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9 Overhead Press Alternatives for the Ultimate Body

The overhead press is a staple movement of most workouts. It’s a fundamental movement that will benefit almost everyone, but if you lack the sufficient mobility and stability to perform the exercise correctly and safely, it’s a potential injury waiting to happen.

I’m uniquely qualified to shed light on this. As well as being a personal trainer and weightlifting coach, I was a competitive weightlifter for years. 

Throughout my weightlifting days, I’d suffered fairly regular (every 6 months or so) neck/upper back/shoulder injuries, which I’d just put down to hard training. It was only when I saw a physical therapist for treatment did I learn how my lack of spinal and shoulder mobility was the root cause of my overhead movements turning into frequent injuries.

In this article I’ll share with you how I work around my overhead issues and the exercises I was able to do even when injured. Your shoulder and overhead strength won’t suffer as long as you use these exercises.

Overhead pressing – why it’s not for everyone

When we press a weight overhead, we’re not just using our shoulders and arms – we’re stabilizing the weight overhead too. 

This movement and stabilization requires strength in the shoulders and triceps to press the weight overhead, but then it also needs the scapulars to be able to move freely enough to allow the execution of effective technique. Your upper back and trapezius then work hard to keep the weight stable overhead.

The thoracic spine needs to be mobile enough to allow the head, shoulders and arms to move with the required freedom to execute the lift without issue. Your upper and lower traps, your rotator cuff muscles and your core need to be strong enough to perform the lift properly. It’s the epitome of a compound exercise. 

You need the shoulder mobility to allow free movement through a full range too. Overhead pressing is only possible if your shoulders allow it. If they don’t allow full movement other muscles compensate, potentially leading to overuse injuries.

If you are lacking in any of these areas, you risk injury. In fact, if you’ve ever suffered upper back, shoulder or neck pain when doing any form of overhead pressing, the likelihood is you have one of these issues. 

What at first glance appears to be a very simple movement is actually quite complex from a physiological point of view. There’s a lot of moving parts and muscle recruitment. 

Problems overhead pressing don’t always stem from tight muscles either. Previous injuries and shoulder surgeries may cause issues with the exercise, but don’t think you’re resigned to a life of weak shoulders that you’re unable to train them with overhead pressing. I’m going to give you a list of 9 overhead press alternatives that will allow you to build strong, functional shoulders, regardless of your issues.

If you feel like you need to strengthen your arms, consider having a look at our 7 tricep exercises to do at home.

What to do if you suffer injuries when overhead pressing

I’m going to approach this from two separate angles. The first one is a rehabilitative one. I want you to be able to lift pain free, so I want to show you the exercises I’ve used to correct my own overhead press issues.

The second one will show you the exercises I have used to still manage to strengthen my shoulders whilst I’m not ready to press weight overhead. They’re not merely substitute exercises, they’re legitimate exercises in their own right – they’ll benefit you whether or not you’re able to overhead press.

Shoulder movement and muscle anatomy

The shoulder is a very complex joint – it is surrounded by 8 muscles and is acted upon by many others, as you can see in the image below. It also has the greatest range of motion of all the joints in the body. 

Source

We can simplify this complex musculoskeletal junction by categorizing the shoulder into three distinct muscle regions…

  • Anterior deltoid (front)
  • Medial deltoid (middle)
  • Posterior deltoid (back)

So in order to functionally train the shoulders, we have to select exercises that will cover all of these muscles and as many planes of movement as possible. An overhead press primarily trains the anterior and medial deltoid, so that is where much of our focus will lie.

Before that though, I’d urge you to go through these exercises that will help you to activate and strengthen the traps and rhomboids, which help with stabilizing the shoulders during overhead movements…

Next up, you have to improve your thoracic spine mobility. Here’s a fantastic video that will show you just how to do this…

One other aspect of thoracic spine mobility is rotation. By improving your thoracic spine mobility, you’ll be more able to lift overhead without discomfort…

Once you have gone through these corrective exercises for a few weeks, you’ll be more able to perform overhead presses without any issue. If you want to push serious weight over head again I’d really urge you to go perform these exercises regularly. It’s always better to fix a problem than ignore it. 

Overhead press alternatives

These exercises will cover all aspects of shoulder training. They’ll hit the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids across a number of different movement patterns, making sure your shoulders are thoroughly trained. Some of the exercises will work through a large range of movement, others less so. 

Collectively though, they’ll cover all of the movements and muscles of the shoulder joint.

American kettlebell swings

The American kettlebell swing divides opinion, especially amongst kettlebell purists. Personally, I like it. I like the huge range of motion, the fact that it trains the shoulders without relying on them to work against too much resistance, and I like the compound element of the lift. There’s also excellent functional fitness benefits to the exercise.

Equipment needed for American kettlebell swings:

  • Kettlebell

How to do American kettlebell swings:

  1. Hold the kettlebell with both hands in an overhand grip
  2. Keeping your back straight, tilt your hips back and drive them forward using your glutes – this puts momentum into the kettlebell
  3. Swing hard, so the kettlebell is almost immediately overhead – just don’t lean too far back and risk the kettlebell going behind you!
  4. At the top of the swing, squeeze your glutes together hard
  5. Keep your legs mostly straight throughout the whole exercise – the only joints to move a lot are the hips and shoulders
  6. Repeat as many times as required

American kettlebell swings muscles worked:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Lower back
  • Core
  • Shoulders

Incline dumbbell bench press

Equipment needed for incline dumbbell bench press:

How to do incline dumbbell bench presses:

  1. Set the bench to an incline – the steeper the incline, the more the shoulders are used. The flatter it is, the more the chest works
  2. Lie back and bring the dumbbells to either side of your chest
  3. When the dumbbells are stable, press them away from you until your arms are fully extended
  4. Slowly return the dumbbells to the start position, making sure your range of motion is enough to make your chest stretch
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Incline dumbbell bench press muscles worked:

  • Chest
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Triceps

Landmine press

This is one of my go-to overhead exercises when my shoulders are giving me a few problems. I like it because the fixed point means I’m not supporting much weight, I’m just pressing it. I’m also not going directly overhead, recruiting the traps – the movement is all in front of me. Compare this with an overhead press where there’s a pressing, stabilizing and upper back recruitment. 

Equipment needed for landmine press:

  • Landmine attachment (or plate in the corner of the room)
  • Barbell
  • Plates

How to do landmine press:

  1. Stand leaning slightly forwards, keeping your core tight. Take the loaded barbell in your hand.
  2. Maintaining the forward lean, press the barbell away from you.
  3. When your arm is at full extension, return it to the starting position.
  4. Resist rotating your torso by keeping your core tight throughout the movement.
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Landmine press muscles worked:

  • Chest
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Triceps

Alternating dumbbell power snatches

Of all the exercises on this list, I’d suggest this one is the most versatile – you can use it with a heavy weight for strength gains. You can go moderate weight for muscle building, or it’s just as at home in a conditioning workout. Although it’s an overhead exercise, the momentum comes from the legs, so it’s not a pressing exercise. This exercise will also help to build overhead range of movement if you need it to.

Equipment needed for alternating dumbbell power snatches:

  • Dumbbells

How to do alternating dumbbell power snatches:

  1. Set a dumbbell between your feet
  2. Take an overhand grip, squat slightly and drive up with the legs, putting upward momentum into the dumbbell
  3. Use the momentum to carry the dumbbell up, then lift it the rest of the way overhead
  4. Once the dumbbell is overhead, drop it to the floor under control
  5. Switch sides and repeat
  6. Continue for as many reps as required

Alternating dumbbell power snatches muscles worked:

  • Legs
  • Core
  • Lower back
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Medial deltoid
  • Triceps

Shoulder push ups

There are plenty of push up benefits.

The shoulder push up variation is a perfect ‘gateway’ exercise to rebuild overhead strength and stability. It mimics the movement of an overhead press, but the range of movement and weight are reduced, making it easier on delicate shoulders. It’s also not especially technically challenging and has minimal risk, unlike handstand push ups.

Equipment needed for shoulder push ups:

  • Mat

How to do shoulder push ups:

  1. Placing your hands and feet on a mat, push your hips up to create a downward-facing ‘triangle’
  2. Keeping control and stability throughout, bend your elbows and lower your head towards the floor
  3. When your head almost reaches the floor, press yourself away, maintaining the triangle shape throughout
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary

Shoulder push ups muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Upper chest
  • Medial deltoid
  • Anterior deltoid

Push press

Just like the power snatches, the push press can be used as an alternative to the overhead press because it doesn’t require a huge amount of pressing – a lot of the work is done by the legs. The legs generate upward momentum in the bar, allowing you to reduce the amount of pushing. The stabilizing of the bar overhead is minimal too, allowing you to use this as a ‘return’ to overhead press exercise.

Equipment needed for push press:

How to do push press:

  1. Assume a rack position with the barbell – bar on your chest, elbows up, triceps parallel to the floor
  2. Maintain core rigidity throughout
  3. Keeping your torso upright, dip your knees and drive the bar upwards with your legs
  4. Using the momentum from the leg drive, push the bar overhead
  5. When the bar is overhead, quickly pause then ‘drop’ the bar back into the rack position – don’t try to control the bar down
  6. Repeat as many times as required

Push press muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Upper chest
  • Medial deltoid
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Core
  • Legs

Reverse fly

This a classic bodybuilding exercise for good reason – it hits the rear deltoids very well. I like it as a supporting exercise for the shoulders. I don’t suggest you rely on it, but as part of an overall overhead press alternative shoulder workout, we need to hit the rear delts. This is easily performed in a home gym too. 

Equipment needed for reverse fly:

  • Dumbbells

How to do reverse fly:

  1. Take a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Bend at the hips, keeping your back straight
  3. With your arms straight and pointing directly below you, use your rear deltoids and upper back to lift the weights out to the sides
  4. At the top squeeze the upper back muscles together
  5. Slowly return to the start position
  6. Repeat as many times as necessary

Reverse fly muscles worked:

  • Rear deltoids
  • Upper trapezius

Lateral raises

The dumbbell lateral raise is a shoulder exercise almost everyone would have seen before. It has been popular in the bodybuilding world for years and hits the medial deltoid effectively. It’s also a very simple exercise to do, with a range of movement that can be adjusted depending on your shoulder movement capability.

Equipment needed for lateral raises:

  • Dumbbells

How to do lateral raises:

  1. Take a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Lean forward slightly – this helps to lock the lower back into place and prevent over-leaning
  3. With an overhand grip, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side, going as high as you comfortably can
  4. When you reach the top of the movement, pause for a split second 
  5. Slowly return to the start position
  6. Repeat as many times as necessary

Lateral raises muscles worked:

  • Medial deltoids

Banded external shoulder rotations

There’s a few benefits to this exercise. The first one is that it serves as an excellent warm up for the shoulders. The second is that if your shoulders are sore, it’ll help repair them. The third one is that it’s a classic prehab exercise – doing this regularly will prevent shoulder injuries in the first place. Finally, it trains the shoulders through a full range of motion and it’s easy to do with minimal equipment.

Equipment needed for banded external shoulder rotations:

  • Thick resistance band
  • Anchor point

How to do banded external shoulder rotations:

  1. With an end in each hand, lift your arms up (so your elbows are up to shoulder height) and pull the band towards your torso with an overhand grip
  2. Once your elbows are in line with your torso, keep them there. They stay upright and don’t move from that position
  3. Your elbows should be up and forearms should be flat and parallel to the floor
  4. With your elbows locked in position, rotate your hands upwards, pulling the band as you do
  5. Once your hands are pointing directly upwards, pause and slowly return your hands and forearms to the ‘flat’ position you started in
  6. Repeat as many times as necessary

Banded external shoulder rotations muscles worked:

  • Trapezius
  • Anterior, posterior and medial deltoids

Overhead press alternatives – the bottom line

The shoulders can be a notoriously difficult area of the body to train. Their huge range of movement coupled with complex anatomy means that they’re both susceptible to injury and capable of lots of movement. You have to think about your shoulder training if you want to prevent injury.

With so many exercises to choose from, shoulder training can be a confusing topic. Hopefully in this I’ve cleared up what you can and should be doing.

Even if you can’t do overhead presses for whatever reason – injury, mobility, previous surgery etc, you’ve got plenty of new options and overhead press alternatives to go with here from this list. They’re all suitable in a home gym, so your shoulder training won’t fall short because of your inability to overhead press!

If you want extra proof of why regular exercise is important, check out our article on benefits of exercise.

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Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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