The Problem with the Seated Shoulder Press

In Press, Rehab by Michael Mash0 Comments

There are A LOT of people who can safely perform the standard seated press without suffering from any shoulder pain or injuries. This is perfectly OK and I encourage you to continue doing so. However, if you are someone who has trouble with this exercise, here may be a possible explanation and some tips on how to fix that!

Demonizing the Overhead Press
Overall, overhead pressing is still demonized by many as being harmful to the shoulder. The truth is, if one doesn’t have adequate rotator cuff strength, thoracic mobility, and good scapular upward rotation, it CAN be dangerous. However, for those who have all the above, it represents a great exercise to train the entire scapulohumeral complex.

No amount of isolated dumbbell front or lateral raises can produce the same training effect as pressing a weight overhead. Typically, there are two common variations of overhead pressing, the seated and standing version. While one may be able to press more weight seated, this may come at a cost.

Impaired Scapulohumeral Rhythm
In order to press overhead safely, the upper and lower trapezius as well as the serratus anterior must effectively contract to upwardly rotate the scapula while the shoulder simultaneously flexes. Without sufficient upward rotation, shoulder impingement can occur. While the standing press allows the scapulae to move freely, the seated press, especially with a normal sized bench, does NOT. Performing the seated press essentially “pins” the scapulae against the bench, limiting normal motion.

It is difficult for the scapulae to freely upwardly
rotate when “pinned”against a bench

While the trainee may still be able to upwardly rotate the scapulae to a degree, it is more difficult to “unpin” them from their position on the bench at the start of the movement. To solve this issue, many gyms are equipped with a bench specifically designed for the seated press. This bench has a shorter pad that only comes up to the level of the mid-thoracic spine, allowing the scapulae to move freely. This may be a viable option and many people use this with tremendous success. The trainee is able to maximize the amount of weight used; however, it also may not be optimal for certain populations.

Lack of Full Range of Motion
It is difficult to achieve full shoulder flexion and thoracic extension with the standard seated press. On both variations of the seated press (long pad and short pad bench), the user pushes his/her back into the pad to stabilize the trunk while pressing. This usually turns the movement into more of a high incline press as opposed to a true vertical shoulder press.

Because the trainee utilizes the bench to stabilize the trunk throughout the motion, it is nearly impossible to achieve true end-range shoulder flexion and thoracic extension. The trainee would have to lean forward at the end of the repetition for this to happen. Which brings me to my next point.

Sit on a Flat Bench to Optimize the Seated Press
The only way to truly achieve a full ROM seated shoulder press is to sit unsupported on a flat bench. This variation of the seated press not only allows one to achieve full shoulder flexion, scapular upward rotation, and thoracic extension, the trainee must also engage the anterior core instead of relying on pushing into the bench for stability.

While you may have to initially use less weight on this, the increased demand on the core and the increased ROM in the shoulder and thoracic spine are two benefits not seen with the standard seated press.

Notice how it is difficult to achieve full shoulder flexion while the back is stabilized by the bench (left) compared to full scapulohumeral motion without using back support (right)

Long Live the Standing Press
Generally, the standing press gives you the most “bang for your buck.” Although the non-supported seated press may be a solid exercise, the standing press allows overall freedom of movement. It teaches one how to engage the lower body musculature and anterior core to maintain a neutral lumbar spine, serving as a base from which to press.

As one approaches full shoulder flexion, the trunk is free to move forward underneath the bar to complete the movement. If you have full shoulder range of motion, good cuff strength, and adequate thoracic mobility and scapular control, the standing press should be a staple in your program!

There are many variations of the overhead press. If you are dealing with shoulder issues be sure to chose a method that allows the scapulae to freely move. If you’re looking to maximize the amount of weight used, maybe the seated small-back rest variation is best for you. However, if you are someone who wants to optimize shoulder ROM try sitting unsupported! And remember, the standing overhead press will always be the staple choice!

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