Overhead Press (Why It’s Not Enough for Your Rear Delts)

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Three side by side pictures of the overhead press concentric phase with arrows pointing toward the rear delts.

Expecting complete shoulder development from relying on overhead press alone is a suboptimal approach to delt training. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great compound exercise, just not for the rear delts.

Overhead press is not enough for growing the rear delts since flexion is the main shoulder motion being performed. The rear delts are not responsible for flexion. They are only slightly active during the bottom half of the press when the shoulders are in external rotation.

Below I will compare the primary shoulder functions of this muscle to the motions used during the overhead press. I’ll also give you a dumbbell variation of the overhead press for greater rear deltoid stimulation.

Why Overhead Press Isn’t Enough for Rear Delt Growth

The main movement at the shoulder during overhead press (OHP) is shoulder flexion. Commonly recognized as lifting the upper arm straight overhead from the side of the body. Your front delts are the primary head that performs this motion.

External and internal rotation are also involved in this exercise. When performed correctly the shoulder should be rotated externally (elbows pointed slightly forward) at the bottom and internally (elbows pointed outward) at full elbow lockout.

External rotation is a synergistic function of the rear delts, however, it’s underemphasized during the exercise. Making this portion of the deltoid less likely to receive adequate stimulation to spark muscle growth.

An exception would be if you’re significantly under-trained or are a complete beginner with extremely weak shoulders. If that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be overhead pressing in the first place. At least not until you’ve built up each muscle individually to ensure the safe execution of the lift.

However, since the shoulders are externally rotated for a large chunk of each rep (until full lock out) some would argue that the rear delts are worked. Although this is true, the external rotation occurs isometrically for a large majority of that time.

Not to mention the fact that the rear delts are only a synergist of external rotation. Meaning they assist the primary muscles responsible for this motion as those muscles perform the motion. The main external rotators are the infraspinatus and teres minor, which are rotator cuff muscles.

Also, overhead presses don’t even emphasize shoulder rotation. It’s just something that occurs naturally as you raise and lower the weight. So if the rear delts aren’t even the main external rotator, and external rotation isn’t an emphasized component of the exercise, then it’s not enough for them.

An exception would be synergistic dominance of the rear delts over the rotator cuffs during external rotation. This is unlikely to occur via shoulder flexion in the OHP and is more common during horizontal abduction such as in the rear delt raise. It may also occur if the rotator cuff is underdeveloped.

Here’s a table comparing the motions that work the rear delts with the primary motions of an overhead press:

Motions of the Rear DeltOverhead Press Motions
Horizontal Shoulder AbductionShoulder Flexion
Shoulder ExtensionElbow Extension
External Shoulder Rotation Scapular Upward Rotation

As you can see from comparing the motions of the rear delt muscles to those involved in the overhead press, they don’t line up. I didn’t include internal or external rotation as a main overhead pressing motion. Remember, rotation occurs naturally and insignificantly during the exercise.

An overhead pressing variation for recruiting the rear delts should utilize horizontal abduction and maybe even external rotation. Two good options are the Arnold press and cable face pull.

Do This Overhead Press Variation for Rear Delts

If you’re obsessed with the overhead press but want better rear delt growth, then the Arnold press is a great variation. It moves your shoulders through external rotation and horizontal abduction. Both of which engage the rear delts.

Instead of pressing straight up and down with an overhand grip, it starts with your hands supinated, facing your chest. You then rotate the dumbbells while pressing them up.

This rotational component recruits the rear delts through the aforementioned shoulder positions. This leads to unequivocal stimulation compared to the standard OHP.

To do it:

  1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand with an underhand grip.
  2. Hold them tight to your body with your elbows pointed forward while standing upright.
  3. Breathe in.
  4. Rotate your palms facing forward while simultaneously pressing the weights overhead.
  5. Exhale at the top and stop before the dumbbells make contact.
  6. Reverse the motion and repeat for high reps (12-15).

Doing dumbbell overhead press while standing has shown 24% more rear delt activation than seated. The same logic applies to this variation.

Does Overhead Press Work All Three Delt Heads?

Overhead pressing is a staple for developing shoulder strength. However, if your main goal is building capped delts then prioritizing it isn’t necessary.

Overhead press works on all three delt heads, with the anterior part being the most activated. This is because they are the main mover during shoulder flexion, which occurs when lifting the arms overhead. The medial and posterior delts are scarcely activated for shoulder joint stability.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever do it as it is a multi-joint movement that recruits many small muscles simultaneously, saving time. Not to mention, it builds absolute strength and helps develop proper lifting mechanics.

However, if your delts are a lagging muscle group you probably shouldn’t just tack on more sets of overhead press on shoulder day. This will accentuate your front delts, creating an even bigger gap.

Consider adding in one or two isolation exercises for the side and rear delts. You could do them in the same session as overhead press, either before or after. This ensures all three heads are receiving adequate stimulation.

What Muscles Does Overhead Press Work the Most?

By considering the joint movements of the overhead press you can distinguish which muscles are the primary movers. Doing so crushes the belief that overhead press is enough for the side and rear delts.

The overhead press works the front delts, triceps brachii, and upper traps more than any other muscle. Your anterior delts and upper traps are involved in pressing the weight up via shoulder flexion and upward rotation. The triceps brachii is engaged to extend the elbow.

Conversely, the primary responsibilities of the side and rear delts are vertical and horizontal shoulder abduction. Neither of these motions is utilized very much, if at all during the overhead press.

Overhead Press Workout With Rear Delt Raises

This workout starts with a few sets of low-rep overhead presses intended to build strength. They’re followed up with two high-rep isolation exercises: one for the rear delts and another for the sides.

  1. Barbell overhead press: 3 sets x 6 reps
  2. Rear delt raise: 4 x 20
  3. Side lateral raise: 4 x 15

If you’re struggling to isolate your rear delts in training, I encourage you to check out my article as to why rear delt raises are so effective.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!