By Jimmy Peña MS, CSCS
We know what you’re thinking: What move could possibly be better than the overhead press for shoulder size? And while we understand your skepticism, we also know that there are variations of the great one
that can make your gains in delt width and overall mass so much better. All you have to do is give them a try in order to expose the muscle fibers of your shoulders to different stresses and stimuli from one week to the next. In other words, if your shoulder routine is always one big dose of old-fashioned barbell presses, this article is about to shake up and overhaul the way you train delts.
As a way of quick review, the shoulder is composed of three heads: the front, middle and rear delts. When you perform an overhead press to the front of your head, you’re using mainly the middle and front delts, as well as the trapezius muscle that runs from your neck down the center of your back. But the emphasis each muscle gets can be altered dramatically depending on the version of the overhead press or techniques employed.
We’ve assembled four overhead press variations that all have the essential elements of the standard overhead press but with striking differences in form, which will stress and target your musculature in dramatically different ways. With all that your shoulders are capable of and with the various tools at your disposal, it’s fair to say that after you try the moves, your delts will grow like never before.
1. Standing Overhead Barbell Press
Would the real overhead press please stand up? That’s our first request as we dive into these variations of a classic. We want you to do this move from a standing position — not seated. At first, you may be forced to use a lighter weight than you’d use for seated overhead presses, but once your lower back strengthens through adaptation, you’ll be able to lift as much — and likely much more — weight standing as you do when you’re seated. While this may not seem plausible, just ask a dozen Olympic lifters if they’re stronger from a standing or seated position and you’ll get the same answer from each one. The fact is, with the standing version your entire body is involved in moving a ton of weight overhead.
First of all, the most powerful portion of your body — your legs — are nonexistent during the seated version, despite the fact that many seated overhead press stations have foot plates/bars to press against. Because you’re seated, your lower back and legs are, for lack of a better term, at rest. But when you stand up, you immediately engage your entire body. From a standing position, your legs and knees absorb the downward shock of the movement, and you can use your legs to help propel the bar back overhead on each rep. Again, once your lower back (not to mention your abs and transverse abdominis (think core) strengthen and combine with the contribution of the legs, you’re immediately able to press more weight overhead. As you increase that weight, your shoulders and arms become bigger and stronger as they adapt to the increased overload and stress. In fact, dare we say that after you’ve adapted to the standing version, you may never want to perform the seated version again. Gasp, the thought!
With standing moves, a slight thrust can help you push heavier weights than when done seated.
2. Overhead Dumbbell Press
For all the benefits the traditional overhead barbell press affords, the dumbbell version keeps pace stride for stride. And if you’ve been married to the bar for weeks, months or even years, it’s probably time to head to the dumbbell rack.
One of the biggest benefits of dumbbells is that they allow a greater or freer range of motion than the barbell counterpart. Since both hands can move in any direction, you can move your arms out to your sides a bit to better focus on the middle delts, or even bring your arms more to the front (think of the Arnold press) to better recruit the front delts. At the top of the range of motion, with dumbbells you can actually lift your arms higher as you bring the weights together at the top.
What that means is that your delts are recruited for a longer period of time and through a greater range motion with dumbbells than during an overhead barbell press. And with that increased ROM and time under tension comes the recruitment of the traps, which act to raise the shoulder blades, indicating the need to recruit more stabilizer muscles to perform the dumbbell move. So, more total muscle fibers are hard at work to perform the overhead press when using dumbbells than when using the bar.
The dumbbell version is more difficult than using the barbell, so it recruits more muscle fibers for a longer range of motion.
3. Behind-The-Neck Press
Your functional-minded personal trainer may want to cover his delicate ears or perhaps skip this section because we’ll be discussing the behind-the-neck press. Ready? Okay. So doing presses to the front, as in the standard overhead press, forces you to keep your elbows slightly forward, thus involving more of the front deltoid head and slightly less of the middle deltoid head. For those looking to gain width in their shoulders, helping provide a greater V-taper, putting more stress on the middle delts is actually the key factor.
Thus, when doing presses behind the neck, your elbows move out to your sides to a greater degree than with presses to the front, and because of this, the middle delts are involved to a much greater degree than they are with front barbell presses. Consider the front raise and lateral raise for a second. When you perform front raises, in which your elbows move in front of your body, you involve more of your front delts than your middle delts. When you do lateral raises, in which your elbows move out to your sides, you involve more of your middle delts. The same goes for the standard and behind-the-neck versions of the press, both having everything to do with the position of your elbows relative to your body.
Now, if you have pre-existing shoulder or cervical spine issues, you’ll obviously need to avoid this version, but for the healthy individual, the behind-the-neck overhead press is absolutely safe. The key is learning to incorporate both versions into your routine rather than sticking to just one.
Because your arms are further out to your sides, more stress is placed on the middle delt.
4. The Partial Overhead Press
Probably one of the most underused versions of the overhead press is the partial press. Many bodybuilders shy away from anything less than a full range of motion (ROM), and while we believe in a full ROM, the “purist” could gain a lot from working his way to the power rack. There are literally too many positive aspects of the partial press to define in this space, but let us note just a few.
First and most obvious, the bar isn’t going to crash down upon your head nor will you have to struggle to rack the weight after failure (and we’ve all been there). With the partial press, you set the safeties at a certain point along the ROM and limit the move to that safe and shortened mark. When the set is over (failure), you simply rest the bar atop the safeties. Such mental confidence will go a long way when you’re trying to pack on more delt mass.
In fact, that added confidence factor actually brings us to the next main point, which is simply the amount of stress or weight you can place upon your shoulders in a partial environment. You may be working within a shorter range of motion, but your delts have the capacity to lift more weight partially than they can through a full ROM, and it’s time you put that truth to good use. More weight + increased fiber damage = greater gains.
Finally, is the idea of progression. You can adjust the safeties from week to week as you gain strength at each level. That increase in partial strength will eventually help your overall, full-range strength and size. And as you get stronger and more adept at using the partial mentality, you’ll eventually employ techniques such as reverse movements (in which you momentarily settle the bar on the bars to eliminate the stretch reflex, or elastic energy) and rest-pause tactics with greater efficiency. Those attributes allow the partial press to be instrumental in helping you achieve your objective of getting boulder, sleeve-busting shoulders.
By shortening the range of motion, you can use much more weight than you normally would.