There are two ways you see people training the shoulders in the gym. Two types of people, if you will.
One is the “strict press” group. Those who lock in their core and use their shoulder muscles to do the movement (you know, the way you’re supposed to). Then there’s the “I’m going to do whatever it takes to press this up” group. You know the ones. Are they supposed to be doing a military press or a push press?
That may just be one of the mysteries to the universe we’ll never know the answers to.
But here’s what I do know: both the strict press and the push press have their place in programming. No, not the push press style you see from gym bros who are just using too much weight, but deliberate push pressing.
First, let’s define some terms.
For our purposes, a strict press is any kind of overhead shoulder press where the movement takes place primarily at the shoulder and elbow joints, while limiting movement of other major joints. Notably, the hips, kness, and lower spine should be completely stable.
The strict press sounds intuitive, but overhead pressing has several unique challenges that cause many trainees to shift out of the stable posture necessary for strict presses. In particular, overhead pressing requires adequate shoulder range of motion. Because many of us sit all day long with our shoulders rolled forward, we lose that ability for the ball and socket of the shoulder to fully rotate upward.
When we go to press, then, we’ll have to artificially create shoulder movement, likely by arching the lower back. Not only will this not train the shoulders as effectively, but it can also lead to low back pain. If you’re doing a military press (a strict press with a barbell), this problem can be even more exacerbated because the bar path isn’t straight, the bar has to travel around the body.
Sure, there are postural considerations that prevent proper overhead pressing. But if you can’t overhead press without using god knows what to get the bar up, you’re probably using too much weight. So for strict presses, lower the weight.
This is probably the most bro sentence I’ve ever heard. Now, our bro is not totally wrong. To an extent, in order to build muscle, you need to place resistance on the muscle. But notice the last three words of the sentence: on the muscle. With a strict press, you may use less weight, but you’ll actually be using the deltoid muscles for the movement.
Resistance is just a tool, but it’s far from the whole story. Another modality to increase muscular tension is maintaining time under tension on the muscle. With a strict press, you’re going to move slower and increase the time under tension on your deltoids. In general, if your goal is hypertrophy, slow down and keep your presses strict.
The most common implements for overhead pressing are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, but as I mentioned, barbells can present a mobility challenge because you can’t put the bar through your head, Phineas Gage style (this is a gruesome joke but I stand behind it). You also can’t rotate your wrists, which can lead to other discomfort.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with barbells, but if mobility is an issue, use dumbbells or kettlebells. Kettlebells present an extra mobility benefit because the “bell” portion will sit outside of your forearm and place your shoulders in a position where they naturally externally rotate. Generally this is a better, safer position for your shoulders while pressing. But, you’ll likely be able to use a bit more weight with dumbbells, so there’s a tradeoff.
The main difference between a strict press and a push press is you do use momentum for the push press. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. In a push press, the lower body push is a significant part of the movement. So, while it still obviously works the shoulders, a push press is a full-body, explosive movement. And that is the biggest difference.
In a push press, you load up whatever weight you use into a quarter-squat position (with your weight on your heels, just like a squat) and then explode through. With the push press, extraneous knee and low back movement is still absolutely not acceptable.
In chess, paradoxically, it’s more effective when you start playing to begin by studying the endgame, or positions where there are few pieces on the board, rather than from the actual beginning of the game. In these positions of reduced complexity, the beginner player isn’t overwhelmed with remembering how the pieces move, and can focus on learning the innate power of each piece in simple (but not always easy) positions.
Generally speaking, in exercise the same principle applies. A push press is a more complex pressing variation than a strict press. It’s like a middlegame position. Before playing middlegames, you need to have an intuitive feel for the power of the pieces. In this analogy, the strict press is the simpler endgame.
However, the strict press isn’t just for beginners. After all, endgames can get complicated. And so can shoulders. (Okay, I’m done with my chess analogy. For more chess and fitness analogies, read about these 3 fitness lessons from the Queen’s Gambit.)
If you’ve had shoulder mobility issues in the past and you’ve never felt quite right doing overhead presses, master the shoulder position necessary for the strict press. Or, if you’re trying to dial in your shoulder recruitment, a single-arm strict press with your other hand on touching your deltoid for tactile stimulation benefits can help you improve the mind-muscle connection.
Even if you don’t ever press overhead and opt for a safer option like a landmine press, you should still start with a strict version of the landmine press before adding an explosive component to it.
(For the unacquainted, a landmine press is where you have one end of the barbell in a corner and you press the other end like an arc).
For athletes, push presses can develop power necessary for all kinds of movements. In particular, a push press will train upper body power and help train the top quarter of a squat. However, even if you’re not an athlete, there’s a lot of value in training for power regardless of your goals. The push press can be a much safer exercise for those who shouldn’t do Olympic lifts or crazy plyometrics.
Full-body exercises are, well, more metabolically expensive. You’re going to burn more calories doing a push press that requires you to explode out of a quarter squat than while doing a strict press. You’re just using more muscles. This principle is part of what makes Final Phase Fat Loss so effective.
Let’s say you start a set of strict overhead presses. After the eighth rep, you can’t press up strictly anymore. So, instead of doing god-knows-what to get a few more reps, settle into a quarter squat and do a few push presses. Here, you can help your shoulders reach failure by adding push presses at the end of your set.
Though the strict presses and push presses can both be great exercises in the right circumstances, overhead pressing requires proper shoulder, thoracic spine, rotator cuff, and core positioning. Not an easy task.
If you struggle with overhead pressing and want to gain the proper mobility to do, I can’t recommend enough Eric Cressey’s High Performance Handbook, which has custom mobility strategies integrated into the program. It’s also totally fine to just never overhead press again. You can develop meaty shoulders with exercises like landmine presses, front, lateral, and rear-delt raises, and great exercises like y-presses which require almost no weight.
Anyways. This is a pretty simple concept. But so many people screw it up and end up with horrible looking presses that ultimately lead to injuries. So, here’s a shoulder workout to not do that.
A) Rear-delt flyes – machine or dumbbell 4×15
Rest about 40 seconds in between sets. By activating your rear deltoids first, you can set your shoulders into a better position before the main presses.
B1) Seated dumbbell overhead press 4×6 – 4 second eccentric
For this strict press, control the weight the entire way. You can also do these standing to challenge your core.
B2) Dumbbell push press 4×6 – Stay with the same weight and go right into 6 more presses, this time loading up and doing a push press
Rest about 1 minute in between sets
C1) Y-Press 5×12
C2) Front dumbbell raises 5×12
Rest about 30 seconds in between exercises
For more on shoulder training check out this article.