overhead press

Whether it be a barbell military press, seated shoulder press or some other machine variation, a basic overhead press has always been considered the single best exercise for building overall shoulder size and thickness.

Most bodybuilders position them as the primary movement in their shoulder training routine, with other delt exercises such as side lateral and rear lateral raises being treated as more of an afterthought.

But are overhead presses really all they’re cracked up to be when it comes to packing size onto the shoulders, and are they a mandatory lift to include in your workout plan?

Although I know that many people won’t want to hear this and simply won’t agree, the plain fact is simple…

If you examine the mechanics behind this exercise, take a look at the muscles that are involved, and then factor it into your entire workout plan as a whole, you’ll actually see that overhead presses really aren’t offering you much from a pure muscle building perspective that basic compound chest exercises aren’t already giving you.

Now before I go any further, let me make something clear…

I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t do overhead presses, and I’m NOT saying that they aren’t a valuable movement to include in your workout plan. I still personally perform them, and I always include them in the workout plans that I design for my clients by default.

This is because I believe that training for muscle growth and total body strength is important, and overhead presses are a basic functional movement pattern that effectively contribute to a balanced and well-rounded training routine.

However, when it comes purely to the goal of building shoulder muscle, most people give this exercise far too much credit and emphasis.

Here’s why…

First off, as you may already know, your shoulder is made up of 3 individual heads: the anterior head (the front), the lateral head (the side) and the posterior head (the rear).

shoulder muscles

Although most people think of the overhead press as targeting the entire shoulder complex for overall mass, the truth is that this exercise really only trains the anterior head to a significant degree.

The lateral head does provide some assistance throughout the movement, but the majority of the stimulation will always be on that very front portion of the shoulder regardless of how you perform the exercise.

And there are two main reasons why this is important…

First of all, out of the 3 heads that make up the deltoid, the anterior head actually contributes the least to the appearance of round and muscular shoulders. This head sits directly in front of your body and does not really “stand out” like the other two heads do.

anterior deltoid

If you really want to develop a thick set of shoulders that give your upper body that impressively wide appearance, it’s actually the lateral head that is the most important portion to develop, with the posterior head also playing a smaller role as well.

And secondly, and even more importantly, the anterior head of the shoulder is already getting all of the stimulation it needs any time you perform a basic compound pressing exercise for chest.

Barbell presses, dumbbell presses, cable presses and machine presses all hit your front delts extremely hard, and far more often than not, performing additional work specifically for this head is simply unnecessary.

Not only is it unnecessary, but as I’ve discussed many times before, over-development of your front delts can actually become a significant injury risk if you aren’t careful.

Most lifters already have a clear imbalance between the development of the front head of the shoulder in comparison to the rear (usually due to an over-emphasis on chest and shoulder pressing), and this moves the shoulder joint out of optimal positioning and greatly increases the chances for a wide variety of injuries.

This is typically referred to as “rounded shoulder posture”, and it’s definitely something you’ll want to be aware of and avoid if you care about maintaining proper shoulder health over the long term.

rounded shoulder posture

So, when it all comes down to it, the facts are unavoidable…

1) Overhead pressing only significantly targets 1 out of the 3 individual heads of the shoulder.

2) The head that it does target (known as the “anterior head” or the “front delt”) does not play a very significant role in the appearance of wide and round shoulders.

3) This head is already receiving more than enough stimulation during compound pressing exercises for the chest anyway, and over-developing it can actually become an injury risk.

Yes, overhead pressing does target the triceps and upper back as well, but these muscles will also be hit more effectively and with more than enough stimulation on other exercises.

Now, what does this all mean from an actual practical standpoint?

A few basic things…

First of all, the primary benefit of an overhead press has more to do with total body strength and functionality than it does with maximizing muscle hypertrophy. No matter how you look at it, this lift just doesn’t do anything significant for you that you aren’t already getting from compound chest pressing alone.

Secondly, if you’re unable to include an overhead press in your routine due to a physical limitation of some kind, it’s unlikely to have any noticeable effect on your overall gains assuming that the rest of your plan is properly structured.

Thirdly, if you all you care about are aesthetics and you truly have no interest in developing functional overhead pressing strength, it’s unlikely to have any real noticeable effect if you decide to remove this exercise from your routine for whatever reason.

And fourth, developing big, muscular shoulders is going to come as a result of basic chest pressing for the anterior head, and more importantly, direct isolation work for the lateral head and posterior head.

The lateral head is best hit through the use of properly executed side lateral raises, while the posterior head is best hit using bent over rear lateral raises (using a cable rather than dumbbells) and face pulls. The posterior head will also receive some additional stimulation during rowing movements for your back.

Once again, I have nothing against the overhead press, and I personally perform it as well as recommend it to virtually everyone by default.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s automatically a “must have” exercise, or that it’s the most important movement out there for building up shoulder mass.

It does have its own unique benefits and is a great movement for improving total body strength and power, but from a pure bodybuilding perspective, it’s just not that important of an exercise.

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