There is something undeniably powerful about having big, defined shoulders.
It contributes to the coveted V-shaped physique, adds definition to the arm and is a sure sign of immense pushing power. Strong shoulders will improve your other pressing lifts, not to mention how you look in and out of clothes.
Over the years I tried a lot of things to build up my shoulders and without a doubt one of the keys was increasing my strength on the shoulder press. What follows are 12 tips I’ve used to lift more and build bigger shoulders, now it’s your turn.
Apply Progressive Overload with Micro Loading
Hopefully, you’re fully aware of the term progressive overload and have read about it in either one of my other lifting tip articles (chest, legs) or somewhere else.
Progressive overload is one of the most important factors when it comes to making progress over the long-term and is the intentional act of keeping your body challenged every time it begins to adapt to the stimulus you put it under.
For example, if you’re performing 3 sets of standing barbell military press using 50 kg for 6 reps and you complete all 3 sets of 6 reps with a couple of reps left in the tank, then it’s time to increase the weight again, as your body has adapted to the load and it no longer provides the necessary stimulus for growth.
Now, when you first start working out, come back after a lay-off or switch to a new exercise you’ll find you can increase the weight on the bar week in and week out with little problem. However, as you move from a beginner to advanced lifter you’ll struggle to continue adding 5 kg to the bar every session.
When this happens, you’ll want to switch to using micro loading to continue applying progressive overload and making progress. As the name suggests, this means adding a smaller amount to the bar each time you complete your set and rep goal, for example instead of adding 5 kg to the bar weekly, you’ll find you’ll be adding 3 kg, 2.5kg or even 2 kg every couple of weeks.
By doing this you’ll continue to make strength and muscle gains by adding weight to the bar.
It should be pretty clear to all that to add weight to the bar you need to get stronger and to get stronger you need to train for strength. A research study (1) set out to see what number of repetitions would result in the fastest improvement in strength.
They took 199 male college students and split them into 9 groups. Each group trained with different repetitions per set from the following set of repetitions; 2RM, 4RM, 6RM, 8RM, 10RM & 12RM. They were tested before and after completing a 12-week progressive programme and researchers concluded that the optimum number of repetitions for strength was between 3 and 9 reps.
What does this mean?
If you want to lift more with your shoulder press then you need to train that movement for strength. Whether you train just for strength with sets of 3 reps or build it a little slower with sets of 6 or 8 reps is up to you.
Never underestimate the power of the mind when it comes to lifting something heavy. A simple change in thinking from “no way, that’s too heavy” to “I’m going to crush this” can make a huge difference.
- Research shows that using tools like visualisation (2) where you picture yourself completing the lift successfully can improve performance in strength training. In addition, an extensive review of the research (3) concluded that “mental practice has a positive and significant effect on performance.”
- Further research (4) shows that negative imagery has been shown to deteriorate performance whilst consistent positive imagery has shown to improve performance, thus demonstrating the importance of removing thoughts of not being able to complete the lift or seeing yourself narrowly missing completion.
So, next time you’re about to do your first set, take some time to visualise yourself performing it, think about how it will feel and picture yourself completing the lift successfully. You’ll be surprised at the effect this can have on your performance.
Wear the Right Shoes
When I first started training I didn’t put much stock in the different the type of footwear I used that I could have and maybe you’re the same way. I mean a shoe is a shoe right, what difference does it make? …well actually quite a lot.
Wearing the wrong footwear can decrease your stability, balance and power, thus increasing your risk of injury, but wearing the correct footwear can have the opposite effect and actually increase your performance by providing a secure and stable base for you to generate power and balance.
This doesn’t mean you need to get yourself a pair of Olympic lifting shoes but it does mean you should consider wearing something with flat, solid soles like Converses or something similar instead of the squishing padded heels often found in running shoes.
Increase Tricep Strength
When performing the shoulder press, your shoulders are obviously the primary movers and should be the focus of your lift when working on your mind the muscle connection. Think about how they feel throughout the movement and really try to ‘feel’ them working.
However, they are not the only muscles contributing to the lift, your triceps are also active as secondary muscles in the lift. To lift more weight with the shoulder press you also want to spend some time working the triceps directly to increase the weight they can handle which will in turn make your shoulder press stronger.
Good exercises to do this are:
- Skull Crushers
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Weighted Dips
- Overhead Extensions
- Rope Pull Downs
Of course, the shoulder press itself will help improve tricep strength but if you find they become a limiting factor in how much you can press then try focusing on building tricep strength.
Get Your Hand Position Right
Hand grip when training the shoulder press can either make or break your lift.
Too wide or too narrow and you’ll struggle to generate the necessary strength to get the bar up and over your head whilst also increasing the risk of putting undue stress on the shoulders. Instead you want to place your hands just outside of the shoulders so that your wrists are straight and your forearms are vertical. This puts you in the optimal position to push from and sets you up right from the get go.
Get into the Proper Stance
Once you’ve gripped the bar with the correct hand position and stepped out of the rack you need to get your stance right in order to provide a stable base to push from.
You have 2 main options here.
- The first is to keep the feet parallel, set between hip and shoulder width apart, this stance is wide enough to provide balance and stability when pressing. If you bring the feet too close together you’ll struggle with balance and too wide will make the lift feel awkward and difficult as you won’t be able to transfer as much power through the legs.
- The second option is split or stagger the stance with one foot slightly in front of the hips one on slightly behind. In this stance, you still want to keep the feet between hip and shoulder width apart.
As to which you should use, it comes down to personal preference but you should experiment with both to see which provides you with the most stable support base. Remember, a stable base means more confidence, more pushing power and more strength.
Vary Your Rep Ranges
Varying your rep ranges is a fantastic tool to help your break through a strength plateau and continue making progress. For the majority of the time you’ll be perfectly fine training within a set rep range and applying progressive overload by micro-loading but there will inevitably come a point where you struggle to add any weight to the bar.
It’s at this point you could vary your rep ranges to help you break through this strength plateau and get things moving again. You have a couple of options:
- Lower your reps and increase the weight
- Increase the reps but lower the weight
Do either of this things for a couple of weeks should help provide the stimulus you need to break through the strength plateau and get you back on track when you go back to your usual rep range and weight.
Avoid the Smith Machine
To understand why you should avoid the smith machine first you need to be clear on the path the bar should take when shoulder press.
Once your hand grip and lifting stance has been set the bar should start underneath your chin. From this position if you were to press the bar up it would hit up in the chin, so as you begin to press the bar straight up, push the hips forward slightly so you can tilt the head back and allow the bar to travel up just in front of your face.
Continue to press upwards until your arms reach the locked-out position, from here push your head through the gap created by the arms. Keep your core and glutes tight through to help provide stability and power.
Bring the bar back down should mimic the path the bar took on the way up.
Although the bar takes a pretty strict vertical route during the military press it’s still not recommended to use the smith machine to perform this lift.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- The smith machine reduces the work of the smaller stabilisers muscles
- The smith machine uses a fixed bar path which doesn’t allow for natural movement
- Research (5) shows that the smith machine is inferior to a barbell for both bench pressing and squatting. It’s only reasonable to assume the same of the shoulder press.
For better strength gains stick to either the barbell or dumbbell shoulder press and avoid the smith machine.
Improve Mobility & Flexibility
There are several issues brought about by a lack of mobility and flexibility when it comes to the shoulder press but probably the most common is a lack of flexibility in the thoracic spine which prevents your shoulders from going into full flexion and results in your pushing the weight out in front of your head rather overhead.
This lack of mobility in the shoulders also results in a hyperextension of the lower back to compensate which turns the shoulder press into more of a standing incline bench, putting undue stress of the lower back which can result in injuries over time. If this sums up your shoulder press, don’t worry there are drills you can do to fix this and any other mobility issues you’re struggling with.
A fantastic resource to help you address any mobility issues when pressing overhead is this blog post by Eric Cressey. Check it out if you’re struggle with your mobility.
Warm Up Properly
You wouldn’t do a set of sprints without warming up first and the same should go for weightlifting. If you try to go straight into your working set without warming up you’ll find your strength and performance will be diminished, not to mention your chance of injury will skyrocket.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to go and jog on the treadmill for 10 minutes before getting started, but it does mean you should warm up the specific muscles you’ll be training by using a progressive warm up that preps the body for the movement you’ll be doing and the weight you’ll be using.
Here’s how to do it:
8 reps with the bar
1 min rest
5 reps with 50% working weight
1 min rest
3 reps with 70% working weight
1 min rest
1 rep with 90% working weight
1 min rest
That’s it. If after pressing, you’re moving onto another upper body pressing exercise there is no need to warm up as you’ll be plenty warm by that point. However, if you’re moving onto another body part then run through the warm up for that before jumping right in.
Rest & Recover
In my opinion, this is often one of the most overlooked aspects of building strength. Sure, everyone knows about training and most pay attention to nutrition but you mustn’t forget about the importance about rest and recovery too.
It’s the time that you’re away from the gym that your body begins to rebuild and repair the damaged caused by training and it’s this process that allows you to get bigger and stronger. If you skimp on your sleep, train too often and never give yourself some time off, you’ll soon find that your strength fades and you struggle to maintain your workouts.
Research shows that a reduction in sleep can result in significant effect on performance, particularly in the big compound movements. Granted the study had participants sleeping for only 3 hours for 3 nights in a row but it goes to illustrate that a reduction in sleep can have a noticeable impact on your performance, even if it’s not as drastic as that in the study (6).
There you have it 12 ways to get a bigger, better shoulder workout and add weight to your shoulder press.
If you’ve been looking for a list of tools to level up your overhead strength then here it is, maybe not all the tools will be useful for you but experiment and use the ones you are to improve your performance.