The overhead press (ohp) is frequently classified as the last member of the big four exercises, joining the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.
Similar to the other big three lifts, the overhead press may also have some common felt pains that are not normally talked about in the lifting community.
So, one area of discomfort lifters may feel doing the overhead press is neck pain.
Why do you get neck pain from doing the overhead press?
Causes: Neck Pain From The Overhead Press
The overhead press can cause neck pain due to any one or combination of the listed reasons:
- Tight Upper Traps
- Tight Levator scapulae
- Tight pecs and front delts
- Shoulder inflexibility
- Upper back weakness
- Bad form
- Insufficient diet
- Insufficient sleep
- Pinched cervical nerves
1) Tight Upper Traps
One reason why you might be having neck pain is that your upper traps are tight.
Sore traps from overhead presses can be a warning sign for you.
Some of you might know that the purpose of your trapezius is to create movement in the scapula, specifically in elevation, retraction, and depression.
The key area I want to highlight for you is that the upper traps have several origins along the neck:
- The occiput, behind your skull
- The medial 1/3 superior nuchal line, also located on the back of your skull
- The nuchal ligament, located between your skull and cervical vertebra
- Spinous Processes involved in the neck
While it may seem as though the upper traps are pulling at your neck, it is important to know that at the origins of your muscle, they do not move.
Instead, it is at the distal attachment, the insertions, that move when your muscle contracts (gets shorter).
- Neck tension from your upper traps
If you ever feel some deep, achy, sore, dull pain close to your neck, this could indicate that you have been overusing your upper traps and that you may want to find a workaround.
If you ever did tons of shrugs and feel neck pain the next few days, you now know why.
Barbell shrugs or dumbbell shrugs, it does not matter.
Rest and figuring out a proper strength training program is key.
Pulling sensation neck pain
Pulling sensation neck pain
From 8 years of training experience, a pulling pain is not always a musculoskeletal issue.
It can be a nerve issue as well.
There are many reasons why this can occur but if you started feeling a pulling sensation during your ohp, it might be time to start stretching or changing up your lifestyle so that you are not so stiff and immobile.
You may have upper crossed syndrome and if you perform overhead presses, you can aggravate the weakest supporting structure, which is your neck.
Tight traps may be a result of muscle dysfunction and can show up as a pulling sensation.
2) Tight levator scapulae
The levator scapula is located on the sides and back of your neck.
It is one muscle group that stabilizes your shoulder.
They also happen to be located around the neck area, which may be a cause for your neck pain while doing overhead presses.
Whenever your shoulders are shrugged, you activate your levator scapula.
At the very top of your overhead press movement, your levator scapula is activated in order to lock out your overhead press.
When these muscles get tight, they can cause major pain and tightness when doing any activities that involve your shoulders shrugging.
This is especially true when you do the overhead press.
If your levator scapula gets too tight, you may even experience neck pain and discomfort in everyday life.
This is true for people who work long hours at desk jobs.
Sit comfortably in your chair and slightly brace your abs.
With your weight hand, grab the edge of the chair.
Lean your upper body to the left while keeping your head in a neutral position.
You should feel a light pull on your right arm.
Then, rotate your head 45-degrees to the left.
Place your left hand behind your head and gently pull at an angle towards your knee.
Stretch your neck muscle for 30 seconds. Stop if you feel any sight, acute pain.
Afterward, relax the muscle for 5-10 seconds.
Now, resist the stress by pushing your head against your left hand for 30 seconds.
Relax for 5-10 seconds. Now, you can do a deeper stretch by pulling your head towards your left knee until you reach a new ending point.
Do this 3-4 more times.
This video shows portions of a stretching routine I described above but also incorporated several shoulder movements as well:
Many lifters found that doing foam rolling and getting a neck massage helps speed up recovery.
When you get a massage, your muscle can now relax.
In addition to relaxing, more blood flow can circulate the area, which is great for post workout recovery.
3) Tight pecs and front delts
Some lifters with a history of neck problems also notice that they have developed tight pecs and front deltoids as well.
This is not uncommon because if one muscle group is tight, it is only a matter of time until your whole body reacts to your injury.
With neck pain, your pecs and shoulders will be impacted.
Several lifters claim that by stretching their pecs and front delts, they began to feel relief with their neck pain.
If your whole body is right, stretching can feel good and even be beneficial for increasing your flexibility.
Doing the wall pec stretch in your doorway is one of the most ideal stretches you can do for your tight pecs and front delts.
4) Shoulder inflexibility
How are you finishing your overhead press?
Are you making sure the barbell is overhead of your shoulder girdle?
If you have shoulder clicking during the overhead press, that may not be related to your neck issue.
But overall, in order to finish the ohp, you need to avoid smacking your face into the barbell when you drive the bar up.
And unfortunately, many lifters lack shoulder mobility to finish overhead.
Instead, they just finish the barbell overhead press slightly in front of their shoulders.
This causes an enormous amount of stress on your front deltoids, which could be a reason why you are experiencing neck pain.
On the flip side, overextending your neck to finish a lift is not a great thing either.
Yes, you want to drive your head through your arms as you finish the lift.
But you can be excessive, which can cause you to strain your neck if you are not careful or aware.
Doing heavy overhead presses for a long time will naturally tighten up your muscles.
If you do not stretch, your shoulders will get tight.
You will immediately notice a decrease in range of motion.
As a result, if you try to force your body into doing overhead presses, you will face a lot of neck pain, possibly even shoulder pain as well.
Here, the key is to work on improving your shoulder health.
First, make sure all your shoulder muscles are functional and healthy.
Rehab weak muscles if needed.
Then, begin to strengthen the small shoulder muscles that support your shoulders - your rotator cuff.
- Improve your thoracic spine mobility
In addition to strengthening your shoulder, you must also work on your thoracic mobility.
Having good thoracic mobility eliminates acute and chronic neck and shoulder issues and can make any pushing movement pain-free.
Spine thoracic extensions
You will be kneeling on the ground.
Place both elbows on a bench.
At this point, your entire back should be parallel with the ground.
Next, try to drive your head to the ground while keeping your elbows on the bench.
You should feel a stretch on your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
You can also get a partner to apply even more pressure to your upper back to feel a deeper stretch.
Foam rolling your mid back
With a foam roller perpendicular to your spine, place the foam roller on your mid-back.
Try to extend your spine by keeping your buttocks on the ground while trying to touch your head on the ground simultaneously.
After a few seconds, massage your upper and mid-back to relax the muscles.
My foam roller has spikes on them so that I can do some trigger point releases if I want to.
5) Upper back weakness
If your upper back is weak, other areas are overcompensating to complete the movement.
It can show up as upper back pain while overhead pressing.
This could be a reason why your neck is in pain; you may have strained a muscle somewhere.
Training your traps, rhomboids and rear delts can slowly eliminate upper back weakness.
With certain row variations, you can also hit your upper back as well.
Just make sure you don't have any barbell row neck pain.
Beginners are more prone to having muscular weakness but it would not be surprising for some experienced lifters to also have lingering back weaknesses from years of neglect.
It is important to balance your training so that there are no weak links to the chain.
6) Bad form
Bad form can ruin any lifter’s dream of lifting pain-free.
The standard overhead press is pressed when the barbell is in front of you.
If you are trying to be Arnold and try behind the neck presses, you have no one else but yourself to blame if you develop neck pain from doing overhead presses incorrectly.
Stay tight and do not awkwardly jerk your neck while overhead pressing.
Make sure there are also no overhead press neck pops as well.
Usually, beginner lifters tend to make a lot of mistakes while overhead pressing.
Experience will teach them how to brace properly and to make sure they are lifting with great form.
- Poor breathing may cause some neck pain
If you are practicing poor breathing patterns such as holding your breath irregularly, you can spike your blood pressure, leading to head and neck pain.
Usually, your body is smart and you will try to breathe again before you pass out on the ground with the barbell laying next to you.
There are shoulder muscles that connect to your neck, which makes it a stabilizer muscle for having a strong overhead press.
So, it is fairly normal to experience some neck soreness due to having to overhead press heavy weights.
7) Insufficient diet
If you are on a caloric deficit, your muscles may not have stored enough glycogen than in the past.
Therefore, if you continue to lift heavy without fueling your body, your muscles will overcompensate to try to lift the heavy stimulus.
Neck pain can be developed if those muscles are overexerted past their limits.
While you can get stronger while cutting, a prolonged caloric deficit will result in an overall decrease in both muscle mass and strength.
8) Insufficient sleep
Working out on 5 hours of sleep is not the end of the world.
With a limited amount of sleep, lifters of all experience levels and ages can understand how it feels to lose a night of sleep.
For some lifters, they get more aches and pains. This is why it is more important to emphasize getting more sleep than to try and push for minimal gains on a night of bad sleep.
Without enough water, minerals, and electrolytes, the internal balance of your body can be thrown off.
This can result in pain and muscle spasms.
10) Pinched cervical nerves
Your body has 7 cervical vertebrae, C1-C7 which is home to 8 cervical nerves. These nerves all branch out into more peripheral nerves, which is why you may also experience more distal symptoms.
But if you have some anatomical abnormality that closes down the space in between your vertebrae or tight musculature that restricts movement, these can lead to a pinched nerve and as a result, neck pain during overhead press or activities overhead.
What to do when you have neck pain from overhead presses?
- Correct your posture
- Avoid pain, but do not stop working out
- Continue progressing, not regressing through the injury
The first step would be to correct your posture.
It is likely that you will have some neck tension from forward head posture unless you practiced good ergonomics for years.
This will address any neck and back issues by relaxing tight muscles and activating underused muscles.
The process may result in immediate results but do not be disappointed if there are none.
Years of bad habits may not be broken in a few postural correction sessions.
I have attached a brief stretching routine above for the upper traps but for a more comprehensive routine, you need to be more proactive about what exactly is tight or weak for your specific case.
A construction worker and a Forture 100 CEO may have similar neck issues from overhead presses but the postural treatment can vary drastically.
While correcting your posture, this does not give you a free pass to not work out.
You should still be going to the gym.
Altering certain overhead press movements may be needed.
If you need to turn the barbell overhead press into neutral grip dumbbell shoulder presses, let us do that for 6 weeks, or 1 training cycle until your neck pain goes away.
Another suggestion is to still perform upper body exercises but with a different focus— by working on more work capacity.
I'm sure that you do not perform overhead presses for circuit training and you definitely do not do them when you are fatigued and deleted.
So, while overhead presses may be painful, add in this upper body circuit warmup, 25 reps each exercise for 4 cycles no rest to continue training your upper body while managing pain.
It is important that we continue the positive momentum by continuing to get stronger and have better posture as weeks go by.
We do not want to have fewer results.
Having more pain can happen sporadically due to random events.
Most factors are in your control and you are to be responsible for your own healing rate and treatment advancement.
Recurring neck pain overhead press
Injuries in the same area are often a sign of unresolved problems from the past. Take a look at your programming, form, intensity, stress load, volume, rest, caloric intake, family history, etc. to have a full picture of what could be the potential causes.
If you keep injuring the muscles around your neck while doing overhead presses, something is wrong.
In terms of working out, here are some common factors:
- Programming - is it appropriate for your lifting experience and goals?
- Form - are you performing the movement safely?
- Intensity - Are there too many sets close to your 1 rep max?
- Volume - Are you hitting the same exercise too many times?
For aspects outside of the gym, we can look at these attributes:
- Stress management - Are you keeping life stress low?
- Rest - Are you sleeping enough?
- Calories - Are you eating enough?
- Day job posture - Are you hunched over all day?
Whether it is your programming, form, lifestyle, etc., you need to take a step back and realize that pain during any barbell compound movement is not normal.
You might read that some athletes push through the pain and minor aches but after a while, it all catches up with them.
These same elite athletes suffer very serious injuries and need to rest for over a year...
It is important to stay healthy even if you have an obsession with lifting weights.
Realize that while the weights today are not lifted, you can continue another day because they will always be there waiting for you.
Take a look at posture
Poor posture is a big reason why many lifters need to go to the doctor or physical therapy.
Whether you work at a desk or perform manual labor, poor posture will impact your quality of life.
For the desk worker, a forward head posture places constant tension on your upper traps and pec minor, making them tight.
Where something is tight, there is weakness.
Your lower cervical and upper thoracic muscles are stretched and shortened to maintain a forward head posture.
Does overhead press work the neck?
The splenius is constantly being used to hold the neck steady. Excessive neck extension or side bending can irritate this muscle that helps stabilize the cervical region of the neck.
True neck muscles help with cervical flexion (looking down), cervical extension (looking up), cervical rotation (turning your head), and cervical lateral flexion (side bending your head).
Most of the shoulder muscles have their proximal attachment on the cervical vertebrae but this does not mean that these muscles are pulling at your neck and are causing you pain.
The superficial back muscle, splenius, is responsible for same side side-bends and rotation.
The splenius is also used for cervical extension.
But overall, it is very difficult to pinpoint where exactly your neck pain originates from since the overhead press is a compound movement.
For instance, tight traps limit your neck side bends and once you alleviate tension from your tight upper traps, you feel immediate relief. They are not the only muscles that help with neck side bends...
There are a ton of muscles that have their proximal attachment on the cervical vertebrae and the whole region can get tighter over time if you do not maintain or improve your flexibility.
Neck pain during the overhead press is no laughing matter.
Fortunately, there can be an explanation for your neck pain.
Small tinges and tweaks may not demand a doctor visit; these are a common occurrence in strength training.
Strength training 6 days a week is not excessive and can actually decrease your overall pain in your body.
For instance, take a look at my current deadlifting program that will involve 50 straight days of deadlifting; here are the results of 10 straight days—
Just keep in mind that while a lot of injuries can be self-treated, you do want to be alert if there are red flags, meaning that the pain does not go away and it is increasing with time.