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How to Shoulder Press Without Hurting Your Back

The shoulder press, whether dumbbell, barbell, or machine, standing, or seated, is a staple in most lifter’s programs. And low back pain is one of the most common complaints I see from people starting lifting and experienced lifters after the shoulder press, especially the standing barbell press. Note: I use shoulder press and overhead press interchangeably, with overhead press being geared to mean barbell or dumbbell variations.

To prevent the low back from hurting during a shoulder press, you should consciously try not to hyperextend the back during the concentric or "push" part of the rep. Often, this pain happens because you use a weight too heavy, or your form breaks down after too many reps. Avoid training the shoulder press to failure and also brace your abdomen during the rep by taking a deep breath and expanding your muscles down and out, like a tight balloon.

How to Brace for Shoulder Press

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Bracing effectively uses the stabilizer muscles of the core and low back through the Valsalva maneuver, which involves taking a deep breath before a few reps and holding it. Here's how to perform it during an overhead press. 

Note: if you're doing a less stabilizing requiring variation like a seated one, this is probably unnecessary, but exhale during your push like normal and breathe in during the negative.

  1. Take a breath in before your rep: Before you push, inhale through your mouth and expand your abdomen down and out. Don't flex your core, but keep it rigid.
  2. Seal your breath by sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth: To increase intra-abdominal pressure you need to block air from leaving by pressing your tongue behind your teeth.
  3. Push through the sticking point: Finish the rep strong and either exhale during the push and return the bar to start, or exhale at the bottom.
  4. Catch breath and repeat.

Is Low Back Soreness After Shoulder Pressing Normal?

Often you hear people talk about how low back soreness is dangerous. This is overblown because, most times, low back soreness has to do with the muscle rather than any discs or strain. However, if this soreness persists for a while, it's probably a problem. Don't worry too much unless it's severe, like you can't get up without an aching pain. You may need to contact a doctor for that.

This sentiment, though, makes more sense for more posterior oriented exercises, like the deadlift, squat or good morning. For an upper body exercise like the shoulder press, and the military press and barbell overhead press variations, you should not be feeling soreness. But don't worry if you do, or even experience pain directly after, because you can still correct your form or implement some drills and alternatives I left below. 

Is Shoulder Pressing Bad for Your Lower Back?

The shoulder press is not inherently bad for your back, like any exercise. It's an effective exercise for the deltoids and triceps strength, but it also works the glutes, quads, and, to a lesser extent, the stabilizing muscles of the core and lower back. Ideally, these muscles would work painlessly in synergy through “bracing”, which I explained in greater detail above. 

However, people at risk for lower back pain and those that already have a history of it, should replace the standing press for movements like the seated overhead press or a machine variation, or eliminate the movement altogether and opt for callisthenic vertical press alternatives like dips or pike pushups.

How Can You Avoid Hurting Your Lower Back with the Shoulder Press?

Besides bracing with a deep breath during reps, which takes practice, you can also use a belt for heavy sets above 70% of your one rep max. Many people advise mobility training, but for most people, it's really a waste of time unless you require it for a specific range of motion. The spine is incredibly resilient and resistance training along with cardio and a good warm up is enough. Though, you can implement some bracing practice during your warm up.

You can do this by, after your general warm up and before your barbell warm up, standing with your hand on your belly and bracing for about 5-10 seconds. Do this as much as you’d like. It takes no energy and reinforces the bracing pattern.

Lower Back Friendly Alternative Exercises

Now if you fall into the category of people that, no matter what, get some kind of back irritation from the overhead press, here are some variations you can replace the typical barbell overhead press with.

Seated Variation Against Bench

How to Do a Seated Shoulder Press

Set up a bench at a 90-degree angle and have the dumbbells on your knees. Lift them one at a time with your knee to your shoulder level. Don't flare your elbows and keep them at a 45-degree angle, one that's comfortable. Keep your back retracted and press straight up to lockout. Slowly lower to the same angle and repeat.

Arnold Press

How to Do the Arnold Press

The Arnold Press is an unusual but popular variation of the shoulder press among bodybuilders. It can be performed standing or seated, but for all purposes, I will explain the seated one.

Set up your weights at your knees. Lift one by one to chest level. Keep your hands supinated (facing you) at around chin level. In one fluid motion, with your elbows at a comfortable 45-degree angle and forearms at 90-degrees, switch to a pronated grip (hands away from you) while pushing up and locking out. Reverse the movement by coming down to supination at chin level. Repeat.

Conclusion

I hope you got something from this write up. Whether the overhead press irritates your back no matter what, or you think it's just a form thing, use these tips to help your program, and keep your lower back safe from strain.