If you can press overhead with good technique and no pain, you should be taking full advantage of that ability. Not everyone is able to do it effectively, but it’s a safe pattern for most people. As a general rule, if it’s difficult to place your arms overhead without pain, don’t do any type of vertical pressing or pulling. Some people may possess fixable mobility or stability issues that are causing the pain, and others might possess shoulder anatomy that places them at a predisposed mechanical disadvantage for this type of movement. Either way, the pain is an issue that should be addressed.
I’m not going to cover all the prerequisites that you must have before you can safely push a barbell over your head. This post is to share some challenging variations that aren’t very common and provide unique benefits. If you’d like to read more about that topic specifically, check out these articles:
It’s time to get creative
Military presses are great, but there’s a lot more to consider when addressing upper body strength and healthy shoulder function. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning it can move freely in any direction and allows us to train the muscles in many different ranges of motion. This is cool, but it also makes the shoulder complex more prone to injuries and frustrating pains.
Although heavy pressing with a barbell will undoubtedly make you big and strong, if that’s the only exercise you used you’d be setting yourself up for problems down the road. Dumbbells, kettlebells, specialty bars, and landmine attachments all present opportunities to incorporate some very useful exercises into your training sessions. Let’s get down to business!
Half-Kneeling S. Arm Landmine Press
I really like exercises done in a half-kneeling stance. It’s a good way to teach proper core positioning and if you squeeze the glute of the back leg, you can also get a stretch throughout the hip flexors. Due to the nature of the press – vertical but angled slightly forward – it is a tolerable movement for almost everyone. Don’t allow the barbell to drift out to the side. You want the wrist to stay in line with the elbow and shoulder.
Half-Kneeling S. Arm KB Press
Similar to the half-kneeling landmine exercise, the only difference here is you’ll be pressing a kettlebell straight overhead. As long as you are comfortable holding it (the heavy bell will be resting on your radius bone) then I highly recommend this exercise. Otherwise, you can substitute a dumbbell. Your focus with this one should be to resist an type of lateral flexion in the spine. Don’t let the load tip you over sideways. And with anything else in the half-kneeling position, squeeze the glute of the extended hip.
S. Arm DB Push Press
A very good unilateral upper body exercise for strength and power. With a little bit of leg drive you can get pretty damn heavy with single arm presses. Grab a heavy dumbbell (preferably above half of your body weight), dip into a quarter squat and then forcefully accelerate the weight straight up over your head. I like 4-6 reps for around 3-4 sets on this one.
Military Press w/ Chains
In this one, the chains sway around and cause the bar to get a little shaky on you. I find that it forces me to grip the bar harder and squeeze my glutes harder in order to keep myself stable. If you’re not tight it’s not going to look pretty, but you’re going to make it look impressive. Control each rep with a full range of motion and consistent tempo.
Barbell Z Press
The Z press is incredibly challenging. It’s going to require a lot of core strength and pretty decent hip mobility. Ideally you want your spine to be completely vertical and rigid for the whole set. Avoid any rounding at the lumbar spine and actively think to keep the chest out and up.
TRX Handstand Pushups
If you don’t mind turning some heads at the typical big box gym, then this could be a great exercise for you. Personally, I’m not very confident going into a free handstand and maintaining it, and it’s not really something I feel like taking the time to get good at. By using the TRX as kind of a spotter, you can get into a decent handstand with relative ease. From there, lower your head until it’s just above the floor and push back up. Get some quality reps in on multiple sets, but don’t get too fatigued or get anywhere near muscular failure. You’ll want to leave a little in the tank so you can walk your hands in safely after the set, which isn’t all that easy!
Seated Double KB Overhead Press
Killer movement for grip strength, wrist stability, and proper shoulder mechanics. Since you can’t get really heavy with these, I like to do a set or two before any type of heavy bilateral pressing. It’s a good way to create some tension prior to your big lifts for the day. Remember to crush the handles!
Try these out. You’re likely to expose a weakness or two that you were previously unaware of. If you find it extremely difficult to stabilize two light kettlebells upside down, you know you need to work on your grip and forearm strength. If you cannot avoid excessive spinal flexion during a Z press, you may need to focus on anterior core stability and the isometric strength of your spinal erectors. The more you learn these types of things about your body the better you will be able to plan in the future, therefore bringing you closer to optimal training.