Do you experience overhead press pain?

The overhead press is a complicated movement to do correctly because it requires a ton of shoulder mobility.

People who mess it up often have lots of back tightness and shoulder pain.

In this article, I’m going to talk through four hacks to either fix or help you work around your overhead press pain.


Overhead Press Pain? 4 LIFE-CHANGING Exercise Hacks

Increase Shoulder Mobility With Warm Up Exercises

First, it’s important to undo the sedentary lifestyle of our current day and age. You can’t expect to move well if you haven’t moved in the last 8 hours.

Here are a few warm up exercises that help prep the shoulders.

Rockback With Abs

Handstand Prep - Rockback with Abs
  1. Start on hands and knees
  2. Make a sighing exhale and pull your belly button up toward the ceiling; your back should round slightly
  3. Keeping your back slightly rounded, sit your hips back until just before they touch your heels
  4. Hold this position for 5 nasal breaths, pausing 5 seconds after your exhales
  5. To increase the difficulty, lower the elbows down to the ground

Mistakes to look out for:

  • Make sure your back doesn’t round as you sit back
  • Avoid crunching on the exhale
  • Don’t rest the butt on the heels and aim to feel the glutes working throughout

Bear to Oblique Sit

Bear to Oblique Sit
  1. Start on hands and knees
  2. Gently exhale and pull your belly up toward the ceiling
  3. Gently reach through both hands
  4. Hover the knees one inch off the ground
  5. Reach the left hand toward the ceiling while kicking the right leg out to your left; your body should be facing the left
  6. Return to the starting position
  7. Repeat on the other side
  8. Perform 10 reps on each side

Mistakes to look out for:

  • When rotating, keep the torso somewhat still to avoid crunching and too much back twisting
  • Don’t over-rotate so that the chest is facing up toward the ceiling; stick to a 90 degree turn
  • Flatten the nearly flat foot to get good glute activity

Bear Walk

Bear Walk
  1. Start on hands and knees
  2. Gently exhale and pull your belly up toward the ceiling
  3. Gently reach through both hands
  4. Straighten the legs, allowing the hips to rise up in a pike position
  5. Keep the legs straight while walking forward
  6. Repeat for 10 steps on each leg

Mistakes to look out for:

  • Keep the neck long to prevent shoulder shrugging
  • Keep the knees locked to force the hips to rotate
  • If the stretch is too intense, bring the feet away from the hands to make a wider A frame

Get Stronger Overhead with Isometrics

If strength is your goal, isometrics can be magical.

Often times, overhead press pain arises due to coordination limitations. If you can’t quite get down the timing of shoulder and shoulder blade movement, you might do better when just keeping the arm up the whole time.

My favorite—and really only recommendation—is to get really good at turkish get ups.

Turkish Get Up

Turkish Get Up
  1. Lie on your back with right knee bent and foot flat
  2. Hold a kettlebell in your right hand and press it straight up
  3. Scoot the left leg and arm out slightly, keeping them on the ground
  4. Punch the weight up toward the ceiling and turn to roll your body onto your left elbow
  5. Straighten your left arm
  6. Push through the right foot to bridge up the hips
  7. Swing the left leg back to kneel underneath your body
  8. Straighten up into half kneeling, lifting your left hand off the ground
  9. Reorient your feet
  10. Stand up
  11. Reverse each step to come back down
  12. Repeat on the other side

Mistakes to look out for:

  • This is complicated. Break the movement into tiny sub-movements and learn one at a time. My most frequently used varitation is the get up to elbow which is the first step of the entire Turkish get up.
  • Make sure the vertical arm stays perpendicular to the ground
  • Turn the torso to avoid overstressing the front of the grounded arm’s shoulder
  • When bridging, drive through the heel of the flat foot
  • Practice with something unstable, such as a shoe balanced on your hand
  • When using heavy weights, set up by lifting and lowering them to the ground with two hands
  • Look at the weight the whole time and respect that it can crush you if you’re not careful

Try Alternative Exercises for Developing Shoulders

If we take a step back and think about why we want to overhead press, it’s usually to accomplish a separate goal: get big shoulders, muscle balance, etc.

If you have pain when overhead pressing, you might NOT have pain when training you shoulders a different way.

So it’s worth trying some alternatives.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Perhaps your most obvious alternative is to just decline the “overhead-ness” of the press. Pressing overhead from an incline bench requires less shoulder flexion, but can help satisfy that shoulder training we so desire.

Dumbbells also allow the shoulders to rotate into a more neutral position.

  1. Incline a bench to 45 degrees
  2. Sit on the angled bench seat with one dumbbell in each had and resting on the thighs
  3. Lay back while hiking the dumbbells up to the shoulders and lock the arms out straight overhead
  4. Lower the weights to the chest
  5. Return to the starting position
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps

Mistakes to look out for:

  • Keep the shoulders set down when pressing overhead; think “long neck”
  • The elbows should be tucked 30-60 degrees from the torso
  • The set up can be tricky; ask for help if needed or try a barbell
  • The lower the bench incline, the less this exercise trains the shoulders. If your shoulders can tolerate it, try to stick with a 45- or even 60-degree incline.

Chest-Supported 1-Arm Lateral Raise in Scapular Plane

Chest-Supported 1-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Raise in Scapular Plane

Traditional lateral raises performed strictly out to the sides do two things we don’t like: put the shoulders in a compromised position while reducing load on the middle deltoid.

To fix it, we’re going to lean forward AND bring the arm forward (aiming for the scapular plane instead of the frontal plane).

  1. Incline a bench to 60 degrees
  2. Grab a light dumbbell and lean the chest onto the bench
  3. Rotate the shoulders so that the working arm is ahead of the free arm
  4. Clamp your body to the bench with the free arm
  5. Raise and lower the dumbbell up in a long arc
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps

Mistakes to look out for:

  • Use a light weight
  • Don’t arch the back to lift the weight
  • If your chest is uncomfortable when plastered into the bench, raise your body up to support with your belly instead. Just be careful not to arch your back!
  • Limit swinging momentum to get the weight to the top unless you’re purposefully forcing out reps at the end of a set

Fix Overhead Press Technique

Now, I imagine you’ve been overhead pressing somewhat because you WANT to overhead press. It’s a fun movement that makes us feel strong when done well.

Sometimes, we experience overhead pressing pain simply because we don’t have optimal technique.

Let’s run through the most common mistakes in the overhead press.

Overhead Press Proper Technique

  1. Set a bar at just beneath shoulder height in a rack
  2. Grab the bar just outside shoulder width
  3. Step under the bar and use the legs to lift it off the rack
  4. Step back away from the rack
  5. Press the bar overhead until the arms lock out
  6. Repeat for desired number of reps

Mistakes to look out for:

  • This exercise demands a lot of shoulder mobility; don’t force the arms to lock out if the back has to arch to do so
  • Maintain firm heel pressure in the ground throughout the rep
  • Keep the neck long to reduce shrugging

Still Have Overhead Press Pain?

We’ve gone through a bunch of hacks you can use to help with overhead press pain. To recap:

  • Make sure you warm up
  • Get good at turkish get ups
  • Try alternative shoulder exercises like the incline press and lateral raise
  • Fix your overhead press technique

If you’re still experiencing pain when overhead pressing, you might need to more detailed approach to increasing your shoulder mobility.

My buddy, Zac Cupples, put together a wonderful article and video on the topic.

Overhead Press Pain: The FIX You’re Missing

He’ll give you the nitty gritty details on how to increase shoulder mobility (you can’t just stretch it).

And you might even see a little bit of me in that video!

What would you like to see next?
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