How to Build Big Shoulders, Minus The Pain

5 Presses for Irritated Shoulders


Are you a gym warrior with beaten-up shoulders? Or are you just trying to stay active when you're experiencing major shoulder issues? Either way, pressing doesn't have to equal pain. You don't even have to press directly overhead.

There are two common misconceptions about shoulder training:

  • Any forward angle of pressing only targets the front delts. (Nope.)
  • Middle delt training must have widely flared elbows pressed or raised straight upward. (Also nope.)

Instead, your front and middle delt heads work together during all pressing angles with some shift in emphasis. You can effectively train your middle delts with some forward angle in your pressing. This is important if wide angles and direct overhead movement cause shoulder pain or discomfort.

For the gym warriors, there are three big pressing options that'll keep you growing. And for the everyday athlete trying to stay in the game after shoulder issues, we've included several kneeling variations to improve your shoulder strength and durability.

This press allows you to keep your heavy training intensity with all but the most damaged shoulders.

  • Set a power rack's safety arms at shoulder height.
  • Set the far arm one setting higher than the close arm.
  • Place small plates on the far ends of both barbells as they rest across the arms, with the plates braced against the inside of the far arm. This keeps your bars from sliding off as you press.
  • Load the closer end and press both bars simultaneously. The bars move in an upward and slightly forward arc.
  • Grasp the end of the bars with wrist and elbow stacked and your shoulder blades depressed and retracted. Allow your shoulder blades to upwardly rotate as you press.
  • Retract and depress your shoulder blades with each negative rep. Brace your abs like you're expecting a punch to avoid hyperextending your lower back.

Secure one end of a barbell in a corner or on a landmine base. This version allows heavily loaded progressive shoulder training and doubles as a chest training tool.

  • Grasp the bar symmetrically with both hands.
  • Press your palms together and the weight upward, engaging your shoulders, triceps, and chest.
  • Allow your shoulder blades to move with the press, upwardly rotating at the top of your press, then draw them down and together at the bottom. Your elbows may want to flare through the negative, so focus on keeping them tucked to your body as you pull your shoulder blades down.
  • Flex your abs to prevent excess arching through the press. Arching means poor core control as you attempt to use a chest dominant pressing angle.

Sometimes all you need to make a movement pain free is to start the weight and your elbow toward the midline of your chest and outwardly rotate as you press overhead. The classic Arnold press uses this rotational pattern.

  • Start with the weights together at your chest with palms facing you. Your shoulder blades begin depressed and drawn back before upwardly rotating with your pressing motion.
  • Rotate your elbows outward as the weight rotates 180-degrees from bottom to top, finishing with your palms facing forward.
  • Maintain constant upward movement as your shoulder rotates.
  • Alternate sides, pressing one as the opposite rests.
  • If you have overhead mobility restriction, do these seated at a slight decline from a 90-degree bench angle to allow pain-free movement.

The average lifter could use a boost in hip joint mobility and core strength, so the half-kneeling position is the perfect fit.

Landmine Half-Kneeling Viking Press

Landmine Half-Kneeling One-Arm Press

  • Lock down your ribs, engage your core, and open up one hip while the other leg works to keep your hips stable.
  • Start with a bilateral (two-arm) overhead pressing motion first. A neutral grip set-up with a Viking attachment or similar apparatus will work best.
  • Squeeze the handles rather tightly, press up into the overhead position, lock out the elbows, and reach up. That's the key: reaching. The landmine set-up works really well here. It allows you to reach up due to the angled barbell orientation... plus a bunch of physics concepts and lever arms that take too much explaining. Just know that it works pretty damn well.

Next up would be to implement a single-arm overhead pressing action. With this comes a bit of an anti-rotation demand on the trunk and core muscles.

However, the same rules apply: squeeze, press up, lock the elbows out, and most importantly, reach. Now, you can add in a bit of a forward lean as well to enhance your ability to reach up. You'll see this occurring in the videos in a very subtle way.

But don't get carried away with leaning too far forward. Think about leaning far enough forward to allow your pressing arm to get up into the overhead position. We're literally talking about a few centimeters at best.

You can use one or both arms. Both variations work well.

Landmine Tall Kneeling Viking Press

Landmine Tall Kneeling One-Arm Press

Hip extension is something that iron athletes need for overall functionality and health. Extending the hips though, as seen in something like the deadlift in the top position, isn't an action that most folks do on a routine basis.

This is exactly why the tall kneeling position is absolutely money from a low back and hip health standpoint. It allows you to sneak in an important quality of movement in the extension of the hips while also performing the desired lift within the overhead pressing motion.

Although you can extend the hips in the tall kneeling position, your trunk and hips still need to work hard to maintain the position. The goal is to squeeze the glutes hard. Imagine cracking a walnut with your butt cheeks. Silly? Definitely. Effective? Highly.

Avoid arching at the low back and flaring the ribcage. Instead, lock your ribs down and brace your core as if you were about to get punched in the stomach. That's the sturdy base of support you want to press from.

The last piece to touch upon is overhead pressing motion. Start with a bilateral press, then advance to the single-arm press. For the best results, continue to squeeze hard, press up, lock the elbows out at the top, and reach up. Your low back and hips should be as still as a statue.

Andrew Coates is a trainer who is focused on strength development for everyday people and young athletes. He’s a fitness writer, speaker, and host of The Lift Free and Diet Hard Podcast.

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