The myth that lifting heavy weights, and more specifically overhead pressing, makes you shorter and stunts your growth has been floating around for years.
So, does the overhead press make you shorter? The overhead press does not make you shorter or stunt your growth. However, it does compress your spine, which can shorten your height by a few millimeters. This is temporary, and your height returns to normal after a good night’s sleep. You can also reverse these effects by doing mobility after training.
Keep reading to find out why some people believe the overhead press makes you shorter and what the research has to say about strength training and its effects on your height.
Where Did the Myth That Overhead Presses Make You Shorter Come From?
It’s commonly believed that lifting weights stunts growth in children and teenagers. This myth was perpetuated in the 1960s by researchers in Japan who noticed that children who performed heavy labor tended to be short in stature. They believed that lifting heavy weights caused injuries to the growth plates, which stunted children’s growth.
Growth plates are bones that are longer than they are wide. Examples of these bones include the femur (thighbone), tibia and fibula (bones in the lower legs), and radius and ulna (bones in the forearms). Metacarpal and metatarsal bones in the hands and feet also have growth plates.
Is It True That Lifting Heavy Weights Makes You Shorter?
No, it’s not true that lifting heavy weights makes you shorter.
The Japanese researchers mentioned above also noticed that the children who performed heavy labor were underfed. So their short stature wasn’t due to heavy external loading on its own; there were other reasons why these children grew up to be shorter than others.
Scientists and strength and conditioning professionals now recognize that there is no relation between strength training and height.
However, certain exercises can cause spinal shrinkage, but the effects are minimal. Spinal shrinkage is also common with many daily activities such as walking. I’ll discuss this in more detail down below.
What Does the Science Say on Overhead Pressing, Spinal Health, Growth Plates, and Height?
Current research shows that lifting weights has no negative effects on a person’s height or growth potential, and there are many benefits to strength training.
Effects of the Overhead Press on Spinal Shrinkage
In a study published by the European Spine Journal, researchers discovered that upper body loading while walking can result in height loss. They believe this is due not only to the compression of intervertebral discs but also to the spinal curvature that occurs when carrying heavy loads.
Although the participants in this study didn’t perform any resistance exercises, one can assume that the external load from overhead pressing has a similar effect on spinal shrinkage.
The results from this study also suggest that avoiding excessive arching of the back when lifting heavy weights can prevent spinal shrinkage to some extent.
Benefits of Heavy Strength Training
If you’ve been avoiding strength training because you’re afraid it will make you shorter, you’re missing out on several health benefits.
Research shows that strength training has a positive effect on physical and mental health, especially for children, adolescents, and the elderly. When performed safely and under the supervision of qualified professionals, strength training can result in:
- Increased muscle mass
- Improved joint health
- Increased bone density
- Improved balance
- Reduced risk of developing chronic diseases
- Improved mental health
Researchers have also discovered that the effects of resistance training can be enhanced by combining strength-based exercises with walking.
Strength Training Effects on Bone Health
Studies show that resistance training helps preserve bone and muscle mass. This is due to a phenomenon called the osteogenic effect, the process by which external loads stimulate the bone-building cells of the body.
In order for exercises to be considered osteogenic, external loads need to exceed those that are encountered during normal daily activities.
Although any weight-bearing exercise can be considered osteogenic, following a progressive strength training program is shown to have the greatest effects on bone mass and density.
Strength Training Effects on Spinal Health
A study published by the Spine Journal shows that high load, low volume, low-frequency exercise can result in intervertebral disc regeneration in patients suffering from low back pain.
Another study published in 2016 set out to analyze what types of exercise are beneficial for intervertebral discs. Researchers discovered that dynamic and axial loading exercises (exercises in which the weight moves vertically instead of horizontally) are most beneficial for spinal health.
Based on the results from these studies, resistance training can be used to promote the health of intervertebral discs.
Check out the article How to Avoid A Powerlifting Injury to learn how to prevent injuries from powerlifting.
Is Strength Training Dangerous for Children?
Strength training is not considered dangerous for children. In fact, studies show that children have lower rates of muscle strains and sprains from weight training than adults.
Most injuries that do occur in children while strength training are caused by improper use of equipment or dropping weights. As long as children are supervised when lifting weights, they are no more susceptible to injury than they are when participating in other sports.
Can Overhead Pressing Cause Growth Plate Fractures?
The overhead press is not known to cause growth plate fractures. Muscle strains and tears are more likely when lifting weights, while fractures are more likely to occur from falls or blunt-force trauma.
The most common injuries that can occur from the overhead press are:
- Rotator cuff tears or tendonitis
- Shoulder impingement
- Weightlifter’s shoulder (an overuse injury that occurs at the end of the collarbone)
Even if fractures do occur in the growth plates, serious long-term issues from them are rare. When treated properly, growth plate fractures heal without any significant complications.
What Causes Spinal Shrinkage?
Just like our weight fluctuates throughout the day, our height can change throughout the day as well. This is due to spinal compression that occurs from normal daily activities.
Physical activities such as walking and cycling can result in 3-8mm of spinal shrinkage. Even just sitting still can cause 5mm of spinal shrinkage. This is because sitting causes the back to curve, which places more pressure on the discs between the vertebrae.
On the other hand, lying down places the least amount of pressure on the spine and reverses spinal shrinkage. As such, your height will return to normal after a full night of sleep.
Doing mobility work can also reverse the effects of spinal compression. Some of the most effective stretches to decompress the spine are:
- Dead hangs
- Cat-cow stretches
- Child’s pose
- Overhead stretches
Does Spinal Shrinkage Occur During the Overhead Press?
Not much research has been done to analyze whether or not spinal shrinkage occurs during the overhead press. However, a study in which participants performed the deadlift, squat, clean, high pull, bent over rows, and bicep curls showed spinal shrinkages of 3.6mm.
Like most of the exercises performed in this study, the overhead press is an axial loading exercise. Considering that other axial loading exercises cause spinal shrinkage, one can assume that overhead pressing causes a small amount of spinal shrinkage as well.
Interestingly, in this same study, participants who wore a weightlifting belt only showed spinal shrinkages of 2.9mm. Researchers believe this is due to the increased intra-abdominal pressure that a lifting belt provides.
Should You Wear a Belt for the Overhead Press?
Bracing your core properly is an essential part of the overhead press. Wearing a belt helps increase intra-abdominal pressure. This causes you to create a more rigid core, which stabilizes the lower back and reduces the amount of stress it receives when lifting heavy weights.
Wearing a belt for the overhead press can also help prevent excessive arching of the back, which helps prevent spinal injuries.
However, it’s important to remember that a belt shouldn’t be used to compensate for poor form or to cover up nagging injuries.
Practical Applications for Your Strength Training
Even though spinal shrinkage is normal and lifting heavy weights has a lot of health benefits, there are some ways you can maximize your strength training regimen:
- Use proper technique, even if lifting light weight.
- Follow a training program from a qualified professional that’s tailored to your individual goals.
- Wear a lifting belt.
- Do mobility work at the end of your training session.
- Get enough sleep, as your spine will naturally decompress overnight.
Other Overhead Press Resources
Interested in learning more about overhead pressing? Check out my other resources:
- Bench Press vs Overhead Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Overhead Press In Gyms With Low Ceiling (7 Tips)
- 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives (With Pictures)
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- Can You Overhead Press Every Day? (Pros and Cons)
- How To Improve Your Overhead Press Lockout (8 Tips)
- 7 Tips to Improving Your Overhead Press With Long Arms
- 13 Overhead Press Cues To Increase Strength (With Pictures)
- What Is The Best Overhead Press Grip Width & Hand Placement?
- Why Is My Overhead Press So Weak? (7 Fixes That Work)
When performed correctly, the overhead press is a safe exercise that won’t make you shorter or stunt your growth. Even though spinal shrinkage does occur after doing overhead presses, it’s minimal, and your height will return to normal after a good night’s sleep.
Wondering if other exercises make you shorter? Check out the article Do Squats Make You Shorter? (What The Science Says).
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.