This moment gave way to the development of what we know today as the bench press, arguably the most popular exercise (or at least most discussed in locker rooms) in the world.

Not long after this, the famous question posed by gym-goers everywhere found its way into workout conversations across the globe—”How much do you bench?” 

The problem is this question doesn’t tell you much about the caliber of the lifter. It only offers one small piece of the pie and I’m here to suggest that it’s not even an important piece, probably more like the crust. A better question to determine overall strength would be “How much do you shoulder press?”

Before you write me off for disrespecting your favorite lift, let me explain. I’m not saying the bench press doesn’t have a place in a well-rounded training program. It’s a pretty essential compound lift. But pound-for-pound, the shoulder press should be given more love and prioritized in more routines.

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Anatomy Refresher

Labeled Anatomy Chart of Neck and Shoulder Muscles on White Back

Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint made up of a complex muscle group that allows for a wide variety of movements. Also called the glenohumeral joint, it has more range of motion than any other joint in your body in order to articulate your arms in as many directions as possible.

The primary shoulder mover is your deltoid, a thick, triangular muscle with a wide origin point that surrounds the joint on all sides and inserts into the humerus. The primary functions of the deltoid muscle are arm abduction (raising your arm to the side of your body), flexion (moving your arm forward in an overhead position), and extension (moving your arm backward, behind your body).

Your delts work in tandem with the other muscles, like your biceps, triceps, trapezius, and pectorals, to stabilize and move your arms.

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Why is the shoulder press such a dominant movement?

The shoulder press (or strict press) is the “weakest” compound lift for most athletes, meaning it’s the lowest number in weight they can move. Compared to your bench numbers, your overhead press capacity feels measly, so it’s a bit less celebrated. But this is misleading, since it’s incredibly difficult and impressive to move heavy weight overhead.

Shoulder pressing actually used to be included in powerlifting competitions as part of your meet total, but it became too difficult to judge and was removed around the 1970s. Strongman competitions still include variations of overhead pressing using logs, but the movements aren’t “strict”—a lifter can use their legs to drive the weight overhead.  

The strict shoulder press (also called the military press) could be considered the king of upper body movements for several reasons.

1. It has greater functional carryover into daily life

Functional carryover is an exercise’s ability to improve day-to-day living by providing more strength for casual tasks outside of the gym. These are things gym rats sometimes take for granted their ability to do easily: picking up their kids, carrying groceries, walking up stairs, etc. 

Good shoulder health is necessary for placing/removing items from high shelves, lifting your child up in the air, throwing a ball, hanging something on the wall, and so many other tasks. Without proper shoulder function, all of these movements can be painful or completely unavailable to someone. 

The shoulder press builds strength and maintains (or improves) overall range of motion, making regular daily living tasks doable, easy, and pain-free. For the general population, shoulder function might be one of the greatest assets we own as human beings. Without it, our daily activities are severely limited, which means a reduced quality of living.

2. It’ll improve the surrounding musculature

While the shoulder covers a lot of real estate on the upper body, it’s far from the largest muscle group. Your shoulders are dwarfed by your chest and back muscles, yet they contribute to the function of those surrounding muscles. Your shoulders play a huge role assisting your back and chest during different movements.

Basically all upper body exercises require using your arms. Most, if not all movements that require using your arms also necessitate using your shoulders. Without strong, mobile shoulders, a lot of upper body exercises suffer. If you’ve ever had shoulder surgery, you know how true this is. 

A lot of athletes can actually increase their bench press by improving their overhead press, but not necessarily the other way around.

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3. You’ll have a better overall aesthetic

Some of you might be saying, “What’s better than a big chest? Haven’t you seen Pumping Iron?” Sure, a large chest definitely turns some heads on the beach or in the weight room. But a big chest paired with underdeveloped lats, shoulders, or arms looks pretty ridiculous. Every 15-year-old kid starts their workout journey with push ups and bicep curls, so it’s no wonder we often see these big chests accompanied by rounded shoulders, excessively tight lats, and twig legs. 

“How much do you bench?” has led to some amateur physiques. But you’re not that guy.

A well-developed set of shoulders are a) less common and b) make any physique look huge by adding width to the frame of the torso and creating the visual of a more tapered waist. Big shoulders are also better at filling out t-shirts, sweaters, and dress clothes so you can show off your hard work year round.

A big chest is nice, but if I had to pick one or the other, I’d take large shoulders with an average chest over a large chest with average shoulders.

4. You can prevent shoulder injuries with a stronger press

We can’t overlook the preventative health benefits of strong shoulders developed by overhead pressing. Your shoulder joint is supported by your rotator cuff muscles, and while these muscles can (and should) be trained independently, the basic shoulder pressing movement works on them all at the same time.

The list of possible shoulder injuries is extensive, including things like frozen shoulder, shoulder impingement, shoulder dislocation, shoulder bursitis, and rotator cuff tears. There’s a high-cost, high-reward element to being the most complicated joint in the body. The surrounding musculature requires more care and attention to keep things working pain free.

There are about a million different exercises to train the shoulder and keep it functioning properly, but they all largely center around a strong and healthy overhead press.

 

The bench press is a phenomenal exercise for developing upper body strength and size, but I believe its glory days are done. The title of most popular upper body exercise should be retired from the bench press and passed on to the shoulder press.

It’s hands down the best upper body pressing exercise and I motion to make “How much do you press?” the new question to determine one’s athletic acumen.

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