The overhead press is a great exercise that works the shoulders, pecs, and triceps and can be overloaded for increased muscular strength and hypertrophy.
However, some people may experience pain in the upper back while performing the overhead press.
Even overhead press neck pain.
If you have ever experienced pain while performing the overhead press, you may be tempted to stop and try a different exercise.
But if you also have a sore upper back after bench press, you know something iffy is up.
However, knowing why you are experiencing the pain and taking the steps to overcome it will serve you far better in the long run rather than by dropping the exercise in its entirety.
When you start working out, your body starts to get used to the high demands that working out requires.
As a result, you might feel pain or discomfort because your body is starting to use muscles as if it were the first time.
Sort of like lower back pain from first time deadlifting.
This might result in an increased chance of injury which could be the cause of your pain.
Another possibility that might be causing the pain is poor form.
You might find that just by incorporating a few simple tweaks to your form, you will be able to overhead press without any pain.
In this article, we will discuss the most common causes of pain while performing the overhead press, as well as ways to overcome them.
Overhead Press Upper Back Pain Causes
Now that you know the cues for proper form, let’s discuss some of the areas you might be feeling the pain and what might be the cause of it.
First off, there are many different types of pain. Some might be muscular, ligamentous, cartilaginous, and even neural and each one is treated differently.
- Muscular strain
- Pinched nerve
- Ligamentous sprain
There are many muscles in your upper back that all work to stabilize your scapula—
- Supraspinatus (rotator cuff)
- Infraspinatus (rotator cuff)
- Teres minor (rotator cuff)
- Subscapularis (rotator cuff)
- Middle traps
- Lower traps
- Posterior deltoids
- Teres major
If you are experiencing pain in your upper back, it may be due to a muscle strain of any one of these muscles in this area.
What exactly is a muscle strain?
A muscle strain is when the muscle is overstretched or overworked.
The normal muscular breakdown is necessary for muscular growth which is the main reason why we go to the gym, but if you break the muscle down too much, it might result in a muscular strain.
This is one reason why muscles take so long to recover.
If you suspect this to be the cause of your pain, then taking some time off from strenuous upper back exercise will help to give the injured muscle time to heal.
One way to tell your injury might be due to muscular strain is if you are able to lift heavy weights, but with pain.
If that is the case, then all the other structures are most likely intact, and it is just the muscle itself that is damaged.
Another very similar condition that could be involved is tendinopathy or a strain within a tendon.
This is less common than a muscle strain but if you are involved in high repetitive movements, it might be the cause of it.
Tendinopathy could be inflammation of the tendons due to overuse or being overstrained.
A pinched nerve is a condition involving the nervous system and the symptoms could feel like tingling in your skin on your back, shoulder, and arms.
If you feel tingling, or you feel like your skin is pricking while performing the overhead press, it might be due to a pinched nerve.
A pinched nerve is when the spinal cord compresses your nerve root.
It most commonly occurs in the neck and lower back regions.
If you are experiencing pain in the upper back, it may be due to a pinched nerve in the neck.
This might be due to poor posture or poor form while performing the overhead press.
It could be a reason why you also have overhead press neck pops, which sometimes relieve pain.
Double-check to see if your neck is protruding too far forwards.
Forward head posture is not a good and natural position to develop because it:
- Lengthens your front neck muscles, making them weak
- Lengthens mid-back muscles, making them weak
- Shortens your upper back and posterior neck muscles, making them tight
- Shortens your chest muscles, making them tight
If you suspect you have a pinched nerve, you will want to rest and see a doctor and physical therapist in order to get a clearer idea of the degree of the injury.
This is perhaps the most uncommon cause on this list but could be the source of your pain, nevertheless.
In addition to there being tons of muscles, there are a lot of ligaments that work to stabilize your spine and your shoulder to your thorax.
These ligaments are located more on the outside of your shoulders, but the pain can radiate to your upper back.
Spraining one of these ligaments could be caused by either trauma (such as falling onto your shoulder) or a chronic injury (if your job requires a lot of shoulder movement) and will usually result in instability in your shoulder.
What should beginners do when they have upper back pain while overhead pressing?
To summarize the previous section.
If you suspect the pain is due to a muscular strain:
You will want to rest the muscles, ice them, and you could follow the STARR rehab protocol which could decrease the amount of strength loss you might experience while at the same time, increasing the rate of healing.
More about this in the later section.
If you suspect the pain is due to a pinched nerve, or ligament sprain:
See a doctor to get a more accurate diagnosis and a better treatment plan.
Is overhead press good for upper back?
The overhead press alone is not enough to develop a strong upper back. You need to introduce better exercises that target that region directly for better time efficiency.
Here are some of my favorite upper back exercises—
- Rows, all variations
- Face pulls, all implements
- Scapula pushups
- Band pull aparts
- Pullovers, all implements
- Rear-delt flies
You have choices on how to implement these exercises into your program—
- As accessories after your main exercise
- As a warmup before your main exercise
- As accessories on your days off
Here is a sample warmup circuit you can do to focus on developing your upper back.
Perform each exercise for 25 reps each for 4 cycles with no rest.
Overhead Press Lower Back Pain Causes
- Too much lumbar hyperextension
- Having a weak core
- You are not squeezing your glutes
Too much lumbar hyperextension
The most common reason why you are experiencing overhead press back pain, specifically in your lower back, is because you are arching too much.
Think of this as doing the opposite of a bad deadlift.
Instead of rounding your back, you are arching too much under the overhead press.
Your body has a natural lumbar lordosis but it gets exaggerated during the overhead press.
Having too much lower back arch causes you pain since your body is not in a great position to stabilize the overhead press weight.
And when you are pressing it, since your spine vertebrae are not stacked properly, you have pain as a result of tissue, muscle, or bone not being aligned properly and pressing against each other.
You just need to either:
- Back off 10-20% of your working weight and practice good form
- Be mindful and have a proper set-up from the beginning
Having a weak core
One aspect of having good form is to have surrounding muscles support your joints.
A weak core is one reason why you may not be overhead pressing to your fullest potential, excluding not choosing the right ohp accessories.
You want to flex your abs— imagine laying on the ground and having a hand underneath your lower back.
You want to have your back crush that hand; that is the pressure you need to create and maintain during the entire overhead press working set.
Here are a few tips:
- Breath control, breathe at the top of the lift
- Watch out for forceful exhales that make you lose all ab tension
In terms of exercises, here are my favorite for establishing constant ab tightness.
For beginners, practice performing one good repetition, relaxing, and then setting up the exercise again.
You are not squeezing your glutes
Not squeezing your glutes can be another reason why you have overhead press back pain.
If you have a pulled glute from deadlifts, this is a different story since the glutes are injured and inflamed.
Your spine continues down into your sacrum.
Having extra muscles contract and tense up to establish stability will only help your overhead press feel stronger.
With strength, you also protect your joints and limit any potential back pain.
Overhead Press Mid Back Pain Causes
- Your abs are too weak
- Hinging at your mid-back
- Bad technique
Your abs are too weak
Similar to having overhead press lower back pain, having a weak core can also cause mid back pain.
Unfortunately, just doing more crunches or air bicycles will not address the issue if you are not aware of proper positioning.
Your goal is to activate your abs.
If laying on the ground, you will push your lower back into the ground so that there is no space.
With that movement, your mid back should naturally correct into its most optimal position, perfect for initiating and performing the overhead press.
Hinging at your mid-back
Different lifters may have different hinge points in their back, making it a weak point in their spine.
This is neither a good nor a bad realization.
It just reveals what you need to improve on and what you are gifted in.
For people who hinge at their mid-back, you need to strengthen your mid-back muscles:
- Mid trapezius
- Lower trapezius
Now, you can better decide between Romanian deadlifts vs good mornings when you want to work on your mid-back.
The overhead press technique is not difficult to screw up and if you do, you will feel pain in the weakest links in your body.
Or the areas where you place the most stress on.
How to perform the overhead press properly?
The first step is to assess whether or not you are currently performing the overhead press properly.
Any slight deviations to your form may be the cause of your pain, so this is the easiest area to fix.
In order to perform the overhead press, use a power rack or squat rack.
Somewhere where you can put the bar in a fixed position and set your form up properly.
This is crucial because by doing so, you will ensure that you have the same starting position every time.
The opposite of this is by performing the overhead press while it is on the ground with a clean.
Though this might be more convenient, especially if your gym only has a few squat racks or power bars, but it will also be detrimental in the long run because you are not setting up the same exact way every single time.
This will make you weak at the bottom for the overhead press.
So, start with the bar in a power rack at around shoulder height.
You want to grab the bar with both palms around shoulder width.
You can play with what grip feels most comfortable for you, but most lifters prefer the thumbless grip; lifters also like a thumbless grip for squats as well.
From here, you want to stick your chest out, but you don’t want to do it overtly so that you feel your lower back is curved in hyperextension.
You also don’t want to bring your shoulders too far back because it will also put your upper back into hyperextension.
You want to be able to find a balance between having forward shoulders and keeping your shoulder blades nice and tucked.
You will also want to focus on the position of your head and make sure that it is not too forward or backward.
These two form cues are what you need to focus on the most if you are having pain in your upper back while performing the overhead press.
From then, simply grab the bar and hold it so that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor as if they were pointed straight up.
Lift the bar straight up, and while you do so you want to shrug your shoulder blades and bring your head forward.
Then bring the bar back down, unshrugging your shoulder blades and bringing your head back to its starting position.
Repeat this for the set number of reps your program has you performing.
To briefly summarize the video:
- Have a big chest
- Take your breath before unracking and lifting the weight
- Tense your glutes
- Flex your abs
- Take your appropriate grip
Wrapping It All Up
If you are following proper programming like Greyskull LP or 5/3/1 Forever (the program I am currently running), having any overhead press back pain should be the last thing on your mind.
Because your technique should be perfect and you should also have great strength and power.
Things do happen, whether they are in your control or not.
So, it is also important to realize that there are protocols used to nurse injuries and even prevent them.
What is the STARR Rehab protocol?
The idea behind the STARR rehab protocol is to speed up recovery by allowing the repaired tissue to organize the scar in the proper orientation through light exercise.
To do it, on top of the icing and resting your injury, perform a high amount of reps (25) with little to no weight.
By doing so, you aren’t aggravating the injury because no weight is being loaded, and you are also providing more blood flow to the area through movement.
In addition, you are also allowing the body to orient the scar fibers in the same direction as the muscle which speeds up the healing process and will get you back to your regular strength levels faster.
Is it worth doing overhead press?
The overhead press (as an exercise itself) is not dangerous but it can cause potential shoulder issues in an imbalanced program.
This anterior-dominant compound movement can create these issues without proper programming management—
- Posterior shoulder tightness
- Weakness in shoulder internal and/or external rotators
- Scapula dyskinesis
- Loss of shoulder internal rotation
There is research to combat these future problems from ever occurring with strategic planning.
Here are a couple of tips on limiting any shoulder pathology and pain:
- Doing twice as much back work compared to front work in any programming
- Working on your stabilizers
- Recovering well through nutrition and sleep
Overall, if you do not need to perform heavy overhead presses, I would recommend skipping it.
It can be an exercise you include from time to time but to consistently train the overhead press without exercise variations or a break will accrue more training mileage.
And more training mileage equals angry joints and tendons.