Shoulder Press: The Muscles Worked and Variations

Shoulder Press: The Muscles Worked and Variations

Everybody wants a pair of strong and healthy shoulders! They are the cherry on top of the sundae when it comes to your physique.

For the guys, it can really help with filling out your shirts. For the gals, having strong shoulders can make your waist look far smaller in comparison.

So, it makes sense why you're looking for an exercise to strengthen your shoulders.

I know when I first started, I would mimic what I saw in the gym, and that meant a lot of lateral raises ... more than I could keep track of!

But, there are so many other fantastic exercises to work all angles of your shoulders. That gets us into the exact exercise that we'll be talking about today: The shoulder press.

The shoulder press is a great place to start when it comes to building bigger and stronger shoulders. It happens to be arguably the most popular shoulder exercise there is too.

Let's break down the shoulder press so you're an absolute pro the next time you step foot in the gym!

What Muscles Does the Shoulder Press Work?

Did you know that your shoulders are made up of three main muscles? That's right. These muscles are your front (anterior) deltoids, your side (lateral) deltoids, and your rear (posterior) deltoids.

Most exercises that work your shoulders will only target one of the muscles at a time. This would be exercises like lateral raises which solely target your lateral deltoids.

Well, that's why shoulder presses are so awesome. Shoulder presses target all three of the muscles in your shoulders! No wonder it's such a popular exercise ... you get quite the bang for your buck.

The front, or anterior, deltoid rotates the shoulder and helps you lift your arms over your head. This part of your shoulder creates the majority of the power in a shoulder press.

The side, or lateral, deltoid moves your shoulder out and keeps the upper half of your arm extended out to your side.

The rear, or posterior, delt pulls your shoulder back and keeps your arm extended outward. Using dumbbells or a barbell will target the rear delts more than a machine can.

The shoulder press also works your triceps, pecs (upper chest), and your traps (upper back)! Your triceps straighten your elbow, which helps to lock out your arms above your head. At the same time, your pecs and traps support the movement of your shoulder. They can also help stabilize your posture.

There’s also a variety of smaller stabilizing muscles within your rotator cuff that get used too!

The Benefits of Shoulder Presses

The top benefit of the shoulder press should be pretty obvious ... growing bigger and stronger shoulders. However, the benefits go beyond that as well.

Under the deltoids, there are several small muscles called your rotator cuff muscles. You've probably heard the name before, but if you haven't, they're important!

Your rotator cuff muscles are in charge of stabilizing your shoulders through any plane of motion. Making sure they are strong is super important for preventing injury and maintaining good shoulder mobility as you age.

Well, the shoulder press is a great exercise to help train these muscles! On top of that, the shoulder press can also help with building your strength in other exercises too.

How to Do a Shoulder Press

Performing a shoulder press is actually pretty simple. There are also a few different ways you can do them which we'll cover too.

To keep it simple, let's talk about them as if you're using dumbbells. Grab a pair of dumbbells, and place them on your knees while sitting on a bench.

Brace your core and hike each dumbbell to either side of your head at about ear height. Your palms should be facing forward and your elbows bent and rotated out toward either side of your body.

Take a deep breath in and exhale as you push the dumbbells overhead with your shoulders, upper chest, and triceps. When your arms have straightened out overhead, take a deep breath in and begin lowering the dumbbells back to either side of your head. This is one rep.

One thing I recommend is limiting your range of motion at the top of the movement. Instead of pushing the dumbbells together overhead ... keep them directly above either of your shoulders instead.

Doing this can prevent you from impinging your supraspinatus. This is one of the four rotator cuff muscles.

But, now that you know how to do a shoulder press with dumbbells ... let's talk about a few of the other shoulder press variations you can do!

Shoulder Press Variations

Other than dumbbells, you can use a wide variety of different equipment to do a shoulder press. This includes everything from machines to bands, barbells, cables, and more! Here are some of the variations you can try...

Machine Shoulder Press

If you go to the gym, chances are you can find at least one shoulder press machine. Some of these machines are pin-loaded, and others can be plate-loaded.

Either way, these machines are quite simple to use. Plus, if you have weak shoulders, a machine shoulder press could be a great place to start. Since it's a machine, that means the range of motion is fixed.

Basically, that just means the weight can only move along the path that the machine allows it to. With free-weights, the opposite is true. That means your stabilization muscles get involved much more. This is why it's nearly impossible to use the same weight in free-weights as you would for a machine!

I know I have to humble myself and use lighter weight when it comes to free-weights. At least, I have to use much less than I would with a machine shoulder press! All that matters though is that you're really getting some good work into those shoulders.

Barbell Shoulder Press

Another great way to shoulder press is with a barbell! Just load up a barbell with a weight that's comfortable for you, and grab the bar shoulder-width apart. From there, all you have to do is perform the same movement you would with dumbbells or a machine shoulder press.

Barbells are also a good middle-ground between a machine and dumbbell shoulder press. Dumbbell shoulder presses require a bit more stabilization strength than a barbell does. On the other hand, machine shoulder presses require a bit less than a barbell would.

Resistance Band Shoulder Press

If you're new to lifting, don't have much equipment, or need a good portable option ... resistance bands are great. With a resistance band, you can perform quite a few different exercises. You guessed it, that also means you can use them to do shoulder presses!

I take resistance bands with me anytime I travel because they make for a great carry-on item. Plus, you can use it in a hotel room, outdoors, at home, and in just about any setting that makes sense for a quick workout.

For shoulder presses, the band will need to be a bit bigger so you can anchor it under your feet. Grab either end of the band with your palms facing forward. You'll be holding the band at either side of your head as if you're using dumbbells. Then, all you have to do is push them overhead.

Bands are a great way to work your stabilization strength too. In fact, they do this without adding too much resistance to the equation. So, for someone looking to avoid injury, bands are a good way to go.

Cable Shoulder Press

One final variation of the shoulder press we'll cover is the cable shoulder press. For this exercise, all you need is two cables and two single-handle attachments.

Set the cables to the lowest setting and simply push them overhead. In a way, cable shoulder presses are a good hybrid between bands and dumbbells. You can add a little more weight than a band, but cables still aren't considered "free-weights."

Other Shoulder Press Tips and Tricks

If you're really trying to spice things up, you can also try a few different things to do so. You can apply these tweaks to almost any of the variations we talked about too...

Try a Single-Arm Shoulder Press: This is a great way to help train any muscle imbalances you may have. They can also help make sure your shoulders are both getting trained proportionally!

Switch Between Sitting and Standing: If you want a greater challenge for your core, try doing your shoulder presses while standing! This may not work great with a machine or bands ... but you can definitely do this to make dumbbells, barbells, or cables. Trust me when I say, it can make your shoulder presses a lot more challenging!

How Else Can We Help?

If you haven't found out by now, the shoulder press is an awesome exercise. It's by far one of my favorites for building stronger shoulders.

Plus, there are so many different variations you can try out. You may even find out that you prefer one variation far more than any others.

If you're still looking for good shoulder exercises, you should check out the 1st Phorm App!

Inside the app, you actually get access to a ton of workouts catered to your goals. This includes instructional videos to help you master them as well. So even if you don't know what they are or how to do them, the app gives you the support to make sure you do!

Plus, you’ll get to work 1-on-1 with your very own advisor to help you reach your goals. When you download the app and commit to doing the work with us, there's no way you can't earn the results you're after!

If you have any additional questions, feel free to reach out to us! We have a full team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Nutrition Coaches who are happy to help. Just shoot us an email at or give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 anytime!

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