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Contention in the Overhead Press Arena

I recently found a discussion panel, at the “Muscular Development” Magazine – website / Forum ( where the topic being discussed was my blog article called: The Case Against Overhead Presses. I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of the comments written by some of the members on that forum, as well as clarify a few points.

Criticizing Without Merit

In response to the opening statement from “Kevin27”, where he asks “Have you read Doug Brignole’s ‘Case Against Overhead Presses’ – “Kaladryn” says, “Um… his entire premise seems flawed because I never once hear him say ‘anterior deltoid’…”  Well, apparently Kaladryn did not actually read my article, because I certainly DO mention the anterior deltoids in that article – no less than FIVE times.  In fact, I clearly and specifically say in that article that the Overhead Press is about 70% front deltoid, and about 30% side deltoid.  Curious, isn’t it?  Why would someone criticize someone’s article, and in the same sentence, show evidence of having not actually read that person’s article?  Further, my “entire premise” involves much more than the involvement of the anterior deltoid.

Arguing Apples and Oranges

Another member – “DBowden” – responded that “…the lateral deltoid not only performs lateral abduction – it also performs horizontal abduction and flexion” (… actually,that is not the lateral deltoid’s primary function… as is clearly evidenced by the direction of the muscle fibers, i.e. vertical – not horizontal).  He further says that this shows my “… lack of understanding of how the lateral deltoid functions.”  In response, I would simply say that while the lateral deltoid may assist when one performs horizontal abduction (the classic rear deltoid movement), there is NO horizontal movement occurring during an overhead press – it’s an entirely vertical movement.  But more importantly, the lateral deltoid is not positioned properly to receive maximum stimulation from the resistance.

A muscle must be positioned directly opposite the direction of resistance, in order to benefit from that resistance.  In other words, if the resistance is coming from straight down (i.e., gravity pulling on a free weight), whichever muscle is “on top” – directly opposing the downward resistance – is the one doing the most work.  Expressed another way, if resistance is coming from the 6:00 direction, the muscle that is at 12:00 is doing the work.  This is obvious.  There is no way that a muscle positioned at 2:00 could possibly get more of a load (work harder) than the one positioned at 12:00.  During an Overhead Press, the anterior deltoid is mostly in that 12:00 position, and the lateral deltoid is positioned mostly at that 2:00 position.  You can see this for yourself – when watching someone who is lean enough to see the division between the front and side deltoids.

Others argued that “… everyone knows Overhead Presses are primarily for anterior deltoids”, and “… I don’t know anyone who does Overhead Presses for the lateral deltoid”.  In fact, many do not know this.  One of the 5 problems with the Overhead Presses is that it works the front deltoids more than the side deltoids (… the other 4 problems are mechanical), and I was making that point expressly for those who mistakenly think that the Overhead Press is primarily for side deltoids.  Keep in mind, everyone has a different level of awareness.  Although some might know the Overhead Press is not a particularly good lateral deltoid exercise, many do not know that – and they should be informed as well, should they not?

Making the Best Choices

If it’s true that “everyone knows” that Overhead Presses work the front deltoid more than the side deltoid, the question is this:  Is it the BEST front deltoid exercise you can do? In my opinion, absolutely not.  There are other exercises that work the front deltoid with much more force.  And, as a bonus, these other exercises don’t create the risk – i.e., the excessive external rotation of the humerus, nor the impingement – that Overhead Presses do.  In other words, you can work your front deltoids harder, and without joint strain, with other exercises.  And – given these other options – why bother with an Overhead Press, if it works your front deltoids less and strains the joint more?

Try doing any one of various angles of Lying or Incline Front Presses, and you will instantly see (and feel) what I mean.  To do this, simply lie down on a flat bench, with a pair of dumbbells (or even with a barbell, if you prefer), with your palms facing upwards (toward your face, instead of toward your feet).  Now lower the dumbbells or the barbell toward your belly button, keeping your elbows close to your sides as you come down.  Then, after the weight reaches the sides of your abdomen, push it back up, so that it ends up directly over your shoulders (… this creates a slight arc, as it travels through that range of motion).  As you do the movement, try to keep your forearm perpendicular throughout the movement.  This will ensure that neither your triceps, nor your biceps, participate in the movement.  You can go as heavy as you like (… I usually use a pair of 50 or 60 lb. dumbbells, or a 120 lb. bar), and it will blast your front deltoids – without that outward rotation of the shoulder joint, and without the impingement that typically occurs at the top of an Overhead Press.

The exercise I just described was on a flat bench.  Now try it with a slight incline – like 20 degrees.  Then, with a slightly higher incline – like 40 degrees.  Every angle change creates a new “resistance curve” – which means that the front deltoid will find it’s “maximum resistance point” at a slightly different place in the range of motion.  Every time you introduce a new “resistance curve” to the muscle, it adds a new stimulation to the muscle.  However, I recommend that the incline angle you choose be no higher than about 60 degrees (… this would be 30 degrees shy of vertical).  Higher than this, and you’ll likely experience that pinching in the joint, which is impingement.  This movement – where the upper arm travels alongside the body, toward the front – is the primary path of the front deltoid – which is why “front raises” have historically always been performed along this path.


At one point, someone named “Mike Arnold” said – in reference to a couple of photos of me – that I was “… conditioned, but far from huge – very far”.  I suppose this is meant to suggest that if I were correct in my assessment of Overhead Presses, I would be bigger… that the reason I’m not “huge” is because I don’t do Overhead Presses.  Well, I have two comments in response to that.  First, no other (muscular) body part of mine has ever been huge.  I’m an “ectomorph”, as most people know.  I have a relatively small frame, and I have frequently been compared to Frank Zane and Bob Paris (… by which I am honored).  If I had foolishly omitted Overhead Presses, only my shoulders would be “not huge”.  But, in fact, my shoulders are no less “huge” than my arms or legs.  Actually, my shoulders have improved dramatically since I began focusing more on lateral raises and front deltoid raises and presses (as described above) – instead of Overhead Presses.  Some have even suggested that my delts are now my “best body part”.

Also, if the only barometer of bio-mechanical knowledge – or of an informed opinion – is a person’s physique, than I suppose only those with a better physique than mine could comment in opposition to my opinion.  I may not be as big as Arnold was, or as Jay Cutler is, but I would bet that many of those who claim to have an opinion that is more valid or more informed than mine, have inferior physiques.  So by Mike Arnold’s standard, they wouldn’t be able to comment (… in fact, maybe even Mike isn’t “qualified” to comment).  My credibility does not come necessarily from my physique, but by the fact that my analysis is based on elementary physics and sound logic.  However, the fact that my deltoids are as outstanding as they are, despite the fact that I don’t do ANY Overhead Presses, does make a point – after all.  At the very least, it shows that Overhead Presses are not “essential” for good deltoid development – even if (for some people) the exercise poses no risk at all.

Risk is Relative

And speaking of risk – everyone would experience a different degree of risk, with an Overhead Press.  It depends mostly on how much external rotation / flexibility you have … and also, to a lesser degree, on the amount of clearance you have under your acromion process (i.e. the upper ridge of your shoulder blade) – factors which are determined mostly by genetics, and in part by age and previous injury.

To check your own degree of shoulder flexibility, do this – hold your arm directly out to the side, and bend it so that your elbow is at 90 degrees.  Now, begin slowly rotating your arm upward, so that your forearm moves from a position that is parallel to the ground, toward a position where it is pointing straight up.  Somewhere in the course of that movement, or perhaps just beyond it (if you’re lucky), you will begin to feel the limit of your own external rotation – as indicated by no further ability to rotate externally, and some degree discomfort, or maybe pain, at the upper-most limit.  Now look at where your arm is, at that point.  If you are able to position your forearm straight vertically, with no discomfort, and perhaps still have the ability to rotate externally another 5 or 10 degrees, than you are not likely to have any serious joint strain from performing an Overhead Press.  But if you find that you are unable to rotate your forearm into a directly vertical position (stopping shy of that by 5 or 10 degrees), or you feel pain in the joint when you arrive in that straight vertical position, or just before it, then clearly it would be unwise to put a heavy load on it when it’s in that position.

It’s that simple.  Some people can perform an Overhead Press more comfortably than others.  Not everyone can perform an Overhead Press without joint strain – even if they have not actually had a shoulder injury.  And that, in itself, is a significant statement – is it not?  Few other exercises actually exclude a percentage (in fact, the majority) of users from doing it safely, due solely to a lack of sufficient flexibility.

According to Eric Chessey, MA, CSCS, who has a Masters Degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science, and is the author of “Optimal Shoulder Performance”, “Maximum Strength”, and several other books, “… only a small portion of the population can really Overhead Press safely” – due to natural, genetic limitations in the mobility of the shoulder.  It is not an entirely safe movement for most people.  Imagine that !  How good can an exercise be when you have to preface it with, “… it’s not a bad exercise, unless you’re one of the majority of people who lack the flexibility to do it safely” ?

Knowing What Works

In terms of efficacy, no one can claim with certainty that Overhead Presses are “essential” for good or exceptional deltoid development, because there has never been any sort of study, whereby the results have been compared between those who do only Overhead Presses, and those who do not.  People who claim that it’s “the best” exercise… or the “most important” exercise, or the “foundation” exercise, are simply stating their belief.  How would they know for sure, given that they probably do not ONLY do Overhead Presses?  They most likely do a combination of exercises – including side raises – so how would they know which exercise contributed more, or less, to the overall result?

I believe people “think” that Overhead Presses contribute more than they actually do, for several reasons: first, they prioritize it.  They probably do it first; they usually do more sets of it; they usually push themselves a little harder on them – as compared with side raises; they might even “compete” with their buddies, to see who can lift more; and they assume that since they are moving more weight – as compared to side raises – that the deltoids must be doing more work.  But mechanically speaking, using a shorter lever (i.e.,  a bent arm, versus a straight arm = better leverage), allows one to use more weight.  Also, during an Overhead Press, the triceps contributes considerably, whereas the triceps cannot assist during a side raise.  Other muscles also assist, during an Overhead Press, including the pecs, if one leans back far enough.

Practical Application

Farther down on the forum, “GermaniaK” says, “… I kinda fail to see how a movement, that humans are naturally accustomed to, due to our evolution, would be so bad for our bodies”. Well, bending over and picking up rocks, or any other heavy object seems natural as well, but if you do it with a rounded back, you will likely herniate a lumbar disc.  It happens all the time.  Throwing a rock, or pitching a baseball, seems natural too.  But there is abundant evidence attesting to the damage that can occur to a shoulder joint when this type of movement is performed repeatedly with great force.  And, interestingly enough, pushing heavy objects over our heads (i.e. overhead pressing movement) is much less common – in day to day human survival – than lifting heavy objects up from the floor, or throwing rocks and baseballs.

Another argument that has been made is that the task of being able to pick up a heavy object and put it on a high shelf, would be improved by doing an Overhead Press.  First, I would say that when we put a heavy box on a high shelf, our elbows are mostly in front of our body, not alongside our body – as is the case with an Overhead Press.  Keeping the elbows in front, rather than to the side, is much safer for the shoulder joint.  Further, one does not need to do Overhead Presses, regularly, in the gym, with heavy weight, in order to (occasionally) be able to put a heavy box on a shelf.  I have no trouble putting a heavy box on a shelf, even though I never do Overhead Presses, and the reason is because the muscles involved in “…putting a heavy box on a high shelf…” have been more than adequately strengthened by side raises, front raises and presses, shrugs, triceps extensions, etc.  And lastly, when we put that heavy box on a high shelf, we stop short of putting the box directly over our head – which is where the impingement would occur.

Be Open-Minded… Unless You Refuse

I don’t “insist” that everyone stop doing Overhead Presses.  If you like them, and you’re comfortable doing them, and you don’t believe they offer a compromised benefit (as I believe), by all means – continue.  However, if you have experienced shoulder pain, and you are someone who is less influenced by tradition, and more influenced by a logical analysis, give it a try.  It might be the best thing that’s happened to your deltoid development and the well-being of your shoulder joint.  I can certainly attest to this: after re-directing my own efforts away from Overhead Presses, and more toward heavy and deliberate Side Raises and Front Raises (from a variety of angles) – “look Ma – no more shoulder pain – but geez look at these delts” !!

For those who did not see my first article (“The Case Against Overhead Presses”), or would like to see it again, here’s a link to that:

Also, here are few other references (links) you might like to look at – related to orthopedics and sports medicine – where Overhead Presses and other overhead movements are evaluated.

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