Training

How To Stop Shoulder Clicking During Overhead Press

Updated September 18th 2022

Figure out why your shoulder is clicking during the overhead press.

Why does it happen?

Are you doing something wrong?

You picked a general strength training program, like Greyskull LP.

It checked off all your requirements in order to gain strength.

It has:

  1. the squat
  2. the bench press
  3. the overhead press
  4. the deadlift

However, the overhead press is giving you some clicking troubles.

Maybe you are weak at the bottom of the overhead press and it is that exact exertion that causes clicking.

It could also be overhead press neck pain as well.

Shoulder clicking during overhead press

Shoulder clicking during the overhead press may be normal if it does not limit strength gains and shoulder mobility. From the list below, one or a combination of the following reasons may be why you are experiencing these symptoms:

  • Nitrogen gas releasing
  • Extremely tight upper back and shoulders
  • Weak rotator cuffs
  • Poor shoulder size
  • Old age
  • Shoulder muscle tear

1. Nitrogen gas releasing

If your shoulder clicks every once in a while, this could be normal.

Why?

Because in every joint, you have synovial fluid that is present in your joint capsule.

Synovial fluid acts as a lubricant and supplies your joint surfaces with nutrition since other tissues on the joint surface are avascular.

The synovial fluid contains nitrogen gas and when your joint pops, cracks, or clicks, you stretch the joint capsule.

The gas is then released and you feel immediate relief.

This relief can be anywhere between 15-30 minutes.

The issue might come from differentiating what is a normal nitrogen gas releasing click versus a pathological click.

2. Extremely tight upper back and shoulders

When you have an extremely tight upper back and shoulders, this prevents your scapula (shoulder blades) and humerus (your upper arm bone) to move freely in their normal range of motion.

What you have now is a restricted range.

This will force your tendons to snap over your humerus repeatedly until you regain your mobility again.

With that said, do not let this discourage you from overhead pressing or doing any overhead movements.

It could be that your muscles are just really tight and need some more time in order to warm up and get loose.

Myofascial release, foam rolling, light stretches, dynamic warmup, and many other remedies can be implemented in order to loosen up your upper back and shoulders.

Though it may take a bit more time to warm-up, the end result of having more upper back strength and size is 100% worth it.

3. Weak rotator cuffs

If your shoulders won’t stop clicking in all shoulder exercises, many lifters found that working on their weak rotator cuffs was the solution for them.

A physical therapist has made a general connection that if you have weak rotator cuffs, this may actually encourage your deltoid muscles to take over your overhead pressing movements.

As a result, this will slowly lead to atrophy of your rotator cuff muscles, causing shoulder joint instability and eventually shoulder clicking during overhead presses.

If you find that you have weak shoulder muscles, especially with external rotation, here is a list of great exercises to do:

  • Rear dumbbell lateral raises
  • Scapula squeezes
  • Internal and external rotator cuff exercises
  • Face pulls
  • Towel stretches

Rear dumbbell lateral raises

On a workbench, use either bands or dumbbells for this exercise.

With your upper body leaned forward, keep your hands in a neutral position (palms facing your torso).

Your elbows can be slightly bent.

Now, raise your arms to the side until your elbows are at shoulder height and your arms are close to parallel to the floor.

Maintain your contracted top position for a second; your arms should be perpendicular to your torso.

Scapula squeezes

 

You can perform these many ways—

  1. Laying on the bench and squeezing your scapula with weight
  2. Hanging on a pullup bar and doing partial pullups by moving only scapula
  3. Sitting on a bench and holding bands/cables and retracting your scapula

External and internal rotator cuff exercise

With either bands or dumbbells, doing external and internal rotator cuff strengthening work is key for a healthy and mobile shoulder.

Face pulls

Try not to lean forward; keep your torso upright and your back straight.

Try to pull your elbows back as far back as possible past your ears.

The key is to maintain and feel your scapula contracting.

Towel stretches

Towel stretches are used to improve your internal rotation mobility.

You should feel a light pulling sensation when doing the towel stretches.

Poor subscapularis or serratus muscle size

To add on to the possible reasons why your shoulders may be clicking from the overhead press, your shoulder stabilizer muscles could be underdeveloped or weak.

Your rotator cuff is made up of four muscles

  • the supraspinatus
  • the infraspinatus
  • the teres minor
  • the subscapularis.

Together, these four muscles help stabilize your shoulder joint.

A misalignment or faulty growth in any one of the four muscles can lead to your shoulder clicking during the overhead press.

Old age

If you are over age 40, you may just have worn away all your cartilage disc in your AC joint or glenohumeral joint.

As a result, you may hear frequent clicking from the bone rubbing against each other in your shoulder joint.

This is a natural part of aging and some people age worse than others.

Shoulder muscle tear

There is pain initially. 

There was a repetitive clicking.

If you felt a pop or a snap, followed by clicking whenever you move your arms overhead, you have suffered a muscle tear, typically a supraspinatus tear.

Why?

Because of the anatomy of the supraspinatus, it attaches proximally to your supraspinatus fossa, superior to the spine of the scapula.

It attaches distally to the superior facet of the greater tubercle on your humerus.

What actually might cause damage or tears to this particular muscle is the improper clearing of the humerus when lifting your arm overhead.

The humerus compresses and pinches this muscle belly or tendon repeatedly until the body signals pain, discomfort, clicking, or popping.

It is never a great idea to work through the pain and it is in your best interest to get yourself evaluated so that you can limit any further injuries that can lengthen your recovery time.

Another condition that can be developed is bursitis, where your joint gets inflamed and gets filled up with fluid to protect the joint.

In this condition, lifters will experience pain and limited mobility.

This is a sure-tell sign that something is wrong.

Sometimes, clicking may be normal

So, you tried many home remedies and they did not work.

You went to multiple physical therapists and they did not find anything wrong.

Your shoulder clicking does not hurt but you do notice it when warming up.

It sometimes goes away but it sometimes does not.

This is a concern for a lot of lifters, both experienced and new.

The important lesson to take away is that you need to assess whether or not your shoulder clicking is affecting your performance or everyday life duties.

Shoulder clicking should not cause any discomfort or limit your ability to perform movement.

If it does, professional consultation is highly recommended.

You should also notice if your shoulder joint feels stable or not while doing weightlifting or any sport.

Gradual instability should be a red flag that you need to be aware of.

With that said, if there is no trauma or recent activity to flare up shoulder clicking, chances are you probably okay if the shoulder clicking goes away within the next few days.

It should be a bigger concern and red flag when the clicking does not subside without any major event occurring but this is often rare.

FYI, dizziness during overhead press is not normal either.

Overuse injuries disguised

However, active people who work out or perform overhead cardiovascular activtites (baseball, basketball, volleyball, golf, etc.) can show signs of overuse injuries to the shoulder joint.

And I am talking about athletes with years of repetitive strain on their joints and even weekend warriors as well.

There are a couple of injuries that I want to shed light on:

  • Bicep Tendon

Even though you might not feel any pain in your biceps, the long head of your biceps brachii runs through the intertubercle sulcus, which is between your greater and lesser tubercle of your humerus.

This is essentially the anterior (front) portion of your shoulder.

And what might happen (through repetitive stress), your biceps tendon can be inflamed and can be rubbing against adjacent structures in your anterior shoulder.

It could rub against bone, ligaments or even snap out of the intertubercle sulcus (though this is not common).

Pain is usually the first symptom might athletes face and this may feel like a shoulder injury for those who are not familiar with the shoulder anatomy.

  • Labrum Tears (partial)

The labrum is fibrocartilage that surrounds the glenoid cavity.

The purpose of the labrum is to allow your humerus to fit better on your glenoid cavity since the glenoid is more flat, not really accepting the humerus.

As a result, the labrum is there to allow extra stability, along with the rotator cuff.

Together, this creates negative pressure for the humerus to want to fit on the glenoid cavity and stay there.

With labrum tears, as the shoulder moves into flexion or abduction and back to neutral, pieces of cartilage might get caught, rubbed together and cause clicking, popping, or snapping.

Your shoulder does also be rubbing against other structures nearby as well if your labrum is partially or fully torn, there will be some instability of the shoulder, causing it to move excessively into other structures.

For instance, you could feel shoulder popping when doing lateral raises.

What should I do if shoulder clicking gets progressively worse during overhead presses?

Stop doing overhead presses and focus on movements that are pain-free.

It is vital for long term strength gains to do movements that do not cause you any pain.

In all compound barbell movements, no pain should be felt.

Never push past pain.

This can be the difference between a couple of days of light rest versus six weeks of rehab.

  1. Can you do any overhead movements?
  2. How do dumbbells feel?
  3. Can you work on the bench press?
  4. Do isolation exercises hurt?

There are a ton of alternative exercises you can do in order to maximize your gains.

If skullcrushers are giving you trouble, there are a ton of skullcrusher alternatives.

While we do want to focus solely on the overhead press, lifting is not always black and white.

When given constraints, can you make adaptations that will still target the same muscle groups?

You do not need to worry about your physique if you only do compound exercises.

Overhead press rotator cuff

Overhead press rotator cuff

Graphic by Jason Kelly, copyright 2012 The Aasgaard Company

The overhead press is a multi-joint movement that requires coordination from many muscle groups.

Specifically, the rotator cuff needs to be able to hold the humerus in place to allow the traps, delts, and triceps to push weight overhead.

These are the external rotators of your arm:

  1. Supraspinatus
  2. Infraspinatus
  3. Teres minor

The subscapularis serves to internally rotate your arm.

Together, these muscles serve to stabilize your shoulder joint.

Is overhead Press bad for rotator cuff?

The overhead press is not bad for the rotator cuff because the rotator cuff helps lift your arm up overhead and performing an exercise is no different.

As your body begins to recover from training stress and is unable to handle certain training stress, your body might overcompensate by using your upper traps to lift weights overhead.

This can eventually lead to injury if you do not recover well from shoulder workouts since your shoulder joint is being manipulated to light heavy weights without proper biomechanics. 

Are shoulder shrugs good for rotator cuff?

Shoulder shrugs will primarily help with shoulder elevation, which recruits your upper traps and some of your levator scap and rhomboid.

Most likely, your rotator cuff issue is not due to poor upper trap activation but the overactivation of those muscles.

So, to counter these forces, you will need to work on these muscles to keep your scapula down to prevent premature shurgging—

  1. Mid trap
  2. Lower trap
  3. Muscles on the rotator cuff
  4. Serratus Anterior

Does the overhead press strengthen the rotator cuff?

No, lifters should include various compound exercises, ie different shoulder press variations, to ensure healthy growth and strength of their rotator cuff.

Isolated exercises that target specific rotator cuff muscles can also help strengthen these small muscles when needed.

You only have so much time and energy in the day.

With that said, you can only do so much.

Would you rather do compound exercises that hit multiple muscle groups or focus on doing isolated exercises that hit one muscle group at a time?

Obviously, you would pick the first choice.

The only program with that is that people adapt at different rates and need individualized attention.

For most beginners and even average lifters, you can give 20 people the same instruction to overhead press and they will never have a rotator cuff issue.

Some lifters, due to bad lifting mechanics, awkward positioning, poor bracing, etc., may find that they stress their rotator cuffs a lot more and will require more attention to train so that they do not injure themselves frequently.

This is one reason why barbell training programs are recommended for beginners and have been shown to be effective.

If you are a beginner, I highly recommend Starting Strength.

How to stop shoulder clicking

Depending on your injury or non-injury, the first thing to do is to stop performing the activity that is causing you shoulder clicking.

If there is pain, stop immediately.

The shoulder joint is complex but not impossible to figure out.

Once you understand what is causing you pain, your next step is to figure out what you can do.

If you are going to the gym and you can't seem to stop shoulder clicking in that gym session, figure out what does not click or hurt.

For example, if shoulder flexion and extension are non-clicking but shoulder abduction is giving you some trouble, this could point towards a middle deltoid issue.

If you have no pain while doing anything else but just lifting overhead and doing shoulder abduction, you may have narrowed down your choices and gathered very important information for the next steps.

How to fix shoulder clicking

Rotator cuff activation

If you do not go to the gym, the chances of you activating and actually using your rotator cuff are very low in today's times.

If you do go to the gym, you may activate it but maybe not enough so that your shoulder joint is properly aligned.

Here is a quick video of one simple exercise you can do in order to start activating your rotator cuff right now (this is a link for a band if needed):

Shoulder flexibility

If the surrounding muscles are tight, working on improving your shoulder flexibility will help your humerus glide freely pass your acromion or have your shoulder girdle move more fluidly inside its joint capsule.

This might explain why you have deadlift shoulder pain.

Fascial release

Under your skin, around your muscles, and even underneath your muscles, there are many layers of fascia.

Over time, under stress, or even just working out, if you do not stretch and stay mobile, these small layers can stiffen and create hypomobility.

So, as a lifter, you may want to consider having a massage or having a skilled medical professional shear your fascia and break up any resistance. 

Medication

You can take drugs and they will provide you short term relief.

But if you are serious about your long-term shoulder health, you should figure out the root cause and address it that way.

This will save you tons of money and time.

Conclusion

Shoulder clicking while doing overhead presses should never be painful.

This also includes upper back pain from overhead presses as well.

Performance and range of motion should never be affected.

Having a warmup circuit that works on your weaknesses may be a great start.

For a ton of lifters, they have the same weaknesses in their upper body—

  1. Triceps
  2. Rear delts
  3. Upper back

Introduce this upper body circuit to help work on your weaknneses. Perform each exercise for 25reps for 4 cycles with no rest:

 

With that said, it is important to limit these awkward sensations as much as you can since normal shoulders do not click when they move.

But upper trap soreness from overhead pressing could be a normal reaction to overhead pressing any decent amount of volume.

Always do your research and seek professional help whenever you are in pain or need help moving forward.

Can overhead press replace bench?

You get primary activation of shoulder muscles with overhead presses while getting primary activation of anterior chest muscles with secondary activation of shoulder muscles with the bench press.

One cannot replace the other and you will suffer performance losses if you drop either upper body exercise.

If you want to get stronger in the bench press, replacing the bench press with overhead press will not get you a stronger bench press.

Sure, you may get a great upper body workout but your bench press numbers will suffer.

The converse is also true if you try to replace overhead presses with bench press.


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