The Safest Shoulder Press Ever: The Overhead Box Press
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
The overhead press is one of the most effective upper body exercises not only for building functional mass and strength but also for improving upper body mechanics. However this is 100% contingent on the individual being able to perform the movement properly. Unfortunately, many athletes struggle to master the overhead press as it can be more technically, neuromuscularly, and biomechanically complex than many upper body exercises.
With that said, one variation I’ve found particularly useful not only for teaching proper overhead pressing mechanics but also for providing a variation that nearly all athletes can perform in a pain-free manner is the overhead box press. Think of this as a movement that’s similar to the floor press used by powerlifters to master their bench press, or even the box squat to master the squat, except it’s applied to the overhead press. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it may be one of the safest overhead pressing variations there is. Yes, the landmine press is also an excellent option but in reality it’s not quite a true overhead press due to the uniquely angled force vectors.
Here I’m performing 6 variations alongside several of my clients and athletes including Leslie Petch, Ben Lai, and Matt Jordan.
The overhead box press provides 11 unique benefits
The lifter can pre-set the height of the box to produce an approximately 90-degree arm angle. Not only does this minimize stress to the shoulder joint as well as the elbows and wrists, it also allows for heavy overload due to the biomechanically strong position.
Collapsing at the bottom of the overhead press and hanging out on the tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue is a common issue for many folks especially those with shoulder issues. Fortunately the overhead box press eliminates this issue provided the appropriate box height is set so the hand(s) are at approximately mid face height when in the bottom position.
Similar to the box squat or floor press where the lifter has a target to aim for, the overhead box squat provides a similar effect. This allows the athlete to groove a consistent and repeatable overhead movement pattern into their central nervous system. This does wonders for cleaning up overhead pressing mechanics.
Being able to settle into the bottom position with ample support allows the athlete to make subtle adjustments by centrating and packing their shoulder joint into the most biomechanically sound position before moving into the subsequent concentric phase of the exercise. Besides teaching proper overhead pressing mechanics this “set and reset” method also does wonders for relieving tension to the glenohumeral joint.
One of the most common issues athletes struggle with when performing overhead presses is excessive elbow flare. The overhead box press forces the athlete to lead with their elbow and tricep, similar to a floor press, thereby reinforcing proper elbow tuck.
Although excessive elbow flare is perhaps the most common error when it comes to arm positioning during overhead presses, shoulder crowding with excessive elbow tuck (i.e. the elbow is too far in front of the body) comes in at a close second. This is particularly true for more experienced lifters who’ve been over-cued to tuck their elbows and eventually over-emphasize this pointer. Because the box is placed to the side of the lifter it requires just the right combination of elbow positioning teaching the lifter to split the difference (between front and side) by assuming an approximately 45 degree elbow position.
Learning to absorb force during the eccentric phase of the exercise while also attempting to master the subtle intricacies of the overhead pressing movement path can be a daunting task particularly for individuals with pre-existing shoulder issues. Because the box acts a sort of cushion for shock absorption, this allows the lifter to focus solely on their overhead pressing technique without fear of setting off the shoulder from a faulty rep or improper deceleration mechanics. Once they’ve grooved the optimal biomechanics of the exercise using the box press they can easily progress to more traditional presses without the box support as a means of learning to absorb force in this newly mastered overhead pattern.
Although a similar effect can be produced with a deadstop barbell shoulder press inside a squat cage by setting the bar to the safety pins each rep, the overhead box press provides the only deadstop variation for performing overhead presses in a unilateral or isolateral fashion (using dumbbells or kettlebells).
Performing movements using a deadstop technique by settling at the bottom on a support each rep requires more power and torque to get the weight moving from a deadstop position as you have to overcome inertia similar to a deadlift. This ingrains high levels of neuromuscular efficiency and motor unit recruitment that transfers exceptionally well to sports as well as other upper body exercises.
As previously mentioned a similar effect can be achieved with a deadstop barbell press in a squat cage. However, the box press is in many ways far superior. That’s because the safety pins allow the lifter to lose all elements of tension and full body tightness as they can simply allow the pins to bear every bit of the load while they relax their body. The overhead box press on the other hand requires the lifter to stay tight due to the fact that the load is still pushing into the body as the box provides indirect support rather than full support. In fact, powerlifters will often use this same argument to explain why they frequently use the floor press or board press over a pin bench press in a squat cage as the pins allow complete relaxation whereas the other variations don’t.
Although initially it seems like somewhat of a limitation, the fact that the box press will, in most cases, need to be performed in a kneeling or seated (z-press) position (unless you have access to incredibly high boxes), ensures the core is fully activated for every rep of every set. This further helps improve overhead pressing mechanics not to mention building ridiculous levels of functional strength and motor control.
To learn more about implementing unique overhead presses and shoulder exercises such as these into your training routine check out my Complete Templates program.