How Men Over 40 Can Build Strong Shoulders More Safely

Skip the military presses for this more joint-friendly exercise.

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Author, fitness model, and trainer Kirk Charles, NASM-CPT CES, knows that as you get older, life can get more complicated. But that shouldn’t prevent you from being on top of your game. He’ll help to answer the tough training questions that come with age so you too can be Fit Beyond 40.

After training for more than ten years, I’ve heard many complaints in the gym regarding the military press (the most common name for a standing shoulder press with a barbell or dumbbells). A nice set of shoulders is a terrific physique-capper. But if you don't constantly work through shoulder mobility drills, shoulder mobility can decrease with age. That can make the military press challenging, leading to a variety of compensations. Chief among them: People compensate for their lack of shoulder mobility by arching their lower back, a possible mechanism for lower back pain and injury.

The key to preventing these problems is to know whether you should be doing the classic overhead press in the first place.

I use two tests to determine if clients should be doing the military press at all. First is the 90/90 shoulder test. Start with a wall squat, so your back is pressed against the surface from your tailbone to your shoulder blades. (If you’re unable to do a wall squat, you can do each test leaning against a wall from a standing position. When you raise your arms, make sure to keep your tailbone and shoulder blades pressed firmly against the wall to do the tests properly.) Raise your arms laterally, with your palms facing downward, to shoulder height, and bend your elbows 90 degrees. Imagine your forearms and palms are laying on a tabletop. From this position, rotate your forearms and hands upward to touch the back of your hands against the wall. Ideally, you should be able to do this. If not, you don't pass.

Second is the lat flexibility test. Again, do a wall squat. Raise both arms straight in front of you with your palms facing each other. Continue to raise your arms overhead without bending your elbows until your thumbs touch the wall. If you can't do this without arching our back, you don't pass.

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If you fail the 90/90 shoulder test or the lat test, you probably don’t have sufficient mobility or flexibility in your shoulders and rotator cuff to do a military press—and that's just fine. Personally, since I have failed both the 90/90 shoulder test and the lat test, I never do the military press in my workouts. My clients rarely pass both tests, so I never recommend the exercise for them, either. As an alternative, I would recommend the half-kneeling shoulder press with a dumbbell or kettlebell (exercise bands in your home gym can be just as effective).

Get in a half-kneeling position with your right knee on the ground. Anchor one end of your resistance band under your right knee. Hold the other end in your right hand, and imagine a straight line from your right knee, through your right hip, straight up through your right shoulder. Raise your right hand to shoulder height, with your right elbow pointed at a 45-degree angle from your body. This is your starting position. Lock in your core, look straight ahead, and press upward with your right arm, fully extending the elbow, then slowly return to the starting position. There should be no lower body movement and your spine should remain straight. Start with a light band, then progress to more resistance as you master the position.

I’ve found this alternative to be much safer option for the shoulders because it protects your low back. I’ve never had a client complain about lower back or shoulder pain doing it, unlike the numerous complaints I’ve heard about the military press. I would recommend 4 to 5 sets of 10 reps per side to get started and build those shoulders.

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