Are You Making These Mistakes When You Do Overhead Presses?

Are You Making These Mistakes When You Do Overhead Presses?

(Last Updated On: April 13, 2019)

Overhead presses work all three shoulder muscles

Firm, defined deltoids help to balance out wide hips and give the female body more symmetry. That’s why focused deltoid work that targets all three parts of the deltoid is essential for women, particularly women who have narrow shoulders and, by comparison, wide hips. Deltoid work helps to create a desirable physique. Plus, strengthening the posterior deltoid helps pull your shoulders back to create more attractive posture.

How’s your shoulder workout? One popular exercise you’re probably doing to strengthen your shoulders and give them more definition are overhead presses, also known as shoulder presses You’re already know how to do a basic, overhead press movement. If not, here’s a review:


·       Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold one in each hand with your palms turned inward.

·       Your feet should be hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent.

·       Slowly raise the dumbbells up until they’re above your head and your arms are straight.

·       Shrug your shoulders at the top of the movement.

·       Hold the position for a second or two.

·       Slowly lower the dumbbells down to the starting position while controlling the movement.

·       Repeat the movement.


You can also do overhead presses using a barbell rather than dumbbells. What’s the difference? An EMG study showed that muscle activation is 15% greater with a standing dumbbell press vs. a standing barbell press.  Another approach is to do the same exercise while you’re sitting on a bench. A study showed that compared to a seated dumbbell press, muscle activation was 8% greater for the standing press. So, whether you use a barbell or dumbbell or stand vs. sitting makes a difference in terms of muscle activation. On the downside, dumbbells are harder to control than barbells. Therefore, using a barbell may actually be easier when you first start out. Make sure it’s a light one when you first begin. There’s plenty of time to work up to a heavier barbell. Getting the form right is the goal!

What Muscles Do You Work When You Press Overhead?

As you might guess, overhead presses primarily work the shoulders. Although all three portions of the deltoid muscle, the anterior, middle, and posterior, get some activation. However, muscle activation is greatest for the anterior deltoid. Overhead presses also work the trapezius, a muscle in the upper back as well as the biceps and triceps. Because you have to stabilize your core when you lift overhead, your core muscles get some activation as well.

In addition, the overhead press strengthens the small muscles in the shoulder known as the rotator cuff. It’s important that these muscles be strong as they stabilize your shoulder and help protect it against injury. The overhead press is a compound exercise since you’re working more than one muscle groups at a time.

You may have heard the term military press and wonder how military press differs from an overhead press. Sometimes, people use these terms as if they’re the same. Traditionally, an overhead press is performed with feet hip-width apart while the military press is carried out with the feet together. These days, the terms are often used interchangeably though. You can do either, but keep in mind that when your heels are close together, it’s harder to balance.

Form is Critical When You Do Overhead Presses

If you have active shoulder problems, overhead presses might not be for you. However, if you have healthy shoulders and use good form, the overhead press can be a safe and effective exercise. Many people risk shoulder injury with this exercise by getting sloppy and not using meticulous form. Overhead pressing incorrectly can lead to shoulder, neck, or lower back pain and injury. Now, let’s look at some of the most common mistakes people make when they press overhead.

Overarching the Back

Have someone critique your form when you press overhead. Are you arching your back? This is one of the most common problems and one that can quickly lead to a lower back injury. When you arch your back, it compresses the discs in your spine. If you’re also struggling to lift a heavy resistance overhead, the extra stress created by an arched back can lead to a disc herniation. If you have trouble keeping a neutral back and not arching your back, your core and abdominal muscles may be weak. Work on strengthening your abs and squeezing them as you lift overhead.

Bad Alignment

Another common mistake with overhead presses is to shift the movement out in front of you rather than pushing straight up. When you do the movement correctly, you push the weight directly overhead. When the weights are even slightly out in front of you, it places greater stress on your spine. So, always move the weights straight up in a vertical line. To do this, you may have to move your head back slightly so that it’s out of your path. Work on pressing vertically upward to preserve the health of your back and spine.

Using a Weight That’s Too Heavy

When you use a weight that your upper body isn’t strong enough to handle, there’s a tendency to overarch the back and “cheat” by bouncing your knees to get more momentum. Don’t try to be a hero by using a weight you can’t control. Lighten up, get the form right, and increase it slowly over time. Also, make sure you’re balancing “press” exercises, like this one, with “pull” movements for balance.

The Bottom Line

Overhead presses are a tough exercise to do correctly, but, if you have healthy shoulders, it’s worth the effort. This exercise, done properly, will enhance the strength of your shoulders and sculpt them as well. Because they also strengthen the important rotator cuff muscles, this exercise, over time, helps protect your shoulders against injury. So, include them in your routine, but take the time to learn proper form and not make these common mistakes.

If you have trouble doing this exercise with good form, you may have weak trapezius muscles or traps that aren’t being activated. Tight pecs can also be a problem. Try doing some mobility drills for your thoracic spine and traps and stretching your pectoral muscles and see if it improves your form.



·       Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 7 – p 1824–1831. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873.

· “The Overhead Press: The Difference Between Seated, Standing, Dumbbell, and Barbell”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Are Dumbbells an Effective Substitute When You Don’t Have Barbells?

Research Reveals the Most Effective Shoulder Exercises

The Part of Your Shoulders You’re Probably Not Training Hard Enough

Are You Making These Mistakes When You Do Military Presses?

Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

The Best Exercises for Broader Shoulders

Shoulder Shrugs Don’t Get the Attention They Deserve & Why You Need Them

Narrow Shoulders? What’s the Best Training to Make Them Look More Defined?

Hunched Shoulders – What Causes Them and How to Correct Them?


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

STS Strength 90 Day Workout Program

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One thought on “Are You Making These Mistakes When You Do Overhead Presses?

  1. Whats the difference goldpost shoulder press and holding dumb bells palms facing each other and what is better or are they the same

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