Does Overhead Press Hurt Your Back? Try These 6 Tips

Does overhead press hurt your back? Try these 6 tips

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Join the club if you’ve been getting lower back pain while performing overhead presses. This is an incredibly common (but not normal) issue that lifters face, so you’re certainly not alone.

Thankfully, it can often be relatively straightforward to rectify, provided you have an otherwise non-complicated history of lower back discomfort.

To avoid lower back pain with overhead pressing, you’ll want to ensure you have proper shoulder mobility and perform pressing variations that allow you to train without the pain. These include staggered-stance presses, half-kneeling presses, dumbbell presses, and landline presses.

Since there are numerous reasons why you might experience back pain after overhead pressing, it’s not practical to write an article on how to fix your pain; you’ll need a professional evaluation by a licensed healthcare professional to know exactly what’s going on.

Still, as a physiotherapist, I can provide insight into the common issues that tend to cause back pain in lifters when doing overhead presses. I’ll also provide some general workarounds that should suffice until you sort out the underlying cause of your back pain.

Should You Switch to Seated Presses?

Should you switch to seated presses?

Before we dive into the meat and potatoes of the helpful tips, let’s quickly address whether or not it’s ideal to switch to seated presses if you’re experiencing back pain (assuming you’ve been performing standing overhead presses).

The number one cause of lower back pain from overhead presses is an excessive extension (arching) of the lower back during the press.

I discuss the reason for this in the next section. But as a result of this overarching, some lifters opt to switch to performing their overhead presses while sitting on a bench with their back supported.

This helps some lifters avoid “cheating the movement” in terms of not arching their spine, but it doesn’t seem to help for other lifters because they may still be tempted to arch their backs even when they’re in a seated position.

If it helps you, feel free to perform back-supported seated presses until you get your lower back pain sorted out. However, you likely won’t want to rely on this strategy forever.

If you always rely on the bench to keep you from excessively arching your back, you likely won’t develop the requisite sensorimotor awareness (a fancy way of saying “conscious positioning and movement control”) of your lower back for standing overhead presses and various other free weight exercises.

So, if seated back-supported overhead presses feel good for the time being, consider performing them while you work on getting to (and eliminating) the root cause of your lower back pain. After that, ween yourself off the bench for at least some of your overhead pressing exercises.

In the meantime, consider implementing the other tips below and trying any of the following pressing variations that I discuss. You’ll likely be able to keep on training while avoiding the back pain you’ve otherwise been experiencing.

In addition to seated overhead presses, you may also wish to incorporate one of these other overhead press alternatives until your back pain goes away.

6 Tips for Eliminating Back Pain From Overhead Presses

6 tips for eliminating back pain from overhead presses

1. Check Your Shoulder Mobility

Eliminating pain is all about identifying and treating the underlying cause(s), not treating the symptoms. As a result, it’s often necessary to examine areas of the body separate from the area experiencing pain.

The first place to start with this whole “my lower back kills me when I overhead press” issue is to examine your shoulder mobility.

It may sound odd, considering it’s your back that’s hurting, but there’s a simple explanation for this:

The less vertically you can put your arms directly above your head, the more you’ll have to “cheat the movement” by compensating elsewhere in your body. Your brain’s natural compensation strategy to get your arms more vertical is to lean backward, and oftentimes lifters aren’t entirely aware of just how far back they’re leaning.

In this case, your shoulders are the culprit for your pain, and your lower back is simply the victim.

The more you lean back, the more vertical your arms can go, but at the expense of compressing or irritating the facet joints (the joints that connect each of your vertebrae) in your lumbar spine (the low back).

Since the low back has the greatest potential for extension than the region directly above it (the thoracic spine), there exists the potential for all sorts of compressive forces (i.e. when an object tries to push your body downward) and shearing forces (i.e. when an external force tries to push your body in one direction while your body tries to move in another direction) to run through your lower back.

If excessive enough, this is going to stir up some pain.

Normal shoulder flexion range of motion is 180 degrees, meaning you should be able to raise your arms from your sides to directly above your head.1 If you can’t get this full 180 degrees without any weight in your hands, you’ll not likely be able to do it with any of your overhead presses.

lack shoulder flexion

Notice in this photo how the arms are not directly vertical, which means they are lacking shoulder flexion. 

Even lacking just a few degrees of shoulder flexion can be enough shoulder dysfunction to force the lower back to arch as a means to achieve a vertical position of the arms. This is especially true if you’re performing high volumes of training or training with heavy overhead loads.

compensation

Notice how the lower back must extend backward in order to move the arms to a vertical position. This results in excessive pressure and shearing forces on the joints and discs of the lumbar spine.

If you lack the ability to raise your arms through this full range, you’ll need to find out why and attack the underlying issue(s). Oftentimes it’s a straightforward fix, either requiring a general shoulder mobility routine you can do on your own or some dedicated treatments with a qualified healthcare professional.

If you suspect that you have poor shoulder mobility, check out some of these front squat mobility drills. Many of the exercises on this list can help improve mobility in your shoulders.

2. Squeeze Your Glutes When You Press

If your shoulder mobility is quite adequate but you still feel a mild irritation in your lower back or a propensity for it to arch whenever pressing weight above your head, try squeezing your glutes (clench your butt) as soon as you initiate the overhead press and hold this squeeze until you’ve come back down to the starting position.

The rationale for this squeeze (known as an isometric contraction) is due to the increased rigidity that this creates across the hips and lower back.

When contracted while your feet are on the floor, the big gluteus maximus muscle (the largest glute muscle) will prevent the lower back from arching, which will help you avoid slipping into the irritating or painful position that often produces lower back pain when performing the overhead press.

With any luck, this little tip will help you avoid extending your lower back and simultaneously help improve your awareness of the position(s) that you’re keeping your lower back in throughout the duration of each overhead repetition you perform.

The better your sensorimotor awareness (your brain’s ability to feel and maintain the position) of your lower back, the more in-tune you’ll be with keeping it in an ideal position for your overhead presses (and all other exercises as well).

Squeezing your glutes when you overhead press is also an excellent cue for increasing strength in the movement. Learn more overhead press techniques that can help get you stronger in 13 Overhead Press Cues To Increase Strength.

3. Use a Staggered Stance

In terms of physically modifying the overhead press, the first modification to try is one that will keep the movement feeling as familiar as possible to you. (This is assuming you’ve been doing barbell overhead presses, but this modification also works for dumbbell overhead presses.)

The concept behind the staggered stance is that you’re making it harder for your lower back to arch backward during the pressing motion. This modification has helped me tremendously over the years with my own back issues and numerous lifters and active individuals I treat in my clinic.

How to Set Up Your Stance

To set up an effective stance, pick a leg (it doesn’t matter which one) and place your foot of that leg about ten inches behind the other one. Typically, I advocate for the foot to go back to the point that the toes of this foot align with the other foot’s heel.

Take this back foot and now move it outwards so that you have a decent shoulder-width stance, which will help make sure you have a decent base of support.

Performing the Press

With the weight in your hands, lean forward ever so slightly so that your front leg loads up (you should feel your quadriceps muscles turn on). Your weight distribution should be around 60% on your front leg and 40% on the back leg.

Hold this position and weight distribution as you press upwards. If your shoulder mobility is lousy, you’ll still have a challenging time keeping your arms vertical, but you’ll likely notice that it’s harder to “cheat the movement” due to the position of your lower body.

Don’t be surprised if you have to use a bit less weight than what you otherwise might be able to press – forcing your body to maintain a stricter form does that for nearly all lifts. So long as it affords you the ability to press without pain, it’s a trade-off that I’d personally argue is worth making until your back pain is sorted out.

4. Perform Half-Kneeling Presses

The half-kneeling overhead press is a press that every lifter should be aware of and implement, regardless of back pain or not.

Yes, as an orthopedic physical therapist, I may be biased, but for a good reason — it has allowed numerous lifters whom I treat to continue pressing while dealing with their lower back issues.

The reason that this press is such an outstanding variation is that it prevents you from arching your back when pressing. It’s going to ask you to maintain rather strict upper body form throughout the entire press.

How To Do Half-Kneeling Presses

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells and a padded surface for your knee.
  • Place one knee on the ground (it doesn’t matter which one) and have the foot of the other leg flat on the floor in front of you.
  • Perform your overhead press with whichever grip you’d like (neutral grip, 45 degrees, etc.)

You’re likely going to have to perform this press with dumbbells, as the half-kneeling position won’t permit you to step away from the rack as you otherwise would if performing standing barbell presses. You might be able to get away with using a barbell if you really want to, but I’d personally suggest just sticking with dumbbells or kettlebells for this one.

As well, while not necessary, it’s likely a good idea to alternate which knee is down on the ground with each set. In theory, this will help to ensure each side of your lower back and hips get exposed to the same demands and loads while in the same positions.

However, the only exception to this is if one particular half-kneeling position flared up your lower back pain, in which case you’d just perform all of your sets using the half-kneeling position that didn’t produce any back pain.

Remember to squeeze your butt when you press. The contraction of your glutes will further prevent your lower back from moving into an extended (arched) position, which will likely help to further reduce any chances of your back pain from flaring up.

The half-kneeling press is also an excellent option if you are trying to overhead press in gyms with low ceilings.

5. Switch to Dumbbells

If the half-kneeling position just doesn’t work for you for whatever reason (hurts to kneel, etc.,) you might be able to alleviate some (or all) of your lower back discomfort when performing standing overhead presses if you ditch the barbell for the time being and perform your presses with dumbbells.

The reason being is that it’s often easier to achieve greater amounts of shoulder flexion (getting the arms more vertical) when your arms have more freedom of movement than what the barbell affords.

When holding onto a barbell for an overhead press, your palms must face away from you, which places the humerus (the upper arm bone) in a slightly different position in relation to the glenoid (the socket) than if your palms are facing one another (the neutral-grip position) or even at a 45-degree angle from one another.

By allowing your upper arm to move into a slightly different position with a neutral grip or semi-neutral (45-degree) grip, you’ll likely find it easier to get your arms directly above your head.

The result is less compensation taking place with arching your lower back in order to get your arms directly above your head – hence, avoiding irritation of your lumbar spine and back muscles.

6. Do Landmine Presses

Landmine Press

If you’re not familiar with the landmine press, you’ll certainly want to try this overhead pressing variation. The landmine press involves placing one end of a standard barbell on the floor either in a dedicated sleeve or in a corner and pressing the other end of the barbell away from you.

The beauty of this press is not only that it’s incredibly simple to perform (i.e., it does not require advanced technique or experience), but that it also doesn’t require you to press the weight directly above your head (perfect for those with lousy overhead shoulder mobility).

The result is a pressing variation that will very likely be gentle on your back. And while it technically doesn’t target the deltoids (shoulder muscles) in the exact same manner as the overhead press, the difference is actually quite minimal.

How To Do Landmine Presses

  • Wedge a barbell into the corner of a sturdy wall or insert one end of the barbell into a landmine attachment.
  • Load the other end of the barbell with your desired weight.
  • If you’d like to do this kneeling, kneel on one knee and keep the feet of the opposite leg flat on the ground. Hold the end of the barbell in the hand on the opposite side of the foot that’s on the ground.
  • Otherwise, deadlift the end of the barbell and then carefully clean it up to one of your shoulders, holding it with one hand.
  • Keep your elbow perpendicular to the ground and aligned with your wrist.
  • Press the bar straight up, then slowly lower it back down to the starting position.

When it comes to performing the landmine press, if available at your gym, you can also opt to use specialized handle attachments that allow you to use different hand positions or even perform the press using both arms at the same time (such as when using a Viking attachment), so don’t think that there’s only one way to perform a typical landmine press.

And as a little bonus tip: one other immensely powerful benefit of the landmine press is that it affords you the ability to press the weight directly in front of your body (within the sagittal plane) and in the scaption plane. 

The plane of scaption is a specific plane of the shoulder that is approximately 45-degrees between the front of your body and the side of your body.

If on the slight off-chance that the standard landmine press still causes you to arch your back, performing the landmine press 45-degrees out to the side will make it virtually impossible to cheat the movement by arching your back.

Don’t underestimate performing presses in this plane. The scaption plane is a very ideal articulation position for the shoulder joint (i.e., it’s not irritating), making it a perfect position to perform shoulder exercises (such as the landmine press) for shoulder joints that don’t tolerate movements that are overhead or produced directly out in front of the body.

If you don’t have access to a setup that allows you to do landmine presses, try one of these landmine press alternatives.

Final Thoughts

While lower back pain with the overhead press is common, it’s not normal. Don’t conflate the two. Your goal should be to be healthy enough to train for all your years ahead, not ignorantly pushing through pain while hoping it will magically sort itself out and go away.

Take the tips in this article and use them as a starting point to determine your best path forward for getting your pain under control. As you do, look for the ways you can continue to perform overhead pressing movements (or similar movements) so that you can keep on training without blowing out your back in the process.

If you also experience lower back pain when performing other lifts, check out:

References:

1.     Norkin CC, White DJ. Measurement of Joint Motion: A Guide to Goniometry. FA Davis; 2016.


About The Author

Jim Wittstrom, PT, DPT, CSCS, Pn1

Jim is a physical therapist, strength & conditioning specialist and former competitive powerlifter. He loves treating lifters and other active individuals in the clinic and working with them in the gym in order to help them move better, feel better and maximize their training potential.
Website: www.strengthresurgence.com