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June 13, 2022 7 min read

Pressing anything overhead requires strength and stability in your shoulders. The shoulder press is an exercise that can contribute to not only stronger shoulders, but an overall stronger upper body.

Sculpted biceps and pecs will only get you so far, but it’s the shoulders that can really help make the arms look bigger and provide stability for other lifts.

Knowing what muscles you’re working and why is crucial for an effective workout. Maybe you can press a weight up, but do you know why you’re doing it or what you’re getting out of it? Let’s talk about what muscles are worked by the shoulder press.

Muscles Worked by the Shoulder Press

Although it’s called the shoulder press, more than just your shoulders are recruited to push the weight overhead. This compound exercise uses three different muscle groups that lifters of any fitness level should work to strengthen.

Deltoids

The largest muscles in your shoulder are the deltoid muscles. These are the muscles that can give the shoulders that rounded, capped look.

Building shoulder strength can help your upper body look strong and balanced.

Aside from aesthetics, the deltoids help to stabilize the shoulder joint and are responsible for arm abduction, flexion, and extension. Three heads make up this muscle: the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid, each of which have their own function. The anterior or front delts flex your arm, the lateral or side delts abduct your arm, and the posterior or rear delts perform arm extension.

Weak deltoids can result in poor posture, shoulder pain, and instability issues.

An exercise like the shoulder press can help ensure that the risk of these issues are reduced.

Triceps

Located on the back of your upper arm are the tricep muscles. If building muscle in your arms is your goal, training the triceps should be a large part of your focus.

They are made up of three heads: the long head, lateral head, and medial head.

All three heads are primarily responsible for elbow extension, but the long head also plays a role in stabilizing the shoulder.

Exercises like the triceps pushdown and triceps extension help to isolate this muscle, but the shoulder press uses them especially during the final part of the movement.

Other pushing movements like the bench press or push ups also use the triceps to assist in the lockout phase.

Trapezius

One of the muscles in your back is the trapezius or the traps muscle. It runs from the base of your neck, across your shoulders, and down the middle of your back. The shape of the muscle resembles a trapezoid, which is where the name comes from.

Three parts make up this muscle: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius.

They help you move your head, twist your torso, shrug and pull your shoulder blades together. The trapezius also contributes to your posture, and when weakened or tight, it could cause upper crossed syndrome.

Commonly used in pulling exercises like the barbell row, the traps help to stabilize and move the shoulder, so it’s recruited during the shoulder press.

Abdominals

There are a few different muscles that make up your abdominal muscles, and they are located on the anterior and sides of your torso.

The rectus abdominis is better known as the six-pack muscles because they’re the main ones you can see on your abdomen. Along with this muscle is the deeper transverse abdominis, and the internal and external obliques. Altogether, these muscles help to support and move your trunk forward, backward, and side-to-side.

Although not a primary mover in the shoulder press, the core muscles work to stabilize the body during the movement.

Unlike the overhead press, the dumbbell shoulder press requires more stability from the core to help press the weight up and avoid excessive arching in the lower back.

Benefits of the Shoulder Press

Consistently strength training can come with several benefits, but knowing the benefits of the exercises you’re performing is important for successful results.

Upper Body Hypertrophy

One of the primary muscles targeted in the shoulder press are the deltoid muscles, and they help contribute to a larger upper body.

Performing the shoulder press not only has the ability to build bigger shoulder muscles, but it can help build a bigger upper back and arms as well.

In bodybuilding where maximizing muscle mass is the goal, performing an exercise like the dumbbell shoulder press is essential for growth and balance. A higher volume of reps should be performed for hypertrophy, and a protein like Whey-Iso can really help you pack on the muscle.

Upper Body Strength

Compound exercises can be beneficial because they are more time efficient and can help build strength.

The shoulder press can contribute to overall upper body strength because strengthening the muscles used during this movement can carry over to better lifts and heavier weights.

Although the movement pattern is not the same as the bench press, both pressing movements require strength and stability from your shoulders and triceps. The bench press is one of the main competition lifts in powerlifting, so powerlifters could benefit from the shoulder press.

Shoulder Stability

Big shoulders mean nothing if there’s no stability to support them. The deltoids help to protect and stabilize your shoulder joint, so if they’re weak, it can put you at a higher risk for injury. Anytime you lift something like a heavy weight, a box, or a child overhead, your shoulder joint is at risk, and it becomes even higher as you age.

Shoulder strengthening exercises can help  improve function, range of motion, and help reduce your injury risk.

Beginners especially may be lacking shoulder stability, so using lighter weights with the shoulder press is a great start to more stability.

Unilateral Strength

Training both sides of your body equally can help fix muscle imbalances that may be present. Using dumbbells or kettlebells versus a barbell for the shoulder press is a great way to exercise both shoulders while helping improve stability.

The stabilizing joints and muscles of your body may need to work harder when training unilaterally, which can help further increase strength and stability.

Shoulder Press Variations

Maybe the shoulder press isn’t for you, or you’re just looking for different shoulder exercises to include in your upper body day. Luckily, there are plenty of exercises that can work the same muscle groups and can provide similar benefits.

Barbell Overhead Press

Often confused with the shoulder press, the overhead press is similar in the movement pattern, but it uses a barbell instead of dumbbells. A barbell can allow you to load heavier weight on, resulting in greater muscle activation.

How to do the Barbell Overhead Press: 

  • Hold a barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your chest tall and eyes forward.
  • Squeeze your core and your glutes as you press the bar up in a straight line.
  • Use your triceps to extend your arms at the top but don’t lock your elbows.
  • Return the bar to the starting position using the same bar path.

Push Press

Although the push press is considered an upper body exercise, it uses the lower body to create momentum to help push the weight overhead. The push press uses a powerful hip drive to be able to perform the shoulder press motion but with heavier weight. It can help improve strength and power, similar to that created by the squat jump.

How to do the Push Press: 

  • Hold a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells at shoulder height.
  • You can use a heavier weight than you normally would for a conventional shoulder press.
  • Dip your hips and bend your knees while maintaining an upright position.
  • Quickly thrust your hips forward to drive the weight straight overhead.
  • Lower the bar back down and get ready for another repetition.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The standing dumbbell shoulder press requires more work from the stabilizer muscles to keep you upright and help ensure proper form. However, performing the shoulder press seated eliminates the need for some of those stabilizers, allowing you to target the intended muscles, and can result in greater hypertrophy.

How to do the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 

  • Sit upright on a bench or a stable surface.
  • Keep your feet planted on the floor and maintain an upright position.
  • Hold the weight at shoulder height and brace your core.
  • If you want less core recruitment, you can also put the bench at an incline.
  • Press the weight straight overhead and lower back down to the starting position.

Shoulder Press Machine

Your shoulder workout might be filled with free weights, and that can be great, but sometimes using a machine can help target the primary muscles more. The shoulder press machine provides more stability than free weights do and, like the seated dumbbell press, can eliminate the need for stabilizer muscles. This can help maximize hypertrophy and allow you to push heavier weight.

How to do the Shoulder Press Machine: 

  • Sit comfortably on the seat of the shoulder press machine in an upright position.
  • Grab the handles of the machine, so your palms are facing forward. Since the handles move in a fixed path, you won’t have to think too much about performing it correctly.
  • Press the handles straight up overhead until your arms are extended and slowly lower back down.
  • Try to not touch the weights together when you lower to help create constant tension.

Final Thoughts

The shoulders are an important part of the body and can affect your posture, range of motion, and weightlifting performance. Performing the shoulder press can be a beneficial way to build strength, mass, and stability throughout your upper body while contributing to a sculpted aesthetic.

It can be a good move for beginners to implement into their routine since it’s not too complex and can be easily modified for more or less of a challenge. With any exercise, it’s always the most important to focus on form first before adding weight or extra challenges.

knowledgeable personal trainer is a good idea if you’re unsure.