The Ultimate Guide To Shoulder Press

The Ultimate Guide To Shoulder Press

Though this exercise is simple enough, it is a very important upper body compound movement that is done incorrectly much of the time. Here is how you can improve your shoulder press.


The shoulder press is an overhead compound movement. Traditionally, can be done with a single dumbbell, a pair of dumbbells, or a barbell. For the purpose of this article, we will describe a strict barbell shoulder press. All of the same principles apply to all variations of shoulder press.

The purpose of a shoulder press is to improve upper body strength, particularly in the deltoids, the supraspinatus, the serratus anterior and trapezius muscles, and the triceps by extending the elbow. By performing the shoulder press, you also improve strength in the postural muscles that hold your spine upright, including the abdominal and erector spinae muscle groups.

The Optimal Start Position

To start, the barbell should be, if possible, on a rack of some sort. This way, the athlete does not have to lift that bar from the floor to place it.

From a rack, the hands will be spaced evenly, at a width that is comfortable and just outside the shoulders. All fingers should be under the bar, with palms facing forwards.

Step away from the rack and set the start position by placing feet shoulder-width apart and making sure the hips stay in a straight line- that means keeping your abdominals engaged and your bum behind you. The barbell should be at shoulder-height to get a full range of motion through the movement.

The Drive

To initiate the movement, take a big inhale, stabilize your entire body to avoid hip or knee flexion or extension, and drive the bar as vertically as possible, pressing out your elbows. Keep the motion fluid and vertical, with the bar moving upwards into line with your spine.

The Lockout / Finish Position

The lockout position should be over your spine, not out in front of your head. This is a classic error. The purpose of a shoulder press is to fully extend a weight overhead. Pushing the bar forward overloads the lower back and limits the extension range of the shoulders. In a correct finish position, the head will be slightly in front of the barbell.

How To Program Shoulder Press

This is a basic strength movement and to see the best benefits for it, you should use it to start off your shoulder program. The bigger, more complex movements should always be done first because they require the highest recruitment of muscle fibers.

To improve your shoulder press, you should be performing presses 1 to 3 times per week. If you are doing them less frequently, the load and volume should be higher. Work at 6 to 8 reps that are quite heavy, performing 5 to 6 sets. If you get soreness after training, you know you are working at the correct intensity. A very well worked muscle can take 7 days to fully heal and improve strength before you should target it again.

On the other hand, performing shoulder press as a part of a routine will also help to improve strength by doing it 2 to 3 times per week at lighter loads, higher repetitions and fewer sets. For example, 3 sets of 12 repetitions at 75% effort, or 60%RM.

RM, or repetition maximum, is the maximum amount of weight you can do for one repetition. By knowing your RM, you can better calculate your intensity and tract progress over time. If you are new to shoulder press, or any other exercise, take a few weeks to get used to the movement performing sets of 8 to 12 repetitions with reasonable weights before trying to test your max.

How To Break Through A Shoulder Press Plateau

Feel like you have hit a plateau in shoulder press? Just like all strength plateau’s, you have several factors to consider:

  • Am I using the correct technique?
  • Am I improving in other areas of training?
  • Am I sleeping well?
  • Am I eating enough calories and whole, nutritious food?
  • Is there a problem with my programming? Am I in need of more variety, less/more volume or intensity of training?
  • Am I training too hard/ too intensely and not recovering enough? (this can also be caused by stress)

Good nutrition and sleep are basic lifestyle factors that have to be in place in order to see physical improvements. Hypertrophy and strength gains rely greatly on what you put into your body and the quality of rest you allow it.

If you have taken care of nutrition and rest, consider the training program you are following. You may need the help of an expert. Adding more variety to a shoulder routine, adding accessory exercises for the shoulder press and adjusting sets, reps, and training frequency is a huge part of your success. There is a math and science to training that should be combined with the art of an expert eye to see individual limitations and setbacks.

Shoulder press is a great exercise to improve your overall wellness and strength. Use good technique to avoid injury and improve your numbers. Consult a professional to help with programming and to get a second pair of eyes on your posture.

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Christie Leclair
Christie Leclair - Author

FD Bulsara, BSc is a competitive athlete in Olympic weightlifting and a student in Osteopathy. She coaches private and group fitness classes and freelance writing about her passions: fitness, health, sport, nutrition, weightlifting, CrossFit, injury prevention, pain relief, injury rehabilitation, and the latest research on all these topics! She is a dog person and spends free time training at the lake. Find her at

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