There Is More Than Just the Shoulder Press

I usually use. I like routine, as do most people, which is why telling someone to not do their favourite exercise even though it’s causing them pain is like trying to pull meat away from a hungry dog.

It’s pretty common to see people do overhead presses at the gym, it’s all over Instagram and Facebook, every fitness guru is recommending them. The only issue with this, is that most of these people have never seen you move and don’t have any idea what exercise is better fitted for YOU.


Since the majority of people nowadays work in office jobs or jobs where they don’t do a whole lot of moving in general, they tend to feel pretty sucky at the end of it. Sitting all day takes it’s toll on all of us, I can’t sit for more than 2 hours without my back and shoulders aching. Many people do this all day, about 260-300 days a year for 7-12 hours a day. Ouch. This position can leave us with slumped shoulders, a tight chest and a sore back on a pretty regular basis, or at least the inability to open up through the Thoracic spine (mid to upper back), which is necessary to do this exercise.

Here’s some basic chest and shoulder anatomy to make sense of it: should anatomy


When we get into this position, the pec minor/major become shortened and cause the shoulder blades to roll towards the front of your body. This causes your upper and mid back muscles to become overstretched, overworked and weak in general. In order to be able to do the overhead press, we need to be able to open up the chest and move the shoulders into a pulled down position. So you end up like this: barbell shoulder press bottom position

Shoulders pulled down & back with the upper back extension

and end like this: barbell should press top position

Arms almost locked out at the top, shoulders not shrugging upwards

If this can’t be done, most people end up using their lower back to push their chest out enough to be able to press the bar up. Which sometimes looks like this: lumbar hyperextension barbell shoulder press

Well, hopefully not this much

But James, are you saying I should just stop doing my favourite exercise? No. I’m saying, modify it, and then learn how to get it done properly. If you still have trouble with this after modifying it, I’m going to list a number of exercises you can do instead. The last thing I want for you, is to end up getting the bursa sac inflammed, shredding your Supraspinatus tendon and compressing nerves in your neck. That’s more painful than a basic white girl hearing that Starbucks ran out of pumpkin spice lattes. I can’t even… supraspinatus tear

A tear in the Supraspinatus tendon

In the picture above, it seems like there is plenty of room for the supraspinatus and bursa to not get rubbed even if there wasn’t a rolled forward shoulder blade, where in fact, there is only very little room for things to run smoothly. It’s the most mobile joint in the body, leaving it open to compromise quite easily. When you are constantly applying force against the supraspinatus and rubbing on the bursa, it can become irritated and inflamed, creating swelling and tears in the tendon. Which means all sorts of fun times for your next physio appointment and a lot less fun time smashing new PR’s.

So let’s figure out how to make your shoulders less angry at you when you crush it on the shoulder press.


Open up the Chest/Serratus Anterior


Foam Rolling The Chest (Video Cred – Work Out The Funk)


Foam Roll The Pecs/Serratus Anterior (Video Cred – Eric Cressey)

Skip Ahead to 1:19


Practice Thoracic Extension


Thoracic Extensions On Roller


Band Thoracic Rotations


Lying Overhead Band Pull


Band Pull Apart


ITYW Raises


Strengthen Your Back! Start with a 3:1Back to Chest Ratio in the beginning


Cable Reverse Fly


Rack Pulls

(Core contraction w/ thoracic extension)


Modify the press until it doesn’t shred the hell out of your shoulders


5. Crush It Till The Cows Come Hom

If your shoulders are still getting achey-breaky on you, try some of these exercises instead. An EMG study done by Bret Contreras, which you can read HERE, lists multiple exercises done with MVC (Max Voluntary Contraction), in bursts and over the whole set, comparing which ones rated highest and lowest. As he states, not all of these exercises are safe, so you don’t necessarily need to do certain exercises just because they are highly rated. Find something on the list that you can do and has high MVC and go from there.

Here are some of the higher rated exercises that are less likely to tear apart your shoulders (Some of these are not listed in the EMG study, but are safe for nearly everyone):


Anterior (Front) Delts

  • Barbell Incline Bench Press

  • Barbell Flat Bench Press

  • Body weight Pushup

  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • Half-Kneeling Landmine Press


Lateral (Side) Delts

  • Band Face Pull – Rated highest MVC

  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • Cable Lateral Raise

  • Cable Scarecrows


Posterior (Rear) Delts

  • Band Face Pull

  • Inverted Row

  • Cable Face Pull

  • Cable Scarecrow

  • Prone Rear Delt Raise


Upper Traps

  • Cable Lateral Raise – Rated highest MVC

  • Barbell Shrugs

  • Deadlifts

  • Rack Pulls