Overhead Press Alternatives (Substitutes For Shoulder Pain)

The overhead press is a really popular exercise in most gyms worldwide. Known as a compound lift, it utilizes large groups of muscles and provides an extremely effective way to build strength, explosive power, and muscle mass.  

Unfortunately for some, it is a demanding lift, and if you are a beginner or have joint pain or injuries, it might not be the best lift for your current situation. What you need instead is a great overhead press alternative to implement in your workout routine. 

If you have trouble performing the overhead press, you are not alone. The shoulders are incredibly prone to injury with many rotating parts, and joint pain is common. Here are some great alternatives to the overhead press we suggest you implement into your routine.

1. Incline Barbell Bench Press 

The incline barbell bench press is an exercise that many will do during their chest day routine.

This is another compound lift and trains many of the same muscles as the overhead press, including the triceps, pec major, and deltoids.

Performed at an incline angle, you will activate more of your delts and triceps compared to a regular bench press, making it a perfect alternative to the overhead press. The incline bench can be trained at high weight and high volume, making it perfect for hypertrophy and building mass and strength. 

Training incline bench is the perfect way to improve pressing strength and overhead strength, and by changing the angle of your lift, you can really target specific muscles for progressive overload.

How to perform this exercise 

To perform the incline bench press, position yourself on a bench with an angle set between 30 and 45 degrees. Next, you should lie back on the bench, grounding your feet into the floor as if you were trying to scoot your body up the bench. 

Now, grab the bar with a grip around shoulder-width wide, palms facing up and neutral. Lift the bar from the rack and extend your arms until they are locked; this is your starting position. Lower the bar to your chest; we like to aim for our nipples. Pause for a second at the bottom of the lift before lifting back to the starting position, keeping your body braced and feet secure. 

Read Also - 7 Incline Bench Press Alternatives

incline barbell bench press

2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press 

For many people who have a problem doing the traditional barbell overhead press, the problem isn’t always pain or injury.

Some people have less range of motion in their shoulders or wrists, making it difficult to perform the exercise with a barbell, which is where dumbbells come in.

If this sounds familiar, then a great alternative to try is the dumbbell shoulder press. This is done exactly the same way, but you utilize a dumbbell in each hand instead of a barbell. Without the fixed hand positions, you can tweak how you hold the dumbbell to make sure you don't aggravate whatever the barbell was aggravating.

This is also the perfect way to train imbalances. Naturally, we have an affinity for a particular hand and side. When not corrected, this can lead to your left side being stronger than your right, or vice versa. Training with individual dumbbells corrects this as both sides have to work equally hard, and one side cannot compensate for the other.

How to perform this exercise 

To perform the dumbbell shoulder press, start either standing or on an upright bench holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forwards. Keep your elbows to the side and bent, creating a 90-degree angle.

Brace your core, inhale and lift the weights in a slow controlled manner until your arms are fully extended above. Hold for a second before returning to the 90-degree position, breathing out on the way down.

Related Article - Dumbbell Vs Barbell Shoulder Press

dumbbell shoulder press

3. Landmine Press 

Another common alternative to the overhead press is the landmine press. This is performed by lifting a barbell at one end with weight on the top. The other end is connected to a piece of equipment specifically designed for the landmine press and keeps it fixed to the floor.

The standard landmine press requires you to lift the barbell from your chest over your head and utilizes many of the same muscles as the overhead press. However, with the grip being much more central, it requires less mobility in the shoulder and will allow you to focus on lifting heavier.

This is a great one for those who struggle with the wider grip necessary for the overhead press.

How to perform this exercise 

To perform the landmine press, start in front of the landmine press barbell, holding the end with the plates on it in both hands just in front of your chest. Your feet should be squared and at a width in line with your shoulders; press them into the floor to brace.

Once braced, inhale as you push upwards with both hands until your arms are extended over your head. Hold this position for a second before bringing the bar back down in a controlled manner, exhaling until you are in your starting position.

One-Handed variant 

You can do the one-handed landmine press for a great variation of this move. Simply follow the same steps but use one hand and a lower weight to train specific sides of your body. This can really help if you feel one side is weaker or you are training after an injury.

landmine press

4. Military Press 

If you are looking for a more challenging alternative to the overhead press, you should consider implementing the military press, which is the stricter version of the standing overhead press. To be considered a military press, your heels must be close together during the lift, which makes it much more complex and isolating. 

The military press develops almost every single muscle in the body and is a staple of many advanced lifters' shoulder day routines. If you want to create huge hypertrophy and develop an insanely strong and powerful upper body, you should definitely make use of the military press. 

How to perform this exercise 

The military press is performed exactly the same way as the overhead press; you simply change your footwork so your heels are together. To perform the military and the overhead press, start with your body upright, bracing your core, and keeping your gaze ahead and neutral. We recommend doing this in a power or squat rack so you can put the weight down safer in between lifts.

Put the bar on the upper part of your chest and use a grip slightly wider than your shoulders. Inhale and press the bar overhead until your arms are extended. Keep your feet together, and don't tilt your hips. Hold the bar up for a second before lowering it down in a controlled manner to the starting position. 

Read Also - Bumper Plates Vs Iron Plates

standing military press

5. Z-Press 

The Z press, or the Zydrunas press, is an overhead press variation that involves zero leg drive and isolates the shoulders and core. It is performed while seated, removing the legs from the equation.  

To do the Z press, you will require a good level of hip mobility and core strength, so this may be one for the more advanced lifters.

During the Z press, you will need a lot more engagement of your stabilization muscles like your scapulae, obliques, and erector because the control of the movement requires a strict form. As you press overhead, your scapula rotates upwards and swings down during the descent. 

How to perform this exercise 

The easiest way to perform the Z-press is to set up a squat rack so that when you place the bar on the lower rack arms, the bar sits just above your shoulder height when you are sitting down.

Once the bar is in position, sit under it. Extend your body, so you are sat up as much as possible without overarching your back. Place your hands just wider than shoulder-width on the bar. Brace your core and inhale, pressing the bar above your head until your arms are extended, hold for a second, then lower in a controlled way to the starting position.

Learn More - Power Rack Vs Squat Rack

z press

6. Arnold Dumbbell Press 

Developed by the legendary Mr. Olympia himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold dumbbell press or Arnold press is an excellent variation of the traditional press. The reason why it is so effective is the engagement of all three deltoids that are required to perform the movement. 

You will need your anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids firing on all cylinders to perfect the movement. This is what makes it more technical and difficult compared to the standard overhead press, which activates the anterior and lateral to a higher degree compared to the posterior delts. 

A bonus to this is the engagement of the forearms and triceps. If you are looking at building those show-stopping arms as well as huge hulking shoulders, this is one of the best exercises on the planet.  

How to perform this exercise 

To do the Arnold press, you should start seated on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. For this move, your palms will be facing you, different from most dumbbell exercises. Now, you spread your arms outwards, leading with your elbows; once you have extended laterally, twist your palms so they face forwards and press upwards like you would in a traditional dumbbell press.  

To finish, reverse the steps, lowering the weights down before bringing your elbows and arms back in with the dumbbell returning to a position with your palms facing you. 

Suggested Equipment - Best Affordable Adjustable Dumbbells

arnold dumbbell press

7. Bradford Press 

An oldie but a goodie, the Bradford Press is an old-school shoulder exercise that has seen criticism over the years due to the difficulty of getting it right.  

It builds an insane amount of mass through the tension and torsion applied to the shoulders when done correctly.

It is similar to an overhead press but with one variation. You bring the bar down behind your head instead of in front. 

This is another advanced lift, and we don't recommend it to beginners but if you are plateauing in shoulder growth, consider adding this variation to your routine. Make sure you find someone to show you how to do it properly as it has a higher chance of injury than the traditional press. It is a great finisher exercise for maximum glycogen depletion and burn. 

How to perform this exercise 

To perform the Bradford press, begin in the same position you would for an overhead press, with the barbell in front of you on your chest, hands slightly wider than your shoulders on the bar. 

Drive the bar up the same way you do with an overhead press, but when you lower it down, bring it behind your head until your elbows reach 90 degrees. Lift the bar back up and this time, bring it back down to your chest for a single rep. 

See Also - What Length Barbell Do I Need?

arnold schwarzenegger doing bradford press

8. Machine Shoulder Press 

For a more beginner-friendly introduction to the world of shoulder day workouts, the machine shoulder press is similar to the traditional overhead press, but you perform it on a machine specifically designed for the exercise. This machine runs on tracks which adds safety and stability to your lift. 

While machines like this are great for those with injuries and beginners, you should progress to free weights when possible to avoid becoming too reliant on machines as they do not give you the same level of activation or mind to muscle connection. 

How to perform this exercise 

To perform this exercise, you will need a shoulder press machine. Sit down and adjust it so that the bars are around shoulder height. Push your back up to the pad and make sure your feet are flat on the floor.  

Grab the handles with an overhand grip and push the weight upwards. You don't need to worry too much about form here as the machine is on a track designed to put you in the proper position. Slowly lower the weight with lots of control and keep the tension between lifts. 

machine shoulder press

9. Single Arm Dumbbell Press 

Another great alternative to the overhead press is the single-arm dumbbell press. Many lifters will not work on their imbalances if they only work with barbells. By working on the left and right sides individually, you can correct any imbalances and work on improving both sides independently.

Naturally, it is very difficult not to compensate with one side or the other, and this means that while both sides may be growing, one will probably overtake the other, and this can become a problem later on down the line. 

How to perform this exercise 

Start sitting on an upright bench with your back pressed into the bench. Grab a dumbbell in one hand and bring it up, so your arm is at 90 degrees. Brace your core and press the dumbbell up above you. Hold for a second before lowering the dumbbell to the starting position with as much control as possible. 

Further Reading - 20 Single Dumbbell Exercises

single arm dumbbell press

10. Lateral Raise 

Lateral raises are a perfect exercise to implement to supplement your heavier compound lifts. They strengthen the shoulders and upper back and are a bit easier on the body. If you want to develop broader shoulders, this beginner-friendly move is perfect. 

They are easy to do, too; simply raise a lightish dumbbell in a T shape from your body while keeping your elbows locked. This activates all 3 deltoids and your traps as well. Perform these at the end of your routine for the maximum benefit and watch your compound lifts thrive. 

How to perform this exercise 

You can perform the lateral raise, either seated or standing. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and, keeping your back straight and your core braced, lift the weights on either side of you until your arms are roughly parallel to the ground. Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout. 

Lower them slowly and avoid shrugging or speeding up, as this will make it easier and reduce the effectiveness of your reps. To avoid shrugging, don't raise your shoulder blades during the lift. 

lateral raise

11. Front Plate Raise 

Another great supporting exercise for compound shoulder lifts the front plate raise requires you to hold a weight plate in both hands and raise them forward, keeping your elbows locked. This will increase your grip strength, forearm strength, and target your front deltoids to a high degree. 

Doing these at the end of your set will massively increase your potential in front press style movements. 

Suggested Equipment - Best Olympic Weight Plate Sets

How to perform this exercise 

While standing in an upright straight position, grab a barbell plate in both hands, holding the plate at a 3 and 9 position. Keep your palms facing each other and extend and lock your arms with a slight bend in the elbow joint. 

Brace your core and raise the plate slowly, exhaling on the way up until you have reached ap position level to your shoulders. Hold at this point for a second before lowering the plate, inhaling on the way down. Don't swing or allow your elbows to move, as this will reduce the tension on your muscles. 

front plate raise

Benefits Of Overhead Press Exercises 

A compound lift, at its essence, is a lift that uses multiple muscle groups. Famous ones are the squat, deadlift, and bench press, as well as the overhead press.  

The overhead press, being a compound lift, has many benefits. Firstly, you are going to massively increase the strength and size of the shoulder muscles, the triceps, and the traps as primary muscle groups. Compound lifts require a lot of stabilizer muscles to activate, too, so you will get added strength in the core, like your abs, obliques, and lower back. 

Finally, most compound lifts support each other. Doing an overhead press will result in a stronger bench press and vice versa and give you the confidence to lift heavier around the gym. 

Also Check Out - Overhead Press Vs Bench Press


Reasons To Modify Barbell Shoulder Presses 

The barbell shoulder press is one of those movements that require you to be in peak condition and optimum form. If you suffer from the following, you should alter your lifts to ensure you remain healthy and prevent further complications. Don't overdo it.

Lack Of Mobility

For some people, shoulder mobility will prevent them from being able to complete overhead presses with safe form or at all. If this is you, we recommend working on some stretching and conditioning exercises to loosen the muscles responsible for the tightness. 

Related Article - Why Is Stretching Important?

Pre-Existing Shoulder Pain 

If you have a shoulder injury or pain in the shoulders, you need to be really careful with the overhead press. As the press is a multi-joint movement, it has a high chance of injury, especially if the pain makes you unstable during the lift. If it hurts, don't do it.

Unnatural Movement 

For some people, the overhead press just feels like an unnatural movement, and that's okay. It isn't the only exercise that will help you build massive shoulders. If you feel uncomfortable, we recommend either seeking help from an experienced lifter or avoiding the movement. You don't want to drop a bar on your head, trust us.

To Target Specific Muscles 

You also might want to switch up your overhead press to get a better, stronger activation of different specific muscles. Shocking your body when you plateau is a great way to get things rolling again.


How To Change Technique For Barbell Shoulder Press

Here are some of the best ways to modify the barbell shoulder press into something more suitable for your specific needs. 

Change The Angle 

Changing the angle of your lifts and the bar path slightly is a great way to activate different parts of your muscles. Try this out slowly, don't change the angle too much on your first attempt at a variation, and increase it gradually for the safest results. 

Use Dumbbells 

Using dumbbells in your overhead press can serve two purposes. The first is to work on imbalances in your body. If you find one side of your body is stronger than the other, this is a great way to work on evening this out and preventing one side from falling further and further behind.

The second reason to use dumbbells is if the grip and stance necessary for barbell overhead press is uncomfortably for you or difficult to perform with your injuries or mobility. As you can change the grip and angle of each side without it being locked in, it can be much more comfortable. 

Use Fat Grips 

Fat grips are grips that go on your barbells that make it much thicker to grip. This mainly serves one purpose, to massively increase grip and forearm strength. We recommend waiting until you are pretty comfortable with your overhead press before utilizing them, however. 

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Use Pull-Downs 

Adding lat pull-downs can turn a normal overhead press into a superset where you hit your lats on the way back down. This is pretty advanced, and we recommend seeking the help of an experienced lifter to show you the correct form, as doing this incorrectly could be very, very dangerous. 

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What Muscles Do Overhead Press Exercises Work? 

So we know that the overhead press is a compound lift that utilizes a range of different muscle groups, but which muscles does it actually work? 

Anterior/Lateral/Posterior Deltoid 

The first group we are going to look at is the deltoids. These are made up of your front delts, the anterior deltoids, which help move your arm forward or reach to grab something, and your lateral delts that help you move your arms sideways and up and down. Your posterior delts help with extension as well as your external rotation of the shoulder. 

Trapezius 

Your trapezius helps you with both posture and movement, as well as allowing you to tilt your head up and down, left and right. For your shoulders, it gives you the ability to shrug and twist your torso. Your trapezius muscles are essential to maintaining a good posture.

Pectoralis Major 

Your pectoralis major, commonly referred to as the pecs, are the muscles on the front of your chest. It gives you the ability to pull your arm across your body and helps your rotator cuff in the shoulder create rotation. 

Core 

Your core muscles are essentially used for stabilization. You have your abdominal muscles in your stomach and your obliques. A strong core supports your other muscles during lifts and helps keep your posture strong and your spine supported. 

Triceps 

Your triceps are the biggest muscles in your arms and allow you to push things. Often gym users think obtaining large biceps will give them big arms, but with the triceps being so large, they are the easiest way to fill your shirt sleeves. 


People Also Ask (FAQs)

Is the overhead press the same as regular shoulder press? 

The overhead press and the shoulder press are both the same movement but with different names. 

Can you build big shoulders without an overhead press? 

Yes, you can build huge shoulders using different exercises, so don't get hung up if the overhead press simply isn't for you.  

Is standing overhead press better? 

It is neither better nor worse. Standing and military overhead press require more total body engagement, which might be better for your goals. Still, the seated press allows for better isolation of the shoulders and removes your legs from the equation. 

Why is the overhead press considered bad by some people? 

The overhead press is one of those exercises that is poorly done by many people, and when it is done badly, it has a high chance of causing injuries. The opinion it is bad is probably from inexperienced lifters who have injured themselves or experienced lifters who see a lot of injuries. Done correctly, it is a great move. 


Conclusion

There we have it. You now have some awesome alternatives to implement into your workout routine. Whether you are a beginner or a pro, using a range of different movements will stop you from getting bored and will keep your body on its toes, allowing for more shock and growth of the muscle fibers. 

Now go smash it! 

Paul J