Shoulders: Sometimes A Tricky Group To Grow

Shoulders are pretty stubborn when it comes to growing them. In fact, I find them the hardest muscle group to grow. I am sure a lot of you also have the same problem? If this is you, then you have probably tried a number of things: hitting your shoulders with high volume, low volume, multiple times a week, with many different isolation exercises. To your amazement, you find they are still not responding!

Since shoulders are a very small muscle group, they have a tendency to fatigue pretty quickly. Fatigue can quickly act to limit the total amount of work you can utilize to make your shoulders optimally grow. In order to optimize my shoulder training, I have been searching for new exercises to make this happen. I think I might just have found a nice one that you can add to your weightlifting arsenal.

Compound And Isolation Exercises

When it comes to training your shoulders, most weightlifters will head for two common shoulder exercises – the two handed seated dumbbell press and dumbbell flies. Most of the time these are the go-to exercises. In fact, I very rarely see other shoulder exercises being performed. As far as isolation exercises go, I think they are good if used in a well-planned training program. If you are looking to add some extra volume and variation to your shoulder workouts to spice things up, they can work as a nice addition. It’s always good to switch things up! But if you stick with only these two shoulder exercises then you are quickly limiting your potential for optimal, long-term muscle gains.

“The problem with seated dumbbell presses and dumbbell flies are that they are isolation exercises” The problem with seated dumbbell presses and dumbbell flies are that they are isolation exercises. This means that when it comes to stimulating your shoulders for growth, you are limited in the amount of weight you can use over time. Not to mention, you are also neglecting other muscle groups that will aid in enhanced performance and thus overloading potential of your shoulders (e.g. back and core). Take the rack pulls above the knee.

I have found that when performing these exercises, the enhanced core and back activity has resulted in improved performance of my traditional barbell overhead presses. This occurs simply because the core and back play an important stabilizing role in these pressing exercises. This is a nice example of performance transfer through compound exercises. In my workouts, I like to utilize mainly compound movements. The performance benefits from one compound exercise generally transfer better to other similar movements than isolation exercises. As a result, I am less likely to encounter weak links in the force production chain if I focus mainly on compound movements.

When people work their shoulders, the seated two-arm dumbbell press seems to be the main exercise of choice. Few weightlifters choose for the barbell overhead press variant as a staple in their routine. While a nice isolation exercise to use in your program, it lacks a lot of transferable performance benefits. Sitting on a seat during the exercise means your core and back has to work much less to stabilize your body during the movement. In fact, the seat pretty much takes away the stabilizing role of your back and shoulders.

“You reach a point with seated shoulder presses whereby weak links (your core and back) bring down your overloading potential.” The fundamental problem with this is that as a result, you don’t learn to consciously recruit and engage your back and core muscles for stability during the movement. This is why people frequently hyperextend their lower back on seated pressing variations. You forget to engage and keep your core and back tight during the movement execution! Due to this, progressing on the seated dumbbell presses, are unlikely to result in any performance transfers to any other shoulder movements. As you can see, you reach a point with seated shoulder presses whereby weak links (your core and back) bring down your overloading potential. So the question is, are there better exercises you could be doing for those awesome shoulder gains? Maybe there is!

Standing Overhead Barbell Press: Strict And Non Strict

If you are looking for compound shoulder movements, most people will always recommend the standing barbell overhead presses as the go-to exercise. Unlike the seated shoulder presses, you are more likely to engage your core and back to a larger extent. With a barbell, there is also the potential to utilize more weight than dumbbells. Together, these benefits offer you more overloading potential and thus the chance to make greater shoulder gains over time. As you might have noticed, there is less support with standing overhead barbell presses.

This time there is no seat supporting you. Your back and core therefore has to intervene to a greater extent to be able to support and stabilize your body through the entire movement. Unlike the seated shoulder presses, I find these compound overhead variations to have better transfer of performance benefits. With the increased core and back recruitment, you are likely to perform better on other pressing movement. I have often found this to be the case with bench pressing. This of course makes perfect sense. With the overhead barbell presses, you are strengthening your core and back engagement, as well as utilizing a lot more weight (in comparison to dumbbells) to build your shoulders. When you perform a bench press, the enhance core and back recruitment will help with optimal force production and lift capabilities. But also, stronger shoulders will reduce their susceptibility to fatigue before your chest does. Likewise, you will find that seated dumbbell-pressing movements seem slightly easier due to better core and back engagement, and overall stronger shoulders.

“Together, these benefits offer you more overloading potential and thus the chance to make greater shoulder gains over time”.

Below are some images representing both the standing (strict) and standing (non-strict) overhead barbell presses. In both variations, you are using your core and back to a great extent to stabilize your body during the movement. Through using your shoulders (and to an extent your triceps to fully lockout your arms) you will push the barbell above your head until your arms are fully extended. With the strict version there is no leg drive involved in the movement execution at all. This means you only have your shoulders (and triceps) to push the weight up. To this extent you are more likely to utilize your core and back to a greater extent than that of the non-strict overhead press.

This occurs simply because in the non-strict variation of the overhead press leg drive can help to offset some of the weight at take off. Naturally with leg drive, you can utilize a lot more weight over time allowing for more potential overloading of your shoulders. The problem is however that as leg drive increases, your core and back engagement is likely to become less. This kind of takes away some of the benefits of doing the barbell overhead press in the first place! There is still some debate when it comes to which variation is better for long-term shoulder gains. In my opinion, I have always found the stricter version to be better. This is simply because the initial push-off from your shoulders is harder. This is likely to engage your shoulders more than if you use significant leg drive to offset this.

“I think there is also an important psychological element to consider when analyzing the effectiveness of the standing overhead press”.

You might be reading this and thinking, it can’t get much better than this surely! I mean after all, the standing barbell overhead presses allow you to use more weight, engage your core and back more and transfer these benefits to similar pressing movements. What is not to like? Well in my opinion, I think the legs are an unnecessary component in the overhead press and really, in the overall quest to build great shoulders. Just like the seat during a seated dumbbell press, the legs can still act to offset and limit a significant degree of core and back activity. Although not talked about much, I think there is also an important psychological element to consider when analyzing the effectiveness of the standing overhead press.

For instance, when you perform the seated dumbbell press, you have the seat for support. You are simply not worried about losing balance of tipping over. Likewise, with a standing barbell press, you have your legs as a stable base of support. Again, tipping over or losing balance is not your major concern. This reduced need to worry about stability and balance means you are less likely to think about actively recruiting and engaging your back and core significantly. In fact, most of the time when I perform a standing overhead press, I don’t really feel much back or core engagement. My legs still seem to do most of the support work. So then, is there something even better you could be doing for your shoulders? Keep reading.

Overhead Press Strict.png      Overhead Press With Leg Drive.png

Meet The Z-Press – An Underutilized Treasure

I am not going to lie to you, this is the hardest shoulder exercise you will ever do. I know what you are thinking. Shoulders are already tough enough to work without making the task even harder. Well, let me introduce the Z-press. This will probably change your mind. The Z-press pretty much brings with it all the benefits of the above press exercises, while removing all the drawbacks. In fact, I would say it really is the perfect compound pressing movement for optimal shoulder growth. Not only this, its additional benefits as a compound movement, means that the potential transfer benefits to other exercises are amazing.

“I am not going to lie to you, this is the hardest shoulder exercise you will ever do”.

Below is an illustration of what the Z-press actually is. Essentially, it’s the exact same movement as a standing barbell overhead press. However with the Z-press, rather than standing, you are sitting down and pushing the barbell above your head. This time you have no legs or seat for support during the movement, only your back and core. This makes it a great compound movement for ensuring maximal recruitment of these muscle groups. If the core and back is not optimally engaged, then it’s more than likely that you just fall backwards onto your head. Not part of the original plan! Unlike the standing and seated overhead presses, you are more likely going to be consciously concerned with maintaining proper balance and safe posture during the Z-press movement. You could say that with the Z-press, the psychological element – the worry from tipping over is greater.

You are thus forced to work your core and back harder to prevent this from happening. If I am honest, every time I do the Z-press my core and back always feel like they have been put through their paces. This is always more evident than with other overhead press variations that I do. The further advantage of the Z-press is that with the enhanced core and back activity, you will find that your standing and seated overhead presses over time skyrocket. Trust me. If you can master the Z-press, there will be no weak links limiting your performance in other shoulder press variations. The transfer benefits are great!

Z-press (Side View).png

Since the Z-press is a much harder variation of the other shoulder presses, you might find the total weight you can lift is slightly lower. The weight lifter is lower because this time, you have no leg drive to aid in the initial lift-off. Also, you have to divert significant energy to the recruitment of your core and back muscles to be able to maintain an optimal upright posture during the movement. The good thing is, due to the transfer of benefits you are likely to be stronger on other shoulder press variations through performing the Z-press alone. This will allow for better overloading potential of your shoulders over time. That is great news for your size and strength gains!

It’s All About The Transfer Of Performance

It’s a no brainer. To gain size and strength, you have to progressively overload over time. There is no other way around it. Compound exercises are a much more effective way of achieving this than isolation exercises alone. This is because with compound exercises, any weak links are strengthened and force production capabilities are optimized. Therefore, the performance gains from one compound are likely to be efficiently transferred to another compound of similar movement. This for you means greater total overloading potential. 

“It’s a no brainer. To gain size and strength, you have to progressively overload over time”.

When it comes to shoulder gains, things are no different. You need to be doing more work over time to make them optimally grow. The optimal way to achieve this is to base your exercise selection around predominantly compounds. For instance, by performing only seated dumbbell presses and dumbbell flies, your overloading potential over time is likely to quickly stall. This is because these isolation exercises are not strengthening any weak links that could inhibit your potential to overload your shoulders over time. Even though these isolation exercises are targeting your shoulders, your core and back are not being emphasized nearly as much. They quickly fall behind and as a result, your performance on the seated dumbbell press and thus ability to overload over time suffers. However, if your exercise selection is based around mainly compound overhead and Z-presses, then not only are you overloading your shoulders to a greater extent, but you are also significantly increasing your core and back engagement. This will transfer in the way of a performance increase on other exercises (even the seated dumbbell press!). This means that over time your overloading potential on your shoulders will be greater.

“The Z-press is by far the best compound shoulder exercise I have ever used”.

The Z-press is by far the best compound shoulder exercise I have ever used. Not only has it helped my shoulders grow, but it has also got me engaging my core and back to a greater extent. This has resulted in better performance when I do standard overhead presses. By adding the Z-press to my exercise selection for my shoulder workouts and rotating frequently between Z- and standing-overhead presses, I have been able to increase my total overloading capacity on all my shoulder exercises. This has translated into more shoulder gains over time. It’s going to be difficult doing the Z-press at first, but trust me, try this exercise. You will not regret it.


If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Have you heard of the Z-press? Still searching for new shoulder compound exercises? Let me know!