Moving Toward Shoulder Sanity–Dumbbell Shoulder Press

One of our most abused areas are our shoulders. We can give them—the front part, especially—too much work, considering the obsession with things like bench press and other pushing exercises that constantly hit the anterior (front) portion of the deltoids (muscles of the shoulders). (though I, as your at home personal trainer, won’t be instructing you to do barbell bench presses as part of your home exercises, you can still abuse the shoulders in other chest pressing movements)

Even back exercises, like rows, can contribute to unstable shoulders and poor posture, such as excessive rounding (as you lower the weight too far). This not only will cause you less attractive appearance and muscle imbalances, but also opens the door to injury.

Further, our society’s tendency to sit for long hours at a computer, texting, etc adds tremendously to this forward lurching and shoulder rounding. As you can tell, the need for proper deltoid balance is tremendous today. Shortly, I will post on exercises specifically designed for this.

this shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive non-physical activity and abuse

shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive sedentary activity and abuse

The dumbbell shoulder press is an exercise that can either help your shoulders, or exacerbate the problem further. The more you point your elbows forward, the more you’ll work the front portion of your shoulder; the more you keep them pointed to the sides, the more you’ll hit the lateral (side) portion. You want to target this side area as one way to provide your deltoids some sound balance.

Preliminary Phase:

Test your ability to keep your elbows out to the side (called the frontal plane—think of the way your arms and legs travel in jumping jacks) of your body without any weights initially. Pretend you’re in the set position to lift weights (or any object) overhead. Your upper arms (humerus) should be roughly parallel with the ground (again, elbows out), palms facing forward. Now raise your arms as if you’re lifting said object overhead.

As you’re raising and then finishing lifting the arms as high as you comfortably can, are your elbows still mainly pointed to the side (frontal plane), or have they moved markedly forward to some degree?

My own elbows, at this juncture, tend to move a bit forward, not totally in the frontal plane anymore without extra warm up and careful stretching. To that end, I’m working on flexibility (another subject and article for the near future!). The more sideways from your body that you can safely maintain your elbows, the more you’ll be able to develop the side of your shoulders and, as a result, the less emphasis you’ll place on the front area, which as noted gets plenty of work automatically from other activities.

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

When you have these flexibility issues, it not only limits the level of overall deltoid development due to limited range of motion, but it also forces you to bend your torso back more than normal to keep the weight from moving too far forward. This can cause lower back discomfort.

Let’s assume you’re able to keep your elbows mainly out to the side as you raise your arms. You’re then ready to start your presses as part of your home workout.

Seating Considerations:

First, determine what you want to use for seating (we’ll assume seated presses for now, rather than standing). If you have a bench with a back support (or can raise the back of your bench up to at or near perpendicular), then great. You won’t be using your stabilizer (core) muscles like you would if you had no back support, but for some it’s safer to have it, and you can also focus more on hitting the deltoids hard.

If you don’t have a bench or chair with a solid back support and need something for your back, you may want to try sitting on the floor (legs crossed Indian-style) and against a wall. For lower back comfort and support, place a cushion of some kind between you and the wall. (*if needing to do presses from the floor, you may be  safer doing them one arm at a time, allowing for using your non-working arm to help hoist the weight into position)

Another option is to sit on an exercise ball or simply to find any firm seating (even if it doesn’t have a back support) that you can use to do your seated shoulder presses. Without a back support, you will need to really focus on engaging your core muscles, keeping them tight in order to ensure back safety.

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

Now that you have your platform for performing your shoulder presses, the question is how much weight do you want to use? A lot of folks use too much weight, which leads to either sloppy form to get the dumbbell up (and can aggravate shoulders and other areas). Others may decrease the distance their arms travel, ie shortening their range of motion. This also hurts your shoulder development. It’s far better to use a lighter weight, concentrate continually, and execute the movement fully and feel the deltoid muscles through the whole set.

Getting set for the movement:

There are multiple ways to get the weights you’ve now chosen into the set position (weights held up near neck level, perhaps touching shoulders lightly, prior to pushing them up toward the ceiling). If the weight you’re using is fairly light (it should be, especially if you’re not highly experienced and already using excellent form), then you can probably just hoist the weights from the floor into starting position as you sit back.

If you are on an exercise ball, though, you will need to ensure it’s “stable,” or you can fall off of it. So if using this to sit on for presses, it’s best to already have the weights in hand as you sit on the ball.

If said weights are on the heavier side, you can bring them to your knees first and then raise the knees up while also pulling upward with your arms simultaneously to hoist the weights into the starting position.

As to your starting position: many advocate starting with your upper arms parallel to the ground. I disagree, as this will give you a good tricep workout with some shoulder involvement, but you’ll be cheating yourself of some gains for those deltoids. Instead, start with your upper arm lowered to where the dumbbells are touching, but not resting on, your shoulders. This extra movement will give you significant additional deltoid growth.

though standing in this version, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

whether seated or standing for the shoulder press, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

Ensure your feet are firmly planted on the ground, both helping to provide you stability and also some extra power for lifting.

One last thing about the starting position: keep your shoulders back and down. This will help ensure you’re keeping your elbows out to the side, which again will help maximize lateral (side) shoulder development.

Executing the Lift:

Now, press the weights up, attempting to maintain a smooth trajectory upward. You may see that your arms start coming together naturally as you press the weights toward the ceiling. That’s totally acceptable, provided you avoid clanking the dumbbells together at the top, as you’ll lose tension on the shoulders if you do.

Press the weight up only as high as your arms naturally travel. If you feel (or see, if you have a mirror) yourself shrugging your trap muscles (those back muscles leading to the neck) and allowing your whole shoulder girdle to raise, then you’re going too far up. Just go until your arms no longer naturally can move up further.

Avoid locking out entirely, as you lose some of the tension in your shoulders as well as possibly aggravate your elbows, especially if you “pop” them up into the finished position. It’s better for you to stop just shy of that point to avoid those problems.

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

As you come back down, maintain control of the weights, actually resisting gravity with your shoulders. This should greatly enhance what you get out of the exercise. Sure, you’ll do less repetitions and/or weight, but what’s important is maximizing the stimulation your shoulders get. By also maintaining good form and a controlled pace, you’ll be protecting them as well.

To summarize:

*Determine your flexibility for doing the shoulder press and whether you need to focus more first on careful stretching before taking up the weights.

*Find an ideal place to perform your dumbbell shoulder presses

*Hoist the weights into position for pressing

*Press the weights overhead without going into a shrug

*Lower the weights back to your starting position under control by keeping your shoulders engaged fully

*After your set, place the weights back on the floor

As always, for home workouts we emphasize dumbbells over the barbell, partly for convenience of space, but also because, as legendary bodybuilder Dave Draper (“Blonde Bomber”) aptly states, “Dumbbells are much safer than restricted bar pressing ’cause they may be altered in motion to accommodate rotation cuff’s particular mechanical requirements. This is done by “feel” and focus to avoid abuse and to work around an injured or weaker area.”

Definitely! To sum what he says, focus first on safety and secondly on proper feel, always being aware of what you’re doing to help ensure your healthiest and maximal deltoid development.