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February 16, 2022 7 min read

Training your shoulders is important for a balanced and strong upper body. It can help improve your posture and stability, and not to mention it can help make your arms look good. The shoulder press, which is also known as the military press or overhead press, is one of the best ways to help build muscle, strength, and stability in the shoulders. 

Strength training is important for healthy joints, muscles, and the body overall, but it's only effective when done properly. There are several benefits that the shoulder press can provide, but if your form is off, you can risk injury or results.    

Why Do We Need Healthy Shoulders?

Having healthy shoulders doesn't just mean you're feeding them broccoli, it also means you're training them regularly and properly. You may be all about training legs and glutes, but neglecting the shoulders could lead to pain, poor posture, and injury.

Studies suggest that more than a third of sports-related injuries are in the upper body and that approximately 29% are sports-related shoulder injuries. The other percent is considered non-sports related, all of which included shoulder dislocations, soft tissue injuries, and fractures. 

Although shoulder injuries are common, keeping the shoulders strong can help reduce your risk of one happening. Studies suggest that strengthening the rotator cuff with exercises such as the shoulder or overhead press can help reduce the risk of an injury in athletes

However, you don't have to be an athlete to train your shoulders. Strong shoulders can help improve your quality of life. Any time you lift groceries or reach for the sugar on the top shelf, you're using your shoulders. If your shoulders are weak, your range of motion can be limited, making it harder and potentially more painful to perform everyday activities.

Aside from the health benefits, shoulder exercises help to grow muscle mass, contributing to a better-looking upper body. Sculpted shoulders aren't just popular in bodybuilding, but they can help make that tank top look even better. 

Muscles Worked by the Smith Machine Shoulder Press 

The name shoulder press gives away one of the muscle groups worked in this exercise, but let's break it down.   

Shoulder Muscles


The largest muscle in your shoulder is the deltoid, and it is made up of three heads called the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid. It's located on the upper most part of your arm on the top of your shoulder. Together, this muscle group is responsible for arm abduction, flexion, extension, and stabilizing the shoulder joint. If you've experienced a rotator cuff tear, the deltoid also helps to compensate for any lost strength due to it.

The Smith Machine shoulder press specifically targets the anterior and lateral deltoid. The anterior delt helps move your arm forward, and exercises like the shoulder press, front raise, and upright row activate it. The lateral delt helps raise the arm away from your body like in the lateral raise or cable raise. 


In pushing exercises like the bench press, triceps dip, and shoulder press, the triceps are recruited to help during the final stage of the lift, or the lockout. The triceps are the muscles on the back of your arms and are mainly responsible for elbow extension. To fully extend your elbows in the shoulder press, you rely on strong triceps, especially with a heavy weight. 

Strong triceps are beneficial for finishing a lift, but they also help give mass to your arms. Despite popular belief, it's more the triceps than the biceps that help your arms grow larger. 

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Benefits of the Smith Machine Shoulder Press 

Building strong shoulders is crucial for a happier and healthier upper body, and the shoulder press can produce benefits that translate to your overall gym performance and your everyday life.  

Improves Shoulder Stability 

Since the deltoids help to stabilize the shoulder joint, strengthening this muscle with the shoulder press can help reduce the risk of pain and injury. Stable shoulders can help produce better overhead lifts, such as in Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk and the snatch. If shoulder stability is something you're initially lacking, the Smith Machine shoulder press can be safer than the barbell or dumbbell shoulder press due to the added support and stability of the secured bar. 

Shoulder Muscle Hypertrophy 

The Smith Machine provides more stability than a conventional shoulder press, therefore, it takes the focus off the stabilizer muscles and puts it on the shoulders. This can help build muscle in the shoulder and contribute to that capped look at the top of the arm. This is especially beneficial for bodybuilders who often perform isolation exercises to promote muscle growth in one area. 

It Can Be Safer

When done properly, the Smith Machine shoulder press can be safer than the standard shoulder press because you have the added support of the secured bar, but you also have a built-in spotter. Loading heavy weight onto the bar can mean you need a little extra help in case the lift doesn't go as planned. Unlike a free weight barbell, the bar of the Smith Machine is attached to the rack and moves in a straight line up and down, helping prevent you from dropping the bar or putting your shoulders in a vulnerable position. 

Better Bench Press 

The main muscles worked in the Smith Machine shoulder press are also some of the muscles used in the bench press. The deltoids and triceps help stabilize and press the weight up until the lockout, so it's important that these muscles, along with the chest muscles, are strong. By practicing the shoulder press and strengthening the deltoids and triceps, you can help improve your bench press performance. 

How to Do the Smith Machine Shoulder Press

As simple as it seems, the shoulder press can be a tricky move to do properly. Don't be afraid to consult with a personal trainer, and check out our exercise guide below to get your shoulder workout started. 

  1. Set the barbell on the rack, so it is in line with your chest. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Press the bar up just enough that the hooks un-rack, and you can set the bar at shoulder height. 
  3. Keep your core tight as you press the bar straight up overhead. Before the bar gets to the front of your face, push your head back, so that your body stays stacked under the bar as it travels in a straight line. When you push your head through the arms, this is commonly referred to as pushing your head through the keyhole.   
  4. Press up until your arms are fully extended. Do NOT lock your elbows.
  5. Slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position and get ready for the next rep.

Smith Machine Shoulder Press Variations 

If you're tired of the Smith Machine shoulder press, or you're just looking to add some variety to your next upper body day, the shoulder press can come in many different forms that can each provide its own benefits.   

Seated Smith Machine Shoulder Press

Performing the seated shoulder press is a great way to build muscle in your upper body because your core doesn't need to stabilize you as much as it might need to while standing. This can help put more emphasis on your deltoids, and with the added support from the Smith Machine, your shoulders are bound to feel the burn on this one. 

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Dumbell Shoulder Press

If you feel one side of your body is weaker than the other, the unilateral benefits of the dumbbell shoulder press can help. With a barbell, you may not notice you have a weaker side because the stronger side compensates, but with a weight in each hand, it is hard to hide the imbalances. You can work out both shoulders equally with this variation, but it does require more stability so proceed with caution. Note that you can use dumbbells or kettlebells. 

Behind the Neck Press

The movement is in the name for this variation as it requires you to press the barbell overhead from behind your neck. This is a more advanced movement as the demand for shoulder mobility is higher. This is a beneficial move for Olympic weightlifters because it can help increase mobility and stability, which is needed for an exercise like the overhead squat. The behind the neck press can target your upper back and shoulders to help build mass and strength but should be performed by more advanced lifters. 

Z Press

A more advanced seated shoulder press variation is the Z press. Although you are seated, your legs are straight out in front of you, eliminating any force transfer from the lower body. It's a great exercise to build your shoulders, upper back, and core, but it does require good core stability to perform it properly and safely. When done properly, the strength built through the Z press can help produce better overhead lifts. 

Hit 'Em With the Shoulders

The shoulder press is just one of the ways to build strong, stable shoulders that can help improve your life in and outside the gym. With the added support of the Smith Machine, you can worry less about needing a spotter for heavy shoulder days and focus more on building mass and strength in your upper body. 

With the right routine and proper nutrition, the shoulders you desire can be achievable. Next time you're at the gym, don't overlook the Smith Machine for massive gains. It's a great tool for beginners, but more advanced powerlifters, bodybuilders, and regular gym-goers can find it beneficial too.

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