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Overhead pressing is going to always be the best way to build shoulders. However, if injuries or other physical issues prevent you from pressing, all is not lost. It’s still possible to build shoulders utilizing other movements – you just have to get a little creative.
If shoulder issues or injuries are preventing you from pressing, don’t even think about hitting the gym to build shoulders until you talk to your doctor or physical therapist, first. Make sure you’re absolutely clear on what types of exercises, movements, ranges of motions, and more you’re cleared to do, as well as what you should stay away from.
If strength is at all a goal of yours, realize that you’re still going to have to do some sort of pressing. Now, you don’t necessarily have to do overhead presses. It’s still absolutely possible to build a very strong overall upper body by limiting yourself to horizontal-based pressing movements. This could include:
When talking to your doctor or physical therapist, make sure you discuss horizontal pressing movements and ranges of motion to make sure which of these are okay for you to do.
Now it’s time to look at how to build shoulders without doing any overhead pressing. The obvious first choice is going to be various raises. You can start with front raises to work the front head of the deltoid. Using dumbbells is the old bodybuilding standby, but using a barbell often isolates the deltoid more and limits momentum. Doing plate raises all the way overhead with a hard contraction at the top will actually work the entire deltoid and even squeeze the traps and upper back.
Next you’ll want to do lateral raises for the side deltoids. Dumbbells are the obvious choice here, but cables will work, too. Go slow and controlled, starting each rep with your shoulder “sunk down” in your shoulder socket. By actively pulling the shoulder down before you perform the rep, you ensure emphasis stays on the deltoid and doesn’t transfer to the traps.
Round out your raises with bent over rear delt flies. Like lateral raises, use either dumbbells or cables. Alternatives to this for the rear delts could be face pulls or banded pull aparts. Doing low pulley rows with a wide grip, pulling the bar to between your nipples and chin, squeezing the shoulder blades together can work the rear delts well, too.
There are some who feel that the upright row can almost be a substitute for the overhead press to build shoulders. If you use a straight bar with a shoulder-width grip and pull the bar all the way to your chin, your upper arm ends up in almost the same anatomical position as it would doing an overhead press with a wider grip. Be sure to lead with the elbows, pointing them to the side.
Use moderate reps and keep the rep speed a little slower. Ensure a strong mind-muscle connection in order to contract and put emphasis on the deltoids rather than hitting only the traps. Traps can then be hit with dumbbell or barbell shrugs.
Here’s a sample workout to build shoulders, but involves no pressing:
In the end, while presses will always be preferable to build shoulders, they aren’t totally necessary. By employing a mix of upright rows, multiple variations of laterals, and shrugs, you can still get very well rounded shoulder development.