Do Overhead Presses Hurt Your Shoulders? Try These Instead

By K. Aleisha Fetters, C.S.C.S. |

Even if this exercise doesn’t cause pain, it might be smart to try an alternative. Here’s why.

Older man doing incline pushups

The overhead press shows up in a lot of workouts. But that doesn’t mean you should be doing it. 

Why? Because it requires proper biomechanics or it could increase the risk of shoulder pain and injury, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and author of Smarter Workouts  

The overhead shoulder press is a complicated move, he says. Many people have learned to do it incorrectly or just don’t have the shoulder and spinal mobility to do the exercise with tip-top form. For example, “many older adults have kyphosis of the thoracic spine — a fancy way of saying bad posture or slouched shoulders,” McCall says. When trying to press a weight overhead from this position, your upper body can’t move in a safe and effective way. 

So should any older adults be doing overhead presses? If you can do the overhead press comfortably and a trainer or physical therapist confirms your form is excellent, you might be cleared to do it. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a good idea to swap in an alternative shoulder strengthener, McCall says.  

That’s where these three exercises come in handy. They all strengthen the muscles in and around your shoulders, with less risk of problems due to poor form. 

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How to Use These Shoulder Exercises

You can pick one exercise to swap in for overhead presses whenever a workout or group fitness class calls for them, or do all three exercises together for a focused shoulder workout. For the latter, do the prescribed number of reps and sets for each exercise in order, resting 30 to 60 seconds in between sets (longer if needed).  

As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition or an injury, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely. 

Shoulder Exercise #1: Wall Pushups 

By keeping your body at an incline, this move requires less shoulder and spinal mobility. That translates to being able to push the weight (your body) up while keeping your back in a safe, neutral position (no arching). 

Do 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps 

Stand facing the wall with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Place your palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart on the wall. Bend your elbows and lower your upper body toward the wall, keeping your core tight so your body stays in a line (no dipping in your back). Pause, and then press back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do two sets of 8 to 10 reps, resting 30 to 60 seconds in between sets.  

Make it harder: Take a step back so you have to push more bodyweight away from the wall. Still too easy? Perform the pushups on your knees or in a traditional pushup position. 

Another great way to build strength in your shoulders and upper body? Take a SilverSneakers Circuit class! It’s offered both in-person at participating SilverSneakers fitness locations (review the gym’s schedule for exact times), or online with SilverSneakers LIVE. See the latest SilverSneakers LIVE schedule and RSVP for classes here. 

Shoulder Exercise #2: Scaption Shoulder Raise 

This joint-friendly exercise challenges the muscles in the front and sides of your shoulders. It’s also a great substitute for front and side shoulder raises. 

 Do 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps 

Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms down at your sides, palms facing in, and elbows slightly bent. Bracing your core and keeping your torso stationary, lead with your thumbs to raise the weights diagonally in front of your body until your arms are parallel to the floor. Your arms should form a wide V. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform two sets of 12 to 15 reps.  

Make it harder: Pause for two or three seconds at the top of each rep.  

Make it easier: Perform the shoulder raises without weights. 

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Shoulder Exercise #3: Internal and External Shoulder Rotation 

This exercise duo is a great way to add strength and stability to the muscles in your rotator cuff. These muscles are in charge of keeping your shoulder blades in the proper position, and since they’re often neglected, they can become weak and prone to injury. 

Do 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps per side 

Grab a light dumbbell in your right hand, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. With your arm bent about 90 degrees, position your right elbow on the right side of your torso. You should feel gentle contact.  

Making sure your elbow stays in contact with your side, rotate your right arm across the front of your body. Pause, then slowly rotate your arm out as far as you comfortably can. That’s one rep.  

Focus on initiating the rotation from your shoulder, not your wrist or elbow. Perform two sets of 12 to 15 reps per side, resting for 30 to 60 seconds in between sets. 

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